Jerome Sabbagh, The Turn

Jerome Sabbagh, 41, born and bred in Paris, a low-key staple of the New York jazz scene for the last decade or so, plays tenor sax with a plaintive tone and moody lyricism reminiscent of Stan Getz. And he's a composer, too, wading more in the vibe of early Sonny Rollins or the sinuous modalism of Paul Motian.

His new album, The Turn (Sunnyside), is a fine display of Sabbagh as player, composer, and bandleader. Seven of the eight tracks are originals; the one cover, tellingly, is of Motian's "Once Around the Park," from Misterioso, one of the late drummer's early recordings with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell—and the sound of that group bears a clear influence on this band, Sabbagh's regular quartet, with Ben Monder on electric guitar, Joe Marin on bass, and Ted Poor on drums.

The songs pivot from cloudy ballads to rock-out sprinters (as Motian's later, electrified albums often did), though there's nothing vague or meandering about this music. I prefer the ballads to the rockers, but this, all of it, is music to get deeply involved in. There's a surefootedness in Sabbagh's playing, an ideal balance of weighty and airy, and a cohesiveness to the quartet that's at once tight and limber.

Another attraction: the album sounds superb, and this is not happenstance. Sabbagh is an audiophile; he chose to record the session at Sear Sound, in live-to-two-track analog, and put James Farber at the controls. There's one twist, though. Analog tape reels turned out to cost a lot, especially when they spin at 30ips, so once a reel was full, Farber transferred it to 24/88.2k digital and re-used the tape.

But then the tale gets interesting. Sabbagh took the files to the legendary Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab. Sax was impressed with the files, but knew they could sound better still, so he mixed them back to analog before mastering them for CD and digital download—and he convinced his new client to put the album out in vinyl, too. And having made that decision, Sabbagh took the final results to the QRP cutting lathes at Analogue Productions. And to get in all 56 minutes of music without risking inner-groove distortion, he had QRP stretch the grooves out on two virgin-vinyl discs.

The results are spectacular. Sabbagh's sax floats palpably between the speakers, Poor's drumkit crashes and sizzles (I found myself blinking my eyes at the impact), Monder's guitar sparkles or wails off to the left, and Martin's bass plucks and thumps like an anchor. Everything is clear, in a wide, deep, seamless space. The CD sounds quite good, but nothing like this. (I haven't heard the high-rez download.)

Would the LP have sounded better, if the recording chain had remained in analog from start to finish? Probably, but what we have here is more than good enough. Sabbagh says that, if he'd contemplated going vinyl from the beginning, he would have spent the extra money on tape reels. (He was under tight budget constraints; to make the LP, he had to raise money through a Kickstarter campaign.) Maybe next time.

QRP pressed a limited run of 500 copies, and they're almost sold out. You can buy them from Sabbagh's website or, starting today, through normal retail outlets from Sunnyside Records, which also put out the CD last year in much larger (and still very much available) quantity. Sabbagh is thinking about pressing more LPs if the demand holds up. I'd say if this sort of music appeals to you, get it while you can.

saxman73's picture

I wanted to thank Fred Kaplan for the review. I also wanted to clarify a few things:

1. At Sear Sound, we transferred the tape to digital in real time, as we were playing. The tape machine has 2 heads, a record head and a play head. Therefore, you can record the signal to tape through the record head and, a split second later, send it to an A/D converter through the play head. The transfer happens while we are playing, it does not use any more time in the studio. If that was the case, the cost of studio time would more than wipe out the savings resulting from re-using the tape. Also, it would interrupt the flow of the session and that would be a real drag.

2. Doug Sax converted the files to analog for mastering, he didn't "mix" them per se. The mixing was done live by James Farber, at Sear Sound, as we were playing.

3. Doug Sax did the cutting of the lacquer himself, with Robert Hadley, on the lathe at The Mastering Lab. I have read that QRP has since bought the equipment of the Mastering Lab after Doug's death, including the lathe, but the work on my record happened much before that. Doug cut the lacquer. The lacquers were then sent to QRP and QRP did everything after that: plating, metal work, pressing.

I also wanted to take this opportunity to discuss here in more details how the album was recorded and why we made the choices we made, as I have been getting a lot of questions/comments.

The record was done all in one day. We recorded all in a room at Sear Sound, without headphones. James Farber used quite a few microphones (great vintage mics for the most part: Neumann M49 on the tenor saxophone etc) and the mixing was done live, on a Neve 8038 console in Studio A. Among other things, we used real EMT plate reverbs and also a Pultec tube preamp on the saxophone.

We actually recorded three different versions simultaneuously: one to ProTools digital at 88.2/24, one on an Ampex ATR 102 solid state tape machine, and one on a Studer C-37 tube tape machine. Both tape machines used 1/2 inch tape at 30 ips. Both machines were backed up to ProTools at 88.2/24 at the same time as we were playing. We reused a couple of tapes throughout the day, as I couldn't afford to buy enough tape to record everything without doing that. I am aware that this is a bit of a trade-off, but I have done this before and I feel it's well worth it: It allows me to use tape and I think tape sounds a lot more musical than digital in general. I also feel that the transfer at 88.2/24 is quite faithful to the sound of the tape. The converters at Sear Sound were Mytek.

During the mastering process, we listened to the three sets of files and tried to keep an open mind. We decided to use the files made from the ATR 102 tape machine. We thought they sounded the best overall, the most balanced and the most solid. The files from the Studer tape machine sounded really great too, but somehow the sax felt a bit peaky. The straight-up digital files were good but just didn't compare overall for my taste. Both sets of files from the tape sounded a lot more realistic and involving to me.

Doug Sax and Jett Galindo then gave me a few options to pick from at mastering. Since we now had digital files at 88.2/24, the main decision was whether to master in digital or convert back to analog. We tried both. Upon listening, I thought that going through The Mastering Lab's pristine analog chain sounded a lot better despite the added conversion. That's what we did in the end.

I don't think Doug did that much to the files but what he did made a big difference. He did some very effective, tasteful EQ, and just a little bit of limiting. Doug also did separate passes through his JCF converters to create the 192/24 version and the 44/24 version, thus avoiding any sample rate conversion, which, in my experience, always degrades the sound.

Doug cut the LP directly from the 88.2/24 files from the Ampex ATR 102, using the same analog chain he used before: for the LP, EQs were recreated and the same analog signal (converted from the 88/2/24 files and mastered in analog) was simply sent to the cutting lacquer, saving two additional conversions, compared to if we had we used the 192/24 to cut the LP and avoiding the one final conversion necessary to make the CD or 192/24 download. I personally think that avoiding that last conversion is a factor in the LP sounding better than the files.

So to sum things up:

CD signal path:

ATR 102 (1/2 inch, 30 ips tape) > A/D conversion at 88.2/24 (at the session at Sear Sound, as we were playing) > D/A conversion months later (for mastering at The Mastering Lab) > analog mastering > A/D conversion at 44.1/24 > dithering to 44.1/16 for the CD

Vinyl signal path:

ATR 102 (1/2 inch, 30 ips tape) > A/D conversion at 88.2/24 (at the session at Sear Sound, as we were playing) > D/A conversion months later (for mastering at The Mastering Lab) > analog mastering > cutting the lacquer

Hi-Resolution Download signal path:

ATR 102 (1/2 inch, 30 ips tape) > A/D conversion at 88.2/24 (at the session at Sear Sound, as we were playing) > D/A conversion months later (for mastering at The Mastering Lab) > analog mastering > A/D conversion at 192/24

Doug recommended I use the 192/24 sample rate for the Hi-Resolution Download, even though he was well aware, obviously, that the high frequencies present on the recording were "limited" by the original sampling rate of the digitization of the tape (88.2/24). He thought it would still be a better capture of what was, at that point, an analog signal.

Although I am proud of this record in any version, I personally think the vinyl sounds best, followed by the 192/24 (which is available on HD Tracks). That said, most of the sound of this record comes from the sound of this particular band in that particular room, captured expertly by James Farber, and Doug Sax and Jett Galindo's great work in mastering. Even though there are real differences, in my opinion, most of the sound is independent of the delivery medium.

I hope this clarifies everything. I also hope all the technical talk doesn't detract from the music, which is the most important thing!

I am grateful and humbled by the level of attention this project has been getting in the audiophile community, and, as an independent artist trying to make great records and an audiophile, I find it very encouraging.

Thank you all!

Jerome Sabbagh

deckeda's picture

I need to update my phono rig before I can play any LPs but that didn't stop me from buying yours! ... when I got it through Kickstarter I didn't realize (or had forgotten) it was limited to just 500 copies.

Thanks for the added info as to the LP's provenance. I've always wondered just how much the extra tape would have cost vs. all the extra time and effort that went into the various listening comparisons and Sax' later analog step.

And here's another curiosity. Do you happen to know how many times a session tape can be reused? At least twice, since you did ... but what if there was a consortium of artists who collectively bought tape and made it available to each other for reuse. They might even be able to afford 1" or 2" tape from "the library" if multitracking was desired.

saxman73's picture

There is no hard and fast rule about how much you can use the same tape throughout a session. If you use it too much, you start losing high frequencies response, so I try to err on the side of caution. James Farber makes the decisions when to change tapes during the session. You also need the tape deck to be in great shape, so it can erase properly.

Your idea of sharing tape is a good one but I would be a little wary of using tape without knowing how many times it has been used before, for the reasons above.

As far as working with Doug, very high end mastering is expensive. It would still have been the case, whether I reused the tape or not. The comparisons (within reason) were included in the price, it wasn't an hourly rate for the most part.

Thanks for your interest!

k9gromit's picture

...and the sound and playing is exquisite. Kudos to the artists and technicians who created this beautiful recording.

saxman73's picture

The first pressing of "The Turn" is completely sold out everywhere, as far as I know. However, I have ordered a second pressing. It will be pressed at QRP, just like the first pressing. Everything will be the same, except it will not be numbered. I am pressing another 500 copies. They are on pre-order on my website. Delivery time should be about 6 weeks, maybe less, but it's not sure, so I put 6 to 8 weeks on my website, to be conservative.

Jerome Sabbagh

airdronian's picture

I first learned of "The Turn" on Analog Planet, and Fred's review sealed it. Had to order despite being totally unfamiliar with the musicians.

I had some second thoughts on the impulse purchase - getting killed on the exchange rate, and what happens if I don't like it ?

Those second thoughts were brushed aside on side one of the LP (#382). In fact I enjoyed all four sides on the first play. The quartet plays so well together. The sound quality is great. "The Turn" will be in regular rotation here.

Thanks Jerome for going the extra mile to not only record a fine performance, but also to deliver on fine sound quality.