Capturing it Live with Peter McGrath

Ever since I encountered Wilson Audio Specialties' Peter McGrath (above) playing his own digital recordings at audio shows, hanging out in the Wilson Audio room has proven the consistent highlight of my show coverage experience. Where else could I have heard, on systems featuring, as well as Wilson speakers, superb components that frequently included gear from dCS, Spiral Groove, Lyra, VTL, Audio Research, Transparent, and Nordost, live, unreleased hi-rez recordings from the likes of pianists Benjamin Grosvenor, violinist James Ehnes, Anonymous 4, Jordi Savall and Hesperion XXI, the New World Symphony, the Tokyo String Quartet, and conductor James Judd?

Nor is it simply the quality of the musicianship that continues to draw me to McGrath's rooms. As anyone who has heard his work can attest, the man's ability to capture the unique characteristics of a performance venue, as well as the natural sound of voice and instruments, is second to none.

Hence, when McGrath contacted Stereophile to gauge interest in covering his three nights of recording the famed, 39-year old Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio (footnote 1) performing the complete Beethoven Trios, I jumped at the opportunity. The performances, part of the 60th Anniversary Season of the Friends of Chamber Music of Miami, were scheduled for the Maurice Gusman Concert Hall at the University of Miami. This is the hall in which McGrath made his very first recording, and is known for its excellent acoustics. And, hey, it's in Florida, which offered a winter escape from the cold, damp grayness of an El Niño winter in Port Townsend, WA.

Stereophile editor John Atkinson said yes, and off I went. What I didn't realize when I boarded the red eye to Miami is that the trip would also afford us the opportunity to serve as a roadie by helping McGrath with setup, breakdown, and equipment transport.

Peter McGrath's background
McGrath first learned his "audiophile values" in Chicago in the early 1970s, when he worked at an audio shop, aptly named The Audiophile, while pursuing a degree in Liberal Studies from the University of Notre Dame and a Master in Fine Arts (photography) at the Institute of Design. "The store owner took me constantly to Orchestra Hall in Chicago where I heard great, great works conducted by Solti," McGrath recounted in his home office in Coconut Grove. "I was basically absorbing music as much as I could; it and making photographs became my dual obsessions."

Soon after he moved to Florida in 1973, McGrath got a call from Ross Walker of Quad. Walker asked McGrath, who owned original Quad electrostatics, if he wouldn't mind driving them to a local store so the owner could audition them. When the storeowner responded that he didn't want to carry such high-end products, McGrath decided to do so himself. Thus he opened an audio dealership in Coral Gables, Sound Components, where he worked until he sold the store in 1996.

McGrath's training as a recording engineer began with Mark Levinson, whom he accompanied on some of his early recording projects in the mid '70s. "I was one of Mark's most ardent dealers," he reports. "From him, I acquired my first serious tape recording machine, a Studer ML-5, along with Levinson electronics for my B&K microphones. When I began recording with Julian Krieger, with whom I founded the Audiofon record label that still exists (footnote 2), we used that rig through the mid '80s."

In short order, McGrath was engaged as the first recording engineer for the New World Symphony, with whom he worked for over 10 years. He also recorded the Florida Philharmonic from its inception in the late '80s through 1996.

Bringing him to international prominence were his 10 years of recording for Harmonia Mundi USA. To the label, he brought his love of music to the likes of Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, countertenor Drew Minter, harpsichordist Davitt Maroney, lutenist Paul O'Dette, and all sorts of baroque music ensembles. Among his three recordings of the Florida Philharmonic for HMU was Mahler Symphony 1 (above), conducted by James Judd, that was so highly praised as a "desert-island disc" by Stereophile in its September 1994 "Recording of the Month" review that the name "Peter McGrath" became lodged in my brain.

McGrath eventually became a stringer for NPR, and recorded orchestras such as the Marinsky when they visited South Florida. After joining the boards of the New World Symphony and Florida Grand Opera, he fulfilled his in-kind services by recording them as well. He also made half a dozen records for Naxos. McGrath has closets full of unreleased recordings to die for.

Next, McGrath became a brand ambassador and sales associate for Wilson Audio in mid-1999. From the very beginning, he carried his master tapes to audio shows to play on a Nagra D 4-channel recorder, and used them to seduce people. If his recording activities have slowed in recent years, it is because he travels 150,000 miles a year for Wilson in North America and Europe.

The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio in rehearsal for their February 2016 performance of the complete Beethoven Trios.

Recording Technique
McGrath never employs compression or equalization, and prefers to record in 24/88.2, 4-channel surround. "I do not believe in the center channel," he says. "I don't have any use for it if you can create a beautiful two-channel image without it. I record the rear channels to capture the ambience in the back half of the hall."

For the KLR Beethoven concerts, McGrath used eight mikes to record to eight channels, and then mix down to four. His main microphones, very few of which were manufactured, are by the late Joe Grado. He certainly prefers them to Neumanns and AKGs, which he believes have a slight rising high end over 10kHz that, along with equalization and whatever else some engineers do to mess with the sound, contributes to the brightness that plagues many classical recordings. While McGrath used a single pair of Grados this time around, he has been known to use up to three pairs per session.

"They are pure omnidirectionals of extraordinary linearity and purity," he said. "To me, they sound more like music than any microphone I've ever heard. I've had them for maybe five years. When Joe sent me my second pair, and I let a group of recording engineer friends hear them, we all went crazy."

The Grados were arrayed in spaced-omni configuration, very close to the musicians. This allowed them to capture both the music and space around it with minimal audience noise.

Additionally, he placed a pair of Schoeps MK21 sub-cardioid mikes in ORTF configuration close to the piano, angled at approximately 110° with an 11" space between the capsules. "I set them at a significantly reduced level to add a touch of presence to the piano, and arrayed them so they would pick up nothing from behind," he said.

Finally, you will note in the photos a curious ball. Employed for back-channel ambience in surround, it is a Schoeps KFM sphere containing dual omni mikes flanked by figure-eight Schoeps capsules. It and the other mikes were fed to a Millennia HV-3 microphone preamp, which in turn fed an MSB 8-channel A/D converter operating at 24/88.2. From there, the eight channels went to the Sadie LRX2 portable workstation pictured in the heading photo. 85% of the cabling used in the recording session was by Transparent.

"The way I create the soundfield ambience is rather unique, and different than putting a pair of mikes in the back of the hall," McGrath acknowledged. "My approach tries to capture not only the dynamics, timbre, and placement of the instruments, but also the actual sense of space in which they're performing. I don't try to 'create' air; I simply try to transmit what's there."

Because McGrath's eight mikes recorded to separate tracks, four of which were used strictly to create the rear channels, he will be able to time align them in post-production to a central reference point in order to achieve greater clarity and focus.

"This is a unique feature of digital recording technology, and cannot be done in the analog domain," he claims. "You inherently can record better in digital if you use multiple microphones for this one reason alone: to create slip tracks which give you the ability to shift and align tracks in the time domain relative to one another.

"When engineers record on 24-track Studers, they can't align anything. The only way to engage any time alignment is by digitizing the analog recording. What they don't tell you is that even when a recording is set down on 24-track tape, it's often dumped into ProTools to time-align it, after which it's converted back to analog."

Before the recording session, McGrath measured all the microphones in relation to each other and "the ball." The Grados turned out to be approximately 5 ft closer to the trio than the ball, and the ORTF pair for the slight accent over the piano was even closer. When he edits the masters, he will apply a mathematical formula based on the fact that, at sea level, sound travels at approximately 1 foot per millisecond. Using a computer to view graphs of when each of the eight mikes captures the strike of a single note on the piano, he will retard the main mikes the equivalent of 5 ft in relationship to the sphere, and the others a bit more, so that all waveforms are in synch.

Jason Victor Serinus (left) and Andrew Quint of The Absolute Sound (right) listen to the KLR Trio recording in Peter McGraph's listening room.

"With time alignment accomplished in post-production, I gain additional focus and spatial definition. What you hear before alignment is the best that pure analog can accomplish. I do the alignment in my living room on my time-aligned Wilson Audio Alexia speakers using the dCS Vivaldi DAC with the newest software, Transparent Opus speaker cable and Gen 5 interconnects, Dan D'Agostino Momentum 400 monoblocks, a Doshi 4-channel tube preamp, and the Sadie LRX2 workstation. I also use a Sound Devices 744T 4-channel HD digital recorder for back-up, and also bring it to shows to play recordings."

The Session and Beyond
Given that McGrath's longtime recording partner, Julian Krieger, became President of Miami's Friends of Chamber Music in 1984, it's no wonder that he began recording many of their concerts about 15 years ago. Some might not consider Miami a hotbed of classical music performance, the ever-adventurous New World Symphony notwithstanding, but a chamber series that, this season alone, offers the Borodin, Ehnes, and Brentano String Quartets; pianist Stephen Hough performing Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with the FIU Symphony Orchestra under James Judd; the complete Beethoven Piano Trios with the KLR Trio; tenor Paul Appleby with pianist Ken Noda (appearing between performances in Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall); and pianist Nikolai Lugansky in solo recital would be right at home in the classical music capitals of New York, San Francisco, London, and beyond.

Pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo, and cellist Sharon Robinson take a bow at the conclusion of their Gusman Hall Beethoven recital.

The Beethoven performances of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, although not without flaws, were wonderful. The trio played better and better as the concerts progressed, reaching their peak in a truly heartwarming performance of the famed "Archduke" Trio. Whether the recordings will ever receive commercial release is unknown. At this point in their long history, the KLR Trio is not inclined to spend much time doing retakes.

"It could be a miracle, and they could be okay with releasing the performances," McGrath said at the end of the sessions. If not, those who would love to hear America's most venerated piano trio bring a lifetime of experience and love to Beethoven, via recordings that bear the unforgettable touch of Peter McGrath, will have to content themselves with camping out in the Wilson Audio room at shows until DJ PMcG feels the call of the KLR.

Footnote 1: The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio— pianist Joseph Kalichstein, violinist Jaime Laredo, and cellist Sharon Robinson—were joined by Daniel Phillips (violin) and Robert Rinehart (viola) in Elgar's monumental Piano Quintet for John Atkinson's final recording of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival in 1998.—Ed.

Footnote 2: Two Audiofon recordings—Leonard Shure playing Beethoven's Diabelli Variations and Ivan Davis playing works by Schumann and Liszt were Stereophile's "Recordings of September 1982."—Ed.

c1ferrari's picture

extends gratitude for the article.

handler's picture

Does anyone know what model of headphones Mr. McGrath is using in the first photo?

cgh's picture

Great write-up. I always enjoy hearing McGrath's recordings at events. I still don't like Mahler, bt being able to hear the same recording through a few different mic's, Grado's included, are fond memories of mine.

Next road trip shoot me an email and I'll get myself to the location to help set-up