Intermezzo: The Santa Barbara Sessions Larry Archibald on the Sessions

Larry Archibald's "The Final Word," March 1990 (Vol.13 No.3):

"Euphonic coloration," a term frequently used to describe as pleasing a characteristic which would otherwise be thought simply a fault, normally has a positive connotation. But there's always a patronizing air attached—we like to think that truly good components avoid all coloration.

John Atkinson, Tom Norton, and I are just back from the January 1990 recording sessions for Stereophile's second LP; the experience, along with a visit to Paul McGowan of PS Audio, set me to thinking about euphonic colorations—or compromises, as I prefer to call them.

Paul, in a discussion started in 1987, maintains that, since all interconnect and speaker cables change the sound of the signal going through them, it is imperative for audiophiles to make use of these changes to tailor the final sound of their system—cable as tone control. While I concede that it's a mistake to use cables which highlight the inherent defects of your system, I feel you should choose the most neutral possible cables, so as not to create a system so dependent on the sound of a particular cable that any positive changes might well appear as negative.

Our recording sessions took place at the First Universal Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, with Kavi Alexander again at the mikes and open-reel recorder. They took me back close enough to the source to once again regard my interconnect argument with some skepticism. Like our first sessions, these felt like a titanic battle against the elements. In both cases we've been blessed with musicians (in this case, pianist Robert Silverman of Vancouver) who are professional and musically exciting, as well as pleasant to work with. Barring such cooperation on the performing side, I fear our other problems would have proved insurmountable.

Our first "problem" came from the recording environment—in quotes because, though we yearn for a reverberant recording space, in this case we had more than enough from the beautiful, Spanish mission–style church. Microphone placement was super-critical, changes of just a few inches enabling the recorded sound to change from very direct to "swimmy" (never dry).

Next we ran into problems from what we had expected to be the same microphones used for the Poem album. In fact, the mikes were different from Kavi's original samples of Tim de Paravicini's Esoteric Audio Research tube microphone—physically, they appear identical to the EAR mics Stereophile purchased, but inside lurks a different tube (EF86 as opposed to 6DJ8). In spite of a more finished appearance, the new mikes had significantly more intrinsic noise, necessitating compromises from our preferred mike positioning to ensure adequate signal from the piano.

While we struggled with mike location, Bob Silverman began discovering lots of minor problems with the piano, a magnificent Steinway "D"—minor, that is, until we began hearing the squeaks of the keyboard moving back and forth on our best take, or notes popping out where they weren't supposed to. Bob did a great job of adjusting to these problems (one adjustment we almost accepted was locking the keyboard in place, halfway between soft and loud, but fortunately we found a way around this option, as it compromised too much the sound of the piano), and after much struggle with our flagging energies and car sounds during our best takes (sessions went from 7pm to 1am), we ended up with a magnificent recording of Brahms's Piano Sonata in f and the three Op.117 Intermezzi. In spite of the excessive mike noise, if we can get the master successfully transferred to lacquer—the tape has phenomenal dynamic range—the record will be something to hear.

Will it be an absolute sound? Yes, in a way—the absolute sound of that piano (tuned and adjusted for that night) in that space by that pianist over those mikes in that specific location. There could have been four or five legitimate alternates, though, all more different from each other than any components you could assemble, with the possible exception of your speakers. The sessions were filled with compromise—euphonic compromise, in every instance, and faithful to the sound we heard live, but compromise. My guess is that every recording has many such compromises; the records we've come to love are made by people skilled in the art of euphonic compromise, the ones that sound bad by those unskilled. When it comes to the final adjustments to your system, don't look down your nose on such compromises!—Larry Archibald