Keith O. Johnson: Reference Recordings Page 2

Johnson: Oh, they're brand names. People can buy them, and they'll actually work quite well on many machines. But it does take a special machine to get the best out of them. When you get rid of head saturation, for example, some of these tapes are absolutely superlative. We get very little smearing problem, the recordings are highly articulated, and they seem to stay that way.

Holt: Obviously, one of the attributes of your own recorder is that its record head will take a lot of current through it.

Johnson: That's one thing, yes.

Another problem that analog has is the usual hiss. That's where the beamed-radio-frequency bias technique comes in. A lot of hiss can be eliminated by cleaning up the bias signal.

Holt: Getting rid of distortion products which introduce asymmetry to the bias?

Johnson: Yes. When the bias is clean and the electronics are quiet, most of the hiss you hear in a good system is the noise of the tape itself. The magnetic states are randomly oriented, and noise increases slightly when gap biasing reduces some of that randomness. When you have bias, the bias itself tries to erase the recording. If you can make the bias field a very narrow beam, and then make the bias collapse in the presence of a signal field, then some of the losses due to the bias are eliminated, and the high-frequency capability of the system becomes much greater.

Holt: You mean you're actually cutting off the recording bias in the presence of the signal?

Johnson: Yes—well, not really cutting it off. The narrow bias beam at the head gap is what does it.

In a conventional head, tape passing over the gap "sees" essentially the same length of magnetic field for the bias signal and for high frequencies. As long as the magnetic field is strong enough to record the high frequencies, any more magnetic field at the higher bias frequency is going to erase some of those highs as they leave the field. With focus gap head design, the biasing field is narrower than the signal field, so the last thing the moving tape "sees" when it leaves the gap is the signal field alone. By then, the bias field has become too weak to erase the signal.

Holt: Is the focus gap head unique to your tape recorder?

Johnson: Oh no, it's nothing new. The first implementations of the technique were done in the late '60s for cassette duplication. Its virtue, for duplicators, is not so much that it makes a better recording, but that you don't have to adjust the bias appreciably when you change from one tape coating to another. You see, what makes bias current so very critical at low tape speeds is its tendency to erase highs.

Reducing that tendency allows you to bias for lower overall distortion without losing highs. And it makes the recording system much less susceptible to the effect of small differences from one batch of coating material to another.

Holt: Changing the subject: Something I've been curious about is, Do you ever listen to music just for the enjoyment of it?

Johnson: Oh yes, quite a bit.

Holt: How many hours a week do you spend just listening to music?

Johnson: It's variable. Like right now I've been working very hard and haven't had much chance to listen for enjoyment.

Otherwise, though, I'd say close to 8 or 10 hours a week, maybe more.

Holt: That's more than a lot of audiophiles!

Johnson: That's one of my things. I play keyboard instruments, so that becomes part of the experience too.

Holt: What kind of music do you usually choose to listen to?

Johnson: Actually, the music I like a great deal is by some of the French impressionists: Debussy, Ravel, Fauré.

Holt: Are you able to enjoy listening to less-than-excellent recordings, or does bad sound make it impossible for you to enjoy the music?

Johnson: I kind of block that out. I enjoy music a lot, so I just hear the music and if the recording isn't very good I just don't pay any attention to the sound. I've built a number of devices that can expand the spatial image on these recordings, but it involves some tradeoffs. The fullness and sense of a real performance improves but everything else comes out slightly damaged.

Holt: Aside from your own recordings, which brands do you tend to single out for listening? Say you were going out to buy a recording of La Mer and didn't know anything about the specific recordings of it in the store, which brand of record would you gravitate towards?

Johnson: I don't really know. But that's a terribly, terribly frustrating experience. Somebody will mention to me a performance that's very good, of a piece of music I like very much, but when I find the record and look at the label I say, Omigosh, I know how they've done it, and I'm back to the same frustration of occasionally finding a very good performance that is dreadfully recorded. Or else it's the other way around: a questionable performance with absolutely wonderful sound that really does work within the limits of what the producer had to work with. I really hate to mention any labels but there are some that are just multi-miked mediocritv if there ever was.

Holt: You've just cited Holt's First Rule of Recording: "The better the recording, the worse the performance, and vice versa."

Johnson: What's so frustrating to me is that most of my favorite recordings are older ones, and the newer ones are becoming increasingly harsh and grainy and unlistenable.

Holt: You must feel that way, and even more so, about Compact Discs, which are by and large awful.

Johnson: That's again a frustrating one. We use the Sony system at Reference Recordings for backup in our sessions, and it's a remarkably good piece of equipment considering all the things that are against it. But once you're dealing with a really good analog recording system like what we have, and use good microphones and the bare minimum of electronic processing, then the shortcomings of the Sony system become very apparent. At least from the standpoint of very serious recording.

If I were an audiophile or someone buying a system, and had a choice between a reel-to-reel machine and the Sony PCM—and I'm talking about the reel-to-reel machines generally available to serious hobbyists—and I was going to use it for recording from records, the decision would be in favor of the digital. But once you start dealing with a real microphone feed, and the microphone setup is working right for you, and you have a live group in a very good hall, at that point it's a different ball game. Then there are things that are wrong with the digital. And the problems that I've encountered are very similar to what other people have heard and described. I've looked into the causes of these distortions and in most cases they're things that are readily measurable and are something you can put your hands on. It's not mythology.

Holt: But then why would they show up only when you feed them from microphones? How can the PCM make such almost-perfect copies of analog tapes?

Johnson: Actually it doesn't. Most analog tapes brought to me for mastering are second-or third-generation copies, made on good but not great equipment; a cassette machine will make almost perfect copies of these. But there are a lot of things I can hear the matter with PCM copies of my own tapes.

Holt: But your tapes are hardly typical of other master tapes.

Johnson: No, they aren't, but we're trying to make a product for release, not just something to listen to for our own enjoyment. And one of the biggest frustrations is, here we have master tape that has been recorded to the highest standards we can achieve, and then we go to the phonograph records with all the ticks and pops and the mechanical sounds of the record cutter and the playback system arm resonances, not to mention the wear that occurs later on—all of which degrades the signal so much that we sometimes wonder if it's worth all the effort.

Holt: So virtually no consumers are hearing anything like the sound of your master tapes.

Johnson: Oh no, they aren't. This is a major problem with all record reproduction.

Holt: In that respect, then, digital can do a better job, as a conveyance between the master tape and the average consumer.

Johnson: Not necessarily. Maybe average consumers, but not on a good audiophile system.

Holt: You mean on a helluva good audiophile system.

Johnson: A very good one. What we lose in the digital copy is very interesting. The inner detail is gone, and when things get complex, like in the Symphonie Fantastique, even though the string section is subdued and distant, in the master you can pick out a number of the individual violins that are playing in there. It is not a "massed string sound" like you hear in commercial recordings. But once you've gone through the digital process you start losing the discrete-instrument sense, particularly in complex sustained-sound programs. Tightly mixed studio recordings of popular music more easily survive digital. One can achieve heightened imaging by contrasting tiny pinpoint-type sounds with diffuse random-phase information. The contrast between the two (analog and digital) increases the sense of both space and articulation, even though the recording has less of each. If either the inner detail is lost because of complex nonharmonic distortions, or space is lost from running out of digital bits at low levels, the overall contrast diminishes.

The other thing that is very perplexing and bothersome with the digital is that it draws attention to the loudspeakers. The Symphonie Fantastique (footnote 3) and the latest recordings that we're working on have been recorded in Medina Temple, which has a wonderful sense of acoustical space.

I work very hard to put the instruments in that acoustical space in the recordings, and to make the playback loudspeakers seem to disappear. Digital recording destroys this.

Digital has certain distortions which are not related either harmonically or by phase to the input signal, so the distortion products appearing in each channel are entirely different. Together they produce no virtual stereo image at all, so there is no spread or apparent depth to their sound. They appear right at each speaker, and the speakers can no longer seem to disappear. The whole sense of that lovely acoustic space just collapses. Not only that, but this distortion—as subtle as it may be—acts as a diffusing filter over the sound, like a veil that obscures much of its detail. Hence, we degrade the space/articulation contrast, and a dull spacelessness occurs.

Holt: Do you feel, then, that these problems are inherent in Sony's PCM system rather than related to the quality of, say, the analog circuitry in the Sony PCM-F1?

Johnson: I don't think the analog circuitry is where most of the problem lies. One of the tests I did on the digital system, just to see what was going on here, used what I called a tone cluster. The signal source consisted of many different frequencies, which is what you find in music.

In this case, just to be as nasty as possible about it, I chose the cluster frequencies to be harmonically related to the digital bit flow and sampling rate. Then in playback I notched out the original frequencies, and what was left was something you wouldn't want to hear—some particularly nasty-sounding stuff. In terms of measurements it is a very small percentage of the original signals, but it is a terrible-sounding distortion and it is not masked by the signal because much of it is so far removed from the frequen-cies of the original signal—even though it might be 30 or 40dB below the signal.

Holt: Well what does it sound like? Is it a sort of shattery quality or what?

Johnson: It sounds like a swarm of nasty little buzzes and harmonics and grating sounds. It's a very ugly sound.

Holt: You feel, then, that the problem is with the digital system itself.

Johnson: Absolutely. With these particular system standards and design ground rules that the industry has adopted.

Holt: Well, back to analog. If you were to record the Fantastique over again, what would you do differently?

Johnson: I'd move the outside mike pair a little closer together to put the center-stage instruments closer to the listener, and I'd get the left mike a little closer in to the first violins.

Holt: Why not just bring up the level of the center mike?

Johnson: Because phase interference calling attention to the center mikes would reduce the sense of depth.

Holt: But don't you just use a symmetrical placement of your left and right mikes?

Johnson: Not necessarily. As I told you earlier, I place the microphones for the kind of sound I am trying to get, and if they don't end up being symmetrical it doesn't matter. The sound of the recording is more important than any theoretical considerations that, to my mind, make the recording less good.

Holt: On your recording of Däfos, what kind of instrument produced those awesome bass thuds?

Johnson: Well, it isn't entirely one instrument, but a big, circular grouping of percussion instruments that was used for Grateful Dead concerts. They call it "The Beast." A lot of drums are hung from a big circular pipe, and Mickey Hart stands inside the circle to play them. But a bass drum wasn't really what was making those bass thuds. A lot of that bass was from reverberation in the hall. Then during the setup of the The Beast, Mickey Hart lifted the entire structure and let it drop to the stage, which made a terrible noise. He was fooling around, really, but when we heard the result on the tape we decided it had to go onto the record. This particular passage caused great grief to Doug Sax (who mastered Däfos), forcing him to dig into his bag of tricks to keep the cutting stylus on the lacquer.

Holt: What are your plans for Reference Recordings?

Johnson: That's some question! We have a lot of plans for the future.

Holt: Well, what about for the immediate future?

Johnson: I suppose the biggest change is that we will be recording a lot more large performing groups.

Holt: Like symphony orchestras?

Johnson: Yes. Did you hear our new Respighi content/recording-december-1985-respighi-ichurch-windowsi">Church Windows?

Holt: I heard part of your two-track tape. It was incredible! That was done with the Pacific Symphony, wasn't it?

Johnson: Yes. They're very good. You know, we did that in the Santa Ana High School auditorium.

Holt: You're kidding! It sounds like Boston Symphony Hall. You didn't use artificial reverb on that, did you?

Johnson: No. Remember, I mentioned using extra microphones to extend the apparent acoustical space? That's how I made that auditorium sound like a big hall, by locating several delay microphones to build on the delays between the wavefronts reaching those microphones. The placements set up delay-phase interference from ear to ear to simulate rear-hall sound.

Holt: I still don't really understand that, but let it pass. One final question, though. Where do you think the audio field is going right now?

Johnson: You mean forward or backward?

Holt: No. Where do you think it's headed? Do you think, for example, that we'll all be listening to Compact Discs in five years?

Johnson: I think we'll all be listening to a digital source of some kind but I am not sure it will be the Compact Disc. And I hope it won't. The CD seems to have even more wrong with it than the Sony PCM-F1 system, and I am not convinced it is the fault of the software, as a lot of people are claiming. But I don't think we have heard yet how good the CD medium can be, either. The latest discs coming out aren't as bad as the first ones, and some people are taking another look at what could be causing audible problems in the CD circuitry, at both ends of the chain. I think the industry will spend several years trying to improve CD before we realize that it does have real limitations and start thinking in terms of a better system. And during that time there will be a lot more recordings that take advantage of CD's strong points and try to gloss over its weaknesses.

That's happened before. First we had Edison and the military bands that played for each cylinder, then we had Caruso and the horn, then we had the big bands and the open-backed bass-booming radio, then rock-'n'-roll and the transistor, and now it's the bass drum and the digits. In other words, each time there's a technological breakthrough, you find program material that really works for it. Once the novelty wears off and we try to use that medium to do everything—that's when we come up against its inherent weaknesses and start looking to other technological breakthroughs and improvements. That's where I feel digital is right now. Various problems are surfacing, and I don't think some of them can ever be solved given the limitations of the CD industry standards.

If we were working with something like the 12" laser videodisc, with its 4 trillion bits of available storage, we wouldn't be so information-cramped. There wouldn't be so much pressure on sampling rates and filter designs. Remember, it wasn't economy that dictated the 44.1kHz sampling rate as much as the storage limit. CD's promoters insisted that the disc be small enough to fit into a standard car-radio cutout, and the CD already carries as much data as we know how to get onto a disc that size. But it's barely enough.

Holt: You feel, then, that a digital-disc format resembling the 12" laserdisc could provide satisfactory performance?

Johnson: That medium could overcome the disadvantages of both analog tape and today's digital. There we're talking about sound reproduction that would be quite revolutionary, and we could really start all over again—perhaps with something that really is close to being perfect, as today's digital is claimed to be.

Footnote 3: Reviewed in Volume 7, Number 2.—Ed.

The cover of Vol.7 No.4, which featured this interview

BradleyP's picture

Keith Johnson is a wizard. Truly. How he manages to capture all the subtleties of a live performance in an acoustic space with a dead silent background and all of the dynamics in tact, I will never know. If he has an equal, I've never heard him. His recordings of Mike Garson, Malcolm Arnold, Clark Terry, and the Minnesota Orchestra under Eiji Oue (esp. Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances) to name but a few are ecstasy inducing. The Symphonic Dances recording yields the most natural-sounding bowed strings en masse I've ever heard. The performances are every bit as worthy as the engineering. (Review them on Spotify, then buy the hi-res downloads or CDs or SACDs of the ones you like.)

georgehifi's picture

His 24/96 HDCD cd's when played through a player that has the best and last Multibit d/a convertor, the PCM1704 24/96 dac and a PMD200 HDCD filter is something to be heard, and is a pure magical experience.
All of them as BradleyP says above the Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances is simply stunning.

Cheers George

stereophilereader's picture

... and genuine nice guy.
His work with HDCD and Spectral made CDs listenable.
A living legend.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

I listened to my expensive, 45 RPM Reference Recordings (e.g., Respighi, Church Windows) at most 2-3 times.

This is the worst aspect of high-end: drivel music, in rice paper sleeves and on heavy vinyl.

Music isn't a "hobby," high end is (was).

Anon2's picture

Reference Recordings is more than a great producer of high quality recordings. Reference Recordings has made recordings of performances of high artistic merit. The label has also captured some key periods in the history of certain musical ensembles.

The Minnesota Orchestra--now thankfully out of a debilitating labor dispute--has had all of its great conductor-orchestra periods covered thanks to Reference Recordings. Antal Dorati had Mercury Records. Edo de Waart had Telarc. Osmo Vanska has BIS. Eiji Oue had Reference Recordings.

Eiji Oue had Reference Recordings to document his short but illustrious time as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra. "Exotic Dances for the Opera" is a great compilation of orchestral works, recorded splendidly. This CD is a mainstay among exhibitors at audio expositions (worldwide, I'd guess).

I found a Youtube video of a Vietnamese audio store (or product expo) in which various Dynaudio and Vienna Acoustics speakers were under demonstration to a group of enthusiasts. The Dance of the Tumblers from the Snow Maiden from the "Exotic Dances" of Reference Recordings was the "reference recording" for this enthusiastic gathering. Look for this video; the demos of the Dynaudio Focus 160s and 360s speakers are awesome (played through Plinius amplification), even for a Youtube camcorder video.

I had a rare treat to hear the "Polonaise from Rusalka" at a product demo. This work, again from the "Exotic Dances" SACD, was played through the dCS digital sources, Boulder amplification, and Wilson Audio Sasha loudspeakers. The Reference Recording source material magnificently brought this dealer system to its full potential. The end of the first section of this work was captured so expertly by Dr. Johnson that one could feel the depth and height of the great Orchestra Hall of Minneapolis with a sense of realism that only a live concert--and in a good seat--could catch.

Back to Minnesota, Reference Recordings, along with the late great Vox Records, both chronicled the brilliant career of Stanislaw Skrowaczewski with this same ensemble.

The Exotic Dances recording, Reveries, the Etudes Tableaux, and the Bruckner 9th recordings, all by Reference Recordings, add to the rich recorded legacy of the Minnesota Orchestras. These recordings are in audio demonstrations the world over with good reason.

Congratulations to Dr. Johnson for his great achievements. I am ready to get his new Bruckner 4th with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, released 11 days ago on Arkivmusic.

deckeda's picture

And yet, Reference Recordings are stupidly frustrating, particularly for a label so couched in sound quality. Titles are available in some formats and not others, and so will herald some media while ignoring others.

Despite music potentially benefitting from one type of tech over another, it's not practical to consumers to posses different systems for different genres within their home libraries.

I'll grant that in today's world not every title will be available on LP, but to assume or "decide" 16-bit files are sufficient for home playback, for everyone ... I'm sorry, Mr. Johnson, but that's not been my experience.

Don't advertise on the CD label 24-bit recording and then withhold it from me. Not for $17. It's 2015, not 1985.