RMAF 2014: Music & Seminars

I have always thought it important for audio shows to feature live music, so showgoers can recalibrate their ears. Thanks to Ray Kimber, who flew in Canadian pianist Robert Silverman, RMAF attendees could do just that. Robert, who had recorded the complete Mozart sonatas on SACD for Ray's IsoMike label a couple of years back and who also appeared on five Stereophile CDs, performed a series of mini-concerts on Saturday and Sunday, as well as a full recital Saturday evening.

I caught Robert performing Mozart's Turkish Rondo and Brahms' final piano work, the Rhapsody in E flat, as well as the final movement from Beethoven's "Moonlight" sonata; he was on fire, the 9-foot Steinway filling the room with sound.

I had a musical experience of a different kind in the big Legacy room. Tom Norton has already reported on the sound of Legacy's new DSP-corrected, quad-amped V speaker system, but when I was listening to a track from Lyn Stanley's Potions album, Lyn's voice was doubled with a harmony that wasn't on the version I was used to. I turned to the source of the second voice and there was Ms. Stanley herself!

When I visited the Zu Audio/Peachtree room on the mezzanine, to my surprise there was another musician, drummer Michael Shrieve, who played on Santana's first 8 albums and was featured in the band's set in the Woodstock movie. Michael streamed Santana songs, sourced from Spotify, on his iPad, sending the data to a Peachtree Nove 220SE receiver ($2000) during Zu Druid Mk.V speakers, with low bass provided by a pair of Zu Undertone subwoofers. He talked about the sessions, and how on one of the tracks on my favorite Santana album, Caravanserai, he had overdubbed the drums after hearing the lines that Neal Schon and Carlos Santana had laid down over his original drum tracks. That album had featured a bass player, Doug Rauch, who had an enormous influence on me as a bass player but who had never seemed to get his due, so I asked Michael about what it had been like working with Doug. "Ah, Dougie Rauch" he responded," What a player, he invented all the slapping with the thumb that other players, like Larry Graham, were later to make their own."

Saturday morning, the audio writer community assembled at the Sony booth at CanJam, where the company was showing their new Walkman, along with a complete new range of headphones. See here modeling the high-end MDR-Z7 headphones is AudioStream editor Michael Lavorgna. (You can find Michael's RMAF report here.) The MDR-Z7s can be run in balanced mode with Sony-branded aftermarket cables supplied by Kimber Kable.

My beat at RMAF was the bottom two floors of the Marriott Tower, but I also assigned myself the task of covering the seminar program. This program ran the entire show, which meant that I could only attend a couple, but one I made sure to be present at was called "Experts Ask the Experts" Saturday lunchtime. Richard Schram of Parasound (center, to the right of the GoPro camera) moderated a panel comprising (left to right): Sony headphone designer Naotaka Tsunoda, Siegfried Linkwitz, recording engineer Peter McGrath of Wilson, Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records, and Grammy-winning engineer for the San Francisco Symphony Jack Vad. The seminar was described by Schram as "Experts in one field of audio may not always understand the complexities of another audio expert's field. This panel provides an opportunity for professional recording engineers to ask consumer audio component designers questions they've always wanted to ask and vice versa. Should the parameters of consumer component design always correspond with what a professional audio engineer hears while recording? How does microphone placement affect the music coming from the speakers?"

In an understandably wide-ranging discussion, the panelists focused on the role of the recordist, whether it should as a documentarian or as a creative process in its own right. The audience seemed to prefer the former while Vad, in particular, echoed my own feelings that the engineer can and must do anything and everything to serve the music. And to judge by his Mahler recordings with Michael Tilson-Thomas, serving the music is what Jack does very well!

University professor Jeff Merkel gave an informative seminar Friday morning, complete with demonstrations using the PC-based REW system, on how to measure loudspeakers and room acoustics, with an emphasis on optimizing the latter. "There's no point in using $10,000 speakers in a $200 room," he exclaimed!

Other seminars that I didn't get to included Roy Gregory on "Cartridge Optimization," Cookie Marenco presenting a live recording demonstration, jazz singer Annie Bisson on the recording process, using a Bel Canto c5i driving Joseph Audio Prism speakers, and Inner Fidelity’s Tyll Hertsens on "Custom In-Ear Monitors: From stage tools to audiophilia darlings, to the future of everything." (You can find Tyll’s RMAF coverage here.) There were many other seminars and the videos of them will eventually be posted on the RMAF website.

Cable manufacturer Nordost's Michael Taylor treated showgoers to an effective "vertical tasting" of AC power cords and interconnects. Making sure that the playback level on the Jeff Rowland Design Group was kept constant, and using excellent-sounding Magico speakers, he started off by progressing from a generic interconnect between the JRDG DAC and the preamp, then replacing it first with Nordost's affordable Blue Heaven, then the more expensive Heimdall, the even more expensive Frey 2, and finally Valhalla 2. The improvements were clearly audible, and I commend Taylor for not leading the audience, instead letting them discover for themselves what the differences were, in true heuristic fashion.

"Jeffery Catalano of High Water Sound always plays the indisputably best NON-AUDIOPHILE LPs" wrote Herb Reichert in his second report from RMAF, something with which I enthusiastically agree. Even though the High Water Sound room wasn't on my formal beat, I made sure I stopped by for a listen, as Jeffrey always exposes me to new music. Or in this case, old music. Or reasonably old music. Miyajima distributor Robin Wyatt holds for me a fantastic-sounding 2011 album from Stax super-star organist Booker T. Jones, The Road From Memphis. Listening to this album on this system was a musical highlight of the RMAF.