Todd Garfinkle of M•A Recordings—A World Citizen Page 2

Scull: So you have DAT tapes with a number of takes on them...?

Garfinkle: Yes, and remember, they're 96kHz takes. So I have to do a sample-rate conversion.

Scull: What do you use?

Garfinkle: I've had access to an English unit made by Audio Digital Technology. And I'm now using a unit that I absolutely swear by from DB Technologies, an American company. It's called the 3000S 96kHz Digital Enhancer, and it does many things, including down- and upsampling. To my ears, when I use the 3000S, the sonic integrity of the 96kHz signal is quite well preserved. But I won't use CDR.

Scull: Why's that?

Garfinkle: I think it's not good for the sound, it thins it out a little bit.

Scull: And what about something like the Sonic Solutions or Digidesign digital audio workstations?

Garfinkle: Let's say that I'm quite wary about hard-disk editing. I had a bad experience with it.

Scull: Okay, so you master by transferring to a Sony PCM-1630?

Garfinkle: Yeah, and that gets sent to the mastering plant.

Scull: Typically you'll get a test CD back. What's the difference between what you send and what you get back?

Garfinkle: You lose a lot of information. [laughs]

Scull: What happens?

Garfinkle: You lose air. You sometimes lose a certain softness to the sound of instruments, especially with acoustic instruments, I think.

Scull: What else?

Garfinkle: You lose detail and clarity as it thins out a bit.

Scull: Can you do anything about it?

Garfinkle: I can cry. [laughs] I was working with Philips for a long time, and I think their mastering was pretty good. Now I'm with another company called Zomax.

Scull: Sounds like a tranquilizer.

Garfinkle: [laughs] Yeah. I'd like to work with JVC's xrcd, but they're too expensive.

Scull: They sound great.

Garfinkle: Yeah, but they're something like four bucks apiece!

Scull: Just the media?

Garfinkle: Just the CDs, without the jewelbox or's crazy! How do you sell recordings like that?

Scull: Is that a trick question, Todd? [laughs] By selling a lot of them?

Garfinkle: Right.

Scull: So what do you think the future holds for digital?

Garfinkle: Well, I'm waiting for DVD.

Scull: Like waiting for Godot?

Garfinkle: [laughs] Yeah, right! You can have DVD now, but it's not up to audiophile standards, especially the transports. Maybe the circuitry is, you know, fairly close. The analog circuitry certainly isn't.

Scull: So where are we going?

Garfinkle: We're wait! [laughs]

Scull: What does the minimalist approach you take, and the exotic nature of your equipment, get you that a roomful of more mainstream equipment doesn't?

Garfinkle: You get a sense of air and spaciousness that's sometimes almost unreal. You can do two-mike recordings in a studio and add reverb later on for that sense of spaciousness, but it's an artificial ambience. With natural ambience, the temperature in the room and even the humidity are all part of the sound. You can control that in a studio. But going "natural," you get this incredible transparency. If it's done right, everybody's clearly there, but it's not like they're in separate cells or anything. They're all one, a unity of sound.

Scull: You never record in a studio?

Garfinkle: Yeah, I realized that you can't re-create a good-sounding hall artificially with a reverb unit or whatever. It's better when you're sitting there playing in what may be an inspirational environment, as opposed to a dead-sounding-studio-with-headphones scenario.

Scull: So you arrange your artists to interact with the environment.

Garfinkle: Yes. Some people have a problem with that. They can't hear when there are too many things going on at the same time. Like a drummer who's sitting in front of his kit—even if he's playing quietly, the drums are closest to him, closer than any other instrument, so it's hard for him to hear other instruments. That's why he has to play quietly. But when he does, things start opening up. I consider the environment as a part of the group. A quartet is not a quartet, it's really a quintet. And it takes time for people to realize that. Sometimes they never do.

Scull: Given that, what would you say the purpose of a high-end audio system is?

Garfinkle: To impress your friends! [laughter]

Scull: But are you trying to re-create the actual acoustic event, or are you shooting for listeners to hear what the microphones heard? Or is it to capture the sound of the master tape?

Garfinkle: Well, people hear differently, you know. And that's because everyone's system sounds different. The music takes on a spirit when it's presented in the way that I do. Sometimes it can be quite shocking.

Scull: So one of the jobs of a good high-end system is to capture the spirituality of the performance?

Garfinkle: Yes, the spirituality and the movement of the music. You try to get some sense of dimension in there, with as little garbage as possible. [laughs] If you use a lot of microphones, they're all "hearing" each other's soundfield, to some extent.

Scull: Can you have too much air?

Garfinkle: Yeah, sure, you want to limit the amount of air sometimes. I try to play with that. Some people make what they call minimalist recordings. They want to re-create the actual event. They want to make recordings that sound as if you're sitting in the audience. Well, let me tell you, sometimes it sounds like shit in the audience! [laughs] It's true, there's a certain atmosphere that you absorb at a concert. But you don't want to listen to a concert when you're sitting in your living room! I try to use the space as another part of the band, like a tool. And if it's a dead-sounding space, then it's a pretty bad tool. A dull knife. [laughs] It's a screwdriver with the head broken off. And if the musicians are aware of that...

Scull: So part of your job is to put them in the frame.

Garfinkle: Right, to put them in that space. Some musicians realize that they can play in a certain way and "excite" the space. And the space speaks back, of course—unless it's dead, which is pointless. Some people really understand that. However, the space has to sound good. If you don't have the space, you don't have the music, know what I mean? I always try to tune into the space, to get a nice balance between it and the instruments. I try to set up a situation where the listener is looking through this musical lens, hearing and seeing the instruments, while the whole picture has the "glow" of the instruments in that specific space.

Scull: Do the artists understand what you're up to and why you do it?

Garfinkle: Yes, for the most part. Some of them hear the sound of my recordings. You know, for a musician to play in a nice ambient space is one thing, but recently I played some material from the recording I'm working on now of Portuguese jazz by Joao Paulo. I played it for a cello player who's been on some of our projects. She supposedly has a grasp of the music. So afterwards she says, "nice ambience." [laughs] That's all she said! What does that mean? There's so much more there in the music! "Nice ambience"—what a noncommittal remark.