A Visit to RTI & Acoustech Page 2

As Hoffman plays a reel, he points to the oscilloscope on the board, which shows energy in the center of the soundstage. This is easily confirmed by listening. While on most tapes some instruments are positioned closer to the left and right mikes, most place the piano and bass in the center. To Hoffman, that sounds as if you're in a really good seat in a club. And while the ever-secretive, 85-year-old Van Gelder has often insisted that he didn't pay attention to such things, Hoffman believes that you can't get sound like this without really trying.

"We give audiophiles the master-tape sound, not the original Blue Note LP sound. You can't tell me that the audiophile wants to hear sound as it was compromised back then. You'd have to play it on a Zenith. They were very scared to leave too much bass, treble, or dynamic range on the record, because the tonearm would jump out of the groove. Nowadays, we can finally accomplish what Rudy Van Gelder would have only dreamed of hearing 40 years ago."

Missteps and Triumphs
To learn more about the Blue Note masters, I call Blue Note authority Michael Cuscuna, at Mosaic Records, in Stamford, Connecticut. Cuscuna has handled all Blue Note reissues for EMI since 1984, supplying tapes from the vault in Los Angeles.

In the 1970s, when Cuscuna began working with Blue Note, one of the engineers at the United Artists studios noticed that oxidation had begun to cause flaking on some of the masters recorded in the 1960s. After convincing the powers-that-were to make new, second-generation "masters" from some of the masters, those originals were scrapped. The substitutes used the early Dolby process, which results in a loss of detail and openness. Of 400 Blue Note masters recorded between 1950 and 1970, no one now knows for certain how many are original masters and how many are second-generation copies. (While I'm at AcousTech, Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman identify a copy by its inferior sound, set it aside, and inform Chad Kassem that he must remove it from his reissue list.)

"When 12" LPs came out," Cuscuna explains, "labels needed to build up large catalogs in order to make money. There was a massive amount of recording activity in all genres. An amazing amount of independent labels popped up to record massive amounts of modern jazz during its heyday in New York City. Rudy Van Gelder's studio, which was owned by Alfred Lion, became the studio of choice.

"Other labels would hire musicians to go into studios without planning and rehearsals. Alfred invested in planning and paid pre-rehearsals, and carefully formed ensembles. By doing so, he inspired musicians to create a lot of original compositions that became standards." He cites, as only three of many examples, Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," and John Coltrane's "Blue Train."

"If you're an improvising musician and you haven't rehearsed, you're going to play your best solo while everyone is still working out the tune. By the time everything is worked out, everyone is burned out. Alfred's approach created a more lasting body of work. It wasn't as much a case of whom they recorded as their methodology, which drew out the best possible performances."

Master Masterers
As much as I'd love to relay all kinds of anecdotes about the challenges Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray encounter during the mastering sessions, I witness none. These boys know the sound of the facility and the Van Gelder masters like the backs of their hands. Decisions are made fast, almost as second nature. For Kenny Dorham's Whistle Stop, they discover plenty of headroom, so they add a bit of excitement. (Earlier in the day, they treated other titles differently.) I leave for a while to tour the facility, and by the time I return they're working on another tape. On the second day of my visit, the final session ends early.

"When Kevin and I work in this room," says Hoffman, "I basically focus on the sound I want to hear. I rely on Kevin to perfectly translate that sound to the phonograph record. Kevin has been cutting records since he was in high school, and he knows what he's doing. We know each other's moves; we finish each other's sentences. Our spouses are amused by it."

Back home a month later, I unpack some test pressings Chad Kassem has sent me. Though I know I can never dare look directly into Mikey's eyes until I own a record-cleaning machine, my Clearaudio turntable, solidly supported by a Symposium platform, is equipped with a brand-new The Voice cartridge from Soundsmith that's raring to sing. Bybee Golden Goddess speaker bullets—you need not genuflect—bring out all the detail that the rest of the chain can possibly reproduce. Playing side B of Dexter Gordon's Dexter Calling...—I have no list of track titles—I hear the most realistic-sounding drums ever reproduced by my system. It's as though I'm sitting at the point of creation, experiencing the same high that brought such gifted musicians together as one. Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray, Chad Kassem, and Don MacInnis have done Rudy Van Gelder and his Blue Note artists proud.