Poem: Stereophile Cuts an LP

Why had a high-end hi-fi magazine felt the need to produce a classical LP when the thrust of real record companies in 1989 is almost exclusively toward CD and cassette? Why did the magazine's editors think they had a better chance than most experienced professional engineers in making a record with audiophile sound quality? Were they guilty of hubris in thinking that the many years between them spent practicing the profession of critic would qualify them as record producers?

I think the germ of the idea, to make a recording that, in sharp contrast to the vast majority of commercial records, would capture the actual sense of being present in the concert hall where the musicians had been playing, can be traced back to a meeting of the Westchester County Audiophile Society one Friday night in October 1988. Stereophile's Publisher, Larry Archibald, and I were to give a talk to Hy Kachalsky's merry band of enthusiasts and it had been worrying me for some time that, while the traditional basis of high-fidelity reproduction is "faithfulness" to an original sound, my experience as a recording musician had left me with the indelible impression that even some of the most purist of purist recordings were sufficiently "processed" to render them useless for assessing the "fidelity" of hi-fi components.

Yes, of course you can put on a record of, say, a solo violin and say that the component that most makes it sound like a real violin is the best. But how do you know that that component is, in fact, merely the one that best compensates for the colorations of the microphones, mixing desk, tape recorder, cutting lathe, even of the playback cartridge? And to go on from there, which real violin should the recording sound like? Real acoustic instruments can sound astonishingly different, as anyone who has heard a comparison between a German and a French bassoon will testify.

The point I tried to get across to the Audiophile Society members in my talk that rainy October night was that a naïve reliance on recordings of "acoustic instruments," without absolute knowledge of how those recordings had been made and processed, does not allow the listener to make absolute value judgments of component quality. Again, what if you rate a hi-fi component highly on the grounds that it makes the recording venue sound like Carnegie Hall when, in fact, it actually should have sounded like Avery Fisher Hall?

There are recordings, however, in which all involved have tried to preserve as accurately as possible the true sounds of the instruments and voices in the recording hall. Sheffield Lab's Doug Sax, for example, has produced an enviable series of such recordings, particularly of small-scale music, as have David Wilson and Water Lily Acoustics' Kavichandran Alexander. That such recordings are few and far between, however, I think you could regard as the genesis of this project, though the idea lay dormant until it was triggered by a phone call from Kavi Alexander in early 1989, asking if Stereophile would be interested in sponsoring one of his recordings. (Previous sponsors of Water Lily Acoustics recordings include Conrad-Johnson, Apogee Acoustics, AudioQuest, Cardas Audio, and The Absolute Sound's Fund for Recorded Music.)

Interested in Kavi's proposal, we invited him out to Santa Fe to discuss things further. Over dinner at Nectarine, one of Santa Fe's better French restaurants, it was decided that Stereophile should go one better than merely sponsoring a record; it should actually oversee every step of the recording process and make the resulting LP available only from the magazine. In this way, we would have an LP which we could be certain was as faithful a representation of the original sound as could be managed. We could break the Catch-22 situation mentioned above. We could have absolute knowledge of what the record should sound like and readers who bought it could therefore use it to make valid value judgments.

In addition to supplying the microphones and tape recorder and capturing the sound, Kavi would send us cassettes of musicians he felt might be suitable, and would seek out a good-sounding hall. Richard Lehnert and I would choose the musicians and program, and oversee the musical side of the recording, while Stereophile, in the form of Larry Archibald, would look after all the commercial aspects.

We were off! Within days, we had decided that the record would consist of works for flute and piano played by LA musicians Gary Woodward and Brooks Smith. Kavi Alexander would capture their sound with a pair of Tim de Paravicini-designed figure-eight tube microphones used in a pure Blumlein configuration, and store it on a tubed Ampex MR70 tape recorder, using ½" Ampex 456 tape running at 15ips. The lacquers would be cut from the edited master tapes by John Dent at London's The Exchange studio, using Tim de Paravicini-designed electronics. For initial release, the LP would be pressed on heavy vinyl in a limited edition from stampers made directly from the electroplated lacquers rather than in the conventional manner, where stampers are made from a mother produced in an additional stage. A conventional LP would follow, with eventually a CD when we could find an analog/digital mastering process in which we had any confidence.

The Sessions
It was 6am on the morning of June 6, the last day of the 1989 Summer CES. While every other CES attendee was doubtless recovering from the previous night's exertions, I was sitting in the O'Hare shuttle, trying to keep my eyes open. Despite the best-laid plans of men, mice, Kavi Alexander, and Larry Archibald, the only days that musicians, engineer, and the hall were all available at the same time turned out to overlap the CES in Chicago. And the hall was in Los Angeles. Untypically, the American Airlines flight was on time, and I arrived at LAX to be met by Stereophile's Richard Lehnert who was carrying Stax Lambda Pro headphones and a bundle of music.

We hailed a cab. "Where are we going?" asked Richard. I knew I had got up too early. The address of the recording hall was still on the desk in my Chicago hotel room. All we could tell the cab driver was that it was the Allan Hancock Foundation Auditorium at the University of California.

"UCLA or USC?" he asked.

We guessed. "USC."