Going live: in which Dave Denyer spends two fascinating days at London’s Air Studios witnessing Chasing The Dragon’s audiophile recordings

A week after a wonderful trip to visit Recording the Masters in France (write-up coming soon), I found myself heading to London’s iconic Air Studios. Have I mentioned how much love my job? Just the once or twice perhaps…

Since this was my second visit to Hampstead’s hallowed ground, I had some idea of what to expect.  I first went there last summer for Chasing The Dragon’s recording of Eleanor McEvoy’s album, Forgotten Dreams. It’s a memory I’ll take to the grave! To witness the making of an album, at the legendary studio founded by the late Sir George Martin – well, for an audiophile, it was almost a religious experience.

Now I’m with Chasing The Dragon again and this time, head honcho Mike Valentine has pushed the boat out, hiring the Studios for two consecutive days of recording and a third day for mastering.

The two days were scheduled for two very different projects. Mike planned to record two entirely separate and unrelated albums for release on 15ips 2-track tape, CD, direct cut LP, and high definition 24/192 PCM, DSD and double-rate DSD downloads.

Day one: Beethoven

It’s Monday 21stJuly and it’s a scorcher. Today’s performer is John Lenehan, a highly regarded professional classical pianist. I recently heard John’s work on another album from Chasing The Dragon’s Beethoven Live series (Piano Concerto No. 5. – which I recently reviewed here). His musicianship and the recording were excellent but I wasn’t personally bowled over by the acoustics of the recording venue (London’s St Martin in the Fields), so now I was really curious to hear the same performer in a different environment.

Pathétique Sonata

The album for today’s recording comprises two of Beethoven’s most popular piano sonatas: No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, Pathétique, and No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27, Moonlight.  These two are among the most popular of all classical pieces. So we could say that this puts the pressure on – when performing and recording such timeless favorites, there’s really nowhere to hide. These are compositions that many people know intimately. Any shortcomings will stand out a mile.

And so, having arrived on an extremely hot summer’s day, I grabbed a refreshing drink and made a brief tour of Air’s impressive facilities before heading eagerly towards Studio 1.

Studio 1, as the name/number might suggest, is a large space that can be configured in various ways using movable screens and walls. When I arrive there’s a Bösendorfer grand piano already set up with an impressive array of microphones.

First up (slightly above the piano) are a pair of Telefunken C12 switchable polar response capsule microphones. The valve-based C12 is a classic. It was developed by AKG in 1953 and has appeared under various guises and brands. Mike often uses a pair of modern Flea C12s (Flea being a contemporary brand in current production) but today, after various comparisons were made, he chose Air’s vintage Telefunkens for this job.

Royer SF-24V

Just back from the C12s, positioned a touch higher and perhaps 18 inches away from the piano, are a pair of Royer R-122 ribbon microphones. These modern microphones have a figure-of-eight polar pattern and are used in conjunction with the C12s to further extend the warmth, body and timbre of the piano.

Finally, there’s a single stereo microphone, the Royer SF-24V  – which is really two microphones in one. It comprises two figure-of-eight ribbon mics orientated at 90 degrees to each other, with one placed immediately above the other i.e. positioned in the form of a Blumlein Pair.

These microphones are all fed back to Studio 1’s outrageously splendid Neve mixing desk. This desk was designed by Neve’s Rupert Neve and ex-Beatles’ producer and Air Studios’ founder Sir George Martin. Only three were ever made, so this is about as special as a desk can get (I’ve yet to witness anyone see it for the first time without their eyes just about popping out of their head!).

So… piano set-up, microphones in postion. Next up, mixer Jon Bailey sets the controls on the desk, from which the two-channel mix is fed to four separate recording devices (yes, four!).

First, there’s Mike’s own very splendid Sony APR5003 ½” open reel tape recorder. ATR Master tape is being used, and the machine is carefully calibrated to 320nWb/m. The Audiophile Clinic’s Petronel Butuc has been brought in for the day (and tomorrow) to lend his expertise to operating it.

For the digital recordings, audio engineer Matt Sartori sits at the controls of a Nagra VI PCM recorder, set to record at 24-bit / 192kHz, and also of a Tascam DA3000 recorder recording at 2 x DSD (DSD 128).

Finally, and requiring by far the greatest effort (and the longest set of cables), a feed goes up two floors to Air’s in-house mastering studio where resident mastering whizz John Webber and assistant Cicely Balston are in control of the mastering console, and a most magnificent beast, a Neumann VMS-80 disc-cutting lathe.

Since this live recording is being cut direct to disc, the cutting process needs to conducted rather differently to the norm. No previewing can take place and so one aspect of direct-to-disc production – namely, the ‘pitch’ – is fixed. I’ll explain….

In normal LP production, when a record is cut the pitch or space between ‘lines’ between each circuit of the groove as it spirals from lead-in to run-out are varied according to the input. Typically the music would be monitored a little ahead of time allowing the cutting engineer to adjust pitch ‘on the fly’. Loud, bass-heavy music requires more ‘wiggle’ of the groove and so the pitch, or spacing is wider. Quieter sections can be cut closer together. But in a live, direct-cut situation, the pitch is fixed at a level that provides ample dynamic range while still allowing enough recording time for the two sonatas to fit, one on each side. Another property of cutting direct to disc is that each complete LP side has to be performed and recorded as one. So in the case of these Beethoven Sonatas each piece is played through from start to finish. If there’s a mistake in the third movement, for example, it’s a case of throw away that lacquer and start again! Another effect of the process: once everything’s set up, it’s the cutting engineer John Webber who dictates when the performance starts. As he lowers the cutting head onto the blank lacquer disc he flicks a switch which turns on a red light in the studio, and John Lenehan starts to play. At the end of the piece no-one can do a thing until Webber presses another button to mute the audio input and start cutting the lead-out groove.

So, after a few ‘takes’ – which were recorded to tape and to digital – pianist John Lenehan felt confident enough to tackle the disc recording. However, perfectly illustrating the live nature of direct disc cutting, halfway through the second movement of Pathétique, Lenehan made a minor error and so the recording was stopped, a fresh lacquer was placed on the lathe and the whole sonata was started over. Eventually, with two or three ‘good’ takes of each side of the album,  Mike Valentine’s task was then to select the best performance of each to be sent to the pressing plant, Optimal Media Productions, based in Germany.

It’s worth noting that at least two good ‘cuts’ were recorded of each LP side, just in case of one of the original lacquers got lost or damaged in the post.

Mike Valentine mulls it over

With the other formats, the final master can be compiled from different ‘takes’. For example, Mike might choose to use the first movement from the first take, and the second movement from a different take. This cut and splice technique can be applied to both tape and the digital formats.  Speaking to Mike a few days later it transpired that he’d used the tape master for production of not just the tape (obviously) but also for the CD release and also the 24/192 hi-def download.

So, having had a hugely interesting record-making day in a record-breakingly swelteringly hot London, I returned again the following day for something completely different.

Day two: the Quentin Collins All Star Quintet

It’s Tuesday 22ndJuly. Another day, another recording session and the mercury’s still climbing. It’s a tough life but someone’s gotta do it! The same team is in place, with the same set-up: Matt recording DSD and PCM, Petronel recording to ½” tape, Jon mixing, John upstairs mastering for vinyl and operating the cutting lathe… but this time we’re here to witness the recording of a brand new jazz album. Nice!

This is in fact the first recording of a new outfit, the Quentin Collins All Star Quintet – a group of exceptionally well-seasoned professional jazz musicians. Band-leader Collins is regarded as one of the top UK trumpeters with several successful solo and group projects already under his belt. Among these I was interested to learn that he plays trumpet in the Kyle Eastwood Band. Yep, that Kyle Eastwood, the one with the fistful-of-dollars dad… You can find out more at www.quentincollinsmusic.com

The Quentin Collins All Star Quintet (Collins himself is on the right)

So, I arrive for day two and settle down with cup of coffee kindly delivered by Beth (who’s a saint and tirelessly re-fuels us all, ensuring everyone stays hydrated on another swelteringly hot day). Then I take another stroll around the studio. Because we’re recording a five-piece band today (bass, drums, percussion, trumpet / flugelhorn, and piano), the studio is absolutely awash with kit, acoustic screens and baffles and a zillion (or thereabouts) microphones.

In order to perform together live, each band member needs to able see all of the others, and they also need to be able to see the red light with which cutting engineer John Webber signals that the direct-to-disc cutting head is in the groove and it’s time to begin. However, they also need to be acoustically separated. Not entirely, but sufficiently that each instrument can be individually mic’d, lessening bleed-through from one instrument to another so that the soundstage can be created on the mixing desk, and to enable a specific combination of mics to be used on each instrument to best preserve that instrument’s dynamic nature, tone and timbre.

Joe Sanders

Now this part of the day was extremely interesting, to witness how much control and awareness each of these seasoned professionals has over their own ‘sound’ and how that sound fits into the whole ensemble. For example: the bass player, Milwaukee-born, Paris-based, Joe Sanders, while initially impressed with the focused tunefulness of the twin KM 84 microphones positioned either side of the bridge of his upright bass, suggested that Jon Bailey also add to the mix a U47 valve mic positioned just behind the KM 84s. The result: thumbs up all-round. You can check out more about Joe Sanders on his website at www.joesandersbass.com

This sort of fine-tuning went on with each of the musicians, with undoubtedly the most significant ‘tweak’ being to slide across some huge floor-to ceiling glazed wall panels to acoustically isolate the drummer Gary Husband in his own half of the studio. Of all the changes made, this one most benefitted the overall sound by stopping the drum sound being picked up by every microphone in the room.  Of course this is not unusual; drums tend to be loud and Husband’s drumming was verging on rocking, while still being firmly ‘jazz’. He reminded me a little of Ginger Baker – so it was no surprise to discover that just one of Husband’s many other roles is playing drums (and keyboards) in jazz fusion luminary John McLaughlin’s The Fourth Dimension.  Check Husband out at www.garyhusband.com

Gary Husband

And now to an amusing tweak (it amused me anyway) made to the piano, played today by renowned pianist Jason Rebello (who’s not only played with such jazz greats such as Wayne Shorter, but also classical symphony orchestras such as the Hallé) – so do check Jason out: http://ccgi.rebello.plus.com/jasonrebello/about/.

Anyway, back to the tweak: first of all, a heavy, quilted piano cover was draped over the Bösendorfer’s raised lid entombing the two AKG/Flea C12 microphones within a quilted ‘piano-tent’. The second tweak involved assistant engineer Alex Ferguson (not that Alex Ferguson) and a can of WD-40. I’m not exactly sure where that was applied – or what exactly went on beneath the covers – but hey, whatever it was, it did the trick!

Completing this tremendous all-star line up, and last to arrive and set up was percussionist Miles Bould. Bould has played with a dazzling array of musical artists spanning both the pop and jazz arenas. Today he set up up his toms with another pair of C12s, and settled into his allotted position between trumpter Collins and bassist Sanders. More on Miles here: www.gonbops.com/artists/miles-bould

Going back to Collins, his trumpet and flugelhorn were perfectly captured by a Royer 122 ribbon microphone, excellent for recording their full brightness and power without becoming harsh or fatiguing.

And so finally, after much moving and adjusting the settings and the score, and also adding or shortening solos and improvisations, it was time to play.

Right from the off, I was hooked. This is an exceptionally talented group of first-rate jazz musicians. The fact that they haven’t actually played as a quintet before came as quite a surprise, given that way that the kick-off practice performance soon morphed into something supremely magical. I’d buy this album in a heartbeat and I’m already investigating the individual guys’ back catalogues.  In particular I was mesmerized by Collins’ trumpet. It reminded me so much of my jazz hero Miles Davis. I’ve heard many a Miles Davis tribute and not once has the trumpeter come anywhere near close to what the great man could achieve. Collins isn’t Miles Davis, don’t get me wrong, but oh man, he really is seriously good. He has that subtlety, that feeling. Oh and on flugelhorn, think Miles Davis merged with Hugh Masekela, that about sums up the sound. Sublime!

It was fascinating to witness these guys working together as a group. Each band member played their part, and then they discussed the whole as well as their individual interpretations and contributions. Songs were shortened, stripped back to return more closely to the original vibe, or given more breadth and space to expand and grow intuitively.

It was absolute honour and a privilege to be there, for which my heartfelt thanks to Chasing The Dragon’s Mike Valentine and colleagues, and to the incredible team at Air Studios. And I have to offer a deep bow to the performers across the two days. It’s a real testament to their skill and professionalism that, in addition to the usual pressures of recording an album, plus the significant added pressure of a making a direct-cut vinyl recording, they’re also happy to have a bunch of press and onlookers scrutinising their every move!

The Quentin Collins All Star Quintet – A Day In The Lifeis scheduled for release in December 2019 on 2-track 15ips ¼” tape, Direct Cut LP (the next best thing to tape), compact disc, and on both DSD and PCM download. I can’t wait to hear it!

The Beethoven Sonatas will be released later this month (August), also on 2-track 15ips ¼” tape, Direct Cut LP, compact disc as well as both DSD and PCM high definition downloads.

Keep an eye out at www.chasingthedragon.co.uk

Mike Valentine: “‘that’s a wrap!”