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Rupert's word: SOUND QUALITY & HARMONIC DISTORTION

This article first appeared in Issue # of Audio Technology Magazine, 2000

How often have you eagerly opened a new software package, or even a new computer, and seen those inviting words: 'Getting Started' ? How often have you read the words of wisdom that follow ? " Unwrap the floppy discs and make back-up copies. Place DISK #1 into drive A. Close the door and type A: Install."

After a bit of experience you become an expert on this stuff and it all comes naturally. Next, you become an 'Authority' and tell your friends that software should be instinctive. "I never read the handbook, I don't have the time to mess about.Just hit it and go". Your more impressionable friends think : " Wow, he really knows his stuff". They will ask you diffidently to pop round for a coffee and "help sort out my computer". Now the chips are down !

At an early stage I learned the golden rule of consultancey : " Never give advice you don't know how to implement or are not prepared to carry out". However, I have to admit that my type of ubiquitous background would probably not work today. At the start of my career, after World War II, technical training and University Degree courses in our field hardly existed. I learned how from generous older and wiser engineers, and became QBE ( Qualified By Experience) and QBD ( Qualified By Doing) !

Whereas it used to be okay to know a little about everything, now you have to home in on a subject, specialize and become the number one 'Authority'. You have to learn more and more about less and less - you have to know a lot about a little.

Think for a moment about the famous inventors from the past. They were often starting from scratch. Every design depended for its success on imaginative improvisation. They had enormous vision - an overwhelming desire to give practical expression to an idea. I wonder if, today, we are shoe-horning our most brilliant brains into closed boxes with windowless walls - stifling their vision and imaginative energy.

Specialization is a 'must' and many inventions or development projects today are the result of cooperative effort and combined skills. But is it satisfying ? fulfilling ? well, of course it often is. But, if you could implement your own vision - what a thrill !

I shall never forget Bill, who, in the very early days of Neve, came to us initially as a 'wireman' to help cable up patch fields and consoles. He showed a lot of initiative so we asked him to organise the production of a complete small console (a PSM6). This entailed getting all the parts together, processing metalwork and woodwork, getting the modules made and wired and, of course, the console shell itself. He performed brilliantly, but when the console was finished we could not get it out of his hands - he was too busy stroking and loving it. He said, "You see, Mr Neve, I've only worked on a production line before, stuffing part of a printed circuit - I didn't even know what it was for. This is the first time I've ever seen anything through from start to finish'. I might say that gave us a lot of pleasure too!

Bill's satisfaction came from seeing a project from beginning to end, understanding the steps along the way and knowing why things were done in a particular manner. No matter what area of audio you specialise in - recording, mixing, post-production, concert sound or whatever - a wider understanding of the foundations of sound quality and the measurements of sound equipment is worthwhile in helping us to fulfill our individual vision. And so, to getting started in this business of sound quality.

I often think of the old-timers. In 1877 Lord Rayleigh said : " Directly or indirectly, all questions connected with this subject must come for decision to the ear, as the organ of hearing; and from it there can be no appeal. But we are not, therefore, to infer that all acoustical investigations are conducted with the unassisted ear. When once we have discovered the physical phenomena which constitute the foundation of sound, our explorations are, in great measure transferred to another field lying within the domination of the principles of Mechanics. Important laws are in this way arrived at, to which the sensations of the ear cannot but conform." 1

How did he know ? What was his standard ? What speakers or amplifiers did he use for his 'acoustical investigations' and 'explorations' ? Lord Rayleigh was clearly a man of vision, able to look forward to - and beyond - the sort of quality sound reproduction we enjoy today.

Sound quality - how do you ultimately define or assess it ? With the ear ? Yes, because regardless of facts and figures and enthusiastic salesmen, if you don't like it then it's not good enough.

Facts and figures don't tell the full story about the performance of high grade equipment. Humans are able to perceive minutely small quantities of distortion noise and ambiance and reference it to a stored memory bank of experimental sound. There is no specification which can define all the parameters that go towards making a pleasurable musical experience - but that, surely, is what we aim for.

HARMONIC DISTORTION

There are some specifics which we can explore, although many of these have been known for a long time. For example, high order harmonics not present in the original music are either concordant or discordant. We can perceive differences even when the quantities are well below the noise floor and beyond the accepted limits of hearing.

It must be possible ultimately to fully define audio performance in numbers but the question before us is, "What are we supposed to measure ?". If we define distortion as the presence of anything not in the original signal, then all we have to do is compare the amplified signal with the original signal and we have quantified the problem. Right ?

Yes, provided there was some chance of finding a perfect amplifier. There isn't one ! So we have to settle for compromise and weigh up the things that are important. How deep do we have to dig ? Langford-Smith, in the 1940 edition of The Radio Designer's Handbook 2 (by the way, this was first published in 1934 in Australia as The Radiotron Designer's Handbook !) enumerates the arbitrary percentages of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th harmonics permitted for 'good fidelity' and shows that they decrease steeply with increasing harmonic order. He states that"the 7th harmonic is not on the musical scale and should therefore be below the threshold of audibility". He also quotes from a paper published in 1938 By D.Masa who says : "The total harmonic distortion (THD) is not a measure of the degree of distastefullness to the listener and it is recommended that its use should be discontinued" 3

So, more than 60 years ago it was know that the high order odd harmonics produced a very adverse and non-musical sound which needed to be defined, yet how often have you seen amplifier specs with " THD and Noise less than 0.1 %" or some such statement which groups all harmonics together, along with the noise ?

Human sensitivity to distortion increases dramatically with the order of the harmonic content and, from work done by James Moir and D.E.L. Shorter as long ago as 1951, seems to increase by about 12dB for every harmonic above the third. ( I attended a British Institution of Radio Engineers symposium in 1951 and heard James Moir on this. Unfortunately I have since lost the papers !)

The effect of harmonic content is not only confined to amplitude. Langford-Smith, again, this time in the fourth edition of The Radio Designers Handbook says : " The 7th, 9th, 11th, 14th, 15th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd and 25th harmonics are musically dissonant. In fact the 7th harmonic does not appear in the music scale and if distorting equipment puts it there the effect is very harsh and non-musical." 4

Alec Nisbet, in The Technique of the Sound Studio 5 describes clearly how, on a stringed instrument, where overtones are exact multiples of the fundamental, different harmonics can be emphasised by bowing at different fractions of the length of the string : " If the string is bowed at approximately one-seventh of its length it will not produce the seventh harmonic. So this is a good point at which to bow, because as it happens the seventh harmonic is the first that is not musically related to the rest - though the sixth and eighth are both members of the same musical family and there are also higher harmonics produced in rich profusion to give a dense tonal texture high above the fundamental."

Figure One is a graph I have produced based on studies by others and my own listening. It shows the relative levels of harmonic distortion perceived by the average listener. The horizontal axis shows the harmonic order of the distortion, while the vertical axis shows the amplitude of that distortion ( as a percentage of total signal amplitude) required for it to be perceived. Note the very low level required for the seventh harmonic to be perceived, relative to all other harmonics.


When we design sound equipment, we have to be very careful to pass all the naturally occurring harmonics without introducing artificial ones from bad amplifier circuits. Crossover distortion is one example, but that's for a future issue. In the meantime , there's a lot more that can be explored.

 

1 Lord Rayleigh in 'The Theory Of Sound', first edition 1877.

2 D.Langford-Smith, 'The Radio Designer's Handbook', 1st British Edition, December 1940, Ch.5.

3 D.Masa, 'Combination tones in Non-linear Systems', Electronics, Sept 1938, P20.

4 Chapter 14, 'Radio Designer's Handbook' , Fourth Edition, Published by Wireless World, London 1953.

5 'The Technique of the Sound Studio' by Alec Nisbett, Ninth Impression 1974. Focal Press Ltd.

ISBN 0 240 44991 6.

 

RUPERT NEVE QBE

This the first in a series of three interviews, with Rupert Neve.
This article first appeared in Audio Technology Magazine's Issue 1, March/ April 1998

Greg Simmons :

Let's start with your background as a console designer

Rupert Neve :

I am not academically qualified. I am what I call QBE - that's my degree - Qualified By Experience. I grew up with valves, and so I was making mixing consoles using valves. One of my customers said, "Have you heard about these new transistors ? Do you think they will be any good? I really didn't know the answer, but as more people started to ask about them, I thought I'd better find out.

I had to re-educate myself to start over on the semiconductors. I found that you could actually do more with them than you could with valves, and I got quite excited about it. But there was a lot of folklore going around about the fact that these devices were unreliable and noisy. So it all started with making sure the semiconductor designs produced a sound quality at least as good as the valves. That meant a lot of listening and a lot of measuring. The more I got into it, the more of a perfectionist I became. I think the same goes for not only myself, but a lot of people that design equipment - you find that you can get a bit of an improvement , so you put it in.

As I had very little in the way of competition in those days - there were only one or two of the big companies, and everyone favours the small man - I was kind of on my own. I had very little overheads and could produce something that was better, even if it was more costly in terms of components. So I just went ahead and made the best consoles I could.

GS : you said transistors can do a lot more than the valve circuitry. I believe you are a supporter of high dynamic range and therefore high supply voltages. Is that something you could easily transfer from valves to transistors ?

RN : With valves, you have a much higher supply voltage and you can get a higher output level. But all the impedences are much higher, so you pick up more. If you can work with lower impedences, then you will get a greater dynamic range from a valve.

With transistors, it is a question of using the type of transistor which will give you a very low input noise - for example, low rbb type transistors. In some of the early designs, I had a lot of transistors in parallel to try to get the noise down, but that was cumbersome. When integrated circuits arrived - well not immediately, but after a while - we began to get some very nice integrated circuits with low noise features, which made design a lot easier.

With the semiconductor design, it is very hard to get a dynamic range as good as you can get with a valve. But there are so many disadvantages to using a valve, that we sort of grin and bear it.

GS : so you adopted the semiconductor technology

RN : Yes. Just to give you an idea about these things - cause we've been working on some low noise designs recently - a chip manufacturer not far from where I live approached me and said they had a 24-bit (6kHz chip, and they wanted to build a console on a chip. When I finished laughing, they said, "No we are serious ! How do we get the audio into this chip ? Can you do an audio stage that is as good as 24 bits ?". So I said I would have a go. I said, "24 bits, is that144dB?" [1].. And he said, "Oh no no, we don't get 144dB. We throw a lot of that away in the housekeeping, 120dB to 126dB of dynamic range is all we can get."

GS : So they're losing those last four bits ?

RN : Yes. Everybody, in fact, who is honest does that. You don't get the full 6dB per bit. So I said, " All you have to do is find some suitable devices. You're a chip manufacturer, maybe you could produce some chips for me. We'll bump up the rails 2" He said, " No, no, no. I mean to get this dynamic range an a single rail of 5 volts." Theoretically it is possible. The problem is that you have to redefine all of your source material; your circuits.

GS : So they wasnt to get that extreme dynamic range between zero and +5 volts, no negative rails, nothing. Like TTL logic chips ?

RN : That's right. You can get a dynamic range on a single 5+ volt rail if you try, but the problem is that you can't put the rail voltage up, so you have to put the noise floor down. The only way to get the noise floor down is to drop the circuit's input impedence down to very low values indeed. It means a special kind of transistor input. And then you would be looking at, say, a four ohm input impedence foir a microphone. Now you go to a microphone manufacturer and tell him you will give him four ohms load on your input, and you want him to produce a microphone with about 0.8 ohm source impedence. He'll go mad ! It is not practical.

Another way to do this would be to use a transformer, but that is rather self defeating. A decent input transformer that can handle that range is going to be about 20 times the size of the chip and 20 times the price. It may come in due course, but I am not excited about that aspect of it.

GS : It's interesting that you mention digital at this point, because one of the last questions in this interview was going to be : "What are your thoughts on 24-Bit, 96kHz digital technology ?" If you don't mind, we can keep talking about that now.

RN : Well, okay, if yo've got the patience to listen to me ! (Laughs)

GS : Absolutely.

RN : Well, the number of bits is OK, but the sampling rate isn't. It has to go to twice that. We have to do 192kHz because we need a reliable audio frequency range, free of distortion and noise, up to about 75kHz 3 . I can't prove that, but there's a lot of evidence from a lot of people who have done a lot of listening, and we think that if we could get a really good pass band, up to about 75kHz, we would lose absolutely nothing from the state of the art as we know it. Sampling at 96kHz would give you barely a 50kHz pass band, which is not quite enough - the resolution in the time domain is still not quite what it should be. We can go upwards from a 96kHz sampling rate, and every few kHz you add is going to make it a bit better.

GS : I notice that the System 9098 components all have bandwidths extending up to 100kHz, which obviously relates to what you've been saying, about the need for higher sampling rates. It seems a bit arrogant of a designer to assume that human hearing stops at 20kHz.

RN :Well, human hearing probably stops a good deal lower than 20kHz, for most of us. I think I'm right in saying that an average healthy eight year old child iaable to hear up to 22kHz or more. But as we get older, we start progressively losing out on the high frequencies. People who use their hearing professionally lose less because it is being exercised. The analytical process, as it were, is kept in trim and the neuron flow in the brain is kept active. Just like any athelete, you know, if you keep up your athletic activities your going to stay in better trim than if you sit in an armchair for the rest of your life.

And what is more important to an audio person is that you understand what you are listening to and listening for. You may be listening to a particular type of sound, and you're listening for the artefacts that characterise that sound. So you are much better educated. The more you listen, the more you become aware of things and the easier it becomes to do.

If you are not a professional and you listen to people telling you, for example, that the digital sound quality is the best thing ever, then you assume that is the case until someone teaches you different. Then you start listening and making comparisons. And in the course of time, you can hear digital a mile off. Its got whatever it is that its got, that particular character of sound. The difference becomes evident to you. That is a matter of education and exercising the qualities that you've got.

GS : Your comments on the sound of current digital audio technology remind me of your comments about the 'searing zip of massive crossover distortion' associated with early Class B transistor amplifiers [4], and your astonishment at how equipment reviewers of the time heralded it as "the sound of the future to which we should all become accustomed"[5]. It seems the sme thing has happened with CD-quality digital audio. Am I making a valid connection ?

RN : Yes. It is very similar. And it is very dangerous. We now have a couple of generations of people who, for the most part of it, have heard nothing else. Unless you frequently go to live concerts and listen to real singers and instruments, you tend to think that digital is all you need.

The digital process, as you know, samples, and every sample of the waveform you are listening to produces a switching click. The amplitude of that click will depend on the rate of change of the signal beingsampled. A click is a Fourier train of frequencies which is totally random. It is not related to the music. It is a click just like when you click a light switch on and off, and you get a splash sometimes in your hi-fi equipment or your console 'er, you wouldn't get it in one of my consoles, but you might get in somebody else's ! (Laughs) I'd die rather than let it happen in one of mine !

GS : Certainly !

RN : Well now, that switching click is a random splash of frequencies. It goes on in terms of bandwidth until it dies because your system doesn't pass it any longer. It goes on way above audibility. It is not related to the fundamental of the music, it is not harmonic.

The same can be said of crossover distortion, where you get a Class B amplifier with a crossover that produces enough discontinuity between the two halves of the device to produce a click. That too is not harmonically related to the music. It's just a splash.

GS : Like the light switch ?

RN : Exactly. Now, the difference between digital and Class B crossover distortion is that the crossover distortion happens twice every cycle, so if you have a 1kHz sine wave, the crossover distortion will create 2000 clicks every second. But CD quality digital makes 44,100 clicks every second, regardless of the frequency. The amplitudes are a bit different, but frankly, you are aware of these clicks.

The mechanism by which we perceive what happens above 20kHz is not known. We have our own private theories about it, but we really don't know. But there is no doubt that a person is able to perceive frequencies well above audibility, and at very low levels - you don't need much of it. You can put a signal through equipment which has a pretty poor response above 20kHz, but you are still aware of the presence or absence of the extended frequencies. Or you are aware of the switching transients which splashed out into those regions above 20kHz.

The digital boys have been very clever by saying that you can't hear beyond 20kHz, so they move those switching transients - the 'quantising noise' - outside the region of 20kHz by filtering. The whole question of whether current standards of digital sound half way acceptable is to do with the filters. That is why things like the Apogee is much better than others, because of the filter shapes they have chosen.

GS : When you were talking about the filters and moving the quantising noise out of the audible band, were you talking about the actual low pass filters on the output or the noise shaping ?

RN :Both really. But the filters on the output actually don't do enough for you. You have to actually move the noise artifacts away from the audio band, but that's about as much as I know about digital.

GS : Okay, moving on to the next question

RN : Let me just put a very provocative thought to you. The Japanese showed some time ago that the brain produces electric radiations in the presence of different emotions and emotional stimuli [6]. If you listen to an analogue music signal that is good quality, with no crossover distortion and no digital sampling, it can be a very satisfying experience. And as you start listening to it, you do the thing which us older ones have done for a long time - you come home after a long, hard day, put on a long playing record on, and put your feet up. Even if the record is a bit scratchy, you can listen to it and enjoy it and relax. But you can't do that any longer

GS : Because of the distortions of CDs and cheap transistor circuitry ?

RN : The Japanese have shown, and in fact a lot of us are accepting quite happily, that these distortions - first of all the lack of music-related frequencies above 20kHz, and secondly the presence of the switching transient noises above 20kHz - actually form a different form of brain radiation. They produce the kind associated with brain discomfort, frustration, even anger. I am wondering whether we can't blame the CD for some of our social problems.

GS : That is a very provocative thought

RN : You can talk to others, it's not just me. Talk to George Massenburg, for instance, and he will tell you exactly the same thing. He used to be able to come home and listen to a record, and relax. Now, all he does is feel restless and frustrated and switch it off, because it's a CD. So you get some young person that is already feeling frustrated in society, an angry young man perhaps, and he is listening to CDs and digital sound sources 99 percent of the time, and you know, I just wonder whether there is a connection there.

GS : There are distortions on vinyl too, although they tend to exist on the top of the signal and you can listen 'through' them. But on a CD or other digital sound source, the distortions are embedded into the signal itself

RN : Absolutely. That's right.

GS : Okay, but with CD, the filters roll off everything above 20kHz quite severely, so how do these switching transients above 20kHz get through ?

RN : They come through in the form of noise. If you plot the noise spectrum, you will find that in the immediate octave above 20kHz, up to 40kHz, there is very little noise, practically nothing. But it starts to show itself in the octaves above that, up to 80kHz and higher. This is why I think frequencies up to 100kHz are really very important. Produce them clean and they are OK. Let the dirt creep in, and you are still frustrated.

GS : In the AMEK brochures, you talk about the importance of having no resonance's or ringing in that area

RN : Yes. That is part of it. Any sharp filter, like the ones used on digital devices, is going to produce this ringing. If you ever listen to a long distance phone line handled on long copper wires, like in the old days - it's not so much these days because long distance phone calls are not handled on copper wires - you would find that they were heavily equalised in the range of 2.5kHz to 3kHz, huge amounts of a sort of presence boost were put into the signal to try and get it up and make the signal crisp and intelligible. You could hear that ringing sound, it was very very evident. Hence the name 'ringing', it sounded like a bell. It was frequency coherent - you could tell the frequencies in it. If you now move the frequencies higher, you've got the same effect. But you reach a point where it is no longer obvious. This gets back to my original point that the educated ear will hear it, even if it is out of band. This is the thing Geoff Emerick did years ago.

GS : Geoff Emerick, the famous British Producer ?

RN : Yes, he started me off on this trail. A 48 input console had been delivered to George Martin's Air Studios, and Geoff Emerick was very unhappy about it. It was a new console, made not long after I had sold the Neve company in 1977. George Martin called me and said, "please come and make Geoff happy, while he's unhappy we can't do any work".

They'd had engineers from the company there, and so on. The danger is that if you are not sensitive to people like Geoff Emerick, and you don't respect them for what they have done, then you are not going to listen to them. Unfortunately, there was a breed of young engineers in the company ( I hasten to say this was after I sold it !) who couldn't understand what he was bitching about. So they went back to the company and just made a report saying the customer was mad and there wasn't really a problem. Leave it alone, forget it, the problem will go away. They were acting like used car salesmen. I was very angry with it. So I went and spent time there, at George Martin's request, and Geoff finally managed to show me what it was that he could hear, and then I began to hear it, too.

Now Geoff was The Golden Ears - and he still is - and he was perceiving something that I wasn't looking for. And it wasn't until I had spent some time with him, as it were, being lead by him through the sounds, that I began to pick up what he was listening to. And once I'd heard it, oh yes, then I knew what he was talking about. We measured it and found that in three out of the full 48 channels, the output transformers had not been correctly terminated and were producing a 3dB rise at 54kHz. And so people said, "oh no, he can't possible hear that". But when we corrected that problem, and it was only one capacitor that had to be added to each of those three channels, I mean, Geoff's face just lit up ! Here you have the happiness/ unhappiness mood thing the Japanese were talking about.

GS : So they had left the same capacitor off each of the three offending channels, leaving their output transformers unterminated ?

RN : Oh yes. All of the principal parts in my designs are transformer outputs. There is a huge advantage in the total isolation, which we'll talk about later. But a transformer has leakage inductance. In a good transformer it's a very small leakage inductance, but it is there. You have to make sure that it is damped out, so that when you are adding long lines or any other load to it, it isn't going to obtrude. So we put an RC network across the transformer output, which neutralizes the leakage inductance. The RC network, which is only a resistor and capacitor, was incomplete on three of these transformers for some reason. We fixed the network, and then there were no problems.

GS : So someone could hear the effect of a 3dB boost at 50kHz. I would imagine that gave you some food for thought.

RN : That was what Geoff was not happy about, it was upsetting him. So I went back, sort of scratching my head and thinking, "well, I'm not going to try at this stage and find out why that's happening, but I know it does happen. So let's make sure it will never happen again". If Geoff and others could hear things going on as high as 50kHz, how high could they actually hear ? I did a bit of development work, and found that I could do new circuitry, with a much wider bandwidth, relatively easily. So I redesigned all my transformers and output circuitry, and the general electronics.

GS : Sounds like an important lesson for technicians and equipment designers !

RN : The danger here is that the more qualified you are, the more you 'know' that something can't be true, so you don't believe it. Or you 'know' a design can't be done, so you don't try it. Ignorant idiots like me don't know it can't be done, so we have a go and it works. {Laughs}

1 The theoretical dynamic range of a digital circuit is calculated as being 6dB per bit, so a 24-bit circuit provides 144dB of dynamic range.

2 In electronics, the term 'rail' is often used to describe the power supply voltage, an abbreviation of the term 'supply voltage rail'. Most audio equipment has positive and negative supply rails.

3 Theoretically, the highest frequency a digital circuit can sample is equal to one half the sampling rate, so to sample a 75kHz signal requires a sampling rate of a least 15okHz . In practice, we tend to go higher than that sampling rate to allow room for processes such as anti-alias filtering.

4 Class B and Class AB amplifiers use two amplifying devices, one for the positive half cycle of the audio signal, and on for the negative half cycle. Crossover distortion occurs as the signal crosses through the zero point, where conceptually one amplifying device 'switches on'.

5 These comments appear in the promotional documentation for AMEK' 9098 mixing console.

6 Refer to 'High frequency sound above the audible ranges effects brain electric activity and sound perception by Tsutomi Oohashi, Emi Nishina, Norie Kawai, Yoshitaka Fuwamoto and Hiroshi Imai. AES preprint no. 3207 (91st Convention, New York City).


The Problem With Music: By Steve Albini

This article originally appeared in MaximumRocknRoll #133

Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.

Nobody can see what's printed on the contract. It's too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody's eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end. Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there's only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says "Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke. And he does of course.

A & R Scouts

Every major label involved in the hunt for new bands now has on staff a high-profile point man, an "A & R" rep who can present a comfortable face to any prospective band. The initials stand for "Artist and Repertoire." because historically, the A & R staff would select artists to record music that they had also selected, out of an available pool of each. This is still the case, though not openly.

These guys are universally young [about the same age as the bands being wooed], and nowadays they always have some obvious underground rock credibility flag they can wave. Lyle Preslar, former guitarist for Minor Threat, is one of them. Terry Tolkin, former NY independent booking agent and assistant manager at Touch and Go is one of them. Al Smith, former soundman at CBGB is one of them. Mike Gitter, former editor of XXX fanzine and contributor to Rip, Kerrang and other lowbrow rags is one of them. Many of the annoying turds who used to staff college radio stations are in their ranks as well.

There are several reasons A & R scouts are always young. The explanation usually copped-to is that the scout will be "hip to the current musical scene." A more important reason is that the bands will intuitively trust someone they think is a peer, and who speaks fondly of the same formative rock and roll experiences.

The A & R person is the first person to make contact with the band, and as such is the first person to promise them the moon. Who better to promise them the moon than an idealistic young turk who expects to be calling the shots in a few years, and who has had no previous experience with a big record company. Hell, he's as naive as the band he's duping. When he tells them no one will interfere in their creative process, he probably even believes it.

When he sits down with the band for the first time, over a plate of angel hair pasta, he can tell them with all sincerity that when they sign with company X, they're really signing with him and he's on their side. Remember that great gig I saw you at in '85? Didn't we have a blast.

By now all rock bands are wise enough to be suspicious of music industry scum. There is a pervasive caricature in popular culture of a portly, middle aged ex-hipster talking a mile-a-minute, using outdated jargon and calling everybody "baby." After meeting "their" A & R guy, the band will say to themselves and everyone else, "He's not like a record company guy at all! He's like one of us." And they will be right. That's one of the reasons he was hired.

These A & R guys are not allowed to write contracts. What they do is present the band with a letter of intent, or "deal memo," which loosely states some terms, and affirms that the band will sign with the label once a contract has been agreed on.

The spookiest thing about this harmless sounding little memo, is that it is, for all legal purposes, a binding document. That is, once the band signs it, they are under obligation to conclude a deal with the label. If the label presents them with a contract that the band don't want to sign, all the label has to do is wait. There are a hundred other bands willing to sign the exact same contract, so the label is in a position of strength.

These letters never have any terms of expiration, so the band remain bound by the deal memo until a contract is signed, no matter how long that takes. The band cannot sign to another label even put out its own material unless they are released from their agreement, which never happens. Make no mistake about it: once a band has signed a letter of intent, they will either eventually sign a contract that suits the label or they will be destroyed.

One of my favorite bands was held hostage for the better part of two years by a slick young "He's not like a label guy at all," A & R rep, on the basis of such a deal memo. He had failed to come through on any of his promises [something he did with similar effect to another well-known band], and so the band wanted out. Another label expressed interest, but when the A & R man was asked to release the band, he said he would need money or points, or possibly both, before he would consider it.

The new label was afraid the price would be too dear, and they said no thanks. On the cusp of making their signature album, an excellent band, humiliated, broke up from the stress and the many months of inactivity.

What I Hate About Recording

Producers and engineers who use meaningless words to make their clients think they know what's going on. Words like punchy," "warm," "groove," "vibe," "feel." Especially "punchy" and "warm." Every time I hear those words, I want to throttle somebody.

Producers who aren't also engineers, and as such, don't have the slightest fucking idea what they're doing in a studio, besides talking all the time. Historically, the progression of effort required to become a producer went like this: Go to college, get an EE degree. Get a job as an assistant at a studio. Eventually become a second engineer. Learn the job and become an engineer. Do that for a few years, then you can try your hand at producing. Now, all that's required to be a full-fledged "producer" is the gall it takes to claim to be one.

Calling people like Don Fleming, Al Jourgensen, Lee Ranaldo or Jerry Harrison "producers" in the traditional sense is akin to calling Bernie a "shortstop" because he watched the whole playoffs this year.

The term has taken on pejorative qualities in some circles. Engineers tell jokes about producers the way people back in Montana tell jokes about North Dakotans. (How many producers does it take to change a light bulb? "Hmmm. I don't know. What do you think?" Why did the producer cross the road? "Because that's the way the Beatles did it, man.") That's why few self-respecting engineers will allow themselves to be called "producers."

Trendy electronics and other flashy shit that nobody really needs. Five years ago everything everywhere was being done with discrete samples. No actual drumming allowed on most records. Samples only. The next trend was Pultec Equalizers. Everything had to be run through Pultec EQs. Then vintage microphones were all the rage (but only Neumanns, the most annoyingly whiny microphone line ever made). The current trendy thing is compression, compression by the ton, especially if it comes from a tube limiter. Wow. It doesn't matter how awful the recording is, as long as it goes through a tube limiter, somebody will claim it sounds "warm," or maybe even "punchy." They might even compare it to the Beatles. I want to find the guy that invented compression and tear his liver out. I hate it. It makes everything sound like a beer commercial.

DAT machines. They sound like shit and every crappy studio has one now because they're so cheap. Because the crappy engineers that inhabit crappy studios are too thick to learn how to align and maintain analog mastering decks, they're all using DAT machines exclusively. DAT tapes deteriorate over time, and when they do, the information on them is lost forever. I have personally seen tapes go irretrievably bad in less then a month. Using them for final masters is almost fraudulently irresponsible. Tape machines ought to be big and cumbersome and difficult to use, if only to keep the riff-raff out. DAT machines make it possible for morons to make a living, and damage to the music we all have to listen to.

Trying to sound like the Beatles. Every record I hear these days has incredibly loud, compressed vocals, and a quiet little murmur of a rock band in the background The excuse given by producers for inflicting such an imbalance on a rock band is that it makes the record sound more like the Beatles. Yeah, right. Fuck's sake, Thurston Moore is not Paul McCartney, and nobody on earth, not with unlimited time and resources, could make the Smashing Pumpkins sound like the Beatles. Trying just makes them seem even dumber. Why can't people try to sound like the Smashchords or Metal Urbain or Third World War for a change?

The minimum skills required to do an adequate job recording an album are:
» Working knowledge of all the microphones at hand and their properties and uses. I mean something beyond knowing that you can drop an SM57 without breaking it.
» Experience with every piece of equipment which might be of use and every function it may provide. This means more than knowing what echo sounds like. Which equalizer has the least phase shift in neighbor bands? Which console has more headroom? Which mastering deck has the cleanest output electronics?
» Experience with the style of music at hand, to know when obvious blunders are occurring.
» Ability to tune and maintain all the required instruments and electronics, so as to insure that everything is in proper working order. This means more than plugging a guitar into a tuner. How should the drums be tuned to simulate a rising note on the decay? A falling note? A consonant note? Can a bassoon play a concert E-flat in key with a piano tuned to a reference A of 440 Hz? What percentage of varispeed is necessary to make a whole-tone pitch change? What degree of overbias gives you the most headroom at 10Khz? What reference fluxivity gives you the lowest self-noise from biased, unrecorded tape? Which tape manufacturer closes every year in July, causing shortages of tape globally? What can be done for a shedding master tape? A sticky one?
» Knowledge of electronic circuits to an extent that will allow selection of appropriate signal paths. This means more than knowing the difference between a delay line and an equalizer. Which has more headroom, a discrete class A microphone preamp with transformer output or a differential circuit built with monolithics? Where is the best place in an unbalanced line to attenuate the signal? If you short the cold leg of a differential input to ground, what happens to the signal level? Which gain control device has the least distortion, a VCA, a printed plastic pot, a photoresistor or a wire-wound stepped attenuator? Will putting an unbalanced line on a half-normalled jack unbalance the normal signal path? Will a transformer splitter load the input to a device parallel to it? Which will have less RF noise, a shielded unbalanced line or a balanced line with floated shield?
» An aesthetic that is well-rooted and compatible with the music, and the good taste to know when to exercise it

There's This Band

There's this band. They're pretty ordinary, but they're also pretty good, so they've attracted some attention. They're signed to a moderate-sized "independent" label owned by a distribution company, and they have another two albums owed to the label.

They're a little ambitious. They'd like to get signed by a major label so they can have some security you know, get some good equipment, tour in a proper tour bus -- nothing fancy, just a little reward for all the hard work.

To that end, they got a manager. He knows some of the label guys, and he can shop their next project to all the right people. He takes his cut, sure, but it's only 15%, and if he can get them signed then it's money well spent. Anyways, it doesn't cost them anything if it doesn't work. 15% of nothing isn't much!

One day an A & R scout calls them, says he's 'been following them for a while now, and when their manager mentioned them to him, it just "clicked." Would they like to meet with him about the possibility of working out a deal with his label? Wow. Big Break time.

They meet the guy, and y'know what -- he's not what they expected from a label guy. He's young and dresses pretty much like the band does. He knows all their favorite bands. He's like one of them. He tells them he wants to go to bat for them, to try to get them everything they want. He says anything is possible with the right attitude. They conclude the evening by taking home a copy of a deal memo they wrote out and signed on the spot.

The A & R guy was full of great ideas, even talked about using a name producer. Butch Vig is out of the question-he wants 100 g's and three points, but they can get Don Fleming for $30,000 plus three points. Even that's a little steep, so maybe they'll go with that guy who used to be in David Letterman's band. He only wants three points. Or they can have just anybody record it (like Warton Tiers, maybe-- cost you 5 or 7 grand] and have Andy Wallace remix it for 4 grand a track plus 2 points. It was a lot to think about.

Well, they like this guy and they trust him. Besides, they already signed the deal memo. He must have been serious about wanting them to sign. They break the news to their current label, and the label manager says he wants them to succeed, so they have his blessing. He will need to be compensated, of course, for the remaining albums left on their contract, but he'll work it out with the label himself. Sub Pop made millions from selling off Nirvana, and Twin Tone hasn't done bad either: 50 grand for the Babes and 60 grand for the Poster Children-- without having to sell a single additional record. It'll be something modest. The new label doesn't mind, so long as it's recoupable out of royalties.

Well, they get the final contract, and it's not quite what they expected. They figure it's better to be safe than sorry and they turn it over to a lawyer--one who says he's experienced in entertainment law and he hammers out a few bugs. They're still not sure about it, but the lawyer says he's seen a lot of contracts, and theirs is pretty good. They'll be great royalty: 13% [less a 10% packaging deduction]. Wasn't it Buffalo Tom that were only getting 12% less 10? Whatever.

The old label only wants 50 grand, and no points. Hell, Sub Pop got 3 points when they let Nirvana go. They're signed for four years, with options on each year, for a total of over a million dollars! That's a lot of money in any man's English. The first year's advance alone is $250,000. Just think about it, a quarter million, just for being in a rock band!

Their manager thinks it's a great deal, especially the large advance. Besides, he knows a publishing company that will take the band on if they get signed, and even give them an advance of 20 grand, so they'll be making that money too. The manager says publishing is pretty mysterious, and nobody really knows where all the money comes from, but the lawyer can look that contract over too. Hell, it's free money.

Their booking agent is excited about the band signing to a major. He says they can maybe average $1,000 or $2,000 a night from now on. That's enough to justify a five week tour, and with tour support, they can use a proper crew, buy some good equipment and even get a tour bus! Buses are pretty expensive, but if you figure in the price of a hotel room for everybody In the band and crew, they're actually about the same cost. Some bands like Therapy? and Sloan and Stereolab use buses on their tours even when they're getting paid only a couple hundred bucks a night, and this tour should earn at least a grand or two every night. It'll be worth it. The band will be more comfortable and will play better.

The agent says a band on a major label can get a merchandising company to pay them an advance on T-shirt sales! ridiculous! There's a gold mine here! The lawyer Should look over the merchandising contract, just to be safe.

They get drunk at the signing party. Polaroids are taken and everybody looks thrilled. The label picked them up in a limo.

They decided to go with the producer who used to be in Letterman's band. He had these technicians come in and tune the drums for them and tweak their amps and guitars. He had a guy bring in a slew of expensive old "vintage" microphones. Boy, were they "warm." He even had a guy come in and check the phase of all the equipment in the control room! Boy, was he professional. He used a bunch of equipment on them and by the end of it, they all agreed that it sounded very "punchy," yet "warm."

All that hard work paid off. With the help of a video, the album went like hotcakes! They sold a quarter million copies!

Here is the math that will explain just how fucked they are:

These figures are representative of amounts that appear in record contracts daily. There's no need to skew the figures to make the scenario look bad, since real-life examples more than abound. Income is underlined, expenses are not.

Advance: $ 250,000
Manager's cut: $ 37,500
Legal fees: $ 10,000
   
Recording Budget: $ 155,500
 Producer's advance: $ 50,000
 Studio fee: $ 52,500
 Drum, Amp, Mic and Phase "Doctors": $ 3,000
 Recording tape: $ 8,000
 Equipment rental: $ 5,000
 Cartage and Transportation: $ 5,000
 Lodging while in studio: $ 10,000
 Catering: $ 3,000
 Mastering: $ 10,000
 Tape copies, reference CDs, shipping tapes, misc. expenses: $ 2,000
 Album Artwork: $ 5,000
 Promotional photo shoot and duplication: $ 2,000
   
Video budget: $ 31,000
 Cameras: $ 8,000
 Crew: $ 5,000
 Processing and transfers: $ 3,000
 Off-line: $ 2,000
 On-line editing: $ 3,000
 Catering: $ 1,000
 Stage and construction: $ 3,000
 Copies, couriers, transportation: $ 2,000
 Director's fee: $ 4,000
   
Band fund: $ 15,000
 New fancy professional drum kit: $ 5,000
 New fancy professional guitars [2]: $ 3,000
 New fancy professional guitar amp rigs [2]: $ 4,000
 New fancy potato-shaped bass guitar: $ 1,000
 New fancy bass amp: $ 1,000
 Rehearsal space rental: $ 500
 Big blowout party for their friends: $ 500
   
Tour expense [5 weeks]: $ 50,875
 Bus: $ 25,000
 Crew [3]: $ 7,500
 Food and per diems: $ 7,875
 Fuel: $ 3,000
 Consumable supplies: $ 3,500
 Wardrobe: $ 1,000
 Promotion: $ 3,000
   
Tour gross income: $ 50,000
Booking Agent's cut: $ 7,500
Manager's cut: $ 7,500
   
Merchandising advance: $ 20,000
Manager's cut: $ 3,000
Lawyer's fee: $ 1,000
   
Publishing advance: $ 20,000
Manager's cut: $ 3,000
Lawyer's fee: $ 1,000
   
Record sales: 250,000 @ $12: $ 3,000,000
Gross retail revenue Royalty [13% of 90% of retail]: 250,000 @ $12: $ 351,000
Less advance: $ 250,000
Producer's points [3% less $50,000 advance]: $ 40,000
Promotional budget: $ 25,000
Recoupable buyout from previous label: $ 50,000
Net royalty: $ -14,000


Now, on the other hand, let's look at the Record company income:

Record wholesale price $6.50 x 250,000 $ 1,625,000 gross income
Artist Royalties: $ 351,000
Deficit from royalties: $ 14,000
Costs of manufacturing, packaging and distribution @ $2.20 per record: $ 550,000
Label's gross profit: $ 7l0,000


The Balance Sheet: This is how much each player got paid at the end of the game:

Record company: $ 710,000
Producer: $ 90,000
Manager: $ 51,000
Studio: $ 52,500
Previous label: $ 50,000
Booking Agent: $ 7,500
Lawyer: $ 12,000
Band member net income each: $ 781.25


The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/20 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.

The next album will be about the same, except that the record company will insist they spend more time and money on it. Since the previous one never "recouped," the band will have no leverage, and will oblige.

The next tour will be about the same, except the merchandising advance will have already been paid, and the band, strangely enough, won't have earned any royalties from their T-shirts yet. Maybe the T-shirt guys have figured out how to count money like record company guys.

Some of your friends are probably already this fucked...

About the Author:
Steve Albini is a well-known engineer as well as an equally well-known critic of major labels and the "music industry". Steve has worked with artists ranging from the smallest garage band to the Pixies, Plant-Page and Nirvana. In addition to his recording work, Steve was also the founder of the seminal '80s noise-rock band Big Black, and now plays guitar in the underground rock band Shellac.