Recording

Bring Back the Good Ol' Days

IS CRAFTSMANSHIP A MAGIC ILLUSION OR A LOST ART? 12/01/2007 7:00 AM Eastern

Craftsmanship typically comes to mind when describing the work involved with creating a physical object — such as how a luthier fashions a fine musical instrument. By extension, craftsmanship also applies to the work we do — the arts and the sciences. Modern technology may not survive the centuries like a Stradivarius, but it is remarkable in the short term.

When I think about how our industry simultaneously embraces vacuum tubes and microprocessors, I can't help but admire the ancients and their first crude tools. Step by step, humans have evolved and progressed, using each simple tool to make a better one. We like to imagine people like Georg Neumann or Bill Putnam sitting at their humble lab benches using mostly their ears and crude tools (by modern standards) to breathe life into their most enduring works of art.

Despite the capabilities of our most sophisticated tools, we currently lack the ability to fully analyze a “simple” signal transformer — a key component to classic gear. The same is true for the analytical tests used to evaluate audio gear. Two products can measure in much the same way as each other, yet one sounds better than the other. But I'm getting ahead of my list of things to explore in 2008.

THE “F” WORD

Just like a great song begins with a flash of inspiration, that — plus countless hours of hard work — went into every remarkable piece of equipment we use. Chris Jenrick, aka “CJ” of www.prodigy-pro.com, interviewed Rein Narma a few years ago. Narma's name may not be familiar to you, although he was inducted into the Mix Foundation's TECnology Hall of Fame during this year's AES show. He designed what was to become one of the most popular compressor/limiters — in his basement — before bringing the prototype to Fairchild.

At the time, Narma (who is now 86) felt there were no signal processors that did justice to music. “Most were like using a hammer and chisel when they should have been using a scalpel,” said the inventor of the Fairchild 660. He designed the front panel, wrote the instruction manual and assembled the first 10 units. It's kinda funny when you think about how signal processing is currently used/abused — so much of pop music is being smashed within an inch of its life. (It's not a new problem.)

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then the R&D of Neumann, Putnam, Narma and countless others is still paying off, although not necessarily for the creators. That production of their classics was dropped in favor of “progress” eventually made “us,” as an industry, appreciate what was missing. Certainly, the response to fill that void has been overwhelming, with a surprising increase of vintage/boutique/niche equipment specialists and manufacturers existing in the void created by the Harvard Business School mindset.

FLIP OF THE COIN

By contrast, I know a handful of tenacious geeks — modern masters — who embody the philosophy of that old phrase: “The quality goes in before the name goes on.” I had the recent pleasure of interviewing a few of them; their work, knowledge and opinions ring true for me and their customers. I've distilled the essence of those conversations into this column. The full interviews will be included with the online version of this column at www.mixonline.com.

I recently visited David Hill's Crane Song facilities in Superior, Wis. His lab, machine shop, offices and Inland Sea Recording Studio are located in the century-old main building. Gear production is in a nearby building. Hill lives within walking distance of his shop — keep in mind that winters can be cold in the land of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He does sessions four days a week to evaluate his works-in-progress, occasionally stopping the session to make tweaks.

Hill is a man of many disciplines, and while he's not alone in this category his integrated facility is remarkable in many ways. He designed his studio and control room, including a 5.1 monitor system, its crossovers and the monitor controller. With the exception of a few Neve channels and his modified Spectrasonics console, all of the preamps and signal processing in the control room are Crane Song products. Hill built a computer-controlled interface for his milling machine. (It makes front panels and other needed hardware.) Crane Song products are made almost entirely in-house, one of the rare boutique manufacturers with its own pick-and-place, surface-mount fabrication machine.

THE BIG MUDDY

Closer to home is Dan Kennedy's Great River Electronics lab and production facility here in Minnesota. I love being able to say Kennedy is my “neighbor” — his home and his shop are 15 minutes from mine.

Like Crane Song, Great River products are crafted entirely in-house with the exception of the chassis and front panel. The company's most recent hit is its NV Series (vintage Neve) preamp in a double-wide API 500 Series module. Kennedy has built quite a few microphones, tests his gear at a nearby studio in which he is a partner and has an impressive vinyl collection. With his business partner and programmer, Dennis Pfab, the company also does industrial control and communications products.

MICRO-ACOUSTIC ENGINEERS

About 10 years ago, I was handed a pristine (unopened, unused) Telefunken U47 with a bad capsule. I spoke at length with the late Stephen Paul, who was the authority on microphones and capsule tweaks. Paul was an extremely chatty guy, very helpful — he wrote a brilliant article (reprinted at www.mixguides.com) about how the U47 grille contributed to its signature frequency response. I wanted him to re-skin the capsule, but when he would only do the entire job I got up the courage to ask kindergarten-level questions to people like David Josephson (at Josephson Engineering) and Russ Hamm (then of G-Prime and formerly of Gotham Audio). Hamm wrote the famous “Tubes vs. Transistors” treatise back in the early '70s.

Josephson's response to a question I asked about microphone design is applicable to, and in concert with, what all of these hardworking engineers have in common. He said, “Don't focus too hard on what you can see on the outside of a microphone. The details you can see may — or may not — be more important than the details you can't” — a philosophy worth being tattooed on a body part. Josephson Engineering manufactures microphones and capsules from the brass up.

Speaking of what you can't see, Klaus Heyne's intimate knowledge of the history and production variations that contribute to a microphone's sound is impressive and absorbing. Perhaps most well-known for his Mic Lab at www.prosoundweb.com, this first-rate resource — about what makes classic mics tick — is reason enough why he is booked months in advance. Doing business as German Masterworks, Heyne (pronounced “Hyna”) goes beyond “simple” mic restoration and into the realm of customization, optimizing a microphone to complement its owner.

MESSAGE BOARDS

So many people are clamoring for “precise” information about what constitutes the best version of a product, or what parts might be required to make an exact clone (and other plans of world domination). Richard Hess, who primarily does tape restoration (and all related things) moderates a Sony/MCI mail list that I subscribe to. I often find myself on message boards moderated by Heyne and Oliver Archut. What I like about all of these guys is the positive, patient and authoritative (but not arrogant) way they answer questions.

COMMON GROUND

All of these gentle geeks have several things in common, the most obvious of which is being very generous with their time and knowledge. Hess and Josephson are on AES standards committees for their respective interests. Hill commented to me that he'd like to see a word clock termination standard. Heyne lives in Oregon and enjoys the outdoors, playing music and repairing his son's toys. Kennedy lives on a houseboat year-round on the Mississippi. He has been known to take his house (and friends) on tours of “the great river.”

Even though this article focused on vintage-inspired technology — which is often simpler — the products are designed, repaired and restored with a Renaissance artisan's approach. As end-users, we can make a similar claim. When the studio or live sound customer walks away happy and we can make it look effortless, it's because somewhere in the timeline of experience, the dues were paid and the skill set investment was made. The result gives the illusion of magic — in a word, craftsmanship — and it's both art and science.


Eddie spent recent months introducing his two boys, Luca and Justin, to Harry Potter.