Welcome to L.A.: This month's column features two out-of-towners — visitors from Boulder, Colo., who began their project in their home state and then brought their tracks here to Hollywood. Veteran producer Dik Darnell and technologist/engineer Gus Skinas head up Boulder's Super Audio Center. I caught up with them in Ocean Way's Studio D as they neared completion of an album project that had started with tracking at Immersive Studios in Boulder and continued with orchestral overdubs at George Lucas' Skywalker Sound complex in Northern California. The artist is contemporary jazz writer/singer/pianist Lindsey Brier, and the label is Darnell's Etherean Records. At press time, the producer was lining up meetings with major labels about licensing the album.
“It's nice when I come to L.A. because I get the best of the city,” says Darnell, who lived here in the late '70s while working for Casablanca Records, but now resides on a spread midway between Aspen and Telluride. “I'm here just long enough not to get burned out by it. Then I head back to paradise.”
What's most interesting about this project is that it was made entirely on the Sonoma multitrack workstation, which has all the editing and mixing capabilities of a normal digital workstation, but its recording technology is far beyond the 24-bit/192kHz standard, resulting in what Skinas describes as “a completely different character. It's a 1-bit sigma delta system running at 2.8 million bits a second and focusing on the accuracy of sonic information in the time domain rather than the dynamic aspect of multi-disc PCM systems. I think that's much more true to the way we hear as humans.”
The Sonoma is derived from the Super Audio recorders developed by Skinas and his team for Sony; the first-generation rigs were used primarily for surround sound and high-end, live-to-2-track recording projects. Sony ended the relationship early in 2005, allowing Skinas' company to retain the Sonoma technology. “We then did what I'd always wanted to do and turned it into a multitrack,” Skinas explains. “Sony paid for all the hard work, and we did a little finish-up work.”
The first project to employ Skinas' new Sonoma 24 was John Hiatt's Master of Disaster (profiled by Rick Clark in September 2005), but Darnell's undertaking is the first 64-channel session for the ever-expanding Sonoma. “This is a big project for us,” Skinas confirms.
“Gus built the first 32-track Sonoma recently,” Darnell explains, “and he knew I was getting ready to do this project, so he said, ‘Why don't you do it on the Sonoma?’ I told him I loved the idea but that I'd need more than 32 tracks because I was going to record a full orchestra, so he put two of them together. I simultaneously cut the basic tracks to Sonoma and to 2-inch tape on a Studer 24-track A827. Then we A/B'd the two of them, several engineers and myself, and they both sounded wonderful so we decided to do the whole album on Sonoma. It's so nice to have a digital system that has the sonic quality of analog, and you could hear the difference.”
Darnell chose Ocean Way D for the mixdown partly because he has fond memories of working at United Western (as it was then known) back in the '60s and because the room is equipped with a Neve 88R console; Sonoma requires an analog board. “If we went through a digital console,” Darnell explains, “we'd have to convert it back to that stream and we would immediately lose the quality we'd captured. We're mixing to Sonoma itself for the surround sound and stereo mixes, and we're also mixing to half-inch tape for the stereo mix because a lot of mastering engineers are used to dealing with a half-inch master as their source. But again, the difference is so minute that you can't tell. And the music works perfectly with the system; we need that clarity and warmth.”
Darnell shelled out a pretty penny on the project, violating the age-old music biz rule: Never spend your own money. But he says, “When you hear it, you know it's worth it.”
“If this technology takes off, this will be seen as a very historic recording,” Skinas theorizes. “I worked with Sony back in the days when they launched the multitrack and this could be just as big a breakthrough.”
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