Surround In The Living Room


Getting great sound in your living room usually isn't too tough: Get a good stereo, plug in some speakers of choice and let the jams begin. But when your living room is The Living Room (, one of New York City's top acoustic music venues, and getting great sound means recording in Direct Stream Digital (DSD) and 5.1, things get a little more complicated.

Image placeholder title

The Living Room engineer Joe Warda (left) and co-owner Steve Rosenthal at the front-of-house position

Photo: David Weiss

The recently opened, 125-person — capacity room on Ludlow Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side is the club's second home, an expansion that gives its sharp-eared founder space to make the most of the niche that he's carved out. “This is a place where people come and listen,” says Steve Rosenthal, who co-owns the club with Jennifer Gilson. “The Living Room really represents where singer/songwriters and jazz artists can play to a quiet audience. There are café-style tables, and it's not a stand-up rock club: You don't have to wear earplugs.”

With The Living Room already known as a live proving-ground for Norah Jones and other artists, Rosenthal knew that he could build on his considerable engineering experience as the owner of New York City-based recording studio The Magic Shop and make the club a premier live recording venue for acoustic music. For Rosenthal, the first step toward accomplishing that was committing to the heightened experience of Sony and Philips' proprietary 1-bit DSD format, which is channeled to consumers as Super Audio CD (SACD). “I feel like SACD is the first digital format that can compete with analog technology,” Rosenthal says. “I believe if we're going to get people interested in music again, we have to get them into listening to music again.”

Benefiting from close contact with Sony SACD director David Kawakami, Rosenthal and engineer Joe Warda had to design a club that could accommodate crowds, pristine DSD techniques and 5.1 recording — simultaneously. “I wanted to create a larger-sized listening space where we could retain the charm and ambience of the smaller Living Room. That's difficult when you start with a space that's four times the size,” observes Rosenthal. “We went for what we called a ‘quieter’ room: We had to do a lot of sound absorption, taking the basic studio design concept of standing sound baffles and wall baffles and making them work in a live sound application.”

Knowing that they would also be taking the unusual step of installing ATC SCM150 studio monitors for the main room's P.A. system, Rosenthal and Warda tuned and tested the room extensively. “Reverb time is now down to 0.7 seconds,” Warda says. “That was key, since the ATC engineer stressed that the ATCs operate much better if the reverb time is below a second. When we started, the room was very live, but we didn't want to go too dead because 125 people absorb sound.”

The next step was setting up a Decca Tree with three Shure KSM32 single-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphones facing the stage and two more facing back to cover the room and the audience. From there, the signals from the Decca Tree and spot mics, if needed, are split, with the house portion going through a Midas Venice console and high-end processing. The other runs travel downstairs to the basement, where they connect to a 1978 4-bus Neve broadcast console with 16 direct outs, which, in turn, go through Meitner A/D converters and finally to a 48-channel Genex DSD recorder. Once it's recorded to digital, Rosenthal takes the Genex hard drives back to The Magic Shop and mixes on his 80 Series Neve console and Sony Sonoma workstation.

Capturing the recordings properly is part of a delicate juggling act. “One of the things that makes The Living Room unique is that the bass and drums are not amplified through the P.A.,” Warda points out. “The concept here is to amplify the vocals, acoustic guitar and the occasional Wurlitzer or pump organ. Because you're not sending these instruments though the P.A., the surround mics can capture their placement onstage in a very accurate way.

“The hard part with this system is really working out the balance between the musicians and the speakers. To do that, you have to think more as a musician, so you have to tell a musician, ‘Turn your amp down,’ or, ‘Don't hit the drums as hard.’”

The true mark of success for The Living Room's ambitious live DSD 5.1 recording process may be that Rosenthal and his team make it look so easy. “If you do a lot of preparation, then it can be simple,” Rosenthal says. “The technology — the Decca Tree — exists to do it, getting the room to be acoustically tuned, and DSD is a digital format that can acoustically capture and reproduce it for you. Put that along with people that can play and sing and I think that warrants making these recordings.”