Stan Ricker has a unique combination of knowledge of music, recording, and mastering, and is one of the few true renaissance men in audio today. Stan is a veteran LP mastering engineer who is renowned for his development of the half-speed mastering process and his leading role in the development of the 200g UHQR (Ultra High Quality Recording). Stan cut many highly regarded LPs for Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Crystal Clear, Telarc, Delos, Reference Recordings, Windham Hill, Stereophile, and roughly a dozen other labels, including recent work for Analogue Productions and AcousTech Mastering. Stan is particularly well-known to audiophiles such as myself who were actively purchasing high-quality LPs during the mid-70's to mid-80's. Stan's love of music has stood him in good stead during his mastering career. His long experience as both a band and orchestra conductor has trained him to hear ensemble and timbral balance, which has proven to be exceptionally useful in achieving mastered products of the highest caliber. Stan has played string bass (both bowed and plucked) and tuba from the fifth grade through the present, and he turns out to be something of a bass nut. Watching him play his stand-up acoustic bass in front of his Neumann lathe with "Stomping at the Savoy" playing over his mastering monitors was a special treat for this writer (writing for this estimable rag does pay, just not in cash). Stan also has a love of pipe organs, and is quite knowledgeable regarding the acoustical theory of pipes. He has a lot of great stories, and is known for speaking his mind. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education from Kansas University, but his prodigious mastering skills were self-taught.
As the capstone to his career, Stan has gone into business for himself with the creation of Stan Ricker Mastering in Ridgecrest, California. He has a state-of-the-art Neumann VMS 66 lathe with a Neumann SX-74 cutter head, a Sontec Compudisk computer controller, a Technics 5-speed direct drive motor, and console and cutter head electronics designed and built by non other than Keith O. Johnson. Stan now specializes in less-than-real-time mastering from digital sources (DAT, CD and CDR) onto 7" or 12" 33 rpm or 45 rpm LPs. The lacquers that Stan cut for me speak for themselves (he's once again on the cutting edge...). He can also handle analog tape, up to 14" diameter reels of half-inch tape at 30 ips. By day, Stan is the head buyer for the Telemetry Dept. at the Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake.
Stan has been called "iconoclastic" (The Absolute Sound Vol. 4 No. 14, 1978), "pleasantly cantankerous" (Stereophile Vol. 20 No. 6, 1997), a "crusty curmudgeon" (by Bert Whyte) and "the most understated renaissance man of audio" (Positive Feedback Vol. 7 No. 1, 1997) by yours truly. Stan is all this and more, as I'm sure his wife Monica will attest. I have wanted to do this interview for several years now. Our first session was held in Ridgecrest on 21-22 Dec 1997. We continued on 7 Jan 1998 on the way to WCES in Las Vegas, which proved to be a refreshing respite from the hypnotic blur of countless Joshua trees whipping by at X+10 mph. We concluded on 31 Jan 1998 back at Stan's place. Each time, all I needed to do was wind Stan up, let him go, and have a rollicking good time with the man who was once quoted as saying that "conformity is the high road to mediocrity."
Dave: Stan, I'm very glad to finally have the opportunity to do this interview. A full interview with you is something that's long overdue in the audiophile press. Thanks very much for taking the time out to give us your unique perspective on music, LP mastering, acoustic bass playing, the half-speed mastering process, conducting, the UHQR, pipe organs, Neumann lathes, classic cars, tubas, your gift of perfect pitch, and most importantly, what happens when a glob of nitro-cellulose shavings happens to come into contact with a match. But first, let's begin at the beginning. Where were you born, where did you grow up, and how did it all start?
Stan: I was born the fourteenth of December, 1935, in Marblehead, Massachusetts. I lived in Marblehead, and Lynn, and Swampscott, Massachusetts. My mother had two brothers, one of whom lived in Marblehead, and the other one lived in Exeter, New Hampshire. We spent many summers in Exeter, a place I really grew to love. My cousin, Harry Thayer, and his brother, Charlie Thayer, still live there.
Dave: You've spoken very fondly of Exeter. I was there just a couple of months ago and really liked it as well.
Stan: My uncle used to own the Exeter newspaper, The Exeter Newsletter. He purchased it in the forties when I was a little kid. And then he sold it to his sons and the oldest son Harry recently [ca. 1988] sold it to the Dow Jones Corporation [Wall Street Journal]. I learned a lot from my uncle about bosses who really appreciate the employees and reward them accordingly.
Dave: You were exposed to music and audio very early in life. What came first, was it music or was it hardware for you, or both?
Stan: I would say they both arrived simultaneously. My mother tells me that the first time I did anything with music was, I was three years old. And I sang some song at my uncle's house in Marblehead, Massachusetts. [He was also a very good clarinet player.] I sang something at three years old into a microphone, and it was recorded on one of those Wilcox Gay Recordio machines, which was quite the thing in 1938, 1939. It was big, like a Stromberg Carlson-type cabinet and you had this record machine that was a turntable with a cutting arm and a playback arm on it. So you could record something and then play it back. And the disks were ten inch acetates, you know, I do remember that. I don't remember what it sounded like, though. Later, when I was seven, my parents gave me a phonograph for either my birthday or Christmas. I think it was my birthday, and they gave me a bunch of records, which, of course, then were 78's. And I remember one of the first records I had was an Arthur Godfrey song, "The Too Fat Polka," and I discovered when I was seven that I could put my fingernail in the groove and I could feel the vibrations and I could put my ear next to my finger and I could hear the music that way. So it was always a parallel experience between live music and recorded music. And one was just automatically an extension of the other. And even 'til this day I don't see how one could get along very well without the other. They're part of the entire experience of music performance, music performance without doing it for a live audience. Recording sessions are very difficult. Live audiences are where everybody gets excited, you know, that's the fun stuff. And every time you do it, whether you play in the orchestra, or whether you're conducting the orchestra, or anything else, you always have a bit of butterflies there. And I still get excited when here comes a new job on a tape. Day before yesterday I say: “What is this? What's it gonna be like? What can we do with it? How's it gonna sound? How can I help it sound as good as possible?” So there's always an excitement, a sweaty palms time, that goes with it. And I hope I always keep that excitement 'cause you can learn something new every day.
I started playing the string bass and the tuba both when I was ten years old, in fifth grade, after we moved to Banockburn, Illinois. Banockburn Grade School, which is just north and west of Deerfield, Illinois, which is a western suburb of Highland Park, which is a suburb of Chicago on the North Side.
I also lived in Hawaii. My Dad was a Naval officer, and after World War II the dependents were allowed to join their family members at the military outposts, wherever they were stationed. My dad was a University of Colorado graduate in Civil Engineering, bridge building and tunnel building, and so he was Executive Officer at a Navy base called Lua Lua Lei, which is a Naval ammunition depot. So we lived there while I was ten and eleven, having moved from Highland Park. And the Navy didn't have a school, a dependents’ school, so a designated driver used to come and take my sister who is two years older than I am, and myself over the Kole Kole Pass to Scofield Barracks Army School. And that's where I first heard a real, honest to God, kick ass military band. With five big sergeants playin' five big York four-valve Sousaphones. And man, I'm runnin' around behind that band, "What are these? Boy, do these sound good! I wanna play one of those!" Ya know, I was so impressed by these! And there I was, experiencing something grand. These were outdoor concerts. The band came and played during the lunch hour. Set up in the baseball diamond. And they'd play these noon concerts, every Wednesday they came over. And you could stand behind the tuba section and it would just vibrate your whole body. And I didn't know it at the time, but I was experiencing exactly what multiple woofers do in sound systems. They mutually couple. And you take a whole bank of tubas standing side to side with one another, or a whole raft of string basses in an orchestra, they do the same thing. And that's one of those grand cases where the sum is more than the individual parts. It was just, what do I say, ballsy. It was great. I was totally impressed by this.
Dave: So Stan Ricker became a bass nut at a very impressionable age.
Stan: Yeah, right. (Laughs) Yeah, fifth grade, ten years old or so, is a very impressionable age, so when Dad got transferred back to the United States we came back to Highland Park, Illinois, which is where we had been living before we went to Hawaii. I continued at Bannockburn grade school and we got a new music teacher that year and she came in and said, "Hey, if you were to play in a band or orchestra, what instrument would you want to play?" And I said, right off the bat, "Hey, Mrs. Shimer, I wanna play tuba." "Okay", she said. So what happened is, she and her husband took a big old van and they went down to Lyon & Healy in Chicago and they rented all these used instruments, and they started the school orchestra. It was lots and lots of fun. But I mostly learned how to play the tuba and the string bass by ear, until I got into high school. We didn't have much music in the grade school. Mostly Mrs. Shimer would write out the parts. She was really good at that kind of thing. Which, looking back on it, is kinda rare for a grade school music teacher to sit down and play a recording and write the parts out, all by ear. I remember our first year we played, shall we say, an adaptation of Brahms’ First Symphony. (Laughs) Only one movement, fortunately!
Dave: With tuba.
Stan: Yeah, tuba, string bass, and some clarinets and a bunch of violins and piano and drums. It was the kind of orchestration, actually, you would have called in those days, a cafe salon orchestra, you know. A mixture of just about everything.
Dave: And you both bowed and plucked the string bass.
Stan: Oh yeah. I plucked that thing. And I marginally taught myself how to play the string bass and, except for a few isolated instances, I didn't actually see much printed music for the bass until I got into high school. Before that I was doing it almost all by ear. So I “Suzukied” myself (laughs), to quote a latter day terminology. The Suzuki method is: students learning how to speak through their instruments. Just as we as children learn to speak our native language, English, or whatever, by listening to our parents and imitating them, so you learn to speak music by having an instrument in your hand [or in your throat, voice] and becoming familiar with what it sounds like. And if you do this you get this characteristic kind of sound out of it. And it's not until several lessons, several times, semesters, maybe years, before you actually see music notation on a page. Just like kids learn how to talk long before they learn how to read and write. But this thing about just shovin' paper in front of people with notes... I remember, so clearly, my first reaction when I saw a paper with what we call “notes” on it.
My Dad was an avid golfer. He was a sportsman, and so when the music teacher put this sheet of printed stuff on a stand and said, "See that note, that's C." And I looked at all these notes goin' across the page and I asked her, "Why are all these golf clubs on this page?" And, "Why are some of 'em solid and some of 'em hollow?" Because you see, musical notation had nothing to do to the untrained person with conveying pitch, tempo, frequency, intensity, nothing, you know. Just like, you do this (motions with hand), we call that a letter A. We have to learn what the symbol is for the sound, the concept, and so forth. So, yeah, I “Suzukied” myself. I learned to play bass with a lot of records like that tune that we played earlier, "Black Beauty," with Duke Ellington. I learned to play the bass to the original of that, you know. And a lot of it's bowed bass. They played jazz, bowed bass and tuba, in the early days. And most of the bass players were not considered complete bass players unless they played at least two instruments. You had to play the tuba. You had to play the string bass. Some even played Bass Sax. You had to play them all well and you had to play 'em in a number of different styles. Nowadays bass players don't have to do that. Electric bass players, a lot of 'em, don't play string bass and even fewer and less of them play tuba. But I always felt it was my duty that, hey, if it was a bass generator I was gonna tackle it. (Laughs) If there had been subwoofers in those days, I woulda learned how to make 'em go.
Dave: So, your fingering was all self taught?
Stan: Largely so, yeah, by just looking up in books, consulting what's the fingering for C on a tuba: one and three, okay. Write it down and after a while you'd learn these things, see. Same with the string bass. And then I managed to do well enough in my music that when I graduated from high school, that was a whole ‘nother trip (laughs).
Dave: Is your acoustic bass completely hand made?
Stan: It was a four stringer and I converted it to five strings with a low B string at twenty-nine cycles. And this superstructure down here moves the tie-point of the strings that distance(2.5 inches) off the lower end of the body so the angle over the bridge isn't so acute. So you don't have as much compressional pressure goin' on the face of the instrument. Which is equivalent in a loudspeaker to having a DC bias constantly going through the voice coil, you see. It's pushing it away from its really happy, neutral place.
This bass was a four stringer that was broken. I rebuilt it as a five stringer and built this wedge, bought a new fingerboard, put this wedge on here.[between the fingerboard and the neck] That was for the purpose of raising the fingerboard so I could have a taller bridge so you get more mechanical advantage. The bridge gets more mechanical advantage on the face of the instrument. I couldn't buy a five string tuning machine so I had a local fellow, he and I together designed it and he built it. His name is Jerry Kirsten, and he does machining, manufacturing and instrument making. He did all this brass work. My idea was to put these brass weights here to add mass to the top end because the vibrations of the strings, especially the lower frequencies, tend to cause the neck of the instrument to whip about. By increasing the mass it reduces that element in the instrument, which therefore makes the sustain of the instrument a lot longer than it would be otherwise. Oftentimes the notes just peter out. They just go dead, real fast.
Dave: I know you also have a great love of organs. How did that develop and when did that all start?
Stan: By the time I've gotten into high school, well, things happened when I was fourteen. For instance, I went to Trinity Episcopal Church in Highland Park and we had an old, two manual Austin organ in that church. But we had a really excellent organist. His name was John Henry McClay. He was head of the Choral Department at Northwestern University. He commuted up to Highland Park to be our organist on Sunday. And he had recognized that I had some kind of, maybe a little bit better than average either hearing or listening or playing ability or musical ineptitude. (Laughs) However you care to say it. Anyway, he offered me free organ lessons and I went home and asked my Mom and Dad about it. My Dad just blew up, and I didn't take any lessons from John Henry McClay. I was just impressed with that pipe organ. When you wanted real woof, it was there. This organ had stopped diapasons; square, wooden pipes with a tight,but movable [for tuning] stopper, which produce a very, very pure tone, when not driven hard. Almost a pure sine wave. I was fascinated by how these pipes, so effortlessly driven, with just such little wind, could produce this marvelous woof down there.
At fourteen I grew very disenchanted with the Episcopalian Church, because I could make no connection between what the minister was preaching and today's events or, to use today's vernacular, it was not the "Church of What's Happening Now," you know. (Laughs) As a teenager, I guess I was really looking for something that spoke to my needs more, and up the street was the First Presbyterian Church of Highland Park, and my band director in high school, Highland Park High School, Harold Finch, was the Choir Director at that church. His wife Doris was organist, and one of the members of the church was William Kimball, the piano and organ builder, and he had just given the church about a 105 rank instrument, with four thirty-two foot pedal stops in it. And boy, I tell you, the voice of God spoke that morning (laughs), and I tell you what-- You talk about Woofer City, U.S.A. That thing'd really make a believer out of you. The choir sat over there, the congregation's out here (gesturing), and the altar was up there, and the organ was in the entire wall back behind the altar. Mind you, though, it was probably fifty to seventy-five feet wide. It was big and it was spacious. When that thing spoke, I mean, the whole place went up and down! (Laughs) It was exciting beyond, I mean, I don't know if I got any religion from that place, but I sure got some indelible impressions about what power music could really have in your life. And boy, when they did stuff from Bach's B Minor Mass, or Faure’s Requiem , oh, just stuff like that, it really, really got to me!
When I went to the Presbyterian Church, Dr. William Young, he'd talk about things, about how your attitude affects you in school and life; things that I could actually relate to. And so that was a great eye opening for me. Soon, Mr. Finch invited me to sing in the choir. Well, the choir area in the Presbyterian church was huge [as described above]. It was like in the shape of a huge "U" and the two sides of the "U" faced each other and you could put about fifty voices per side. And the back of the "U" where the big altar was, behind it was a porous screen which is where the Kimball organ lived. The church had a vocal quartet that came up from Chicago; I think they were some folks from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Chorus, they were always very good. And so when you took these soloists, and the choir, and the organ and you put it all together, that, other than being in the high school band and orchestra, was my first, really full blown experience of being up there where the music's happening. And I tell you, I'll never forget it.
Dave: At another very impressionable age, fourteen.
Stan: Yeah. Well, when you hear things like that, any damn age is impressionable. When you hear something that good. I mean it'd be like the first time you ever drove your car over 140, or the first time you were ever in a space shuttle and it lifted off, you know, things like that. No matter how old you are, there are certain things that make one hell of an impression upon you because they're really so powerful. And for me that was one of those things. So, that's partly where my love of pipe organs came from.
I remember Easter things so well. I used organ recordings to test my loudspeaker systems because I had three fifteen inch loudspeakers mounted in my closet door, a la infinite baffle, and the only things that I could find that would really push the low end were 78 rpm recordings on RCA, E. Power Biggs before he went with Columbia in the LP age. He was originally with RCA and there were some mighty powerful recordings that he made, mostly on the four manual Aeolian-Skinner Organ in Boston Symphony Hall. You could get 27 1/2 cycle low A's real well, and I could realize them in my room with cloth suspension loudspeakers. I'd experimented with mass loading speaker cones and all that kinda stuff, too. Oh yeah, it worked very well. That's the first loudspeaker of any seriousness that I ever bought sitting over there. That's a 1948 Jensen H510 Co-ax, and the JBL 075 tweeter came in 1956. It was in your face. It was everywhere. Obviously I got no high frequency response in the closet at all, which was full of clothes and things like that. But, wow, you could sure find a twenty-seven cycle low A quite easily. And people don't believe that kind of low end exists on 78's, but it very definitely does.