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Stan Ricker: Live and Unplugged
True Confessions of a Musical & Mastering Maven
Part 3

Article By Dave Glackin

For those loyal readers who made it through Parts 1 and 2 of our interview with Stan Ricker, here is your reward: Part 3, the last!  For those of you who just tuned in, the introduction is repeated below, to set the stage for this portion of the article.

 

Introduction

 

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 and knowledge 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 [SRM] 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 none 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."

 

And now Part 3

 

Continuing with the JVC Days

 

[Earlier in this article, we left our hero in the middle of his career at JVC.  We now pick up that story...]

 

Dave:    Stan, you did all the Telarc LP's, and all the Soundstream stuff, right?

 

Stan:    I did an awful lot of Soundstream stuff.  All the Delos stuff, the first six of which I not only mastered but did the original recording on. 

 

Dave:    [Holding up an LP]  This a recording I absolutely love.  Let's see, it is Delos 3005, Susann McDonald, World of the Harp.

 

Stan:    Yeah, Susann McDonald's harp.  That's the fifth out of the six.  (Reading the credits) Chief Engineer, Stan Ricker, Disk Mastering Engineer, Stan Ricker.

 

Dave:    I've played this record for a lot of friends.  I've had it playing at dinner and people were saying they've never heard reproduced sound that good.  And I should point out that this is a digital recording, mastered onto an LP at half speed.  So there is a lot to be said for the process of taking digital on to an analog medium.  It's an absolutely enjoyable disk.  So you did the recording on that as well as the mastering?

 

Stan:    Yeah, yeah.  I had three B&K microphones and a portable Studer model number 169 console which had its own internal battery power supply. The output of the 169 fed the input of the Soundstream Digital Machine, which was a 50k, 16 bit machine.  The 169 ran on batteries during recording and then you could turn on the charger during breaks.

 

Yeah, this (World of the Harp) was really neat.  And I had spent a lot of time with Susann and the geometry of the room to basically record the harp in almost mono and the room acoustics in stereo, and used only two of the three microphones.

 

Dave:    So you did the engineering and the mastering for the first six Delos LPs.  Well, I'm gonna go out and find them all now.  And here's one of my all time favorite records on Crystal Clear, Capriccio Italien and Capriccio Espagnol with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops.  You did the mastering for that one plus a lot of other orchestras.

 

Stan:    Yeah, but look who was here with me: Mastering Engineers, George Piros, Stan Ricker and Richard Simpson.  We had three lathes there.  Richard brought his AM-32B lathe and the VG 66 amplifier rack.  I was using Crystal Clear's lathe which was, I think, a AM-32B, but it had a SAL 74B amplifier package.  But I think the cuts that actually got released were the ones that were cut by George.  He was using an Ortofon lathe with an Ortofon cutting system on it, which was very good, indeed.  The cutter’s delicate, and so is its sound.  Ortofon cutters tend to burn out easily, but that was a good choice because there's almost nothing in this particular recording that would have challenged the cutterhead very much because the orchestra played in such a reserved mode of operation, they were all scared that they were going to do something wrong, that they just kinda half played.  They never really got into this, they just kind of played.  They didn't play with great vigor and, what's the word, panache?

 

Dave:    Well, maybe they were scared of the direct disk process.

 

Stan:    I think so, in fact, I know so!

 

Dave:            Something you can say about these Crystal Clears is that they were all direct to disks, so you were sitting there doing your mastering in real time.

 

Stan:    Yes.  In real time, in a real room, and we used the Soundstream Digital Recorder as a back up in case none of these came out.  See, here it says: "Mastered with a new Ortofon DSS 732."  So yes, it was George's product that actually got released.  That's nice.  There's so many European recordings that were cut with the Ortofon system that sound superb.

 

Dave:    Okay.  Here's one which Stan absolutely loves, Virgil Fox, The Fox Touch, Volume 1 on Crystal Clear, which was direct to disk, organ with all the stops pulled out.

  

Stan:    Oh yeah, that was fun.  That was two B&K microphones hard-wired through a minimalist console that John Meyer had put together.  The microphones were B&K with special power supplies and line driver amplifiers built by John.  The console fed the 2 Neumann lathes directly.  Richard Simpson was there, too, with his VG-66/AM-32B Neumann.  That was a lot of fun to do.  I wish we had that much challenge nowadays, direct-to-disk recording.  But that was then and this is now and things are different.

 

It was from that experience that I asked John Meyer to build for me the power supply and pre-amp that I later used for the Delos recordings.  I had already bought three B&K microphones.  He did all this other outstanding stuff and it was because of John’s really determined persistence with these B&K microphones, and the outstanding recordings produced, that B&K finally got into the commercial microphone manufacturing business.  John, and a gentleman named Dick Rosmini, who died last year, were responsible.  Dick was quite a studio recording engineer and musician.  He used a lot of quarter-inch diaphragm B&K microphones on acoustic guitars.  Nothing in the world like the transient response of a quarter-inch mic.  Just so pristine.  I mean a microphone as delicate as a headphone, you see.  Really nifty. 

 

Dave:    Now you mentioned you had all the scores memorized for those pieces [the Virgil Fox organ recordings]?

 

Stan:    Yes, I’ve known all those pieces by heart since my High School days.  I have the recordings over here in what is now a CD collection, but what used to be a record collection.  So I knew the pieces well.  I knew their dynamics and registration.  So that made it a whole lot easier to just adjust the pitch and the depth together.  It would have been really neat to have this Compudisk computer there because then all I'd have had to do was deal with what size groove I wanted and the computer automatically takes care of the pitch corrections.  That's pretty neat.  So, anyway, we did separate pitch and depth control on the Neumanns, and I had worked out a chart ahead of time as, "Well, if I'm cutting a four-mil groove, considering it is random phase, how far apart do I have to have the grooves so that under the wildest consideration of modulation, they would not collide with one another?"  So, it was just worked by trial and error with some test tapes before and then when Virgil was practicing.  Most of the time I figured, when he was playing really loud, we would cut a seven mil groove and 70  lines per inch; we wouldn’t have too much trouble that way.  Then, when he's playing really quietly, we adjust to 400 lines, two mil groove.

 

There's so few people who understand the phrase-- you listen to the news, and they'll say, "Man, the guys in Panama are really pulling out all the stops  to find out who did this."  And there's so few people who know what 'pulling out all the stops' really means.  (Laughs)  This recording on the Rufatti instrument, ole' Virgil really pulled out all the stops!  You know, he made some really powerful music with this thing--so much so that we had several visits from the local police during our late night recording activities.

 

Dave:    For this you put your lathe in the back of your '59 Ranchero and drove it down to Garden Grove?

 

Stan:    Yeah, took part of it down in the Ranchero and took part of it down in a rented Ford station wagon, I remember that.  Took two loads of stuff down.  This lathe wasn’t “my” lathe, it was JVC's lathe.  It was the same lathe that I was using to cut all the half-speed product on.  In order to cut at real-time, we borrowed a set of the Neumann real-time plug-in RIAA equalizer modules from RCA.  The JVC Cutting Center and the RCA studios were both located in the RCA Building at 6363 Sunset in Hollywood.  

 

Dave:    So, instead of the King's Way Hall Subway, on this one you've got sirens, right?

 

Stan:    Well, one of 'em that didn't get released that was really funny was one when we had a police helicopter do a fly-by.  We heard this, Whop-whop-whop-whop  of the rotor blades and then suddenly the music stopped and Virgil says, "Oh, shit!" real loud, you know.  If I'd kept that lacquer it probably would have been the only example of Virgil Fox's spoken voice on record.  (laughs)  Yeah.  He was really going great guns when this particular helicopter came-a whop-whop-whop-whopping  and it really reverberated inside the church!

 

The organ was a really great instrument to record and it was a really fun recording session.  The pitch-depth settings on the lathe went anywhere from 70 lines per inch to 440 lines per inch, like this, you know, and I know it's gettin' louder, Hrmmm, Here we go!  Increase the depth, decrease the lines per inch.  Then what was neat is both controls turned the same way to achieve the opposite effect.  That what was really cool.  Clockwise on the depth gave more depth.  Clockwise on the pitch knob gave less lines per inch.  And they were both relatively linear.  They could have been Gilmer-belted together if the knobs on both were the same size.  You could have done with just one knob, you know.

 

Dave:    So they really blew the roof off what is now the Crystal Cathedral.

 

Stan:    Yeah.  Made lotsa woofers that day!  WOOFER CITY, USA!  Lots of really good soundin' music.  Now, the Volume II, do you have that record, too?

 

Dave:    Yes.

 

Stan:    That's the one with that Piece Heroique  on it, composed by Caesar Franck. There is this alternating F-sharp and B in the pedal, boom, boom, boom, boom, it simulates a timpani.  Because the alternating pedal speaks fast enough, you get the mixing of these two discreet frequencies in the air, in the church.  And so you have the resultant beat-frequencies going between these two notes and there's a lot of really low frequency stuff going on.  [B = 29 Hz; F# = 21.75 ;  let the reader do the math.]  

 

Stan:    Oh, you've got Dark Side of the Moon  here.

 

 

Stan Co-Founds Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs

 

Dave:    Yeah.  Some of the most famous things you cut were for Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs.  And you did a lot of those while you were working for JVC and you did a lot of those later, when you left JVC to go full time.  You were one of the three founders of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, right?  In '79, along with Brad Miller and Gary Giorgi.

 

Stan:    Right.  Brad Miller and Gary Giorgi.  I had the technical stuff that we could market, you know.  They seized on that.  Somethin' that sounded good, maybe we can sell it.  So I provided the technical know-how on which it was all based and they provided the other stuff, as in tapes, hype, BS and publicity.  Ya know, all this good stuff.  They were great talkers for the product, going out and shmoozing people and so forth.  That was needed.  And then, Herb Belkin got involved.  Herb first got involved because at that time, when this was just starting up, he was running ABC Records and Brad had managed to lease, I think it was Katie Lied.  Who was that band?

 

Dave:    Steely Dan.

 

Stan:    Steely Dan, oh yeah.  Anyway, we made test pressings.  I remember that I took one of these white label test pressings with red JVC letters "JVC Test Pressing" and just laid it on Herb's turntable and put the stylus down and turned it up and waited.  And he said, "Well, when you gonna put the record on?"  I mean it was so quiet.  And then the music started comin' out and he was like, "Holy Shit"!   What did you do?  Did you re-mix this album?  You didn't have my permission to re-mix this album, you know.  How come it sounds so good?"  It really piqued his interest 'cause it sounded SO GOOD!  Then pretty soon he left ABC and, as they say, "came aboard" Mobile Fidelity.  They then changed the name to Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs to differentiate it from Brad Miller's Mobile Fidelity Records, which was so named because Brad recorded trains and planes like at Reno Air Races and things like that.  So those sounds were very mobile.  Sometimes the recording gear itself was mobile, being either in the airplane or on the train.  So you often got the recording from two points of view.  If you're on the train and you're approaching the crossing, you hear the bell go, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding - you really hear the Doppler effect [rise and fall of pitch] as you go by this clanging gate-crossing bell.  So, the Sound Lab thing was a different entity than was Mobile Fidelity Records.

 

Click here for the next page of the interview.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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