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Stan Ricker: Live and Unplugged
True Confessions of a Musical & Mastering Mave
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Part 2

Stan Ricker with his stand up acoustic bass.

 

For those loyal readers who made it through Part 1 of our interview with Stan Ricker, here is your reward: Part 2!  For those of you who just tuned in, the introduction to Part 1 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."

 

 

Stan Slides Further Down the Slippery Slope Toward Becoming a Mastering Maven...

 

Dave:    Stan, you taught yourself to do disk mastering at Keysor-Century, right?

 

Stan:    It's interesting that you bring this up because I taught myself other things to do, such as playing the bass.  I really didn't think about this until my wife Monica asked me the other day, "How did you learn how to drive?"   I thought a moment and I said, "I learned by watching my mother drive, what she did with the clutch and the throttle.  The steering is self explanatory.  Learning braking distances is a matter of experience in driving a specified car that weighs so much and its brake efficiency is so much.  You learn what it takes in pedal pressure to stop as you approach.  So every car is different.  But I learned by watching." 

 

And I learned at Keysor-Century.  When I was head of QC [1969-70] I spent a lot of time in the two Neumann cutting rooms.  One of 'em was run by Dave Ramsey, who used to be a cutting engineer at Motown.  And he hated cutting these custom tapes of these junior high school bands and stuff like that.  He really used to curse and get very upset about why was he wasting his time with these God awful crappy bands, these crappy recordings.  And a lot of 'em were really terrible recordings, recorded at three and three quarter inches on quarter track tape.  We had to have mastering playback tape machines that were roll-around Ampex AG 350's.  Of course they always had preview 'cause they had to have the power to run the lathe pitch and depth assemblies, as well as the cutterhead electronics.  Some of them were three and three quarter and seven and a half inch speeds and they had quarter track head stacks on 'em.  Then we had others that had seven and a half and fifteen speeds and we had fifteen ips [inches-per-second] quarter track tapes come in from time to time, so we had to be able to handle those.  So we had about three or four different tape formats runnin' up and down the hall, borrowing machines back and forth between one room and another.  So I spent a lotta time watchin' Dave Ramsey, and I learned from Dave, bless his soul, mostly things that I didn't want to do in mastering.  Like he always put the bass filter in at 100 cycles.  I asked him why and he said, "You just gotta get rid of the bass.  That's all there is to it."  I said, "Dave, that really pisses me off.  A hundred cycles is higher than the highest string on my bass.  I don't want it thrown out."  He said, "Well, that's just tough shit.  We're just gonna put that filter in and cut it out." (Laughs)

 

Dave:    That must have been total anathema to you.

 

Stan:    Well, it just castrated the music.  You can't have music without a foundation, any more than you can have any other structure without a foundation.  The room next to him had some pretty good sound coming out of it.  I walked into that room and it was occupied by a lady named Lois Walker, who had a background quite similar to mine.  She had been a grade school and high school music teacher and she was a musician, and rather well accomplished.  And she heard well.  She heard really well.  She could, especially given the limitations of that fixed depth recording system, could get a lot out of it.  At least she had the sense to, if you didn't have program material that was gonna have a lot of low frequency vertical modulation, she'd switch the low frequency crossover out of the system, which was nice.  Or maybe seventy or thirty cycles or something, but not the old "just lock it up on 250 or 500."  And by the way, the crossovers would go up to 700 cycles.

 

Dave:    Pretty gross.

 

Stan:    Pretty gross, indeed.  So she produced a lot of good sounding recordings over the years.  And then when I had been doing some experimental cutting after hours for some of the Century franchise associates, I was startin' to cut their stuff even though I was still the QC manager.  And they really liked what they heard.  And then there was a fella down in Burbank who had been a Century person, his name was Glen Glancy.  He had started mastering.  He had also worked for Steve Guy at Location Recorders, I believe.  He set up a company called United Sound Recorders in Burbank and specialized in mastering and did a very good job.  And he heard some of the stuff I'd made and, as they say, he made me an offer I couldn't refuse.  So I went to work for him [July 1970 - August 1973] and then all the Century franchise associates that had been mastering at Keysor, they deserted Keysor mastering and went to United Sound for mastering.  Eventually Glen was running two shifts to keep up with the demand.  So then Keysor called me up and made me an offer I couldn't refuse to go back and run their recording department.  There were seven recording rooms there.  I said, "Okay, well, I'll go back and do that."  By this time they had bought some Neumann VG 66 cutting amplifiers and an SX 68 cutterhead and moved the Westrex stereo cutters onto two new Scully lathes.  So they had two Scully Westrex stereo setups and two Neumann stereo setups.  I take it back.  They didn't have seven cutting rooms, they had seven engineers.  They had five rooms and they also had a mono Scully lathe with a Westrex 2B mono cutterhead on it.  That lathe would cut inside out as well as outside in, truly an oldie but goodie.  It was actually on that lathe, run by a lady by the name of Pat Marquez.  She would invite me in to, "Here, you wanna practice?  Here's a pretty good take."  And she'd have some jazz tape or something because Armed Forces Radio did mono stuff as well as stereo stuff.  So I'd practice cutting on that.  That really just whetted my appetite.

 

Dave:    There's the old British system called Sit by Ethel, where you learn by osmosis.

 

Stan:    Yeah, you just watch.

 

Dave:    So your variation on that was Sit by Lois.

 

Stan:    Yeah, sit by Lois and sit by Dave and sit by Pat Marquez.

 

 

... and Perfects His Craft

 

Dave:    During all these years you were learning and refining your technique.

 

Stan:    And learning that which I wanted to do and those things which I didn't want to do.  The really obvious thing to me was the improvement in the sound of the product when you just bypass the limiters.  That was really just so doggone different, so marvelous.  It made things sound closer to live broadcast.

 

Dave:    When Tam Henderson interviewed you for The Absolute Sound in 1979, you gave a quote which is my favorite from that article, which is that "Conformity is the high road to mediocrity."

 

Stan:    You mean I had the brains to say that then?  That's certainly how I feel and I'm just absolutely amazed that I had the foresight and intelligence to say that at that time.  I wonder how long I practiced that one!

 

Well, I really believe it because you read and you find out that the people... I mean I think about the people here at China Lake who really made a difference.  By God, they were not people who just sat by and did the status quo.  They felt convinced of what they were doing, and they were willing to take a risk.  If you don't believe in it well enough to take a risk then you probably don't believe in it very well.  So yeah, I have been willing to take risks when we can make this really good.  If we're careful and do this right, this should really work.

 

Less was more.  Many times less was more.  Less signal, less stuff in the signal path.  I know that when we go in this room here, where does the signal go from when we're playing it to when it finally comes out the speakers?  For instance, it seems like a long and convoluted path, but if you go into any mastering facility and look at where the signal goes before it finally gets to its destination, some of the routes are appalling.  Going through back planes and stacks of circuit boards that are so close together that the designers never thought that these things, under certain conditions, are capacitively coupled and affect the high frequency response rather drastically.  That was one of the major things wrong with the VG 66 Neumann cutting amplifiers.  They've got many modules that are plugged in like this [Stan goes into the electronics portion of his lathe] and the plane of one would be right next to the other, like this close and they'd be capacitively coupled.  And weird things would happen that wouldn't happen if you pulled the module out and put it on an extender card.  When you take the extender card out and just put the module back in, why does this thing start ringing or oscillating or doing weird things at certain frequencies?  Why does it sound different?  And that's the one thing that was different.

 

Click here for the next page of the interview.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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