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

 

Technical Topics

 

[Submitted for your approval is an interesting diversion into a host of technical topics, after which we'll get back into Stan's days at JVC.]

 

Absolute Polarity

 

[Stan keeps a Hewlett-Packard Model 130C oscilloscope centered in his playback area.  He uses it to check amplitude, phase, channel balance  and, yes, absolute polarity.  He finds it to be an invaluable tool.]

 

Dave:    The very first thing we did today when I arrived at your place was to listen for absolute polarity and do a little demo of that.

 

Stan:    With one of Jan-Eric Persson's recordings.  We played "Nobody's Blues But Mine" and we played "Black Beauty."  These are from Thomas Ornberg's Blue Five, Opus 3, No. 9102 and Opus 3, No.8003, respectively.  And the sonic differences there are very evident when flipping the absolute polarity switch on the Parasound D2000 D-A converter.

 

Dave:    You could quite clearly hear the difference.  Your favorite test of absolute polarity is trumpet, correct?

 

Stan:    It’s certainly, for me, the easiest; any instrument that produces a sawtooth or highly

non-symmetrical waveform will work.  And the trumpet [or trombone] is so easy because your hearing acuity is highest in the mid band, which is where these sounds live.  I remember one time helping a friend of mine here in town.  Tommy Pearl has a band here called The Burners, and it's basically like a Chicago  group.  It's a rock band with brass [trombones and trumpets] and saxophones in it.  Tommy plays very good trumpet. He had this sound system that was really quite good and I remember one time I was helping him get set up at the Officer's Club, and he was playing his trumpet. Every time he played his solo into one particular mic (pinching his nose) "it just sounded like this."  And he was having the guys run around back stage trying things with EQ and gain structure and everything else.  And he couldn't get that really bad sound out.  He took a break and he came down to where I was sitting; we were talkin' and I said, "Tommy, I think you've got a polarity inversion in that one cable."  And he said, "Yeah, 'ya think so?  Would that make a difference?"  And I said, "Yeah, you can you blow on your trumpet, and the wave form is a sawtooth wave.  You've got almost nothing here on the zero volts line and then you've got these big spikes that go up.  But they don't go down below the zero-line. They just look like the dorsal fins on a dinosaur, 'ya know." [Stan now knows that real dinosaurs, as opposed to cartoon dinosaurs, didn’t have dorsal fins, thanks to his friend Robert.  Even the dimetrodon had but one "sail" on its prodigious back...]

 

"Now," I said to Tommy, "if you can imagine yourself suckin' on your trumpet to produce the polarity inversion of that, the negative going, that's what coming out of the loudspeaker."  (Pinching his nose again)  "It sounded really bad!"  So he put in another cable and, "Wow-wee."  It was there.  Just 'ya know, like Clark Johnsen'd say, "the difference between night and day." And yes, it was, it absolutely was.  It's something that literally everybody in that band was able to hear, whether he was the drummer, or the keyboardist, or anybody.  And they  were behind  the loudspeaker system!  Because the loudspeaker system is along the front of the stage and they're all behind it, they're only hearin' the back side radiation, and they could still hear the difference!

 

Dave:            Interesting, interesting.  And I know that at the last two Sapphire Club meetings I've been to at your kind invitation, it seems like everyone there recognizes the value of absolute polarity.  That should warm Clark's heart.  We could see that on your oscilloscope here, too.

 

Stan:    Right, right.  And I'm going to bring my string bass in here [the cutting room] and set it up. It's got a pickup on it which I can plug into the system and you can see the effect of downbow/upbow really, really easily.  And if you can see it, you can hear it.  So we can record some of it on the Panasonic SV-3800 DAT recorder and then play it back without the effect of having the bass fiddle in the room.

 

Dave:    You were talking earlier about piano recording and absolute polarity, and how that ought to be done.

 

Stan:    Piano is a peculiar instrument in that if you look at the way the hammers attack the strings, the hammers come from in front, if it’s an upright or spinet-type instrument.  They attack from the viewpoint of the performer or the observer; they hit the strings, causing them to depart from the listener.  The string's first shock wave going at the sound board is in the same direction, so when you look at the spikes on a piano that have been recorded with microphones from in front of [at the player’s location] the instrument, you see a lot of negative-going energy.  That's what we saw in that one recording of the Ornberg Five, there from the Opus 3, where after we reversed the absolute polarity, all the other instruments were positive-going polarity, but when the piano did its solo, we saw negative-going polarity.  Now, if the microphone had been placed, if it's an upright piano, at what we normally call the back side of the instrument, all that would've been changed.  Just turning the piano around 180 degrees or miking from the backside would've alleviated that kind of problem.   Some folks would think that it's a minor thing, but it's one of those things that, taken in totality with a whole bunch of other things, can make the difference between really feeling like you're there and the feeling like, I'm there but there's somethin' a little not quite right about this.  Concerning grand piano sound, the polarity goes the other [+] way because the hammers strike the strings from underneath, displacing strings and soundboard upward, presumably toward the mic diaphragm, giving positive polarity at the output of a properly wired mic.  And that gets us into this positive polarity situation that I was talking to you about on the string bass where the down bow and the up bow are of reverse polarity from one another, which can clearly be seen on the oscilloscope.

 

One of the things that the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Eugene Ormandy, was famous for, was the broad, rich string sound.  Ormandy encouraged random bowing in his string sections, especially on recording sessions, because he knew that a down bow sounded different from an up bow.  This is why, when you want to accent a note, the composer/arranger writes it for a down bow.  If he wants three accented notes he'll write three successive down bows.  Not down, up, down.  They sound different.  They are different.  And, not that the musicians understand too much about the polarity of the output, but their ears tell em, "Yeah, there's a difference in sound.  I don't know why, but there's a difference in sound and the down bow sound is what I want here."  If they want something quieter, like a quiet entrance to something, they'll almost always specify an up bow.  If they want something to enter gracefully, its an up bow.  It's an inverted polarity.

 

Cutter Heads

 

Dave:    One of the questions Raymond Chowkwanyun wanted me to ask you was whether you prefer Westrex or European cutting heads. 

 

Stan:    One of the things that I've always been impressed about with Westrex cutterheads is that their bass sounds so good.  They really do.  Now, let's face it.  A Westrex is a big ass machine.  I mean, hell, it's got a huge magnet structure.  That’s a very, very healthy magnet structure and it was a basically medium impedance, 16 ohm type thing, designed to be driven by tube amplifiers, and it had very good conversion efficiency.  So the old Westrex systems were driven by their tube Westrex 70 watt per channel amplifiers.  Hell, they were very good sounding systems.  Where they didn't do so well was in the real high frequency stuff because it’s difficult to accelerate such a large moving mass.  Again, with that RIAA equalization, it didn't take much to cause them to go “bad news”.  And the amplifiers and the RIAA networks weren't as stable in those days as they are nowadays.  But boy, I tell ya, what good sounds Bernie Grundman cuts with his Haeco cutters, which are, basically, modified Westrexes!  They're large-mass devices and they work very well.

 

We need to talk about Haeco for a moment.  Holzer Audio Engineering Co.  Howard Holzer was as near-genius as anyone in the earlier days of microgroove recording.  He had great ears and knew the theory and creative, practical application of electro-physics probably better than any other engineer alive during his time. He was the engineering brains behind the original Audiophile  Records that began as microgroove 78 RPM 12 inch cuts with unbelievable dynamic range.  They were pressed on clear red vinyl and had gold labels and sounded as good as they looked!  When Howard came to trust 33 1/3 RPM enough, his first releases were microgroove 33 1/3 16 inch cuts; Howard knew the value of high scanning velocity on playback; this was long before the advent of elliptical styli and all that stuff.  Look at your early Contemporary Jazz  recordings; “Engineered by Howard Holzer and Roy DuNann”.  These guys put A&M Records on the air, which is where Bernie Grundman honed his considerable mastering skills for many years.  Howard was also an excellent pilot, and spent a lot of time in Mexico trying to help the local folks get their recording technology “up to snuff”.  Howard Holzer was taken from us way too early when both of his engines failed on take-off due to contaminated fuel.

 

All those products that Bernie’s cut for Classic Records, and what not, geez, they sound excellent, you know.  Some people talk about “there's a top end something” to his classical cuttings.  Hell, I don't know.  That may be the sonic flavor of his console.  It may have nothing to do with his cutter system, per se.  It may be the sonic signatures of the mics and pre-amps in the early recordings.  I don't know.  But I'll tell you what, if I could cut a record that sounds as good as what Bernie cuts, I'd be very, very proud of it.  And it doesn't matter to me whether he's using Haeco, Westrex, Ortofon, Neumann, John Deere Barbed-Wire Fence or anything else.

 

On the other hand, these Neumanns have small magnet structures, and the drive coils are low impedance [4.6 ohms].  So you have to drive 'em with a low source impedance, high-current solid state amplifier in order to get really, really tight bass.  You try to drive this cutterhead with a tube amplifier and you're asking for bass, which is, when you listen to it, hard to decide, “what's the guy doin' on his instrument, anyway”, 'ya know?  Is he just playing or what? The only tube-Neumann systems that have been successful, that I’m aware of are the systems at The Mastering Lab, where the amps were designed and built by Sherwood Sax, brother of Doug Sax, the owner-user of these great systems.

 

Concerning bass-sound, in the early days of stereo recording, many recordings that Howard Holzer, Lester Koenig, Rudy Van Gelder, and others made of the early jazz, had a lot of bass players playing Kay basses, Kay being a brand of instrument. Kay made Harmony  guitars and they also made cellos.  All these basses [and other instruments] were plywood, and they had not very good sonic attributes!  I have one of those basses in the house.  It’s the blonde one which is the same model as the bass seen in the early Elvis film clips.  You can listen to the difference between it and my 5-string bass that's maple and spruce, and you'll hear an instantaneous difference.  Most, if not, all of these bass players were using the Kay basses with gut strings. (That’s the only type of string to be had, in those days!)  Nowadays, almost nobody uses gut strings.  I want to say “nobody”, but I know there's somebody out there that does, especially  in the Baroque and Classical field.  In the small orchestral groups where there is a big push for “original instrumentation”, there's a number of people who use gut strings for Corelli Concerto Grossi  and things like that.  But for jazz, I  think almost nobody uses gut strings anymore.   But there they were.  Now when you listen to a lot of that off of a Neumann cutterhead driven by a tube amplifier, you don't know for sure what the bass player's doing or doing it with.  The sound’s too loose and nebulous down in that frequency range due to lack of good servo-mechanics to really be able to tell for sure. 

 

So, that doesn't really answer the gentleman's question about which head I prefer.  I've got a recording of Les Elgart's band in stereo on Columbia, that is just so clean and crisp and clear.  I know that it was recorded with a Westrex, as looking through the microscope reveals some really minor advance-ball scoring on the original lacquer.  [See advance-ball  discussion in the section on Bernie’s setup, near the end of the interview.]  The recording was definitely mastered on a Scully lathe.  I can tell that’s so by looking at, and listening to the lead out, and the tie off groove, and those clues tell me that was done on a Scully; so far as I know in those days, everything Columbia did was cut on Scully lathes with Westrex cutterheads.  So we can listen to it later and hear it's just neat, super sound.  Hell, maybe somebody snuck an Ortofon in there.  I don't know.  Or maybe somebody decided, [it's cut at a rather low level], maybe it could be that an engineer with ears said, "You know, maybe if I cut this at a low enough level I can take all these Fairchild limiters and chuck 'em out, and take these low frequency crossovers and get rid of 'em, and I can, if I’m really careful, I can make a record that sounds really great!.  That just might've happened.  'Cause every once in a while you could get some awfully magnificent stuff out of a Westrex system, if you just treated it right.

 

Why 180 Grams

 

Dave:    How did 180 grams come to be kind of a magical number for LPs?  It must be a compromise between something and something else.

 

Stan:    Well, yes, talking about the 180, I recall chatting with Rick Hashimoto at Record Technology.  When the heavy-record thing first started, it was done by JVC, when we came up with the 200 gram UHQR [Ultra High Quality Record].  And that was, hell, it coulda been 205, coulda been 210, or whatever, but it was 200 grams.  And it was really the finest  phonograph record ever produced.  I know that RTI had tried various thicknesses, and that 180 is a good compromise between heft and solidarity on the one hand and econoline regular on the other.  But there's virtually no difference in sonics between a 180 and a 200 [using the same vinyl compound].  There's more difference in sonics between whether you use Keysor vinyl or whether you use RimTech vinyl, or what percentage of regrind you may use as opposed to so-called "pure" virgin vinyl

 

Dave:    What is regrind?

 

Stan:    When a record is pressed, you purposefully put too much vinyl in the press, to make sure all the grooves are filled and all the gasses carried out.  So it's like a waffle iron that’s overfilled and when you put the two halves together, the extra stuff comes out the edges.  The extra stuff [vinyl] is trimmed off with rotary trimmers, rotary shears, and the trimmings fall into a big drum.  Then it's collected in one place and chopped up and cleaned and vacuumed to get dirt and impurities out of it.  And it also is brought through a magnetic field to make sure that any metallic particles that might be in there are also removed.  Then the stuff is ground up into the same size particles as the original, which look like mouse turds.  It's about that size.  Then the regrind is all blended together with virgin material and the mixture goes through the machinery, where it's heated, blended and extruded at some 300 odd degrees, becomes another "patty," and starts its life over again.

 

 A lot of pressing-people don't like to talk about regrind or admit to its use, but re-cycling overage is an economic as well as environmental reality.  Regrind vinyl has already had a lot of the volatiles cooked out of it during its first go-around through the press, so by definition, it's stiffer than virgin material.  It therefore has better [or at least different] high frequency playback characteristics than does virgin vinyl.  I encourage people, when they want to make a record that's got a lot of snap or bang to it, as in DJ dance-club music, to get as high a percentage of regrind in the vinyl as they can get, consistent with the quality that they want.

 

Dave:    What's your opinion of the dehorning of masters?

 

Stan:    Well, I don't know of anybody who does that anymore.  It seems to have been fairly popular in the sixties or seventies or whenever.  A cutter stylus cuts and it also plows.  With a snow plow you go down the road and you pile up all this humongous crap along the curbs and sidewalks.  Well, you hope you don't get much of that when you cut.  Cutter styluses are manufactured much better nowadays than they were, shall we say, thirty years ago.  The burnishing facets weren't so accurate then and sometimes you got a nice cut in the groove but then sometimes you didn’t and there might be a bunch of stuff stacked up at the edge of the groove.  And that stuff was rough-textured and made separation of the lacquer master from the first metal plating very difficult, because the stuff that's thrown off, when viewed under a microscope, looks like a string of cinders.  It's porous, like a sponge, you see.  So when you're electroplating that stuff, well, the metal molecules get inside and you can imagine metallic nickel getting inside a sponge and then how do you peel a sponge off that electroplating?  So you're left with little bits of stuff stuck to the metal [NOISY !]  So the idea was to knock off those.  It affects the sound.  I don't know anybody who does dehorning anymore.  At least I don't know anybody that's involved in high quality work who does it, mostly because there’s no need for it with today’s better styli.

 

DMM

 

Dave:    Stan, what's your opinion of direct metal mastering?

 

Stan:    I've heard some really good stuff for string quartets and vocal.  Stuff that doesn't involve bass [low end].  But I haven't heard things that sounded really good on the low end, with DMM.  The cutterhead is small and you have, I think, just the physics of trying to push the cutter stylus through copper instead of lacquer.  And I don't know how thick the copper plating is, but I also don't see much random phase stuff in the bass on DMM.  Whereas with lacquer, you can get a vertical modulation of 7 mil .  In other words, the lacquer coating on the aluminum substrate is thick enough [15 mil] to handle the seven mil modulation vertically.  If you have modulation that's vertical, it will be so inherently non-linear on the down stroke.  Well, maybe they predistort it, depending on the depth, but...  As I say, I've heard some stuff with mid range and top end, like string quartets, that sounded pretty darn good.  But I haven't heard anything that I felt, "well, that's better than anything that coulda been done on lacquer."

 

I can look at a pressing and can tell you right away if it was done DMM or lacquer.  The pressing reflects light differently, depending on the method of cutting.  When you cut a DMM, the delineation between the 45 degree groove walls and the flat surface of the land, that angle is very clearly defined.  On a product that's been DMM'd, the final pressing comes out looking like the original cutting, as it should.  Now with very good electroplating on a lacquer, you'll see it  almost the same way.  But if even just a little too much heat is generated during the preplating, either through too much voltage, therefore too much current, flowing in just the one or two micron levels of thickness of silver that's on the lacquer before the nickel builds up, or if the plating tank itself is too hot, then there's a rounding of the corners where the groove-wall meets the land, which is easily discernible to the semi-naked eye, provided it's a trained eye.  I can see it easily.  All I have to have is a reasonable source of light and a good pair of glasses on.  I can tell you right off the bat.  And, by looking at that, I can also tell you this product isn't gonna have much high frequency response, either.  The more rounding you see, of where the groove wall transitions to the land, the more rounding of the high-frequency modulations will occur on the groove-walls themselves; therefore the less high frequency response.  There isn't gonna be good high frequency response because every jagged little etching in the groove, on the groove walls, is going to be rounded a proportional amount, just like that.  And it's worse at the inside diameters because not only is it a slower linear speed which produces progressively shorter wavelengths, but in terms of this plating, the center post is the electrode, so all the electron-flow from the outside edge, and everywhere in between, goes to the center, you see. The current density, and therefore the heat, is higher at inside diameters.

 

So, my opinion of DMM is that it's very interesting, indeed. There’s also a high-frequency bias applied to the cutter to eliminate stylus chatter at low cutting levels.  As I say, some program material is very well suited for it.  I know it would be especially good if you had choral works or string quartets and had a long time on the side.  The DMM process is immune to the “groove-echo” problems of lacquer because the copper isn’t affected by the cut-and-plow stress-relief phenomena which plague lacquers in a warm plating environment.  However, all the killer LPs I've ever heard have been made off of plain old nitrocellulose.  (Laughs)

 

Click here for the next page of the interview.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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