A Visit to RTI & Acoustech
It's said that your first experience on entering a space sets the tone for all that follows. At LP pressing plant Record Technology, Inc. (RTI), that experience is my encounter with veteran pressman Richard Lopez, who responds to my request for direction. As he leaves his vintage record press to lead me to owner Don MacInnis, Lopez reads aloud the sticker on a box of recently pressed LPs. "WORLD'S FINEST PHONOGRAPH RECORDS," he declares with pride. As I reflect on how few workers today feel so connected to the products they make, I sense that something special lies ahead.
Soon this vinyl virgin is sitting in the cozy AcousTech mastering facility in Camarillo, California. Tucked into the rear of one of RTI's buildings, this hardly prepossessing space—one of perhaps four rooms in which vinyl is still mastered exclusively in the analog domain—is often considered the best-sounding LP mastering and lacquer-cutting studio in the US. Alongside me and MacInnis are the designer of the facility, Kevin Gray, almost 54, and his longtime partner in mastering crime, Steve Hoffman, 54.
"Between us, we have 108 years of experience," Hoffman quips. They've also mastered a good 10,000 albums. Outside the room is an oft-photographed wall displaying covers of some of the facility's prized platters. Seeing all those titles together might reduce Mikey Fremer to jelly.
Soon among us is Chad Kassem, whose Acoustic Sounds label is preparing to issue up to twenty-five 45rpm, 180gm LPs from prized Blue Note master tapes. Not only are these boys so accustomed to visitors that nothing I ask distracts them, but Gray later thanks me for not being a clone of one self-assured reporter who challenged his every move and decision.
Hoffman does most of the talking. "What we're doing in here is basically the same thing they've been doing since 1887. The cutting process really hasn't changed. You take some soft material and make a record. Emil Berliner turned it into a flat disc instead of a cylinder. Our main concern is that when I decide what I want the recording to sound like, the lacquer should sound the same."
It helps that this may be the only cutting room in the world that uses pure class-A amplification, all the way from the tape machine to the cutting head. Gray began building the transformerless room in the late 1970s, and has recently installed top-of-the-line AudioQuest cables. "I stayed away from this audiophile stuff until Joe Harley convinced me to try it, and I've been very happy." Soon will come aftermarket power cables. Citing my own experience, I predict that Gray will then be an even happier camper.
Hoffman explains that the legendary Rudy Van Gelder created the classic Blue Note sound. "The beauty of working with a Rudy Van Gelder master is that he's a very predictable engineer. Everything has a similar sonic signature, which makes it very easy for us. He favored a vibrant, slightly over-the-top coloration. It's a fairly bright sound. Even though he had a very high ceiling in his cutting room, he rode his equipment a little harder than usual. If you remove the signature, people feel you've lost the magic. We have to be careful to retain it while making the instruments sound as neutral and lifelike as possible.
"We have a diamond here. We polish it and put it in the best possible light. Other mastering engineers have their own ideas of what sounds best. Our philosophy is not to play God. We're not trying to reinvent history, not trying to make something sound modern. And we're certainly not going to resort to digital restoration, which kills the life as it kills the hiss."
Out with Mono
Gray, Hoffman, and Kassem soon launch into the first of several intense spiels about the stereo pedigree of these master tapes. ("Make sure your readers see this," insist the latter two more than once.) While many record collectors hold fast to the belief that Van Gelder's Blue Notes were intended solely for mono distribution, Kassem points to the handwriting on each open-reel master that clearly states that the recordings are stereo.
"They were released in mono because stereo albums cost a dollar more," he says. "They felt there wouldn't be enough interest to justify the effort. We're not going to keep anyone from enjoying the full sound by collapsing the soundstage and hiding their wonder. There aren't many—10 to 20—people on the planet who have heard these master tapes. Any critic who says that the only good Blue Note is a mono Blue Note hasn't heard the masters."
As Hoffman plays a reel, he points to the oscilloscope on the board, which shows energy in the center of the soundstage. This is easily confirmed by listening. While on most tapes some instruments are positioned closer to the left and right mikes, most place the piano and bass in the center. To Hoffman, that sounds as if you're in a really good seat in a club. And while the ever-secretive, 85-year-old Van Gelder has often insisted that he didn't pay attention to such things, Hoffman believes that you can't get sound like this without really trying.
"We give audiophiles the master-tape sound, not the original Blue Note LP sound. You can't tell me that the audiophile wants to hear sound as it was compromised back then. You'd have to play it on a Zenith. They were very scared to leave too much bass, treble, or dynamic range on the record, because the tonearm would jump out of the groove. Nowadays, we can finally accomplish what Rudy Van Gelder would have only dreamed of hearing 40 years ago."
Missteps and Triumphs
To learn more about the Blue Note masters, I call Blue Note authority Michael Cuscuna, at Mosaic Records, in Stamford, Connecticut. Cuscuna has handled all Blue Note reissues for EMI since 1984, supplying tapes from the vault in Los Angeles.
In the 1970s, when Cuscuna began working with Blue Note, one of the engineers at the United Artists studios noticed that oxidation had begun to cause flaking on some of the masters recorded in the 1960s. After convincing the powers-that-were to make new, second-generation "masters" from some of the masters, those originals were scrapped. The substitutes used the early Dolby process, which results in a loss of detail and openness. Of 400 Blue Note masters recorded between 1950 and 1970, no one now knows for certain how many are original masters and how many are second-generation copies. (While I'm at AcousTech, Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman identify a copy by its inferior sound, set it aside, and inform Chad Kassem that he must remove it from his reissue list.)
"When 12" LPs came out," Cuscuna explains, "labels needed to build up large catalogs in order to make money. There was a massive amount of recording activity in all genres. An amazing amount of independent labels popped up to record massive amounts of modern jazz during its heyday in New York City. Rudy Van Gelder's studio, which was owned by Alfred Lion, became the studio of choice.
"Other labels would hire musicians to go into studios without planning and rehearsals. Alfred invested in planning and paid pre-rehearsals, and carefully formed ensembles. By doing so, he inspired musicians to create a lot of original compositions that became standards." He cites, as only three of many examples, Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," and John Coltrane's "Blue Train."
"If you're an improvising musician and you haven't rehearsed, you're going to play your best solo while everyone is still working out the tune. By the time everything is worked out, everyone is burned out. Alfred's approach created a more lasting body of work. It wasn't as much a case of whom they recorded as their methodology, which drew out the best possible performances."
As much as I'd love to relay all kinds of anecdotes about the challenges Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray encounter during the mastering sessions, I witness none. These boys know the sound of the facility and the Van Gelder masters like the backs of their hands. Decisions are made fast, almost as second nature. For Kenny Dorham's Whistle Stop, they discover plenty of headroom, so they add a bit of excitement. (Earlier in the day, they treated other titles differently.) I leave for a while to tour the facility, and by the time I return they're working on another tape. On the second day of my visit, the final session ends early.
"When Kevin and I work in this room," says Hoffman, "I basically focus on the sound I want to hear. I rely on Kevin to perfectly translate that sound to the phonograph record. Kevin has been cutting records since he was in high school, and he knows what he's doing. We know each other's moves; we finish each other's sentences. Our spouses are amused by it."
Back home a month later, I unpack some test pressings Chad Kassem has sent me. Though I know I can never dare look directly into Mikey's eyes until I own a record-cleaning machine, my Clearaudio turntable, solidly supported by a Symposium platform, is equipped with a brand-new The Voice cartridge from Soundsmith that's raring to sing. Bybee Golden Goddess speaker bullets—you need not genuflect—bring out all the detail that the rest of the chain can possibly reproduce. Playing side B of Dexter Gordon's Dexter Calling…—I have no list of track titles—I hear the most realistic-sounding drums ever reproduced by my system. It's as though I'm sitting at the point of creation, experiencing the same high that brought such gifted musicians together as one. Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray, Chad Kassem, and Don MacInnis have done Rudy Van Gelder and his Blue Note artists proud.