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December 06, 2008, 2:30 PM

Deep Listening: Why Audio Quality Matters

Participants: Steve Berkowitz, Greg Calbi (moderator), Evan Cornog, Michael Fremer, Kevin Killen, Craig Street

Most of us listen to recorded music far more than we listen to live music. Music is everywhere: in elevators, shops, cars, restaurants and bars, on our computers and, for some of us, in every room in our home. But what of the listening experience itself? Considering the Zen concept of mindfully doing one thing at a time, what pleasures await the person who just listens? Conversely, what do we miss when we degrade the listening experience? This roundtable will address the factors involved in maximizing or minimizing the impact and effects of what we hear, from the conception and recording of music to the listening format and environment of choice. In a modern day twist on McCluhan’s "The Medium is the Message," the panel will discuss the effects that music delivery media have on our perception and reaction to music.

Steve Berkowitz is Senior Vice President of Sony Music's Legacy Records. A multi Grammy and Handy Award winning producer, he has worked at Columbia Records/CBS/Sony for 21 years in music marketing and A&R. Prior to this, Steve was an artist manager, tour manager, guitar player, booking agent, retail record buyer, recording studio owner, DJ, truck driver, NCAA Basketball referee, roady and soda jerk. Over the years he has worked with artists Tony Bennett, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Miles Davis, Earth Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Branford Marsalis, Fishbone, John Mellencamp, Henry Threadgill, Max Roach, Jeff Buckley, The Cars, Ministry, Derek Trucks, and many more . He has supervised the release of more than 3,000 albums. Steve lives in Manhattan with his wife, Monique, and sons, Nick and Ben, and each morning rises expecting to hear something wonderful he's never heard before.

Greg Calbi is a managing partner and mastering engineer at Sterling Sound in New York City. Mastering is the final stage of music production, during which final enhancement is added to the music to best project what the artist is trying to achieve. Calbi started out in the mastering business in his early 20s at the famed Record Plant, New York, where he worked on such 70's classics as John Lennon's "Walls and Bridges", David Bowie's "Young Americans" and Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." At Sterling Sound, he was active in the late 70's New Wave scene, working with groups such as The Ramones, The Talking Heads and Patti Smith. In his wide-ranging career, he has mastered music by Paul Simon, James Taylor, U2, Norah Jones, Bad Brains, The Beastie Boys, John Mayer, and Emmylou Harris, among many others. He has worked across all musical genres in mastering nearly 7,000 albums.

Evan Cornog is the author of three books of political history, The Power and the Story: How The Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush, Hats in the Ring: An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns (with Richard Whelan), and The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828. He served as Press Secretary to New York Mayor Edward Koch, has worked on the editorial staffs of The New Yorker and Wigwag Magazines, and has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, Wigwag, The American Scholar, Slate, Columbia Journalism Review, The Daily News, and The Lancet. Dr. Cornog is now Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Publisher of Columbia Journalism Review.

Michael Fremer is a senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine, a contributing editor at Home Theater magazine, and editor/owner of the online music review website, www.musicangle.com. He has also contributed to The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Consumer Digest, and The Bergen Record, among other publications and periodicals. Fremer was featured in the History of Audio documentary on The History Channel, and has appeared on MTV, The Today Show, and CNN talking about the high-end audio listening experience, home theater, and the unlikely resurgence of LP vinyl records. In 2006 he wrote, produced, and hosted the DVD, 21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-up. A second DVD, It’s a Vinyl World, After All: Michael Fremer’s Guide to Record Cleaning, Storage, Handling, Collecting & Manufacturing in the 21st Century, is currently in production for release December, 2008.

Kevin Killen has spent the last 29 years compiling an impressive list of credentials among the premier pop artists in the music industry, including Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, Jewel, Bon Jovi, U2, Bryan Ferry, Lorenna McKennit, and Duncan Sheik. He began his career at Dublin's Lombard Studios, a jingle/album/demo studio. Killen quickly ascended to engineering his share of demos and jingles, a valuable experience which influenced his whole career. As junior engineer, Kevin was exposed to cutting edge recording techniques from many genres, and experimentation fusing musical traditions. Killen moved to New York in the mid 1980s and has continued to expand the roster of artists that he works with. He has received 5 Grammy awards for his contributions to the albums of Shakira, and recently mixed his first country artist, Sugarland, scoring a number one hit.

Craig Street is a record producer who has worked with a host of artists, including Norah Jones, k.d. lang, Cassandra Wilson, Chris Whitley, John Legend, and The Gypsy Kings. Born in Oakland, California, his interest in music was nurtured by an audiophile father and a house full of song. He has worked as a musician, photographer, radio producer, dj, and plasterer prior to becoming a record producer.


Discussion Board

This forum allows for an ongoing discussion of the above Philoctetes event. You may use this space to share your thoughts or to pose questions for panelists. An attempt will be made to address questions during the live event or as part of a continued online dialogue.
Max Boswell says:
Would Michael Fremer please identify the turntable/cartridge he used for the demo.? thank you.
Michael Fremer says:
it was a Rega P25 fitted with a Rega Exact2 cartridge and there was a Graham Slee Era Gold phono preamp under the table...
David Stangret says:
To Steve Berkowitz: If SACD is the best that there is now in the digital medium, why is it not being promoted as such?
ken sheehan says:
To Steve Berkowitz: When will Sony release Miles Blue on Blu-Ray.
Peter van't Riet says:
At min. 112', Kevin Killen plays a tune by Scottish singer / harp player Marisa MacBeth.
I really like to hear more of her but can't find any on i-Tunes, Amazon or even MySpace.

anyone ?
Peter van't Riet says:
Never mind, i finally found it through Kevin's Website.
For those who are interested: Her name is Maresa MacBeth and the album is called Echo of You.
Jon Finnigan says:
Why does the music industry continue to rip-off the consumer with Redbook CDs when the technology is already in place/use for SACDs. Why not put everything on SACD? At $20.00 per album (average) why shouldn't we get quality for our money.
Itunes is now advertising CD quality with their on-line downloads. Doesn't the industry realize they must improve the CD format to offer an improvement over downloads to be competitive? Little wonder sales of CDs are down 20% in 2008. I realize SACD production on a larger scale would mean an outlay of investment capital initially but that would soon be recovered with increased sales. I believe most consumers still want to hold the music storage system in their hands and read liner notes and look at photos as part of the musical experience.

Jim Tavegia says:
I do wish the panel had pressed Steve B. about Sony's lack of support for SACD. This is a critical issue for the saving of hi rez audio. Even if the recordings were done in 24/96 or higher, then trasferred to SACD it would be better than where we are now.

Itunes needs to be take to task for describing their downloads as "cd quality". What a lie that needs to be stopped.

Jim Tavegia
Steven Mason says:
I don't get it. The high-end is supposed to be so inferior when compared to live music no matter what including Fremer's five hundred thousand dollar system.

But here the panelists are making the statements in the video that when they play back something they just recorded they say it sounds exactly like the live performance during the playback session.

Are they serious when they say that or are they holding back so nobody else can get this same fidelity?

Laurence Harris says:
SACD wasn't successful as a mainstream consumer product for a few reasons.

- You need an SACD player, and they were expensive for a long time. SACD support was never widely available in CD or DVD players. While most SACDs today are hybrids that contain a Redbook CD layer for use in CD players, a lot of early SACD releases were SACD only (big marketing mistake), so people didn't buy SACDs unless they had an SACD-capable system.

- SACDs contain a physical copy protection mechanism. You can't rip the SACD data and burn a copy, make a "favorites" SACD that only has your favorite tracks, or put it on a music server. The only way to listen is to play an original SACD.

- The sonic advantages will only be apparent to people with relatively good audio systems. People with poor or mediocre systems won't be able to appreciate what SACD has to offer.

- Sony, the company that invented it SACD, has effectively abandoned it. None of their DVD or Blu-ray players support it, for example, not even the PS3.

Even if SACD never achieves a resurgence, I am reminded of Yoda's words when he said "There is another." Blu-ray's lossless audio formats, supporting up to 7.1 channels, have the ability to deliver comparable audio performance. It remains to be seen if that will be used to any significant degree to produce high-definition audio-only products. There are also some other high-res formats out there appealing to niche markets. A couple are available as downloads.

I'd like to see SACD experience a bit of a resurgence. I love it. If you want SACD to see more market share, buy some. ;-)

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