Opinionated Audio: David Chesky on Binaural Recording & the Business of Specialized Sound

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Opinionated Audio: David Chesky on Binaural Recording & the Business of Specialized Sound

David Weiss, the co-founder and co-editor of SonicScoop!, had an interview with David Chesky, the co-founder, producer, and artistic director of Chesky Records and co-founder and CEO of HDtracks. In the interview, Chesky shares his thoughts on binaural recordings and talks about the work on binaural recordings with his team. The full interview can be found here.

Here is an excerpt from the interview at sonicscoop.com:

“There is a method to their madness.

For Chesky Records, the how of recording is every bit as important as the who of their roster. This is an audiophile label that was founded not on the premise of spawning smash hits but on providing a distinct listening experience: creating the illusion of live musicians in a 3D space.

David Chesky and his brother Norman started their eponymous label on that path in 1988, their progress since then tracks as an upstart success story. Their artist Paquito D’Rivera’s third Chesky release, Portraits of Cuba, a collection of jazz interpretations of Cuban folksongs, won the 1997 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Performance.

Along the way, Chesky Records stands as the first company to use 128x Oversampling, and maximized the performance of A/D conversion to help pioneer High Resolution Recordings. They also sport a sister company, HDTracks.com, which allows users to purchase audiophile-grade downloads.

For those who want to listen deeper, Chesky Records launched their Binaural+ series of recordings, which are recorded in 192-kHz/24-bit sound with a Binaural dummy head, to capture the sound of music as you would if you were sitting in front of the band. Proof that the technique works comes in the form of new release like Interplay by the piano/vibes superduo Mark Sherman & Kenny Barron, and In an Ambient Way by Powerhouse (featuring the recently departed saxophonist Bob Belden).

As pure as his intentions are, David Chesky is not a man for all audio – nor is he trying to be. This is a person with strong opinions about sound, and the people who capture it for a living……

Why is important to you to hear a “pure” recording? Here’s the thing: I started out as a studio musician. I was in studios all day long as a conductor. I used to record an orchestra, there were 50 mics all over the place, and I thought that was weird – if you put your head into a trumpet

[where they were putting a microphone], it will blow your head off. But you don’t hear instruments like that. You hear them from a distance.

When we started this label, it was from the best seat in the house: the listener position. We started with the AKG 24, doing Blumlein recording. Then we did the Soundfield process, and now are doing binaural. All three of these are from one point, and that’s how it happens so you really get true imaging and correct phase.

I really believe that after two microphones, things go downhill for an acoustic recording. If you’re doing a rap or metal thing, anything goes.

What do you say to people who may beg to differ with that statement? Recording is an art. Just like you’ve got Italian restaurants, French restaurants, and you’ve also got fast food restaurants.

Our thing is recording real musicians in a real space. That being said, the best way do that is with two microphones and to balance the band, in my opinion. You can do that with a binaural head, or separated mics, and you get real true stereo separation.

But doing a pop record with 48 tracks, that’s a different thing, because you’re making the music in the board – that’s the creative process. That’s not our thing. We’re an Italian restaurant. We set up the black and white picture, and take the shot. That’s the whole thing……

How many people are on the team for the recordings? What’s special about the setup? I produce the record, but I’m very involved in the whole thing. Nicholas Prout is our recording engineer and mastering engineer. He kind of runs the show. The second engineer is Milton Ruiz, and the assistant engineer is Max Steen. We also hire interns for the day. The team is basically three people, plus an extra intern.

Here’s the process: If we’re recording on a Tuesday, then we get there on Monday, and do the sound check that day. We let the gear heat up all day, because I don’t like to record with cold gear. I’m really into physically stable stuff — the weird voodoo. We’ll go 11 AM to 11 PM, doing a record per day. We take a break for lunch.

So, say we set up on Monday. Tuesday do a record, Wednesday do a record, Thursday do a record. Once we get the mic set up, we can knock ‘em out.

Later on, the artist has to pick the takes. If there’s a mistake we have to edit that, do the tops and tails. There’s still work to be done, but it’s nice to get the recording completed. When you do a multi-track, you don’t spend a whole day in advance setting it up, unless you’re the Rolling Stones. It’s a different thing – an apples-and-oranges type thing.

What have you been learning about listening and recording, as you do more and more binaural projects? What’s the worst place to hear? Right in front of you! Because of your eyes. It’s hard to auto-locate sound there, but from the side you can hear better – you can auto-locate.

So, for example, instead of putting the head straight up, we tilted it, so we can focus it in. Also soundstage. If you tilt the binaural mic up, you can place the musicians in a different place in the soundstage. If you aim it, you can gently focus it.

But this is a learning process. These are the things we learn when we record. Every time we do it, we feel like we’ve learned something. You’re always on your toes and nervous. It’s flying without a net. All things have to be acoustically balanced for this to work……

Bringing on the Best Seat

You founded Chesky Records in 1988. Has being a label owner helped you to stay true to your musical roots? I do two things: I do classical and jazz. Jazz is like playing golf. Orchestra is like working at a factory, with lots of people, lots of rules. Jazz is like relaxing — it’s the opposite of that. It’s just a nice vibe to be in.

Classical is very precision, but jazz is about discovery. You never know what you’ll be playing the next note, which is kind of cool.

On another angle, soon we’ll be coming out with an album called “You’re Surrounded.” Its 360° sound, with instruments in the back of your head, just to prove we can do it.

Is the Chesky style a reaction to the way many other records are produced? Why is it important for you to make records with this “Chesky sound” available? It’s not a reaction. It’s just what we do. It started with me standing on a podium, conducting an orchestra saying, “Hey man, this is the best seat in the house!”

Why not do something from the perspective of the listener? It’s our trip. It’s our thing. It’s our flavor. Other people have their own flavor.

There’s a lot of discussion about whether or not “quality matters” when it comes to the music business. From a business standpoint, what do you have to say about that – what does the performance of Chesky Recordings Binaural + Series and HD Tracks tell you about that? Let me tell you something: We make Ferraris. That’s all we know, is quality. We’re not making fast food. My thing is quality. We have the best musicians, the best equipment. The Zen thing is about sound.

It seems like consumer education is very important. Do people need to experience better recordings, with the right playback, before they’ll understand the need for higher fidelity recordings?

We can’t do fast food because I don’t know how to do it. That’s not my thing. If you said, “Go make a rap record,” I wouldn’t know where to start. That’s just the difference.

Yes, you have to experience it. You have to go to a good stereo and hear it. I can tell you all I want, but you have to experience it.

When people go into an electronics store and see the big 4K TV, they say, “That’s cool.” It’s like the 13-inch black-and-white TV thing. It’s the same music, but a different experience.

– David Weiss”