Bigger, stronger, faster is the motto of many athletes. While these athletes may be popular and frequently featured on ESPN's nightly highlight reel, they are missing the most important facet of any game - mental ability, brains, or smarts. The best athletes in the world - the athletes with Hall of Fame records, the athletes who remain significant for decades - are the athletes who outsmart the others. For example, Wayne Gretzky is the best hockey player to ever live. He was the weakest guy on the team in terms of physical strength, skating speed, and the power of his slapshot. What separated him from all the others was his mental capacity to study the game, refine his game, and outsmart his opponents beyond what anyone thought possible. He didn't fall for the latest fads or trends in the game. He created trends other players would follow for decades. Wayne didn't think like the rest of the herd.
In the music business, newer, louder, compressed, and good enough quality is the motto of those who've fallen into the trappings of a quick paycheck and the short-lived notoriety that comes with producing or engineering a historically insignificant hit. This lack of attention to detail and quality, not only sound quality but quality musicianship, is equivalent to taking the easy road instead of learning the craft, refining it over the years, and challenging one's self to make a better product. When a pop engineer makes statements like, "It's better to sound new than to sound good." "I disagree thoroughly that 44.1/16 sounds inferior." and "Old guys spending their time trying to sound good have become irrelevant - we only ever see them at the Grammys when they receive bullshit awards for things that don't matter any more" it's no wonder that Comedian Chris Rock correctly described the mainstream music industry as "Here today gone today."
Then there are veteran engineers like Doug Sax, Al Schmitt, and Bill Schnee who've been perpetually honing their craft longer than some of today's engineers have been walking. Al Schmitt has seven Grammys for Best Engineering working with artists like Henry Mancini, Steely Dan, Natalie Cole, Quincy Jones, and Diana Krall. Doug Sax has mastered some very significant albums for artists including Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Pink Floyd, Diana Krall, and Ray Charles. Producer, engineer and mix master Bill Schnee has been nominated for eleven Grammys, winning twice for Steely Dan's Gaucho and Aja. Additional hardware lining Bill's walls comes from an Emmy Award for Best Sound Mixing for a Variety Special, 85 gold records, 50 platinum projects and 50 top twenty singles. The projects these (who some would call) "old guys" have been part of are arguably some of the most significant popular recordings in recent memory.
Bill Schnee (Credits) started in the music business with his band, The LA Teens, who signed a record deal right out of high school. Bill now admits the band lacked foresight when using a name that once described all band members and would quickly describe none. Schnee attended college and law school before settling in as an audio engineer. Bill, unlike some engineers who purchase their way into the business with the best equipment of the day, has an incredible gift. He often gives thanks to a higher power for blessing him with such an incredible talent and for falling under the tutelage of Doug Sax at a young age. Schnee is a very humble person who requires a little verbal prodding to talk about himself and his accomplishments. In fact he couldn't name five of the last major artists he'd worked with… not because the projects were duds, but because he doesn't define himself by name dropping or reliving the past.
Bill's newest endeavor for which he has a tremendous amount of energy and zeal is Bravura Records. He will record ‘real talent in real time’ live to two-track on a custom built console in arguably the best studio in Los Angeles. Everything about the albums to be released from Bravura is first class. Native 24/192 recordings, musicians with impeccable talent, personally commissioned A to D and D to A converters - all engineered by one of the best in the business. Those fortunate enough to hear Bill's demonstration at RMAF 2010 know exactly what I'm writing about. This is great music and great sound. There's no Swedish Nose Whistle album at 24/192 coming from Bill ever. He even joked to me about some audiophiles listening to sticks breaking at high resolution. The conversation was in jest, but the point was not lost. If we had the best music, the best talent, and the best sound, we could burn the unbroken sticks without recording their demise at 24/192. One thing is abundantly clear when talking to Bill about Bravura. He's not in this for the money. Schnee could hang up his proverbial headphones at any time. However, he is concerned about an industry that's losing the craft of high quality live recording. This industry has shunned intern programs capable of turning out the next generation of engineers that care about quality and understand how to achieve this quality. Bravura Records is about significance for Bill Schnee.
What follows is Part 1 of my interview with Bill conducted October 17, 2010 in Denver, CO.
Computer Audiophile - When did you know you had something special with high resolution digital?
Bill Schnee - When I did the first Direct to Disc record in 1973 for Sheffield Labs it was the most fun I'd ever had in the studio. Mind you, I had only been professional in the studio for four years at that point. It's still pretty amazing they allowed a 26 year old punk to go in and do that (Direct to Disc) but they did and it was the most fun I’d ever had. I knew right then I wanted to do more of it. So I asked them a year later if I could produce a record and use a vocalist. This was something they had never done since Sheffield was conceived to be Lincoln Mayorga's personal label for his own recordings. They allowed me to do Thelma Houston and Pressure Cooker and it was a ground breaking record because it gave HiFi a kick in the pants. Years later, after CDs came in, Sheffield did do some live to two-track recordings, but for whatever reason Sheffield's virtual demise came about in the late 1980s.
At the end of the 90s I decided I missed the whole live recording thing from the stand point of the excitement and process and capturing of real live performances. I started a quest, not too deep at the time, to get my own live music label started. When independent financing fell through I basically gave it up.
Then a little over two years ago, the design engineer I had used for other things in the studio, Josh Florian, built a D to A converter for my Pro Tools rig and it was unbelievably great. These are now the D to A converters Doug Sax uses at The Mastering lab for mastering files. Not being a big fan of Pro Tools, for normal pop or jazz recordings I do everything I can to make it sound better. I come out of Pro Tools analog and I need to store the mixes somewhere. Analog tape was giving me so much grief with quality control that I started with digital storage - first at 96k, then to 1-bit DSD with an Ed Meitner converter. I was fairly happy with 1-bit, but it was Doug Sax that kept pushing for me to consider straight stream again at 192k.
So, I commissioned Josh Florian to build me a converter specifically for 192k music. Josh explained to me the compromises with a lot of converters, even when handling sampling frequencies that are up the same stream - 44.1, 88.2, 176.4 or 48, 96, 192k. Josh had a converter idea based on older technology that had been abandoned… a very different topology from Sigma Delta (DACs). He went to work on the experiment and brought it to the studio. It sounded incredible. The next album I mixed both to 1-bit (DSD) and 24/192k with this JCF converter. We took both versions to The Mastering Lab. Doug Sax and I compared them blind folded. Both of us picked the 192k version every time. Not that 1-bit was bad, but the 192 was just better. Doug was so impressed that he suggested I test it with live musicians in the studio, which is the best test of anything, and see what I come up with. So I went in the studio with Kleber Jorge, the guitarist from Sergio Mendez's band and a small rhythm section including a flute. Kleber was singing and playing the guitar which I mic'd in MS or mid side. It's a different way of looking at stereo. I had a very nice sounding acoustical recording going on, coming in ‘through the glass.’ My studio has a custom discrete console that we built, tube mic pre amps and a tube summing amp. I have a great deal of resolution in my studio… much more I feel than most. I could switch from the stereo bus - the live Mic feed - to the sound coming through the 192 JCF converter and back. I couldn't hear the difference. That was the first time ever I hadn't been able to pick the digital instantly in my studio. I knew right then that we had something incredibly good.
I did the first test, then a second test and a third. These ‘tests’ were all done with different musicians I called to come in and participate. The tests really became something more when Billy Woodman - the owner of ATC Speakers in England - came in and heard the recordings. He then asked me to be the central focus of his private show room at the Audio Engineering Society (AES) show.
C.A. - Your original idea was to release Bravura Records' albums on Blu-ray. Can you talk about this and why Blu-ray?
Schnee - All that was in our heads (Doug’s and mine) was the idea of getting a HiFi format for the world… for those who want it. I figured at the time Blu-ray made the most sense, especially if you’re thinking not just of the HiFi community but of the world at large. (To a lot of people, admittedly to a real HiFi enthusiast, this is eyebrow raising, perception reality.) People with Blu-ray players already have the ability to play better quality music than they ever have. Their system may be laughable from a true HiFi perspective. But these people might go to someone’s house who does have a really good system and hear hi rez music from a Blu-ray and get excited about music again. With perception being reality, they would want to buy Blu-ray music for their (lesser) system. That’s why I was thinking Blu-ray in the beginning and still haven't ruled it out. Talking to people at RMAF gave me opinions for everything… Blu-ray, files, DVD-R, LP etc.
So we went to the head of Blu-ray at Sony in Culver City, CA who is a fan of good quality audio as well. He offered to render a Blu-ray disc of some of my recordings for us to do some experiments with. At the time, he said Sony wasn't interested in pursuing a music only Blu-ray disc. But he did want to introduce us to Chris Walker, the head of Blu-ray at Pioneer. They’re a smaller company who’s always been about quality with their Elite series. I called Chris who said he wanted to come in and bring Andrew Jones, the designer of TAD loudspeakers, who has better ears than himself. The two came to The Mastering Lab in Ojai, CA, like Billy Woodman had, to hear the recordings. Chris and Andrew flipped out over what they heard. They then offered to put the Pioneer marketing team behind an effort at CES to run demos using these recordings in the TAD room. I would give presentations twice a day throughout show. The Press Release said the pioneers of Sheffield Lab were wanting a new HiFi format on Blu-ray. Sunny Nam of The Mastering Lab came to CES in place of Doug Sax. Sunny is the greatest and has been with me on this through it all.
So we went to CES and did the demos. At CES the people (like here at RMAF) were coming up to me and asking how to purchase the music, asking to buy it now, or at least to sell them a download. That's when I realized downloads were a distinct possibility. I still had the vision of a stereotypical audiophile who doesn't want a computer near the listening room. Thinking about the release format is difficult. After Vegas is when I got started thinking more and more about starting a record company. So I went back to the three artists I made the tests with and finished their records and started on the 4th, 5th, and 6th records.
C.A. - Can you elaborate on your motives for putting together Bravura records.
Schnee - I had a friend who told me about ten years ago that men will go through the 3 “S” stages of searching.
- 1. Survival – A young man goes out on his own worrying about how he is going to survive.
- 2. Success – After he’s comfortable paying his bills, he starts to seek success - whatever that means for him. Not necessarily “bright lights” – maybe just a good marriage, promotions in his job… that kind of thing.
- 3. Significance – With ‘success’ under his belt, he now wants to do something of significance. This is where I am now with Bravura. I really want to offer better quality sound than is generally available and live music in the studio is the best way I know of doing that.
I'm not saying Grammy nominations and Gold records aren't significant. But significance to me is something more… of leaving your footprint. That's what I really want to do.
For some time, I’ve been very upset with where sound delivery has gone… from the LP to the CD, to the overly compressed CD, and now to the overly compressed MP3. Today, most 14 year olds have never even heard a CD. There is much more to music than that. It's incredibly sad since good music and good sound have always been such a big part of my life. My 14 year old daughter is my closest reference with her ear buds and docking station.
Something I’m hoping to do with Bravura is get people to become a captive audience again…really listen and absorb an entire album. With the LP, you were forced to be captive while the LP played. People even sat down when they listened to an LP! With the CD, you could then program only your favorite cuts. Now with Mp3, you only buy your favorite cuts. In the 70s, oftentimes the ‘album cuts’… the ones that would never get on the radio… would become my favorite ones. There should be an ‘ebb and flow’ to an album. It’s great when an album takes you on a journey where the artist leads you.
Now the iPod has put more music in people’s ears than ever before. But it has allowed music to become background… something you listen to while doing something else. I’d like to bring the captive audience back. I certainly can't force it, but will suggest the first time listening to a Bravura record, that the listener sit down and listen top to bottom and absorb everything the artist is trying to communicate. One time, please.
Part 2 of Bill Schnee Interview [Link]