• Grammy Winning Engineer Bill Schnee Talks To Computer Audiophile, Part 2

    In Part 2 of the Bill Schnee interview Bill continues talking about Bravura Records, Significance, and Schnee Studio.



    C.A. - Lets talk more about the importance of significance and its impact on Bravura Records.

    Schnee - I don't have to do this. I really want to do this. There are two aspects of significance for me with Bravura records.

    First is the significance of doing live music. In the beginning of music recording, everything was played live. By 1950 everything was being recorded on tape but was still done live in the studio. Actually, even in the early days of mono some people did sound on sound by using 2 mono machines… early overdubbing. I believe the first time was when someone doubled their lead vocal. Then with stereo and on to three-track, people got more inventive. When I came into the business as an artist with The LA Teens, we recorded a basic track on track one of a three-track, then overdubbed on track two, then bounced them both to track three adding yet another instrument, and so on. When we got to eight-track is really when things went bananas with versatility. It’s also when leakage became a bad word in the recording industry. (Leakage is the bleeding of one instrument into other microphone - Editor). Leakage had always been a part of the live sound. Eight-track was sold to producers as being more flexible with the ability to even change the arrangement when they mixed down to mono or stereo. Hypothetically, when they couldn’t take the drums out of an intro because you could still hear them in the piano, leakage became a really bad word. This was the beginning of the trend of building studios as dead boxes to help prevent leakage.

    We had 8 then 16, 24, finally 48 tracks on analog, and then the digital machines. We were supposed to be making more perfect records because we could perfect things (said tongue in cheek). Now with Pro Tools it's been taken to the nth degree. We correct the time of a drummer who can't play perfectly in time. We take a singer who can't sing in tune and correct their pitch, change their phrasing, even add or remove vibrato. The use of auto tune has gone out of control. All artists have gone nuts with it. Turn the radio on and just try to find an out of tune note. Even singers who really can sing won't stand for anything the least bit out of tune. Now they listen and say, “please fix it” - under the guise of making a more perfect vocal. I don’t believe the average person cares that much about perfect pitch. Teddy Pendergrass had a huge voice and a marvelous career. I remember one vocal where he sang a note and held it for over two bars that was almost half a tone flat. But his emotion and passion won the day!

    Another thing that’s gotten out of control is perfect time. This started in the early 80s with drum machines that play with perfect time – every time. Up until then, oftentimes a band might start at one tempo and raise it a bit as the song went on. One of my favorite bands, Earth Wind and Fire, has several examples of this. There are songs of theirs that might start off at say 108 beats per minute and yet end at 114 bpm. It wasn’t wrong… it was thrilling! As they played they got excited and took the listener on a ride with them. TMost of the time these days, if a tune starts at 108bpm, it ends at 108. Last time I checked, we aren't making music for robots. Robots may want complete perfection in pitch and timing, I don’t think we humans demand it. Passion and emotion are much more important. To me, it’s wrong to try to make more perfect recordings at the expense of emotional impact. A part of the significance of Bravura for me is to try to bring this all back to music by doing it live.

    Bravura will cover all genres of music… the common denominator being great talent performing live in the studio. What differentiates Bravura is it's all done live…. at least the first recordings. I want to do the impossible… involved records the pop world will really recognize. I very well may do some overdubbed records in the future, but for now everything is live. The first four artists I’ve done are all different, but will appeal primarily to people over 35. I thought it very important to make music for 20 year olds as well. So I went on a quest to find a young band that could actually record live. As you might imagine, this wasn’t an easy task. I asked every 20 year old I came in contact with if they knew of someone they thought could do it. Finally this summer, my newest intern gave me “the guy”. He’s a great songwriter and, most importantly, a great singer that can give a performance every time. I’m hoping he can build a fan base of college aged kids that will help spread Bravura through the social networks. I think the idea of artists live in the studio could become hip to the younger audience. Even in Mp3, the recordings will communicate the great feel of the live performances. The real truth of the matter is the average person may not know or care [about live recording] if they like the music. Bad sounding good music is always better than good sounding bad music. It's music first for me and then how good it sounds. If people don't like the music it doesn't matter how it sounds or that it was done live.

    The sound of the first Pro Tools system was just as bad as the digital dash recorders, but it has gotten better. I'll be the first to say, I finally had to buy Pro Tools for its production value. It’s an incredible production tool. But for all its production power, why aren't the pop records, my real world, more creative than they were 30 plus years ago when we had to struggle for everything?

    Another thing from the engineering standpoint is that now everyone making records has the same tool box. It used to be the producer selected an engineer because they all had a different ‘point of view.’ Then he selected a studio because they were all different acoustical spaces with different consoles and equipment. Now everyone has the same EQ and compressor plug ins, and the same dead box bedroom to record in! (Bill was very tongue in cheek with this comment) It really shows in what's going on in today’s recordings.

    The second aspect of significance is putting the Hi back in Fi.

    With the way records are being made and the overly compressed CD delivery format, the hifi of the 70s is all but gone. I'm so grateful as a 21 year old punk engineer that I was sent by my first employer to master with Doug Sax - who came from the world of HiFi. In his studio he had an extremely simple and transparent mastering console his brother had built. I went to work for CBS in 1970 and quickly found myself engineering Barbra Streisand. The speakers at CBS were Altec A7s with not much information over 8k. I remember going to Doug's house where he had a really good stereo system and he played my first Streisand album. The floor in his living room was a bit active and the low end was amazing. I had never heard anything like it before. Between the floor vibrating and the extended high frequencies, it really was amazing! Through my relationship with Doug, he taught me critical listening. I'll always be grateful for that education. It's always been exciting for me to have a transparent high end and a great low end… but good mid range may be the most important of all. I want it all, and I want the listener to be able to hear it all! So that’s the significance of HiFi for Bravura.

    C.A. - What's significant about your recording studio?

    Schnee - We built Schnee Studio thirty years ago as a real labor of love. It was a long time dream of my first mentor, Toby Foster and myself. I always say Toby taught me ‘everything I know’. He was very encouraging of my first recordings and believed in me long before I believed in myself. When I was in college, I would go to the studio where he worked and ask him hours of questions. He was very patient with me. I wish I was that patient with my interns. He’s also the one who told me in 1970 I should listen to the old tube microphones that everyone was getting rid of in favor of the new transistor ones. He knew then that newer wasn’t necessarily better. I now have a huge collection of vintage tube microphones worth in excess of $600,000, although I paid a very small fraction of that for them back in the 70s.

    Toby and I built the console from scratch with a lot of help from Steve Haselton, then design engineer for Sheffield Lab Records. By 1980 nobody was building their own consoles but I was convinced we could build a better mouse trap and I think we did. The console is all discrete and has a tube summing bus, solid state and tube mic preamps with the solid state preamps in the console and the tube ones out in the room. Toby, Steve, and I listened to everything that went into the console… including every switch and relay to pick the best ones we could find. It's one of the more HiFi studios ever built and I believe it’s very well regarded.

    Everything we’ve done in the studio is to get the most natural sound possible. Our theory was great sounding instruments in a great sounding room, picked up by great mics and then captured with as little electronics as possible will get the most natural sound. There are plenty of ‘boxes’ out there if you want to mess up the sound… make it less natural. The concept of the studio on paper was the best of old and the best of new - all the vintage tube gear, mics, and compressors and the best of what was new in 1980. In some ways Bravura Records seems like the fulfillment of the studio’s original concept. The best of old meaning live recording… the way everything was done until multi-track came along in the 60s, and the best of new – meaning 24/192 digital. Doug Sax had taught me that in analog electronics, less is more. That was our mantra in building our console. Todays most popular recording consoles, SSL and Neve, have more amplifiers in one input module than there are in our entire console. There are tons of features on popular recording consoles. For a feature you might use 10 percent of the time, you go through additional electronics 100 percent of the time. We made a decision in designing the console that this was not a good trade off. I would rather have to patch up an effect I use 10 percent of the time than push a button for it, if the other 90 percent of the time I’m going through the electronics needed for that effect.

    C.A. - Let's talk about 24/192. In the HiFi world there is some talk about not needing a sampling frequency over 96k. In fact some engineers have suggested the optimal sampling rate is in the 60-70 kHz range. Why are you going all the way to 24/192 and do you think it's better than say 24/96?

    Schnee - No doubt a great 44.1 converter can sound better than a mediocre one at 192. I believe all things being equal, 192k sounds better. I find an edginess in digital that's gone in 192…at least with Josh’s converter. I also look at it another way. Whatever stream you use - 44.1 or 48k - it seems to sound better the higher you go. So why not? Is 48 better than 96? If someone says yes, then we have a problem. If they say 96k is better, then I say why not double it?

    C.A. - What do you mean when you say 192k is better?

    Schnee - Better in that sense means more accurate. From a guy that from the beginning has had serious reservations about digital, I could always tell the difference in my studio right away when listening between an analog stereo mix and a 96k capture. Now since I can't tell the difference between a live mic feed and a 192k capture using the JCF converter, this digital is a great mirror with no artifacts. The most accurate is the best.

    C.A. - It's not cheap to do what you're doing. Let's discuss cost and the final product. Some people are used to $0.99 cent tracks.

    Schnee - A lot goes into making these recordings at the level I’m doing it. To get the A+ or the last five percent of anything, the cost doesn't go up proportionally… it's logarithmic. When you get to the last few percentages at the top, it goes through the roof. Paying artists, musicians, and publishing, paying the engineers, booking the studio with all the expensive custom equipment all costs money. Bravura seeks no compromise in recording. The lengths that go into this are far greater than the average recording.

    I suppose perceived value is the bottom line. If you can find something that sonically does it for you that’s inexpensive, that’s great. If someone can find an orchestra recording that sounds like Reference Recordings' HRx for 99 cents, then buy them all and tell me so I can as well. The true audiophile community spends a lot of money to reproduce sound. I was told at this show I could sell my tracks for $15 a piece. Rest assured, I’m not going there. If a guy has spent $100,000 on a system, he can afford that. But I think about the guy that loves great sounding music just as much but can only afford say a $5000 system. He can’t handle a $150 album, but probably can do $45 for a super hi rez recording that moves him emotionally and lights up his speakers.

    I’m also planning on having detailed information and some great packaging on the hi rez versions. I want to go back to the early days of stereo where several labels had fold out jackets that showed their particular way of recording stereo. When I first got into buying LPs I loved looking at this information and the drawings they gave. I didn't understand it all at first, but loved it nonetheless. I want to provide all the geek stuff about the recording and information about the artist. Everyone loves the behind the scenes view. I'm proud of what I'm doing and want to provide all this to the consumer. On Blu-ray you can have this on screen or on LP you can have a fold out jacket. (I interject telling Bill that releasing a PDF with all of this information is easier and highly desirable for CA readers). The next step will be offering an HD video covering the making of each album.

    (Talking to Bill about the need for serious funding he said that everything done thus far for Bravura Records has been accomplished because of who he is and knows. He didn't say this in an egotistical way at all, rather very matter of fact. He said the best artists don't come cheap and rightly so.)

    (At this point of the interview Prof. Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings came by and sat next to Bill. Keith was unaware I was conducting an interview and tried to make an express exit after seeing Bill talk into the Nagra recorder. We encouraged Keith to stay put for as long as he wanted. This paid off as Keith offered a few great points about audio during the interview.)

    Keith Johnson - You know an exceptionally good recording is going to upgrade a high end system like nothing else.

    Schnee - You will change speakers and components over the years, yet you can listen to a piece of digital music for life. On a new better system that music will sound even better.

    C.A. - What about a timeline for Bravura Records' Releases? Two months or ten Years?

    Schnee – I’m not sure at this point… I’m still working out all the details. I’m hoping for the third quarter next year with at least eight releases. But I really want to do it the right way and that may take more time. I’m thinking now about a Christmas present preview for the audiophile community… like what the Beatles did for their fan club back in the 60s. A 192/24 free download from one or more of the artists. Let’s see if I can pull it off!

    C.A. - Is there anything we missed or that you want to talk about before heading to the airport?

    Schnee –When I said I am very grateful for coming under the tutelage of Doug Sax…. please be sure to print that.

    I really want to do this (Bravura) to make my footprint. I’m very concerned for the future of recording. With the major record labels on life support, great studios are going under every day. Without the studio apprenticeship program, where are the great engineers going to come from in the next 20 years? Recording schools? I think not. Anyone will tell you they only get someone started. The real learning has always come by watching the masters at work and then by doing it themselves. That’s what I did… that’s what Al (Schmitt) did… Elliot (Scheiner) did the same. I want in my small way to continue to spawn people to carry the torch of well engineered music through my apprenticeship program at the studio. HiFi is in serious trouble if nobody is out there to make great recordings. More people are making music and more people are buying music than ever before in history. Musical instruments and hard disc recorders for the home musician are selling like hotcakes. Everyone is doing great, except the professionals. Today you make it all the way to the top to find there’s no employment. How sad is that?

    In a world of HD television, why do we have LD music? It's so wrong.


    I want to sincerely thank Bill Schnee for his time over the last few weeks and his contributions to the great sounding, great music I've enjoyed thousands of times over the years.

    Schnee Studio
    Bravura Records
    The Mastering Lab
    Sheffield Lab
    JCF Audio


    (Image Curtesy of Bill Schnee)


    Part 1 of Bill Schnee Interview [Link]
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. zerung's Avatar
      zerung -
      Bravo Bill Schnee.<br />
      <br />
      Fantastic POV. Thanks Chris for bringing this to the masses.<br />
      <br />
      If Bill says that the digital and analogue divide is negligible, I will bite. I look forward to Bravura Records release, hopefully around Christmas?<br />
      <br />
      Looking forward to Christmas!
    1. dallasjustice's Avatar
      dallasjustice -
      Hopefully there will be a download code included in his discs. I really don't want to learn how to rip Blurays to MKV onto my hard drive; sounds like a lot of work.
    1. barrows's Avatar
      barrows -
      and Chris for bringing this to our attention. My sincere hope is that Bill can get some of the best musicians to record with him.<br />
      I found his take on tempo and ProTools very interesting. Daniel Levitan (author of "This Is Your Brain On Music") discusses tempo quite a bit, and has researched how humans respond to tempo variations. His findings indicate that humans "lock in" to music more when the tempo is not perfect, and that this tendency is what many musicians might refer to as "groove". Certainly Jazz (and many advanced rock) drummers are well aware of this, and try to connect with listeners and other players through the modulation of tempo.<br />
      Using ProTools to get everything perfectly on the beat, and at an even tempo is likely to kill music, as would recording referencing click tracks, or perfect drum machines.
    1. francisleung's Avatar
      francisleung -
      Chris, many thanks for the educational article that I will no doubt read again and again!<br />
      If I understanding it correctly, Master Schnee is also making two points that I put forward in Superior Sounding Recordings:<br />
      1. that 24/192 sounds better than 24/96;<br />
      2. that the music industry is degenerating into lower quality MP3. To save hifi, he starts his label and passes on his skills to future generations. As a small potato, I could only advocate in my piece that audiophiles buy DVD-R discs from small labels to help them survive. <br />
      Chris, you mentioned "Keith offered a few great points about audio during the interview." But there is only one in the article "Keith Johnson - You know an exceptionally good recording is going to upgrade a high end system like nothing else." Would you please dig out from your recorder the other great points for us as well. <br />
      I always question the wisdom of buying expensive DACs during their present evolving stage. One that was bought a couple of years ago is now trashed by another in the market at only a fraction of the price. But superior recordings such as HRx and 2L DXD will sound better (gain value) when hardware improves progressively.
    1. ted_b's Avatar
      ted_b -
      would have done to the incredible music from Little Feat?? They would cease to exist. Lowell and the boys could have given a sh$% about perfect tempo; they were about perfect synch (i.e the band stayed together as one voice) in a raw tempo-changing swirl of blues and rock, with a little jazz, folk and country (ouch!) thrown in. Richie Hayward's biggest single gift to humanity was to change tempos almost instantaneously..with whatever mood Lowell was in when songwriting and/or improvising.<br />
      <br />
      How about Dylan or Neil or Tom Waits with auto tune??? Argh!!
    1. rms's Avatar
      rms -
      Ted B, Barrows, you guys are right on. Music needs to breathe and swing to groove. As a musician I can tell you it's no fun to play to a click track. I practice with a click or drum machine when my drummer is not around but I never record or play live that way. If you happen to be working with Will Lee and Anton Fig in the studio then you will probably still get a great track if you make them play to a click. But there is no doubt it would be a lot better if you tell them to just go for it. And I would love to have heard what Lowell George would have said if a producer had ever told him he had to play to a click!<br />
      <br />
      Fortunately, I mainly listen to jazz and classical these days and there are many great artists making quality recordings. Some of those recordings are captured entirely live in the studio or on stage and are not overly compressed or mastered hot.<br />
      <br />
      However, it's really appalling to me what has happened to our music in general in this country. Like Bill said a lot of the artistry has been destroyed. And why have people accepted such crappy quality in the writing, production, and playback of our music? Why are we not supporting artists who are writing and performing great original works and the live sound and recording engineers who help us to appreciate the artists creations? How sad is it, as Bill said, that an artist or engineer can be at the top of their profession and not be able to make a living?<br />
      <br />
      I don't have any answers to my questions and I'm sure this isn't the place for it anyway. The only thing I can do is to say a huge thank you to Bill for taking a stand for quality and artistry. I will be buying all your work and making sure that everyone I know who enjoys great music (which is just about everyone I know) also purchases your recordings.
    1. ajay556's Avatar
      ajay556 -
      In the world of fast foods, sugar drinks, track homes, indoor malls and home grown music, we need to support pure creativity for the few who demand it. Its nice to hear we our applying that same concept to recording. I am really excited and looking forward to it. I hope this is a huge success financially so other labels will follow.<br />
      <br />
      Thanks again....this is big news to write home about....