A NAIM OF NOTE

Recording For The Naim Label

Published in SOS June 2001
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People + Opinion : Industry / Music Biz

You may know Naim as a UK-based hi-fi manufacturer, but they also own a record label, and apply the same esoteric standards to the records they release as they do to their audio equipment. Phil Ward investigates the label's obsession with sound and explains their recording and mastering techniques.

It's remarkable that there is so little cross-fertilisation and cooperation between the hi-fi and recording industries, especially when you consider how badly they need each other in these days of ubiquitous lossy compression and on-line audio delivery. But then the relationship between the two industries has always been a touch frosty. Each side has historically seemed to view the other as a tolerable bunch of well-meaning amateurs at best and at worst as a hoard of dangerous loonies to be vilified at every opportunity. So it's a brave hi-fi company which becomes directly involved in the music recording process, thus deliberately putting itself in a position where it no longer has the excuse of "poor recording quality" to blame for any less-than-wonderful sounds which might emanate from its gear. It's particularly risky if the company has based its brand and business on a philosophy of putting the highest-possible sound quality first, second, and third.

Of course, many high-quality hi-fi companies have lent their logos to the odd CD over the years for hi-fi marketing purposes. But only two, Linn Products and Naim Audio, have kept at it and reached a stage where they can justifiably claim to be independent, artist-signing, music-recording and CD-producing labels in their own right. That doesn't mean they've lost sight of the value of the CD as a marketing tool for high-end hi-fi — they can't afford to — but rather that the recording, production and selling of music has become a self-sustaining, semi-detached business.

What's In A Naim?

The Naim Label didn't start as a marketing man's clever ploy. It began as a hobby and went on to be driven by discontent with commercial CDs. The company's founder, Julian Vereker MBE (1945-2000), was an enthusiastic recorder of friends' musical efforts in his youth, and it was dissatisfaction with commercially available equipment that convinced him to try his hand at amplifiers. So, once Naim Audio was well established and successful, the label represented to some extent a return to Vereker's first love. But it takes more than just revisiting a hobby to make a successful CD label, and it was Naim's then-Sales Manager (now joint Managing Director) Paul Stephenson who convinced Vereker that the Naim Label could be commercially viable, profitable and be a fun thing to do for real. Vereker took on the technical issues, while Stephenson handled A&R, distribution and sales.

Soon after the first Naim CD player was designed and launched in the early '90s, the company found itself as arguably the leading advocate for the format among the seriously analogue, 'flat-earth' die-hards. A problem in those early days, however, was finding CDs technically and musically good enough for Naim to demonstrate to the doubters that the silver disc really could satisfy the vinyl disciples. So, in the same way that Vereker had begun making his own amplifiers when he was unhappy with the existing commercial products, he now set about producing CDs. To begin with, he focused on mastering issues. Even to those convinced from the start by CD, it was obvious that early discs often lost something in the transfer, compared to vinyl. To Vereker, this pointed inescapably to things going wrong in CD mastering, so he set about identifying the problems and trying to put them right. To accomplish this, he got hold of the original two-track masters of one of the company's favourite vinyl demo records: Electric Glide by Gary Boyle, a little-known '70's jazz-rock workout. Using mechanical isolation, digital signal handling and analogue filtering techniques developed for the original Naim CD player, and with the help of London mastering house Finesplice, Electric Glide was remastered for CD. Nearly everybody that heard it wanted a copy (despite its fairly un-hip content), and the Naim Label was, well, half-born.

  Classical Production Values  
  Naim generally record classical sessions without a producer, leaving the musicians on a session to fall back on their instincts and self-produce. The role of a producer on a classical session traditionally carries with it much better-defined and more rigorous responsibilities than on a pop or perhaps a jazz session. With classical instruments and material, especially in small ensembles, and even with the finest players, there are always going to be issues of dynamics, timing, intonation, interpretation and performance that require fine judgements to be made. The producer's role is to follow the score as recording takes place, make note of the points at which problems arise, arbitrate between musicians, advise on interpretation and style and generally to help make the tough artistic decisions ("is that take with the slightly flat 'B' in bar 18 better than the technically perfect one that felt a little too sterile... ?"). With musicians self-producing, although there are usually fewer and longer takes of various sections, more of the difficult decisions are likely to be revisited at the mastering stage. A classically trained mastering engineer with the ability to read notation is then invaluable.  

Direct-To-Stereo Recording

The other factor in the birth of the label was serendipity. Ken Christianson is a partner at one of Naim's most successful US dealers, and just happens to count some distinguished US jazz musicians among his friends, for example accomplished double bass player Charlie Haden. Ken is also a recording engineer, and a single-minded and enthusiastic practitioner of the art of 'purist' direct-to-stereo recording.

  Ken Christianson Equipment List  
  • Nagra 4S running at 7.5ips with 3M 996 tape.
• Matched pair of 1978 vintage AKG 4414EBs.
• Philips consumer CD recorder.
• Sony portable DAT.
• Naim Hi-Cap power supply.
• Naim Headline headphone amplifiers (several).
• Beyer DT931 headphones (several).
 
Christianson's approach is founded on the philosophy that recording is utterly subordinate to music and has only one purpose — to capture a performance as accurately and transparently as possible. Although editing and mastering is carried out digitally on the Sonic Solutions system at Finesplice, Christianson remains convinced that analogue tape without noise reduction still provides an engineer's best shot at capturing good raw material. A typical Christianson recording setup for anything up to a small acoustic jazz or classical group consists only of a venerable matched pair of AKG 414EBs and an ageing Nagra 4S stereo reel-to-reel recorder running at 7.5 inches-per-second (ips). Recording takes place onto seven-inch reels of 3M 966 tape, which is no longer manufactured, but Christianson has a good few years' worth hidden away. For quick replay and review during sessions and for easier identification of takes, he runs a Philips consumer CD-R or Sony DAT machine in parallel with the Nagra.

Running the Nagra at 7.5ips means that low-frequency accuracy is maximised and it may be that the consequently slightly shy top end compensates for the relatively bright nature of the AKG mics — although Christianson is unconvinced by this theory. The only mic preamps used are the Nagra's own and Christianson's only concession to making life a little easier is to use the Nagra's record level limiters (although he does apparently prefer the sound with limiters rather than without). Microphone placement and format tends to be modified to suit the particular project and recording space, but generally, for a small group, the AKGs are likely to be around two and a half metres from the floor, spaced about 250mm apart, angled downwards towards the group and outwards around 110 degrees.

With the option of 'fixing it in the mix' absolutely non-existent (to say nothing of Christianson's distaste for such practices — he considers even gentle EQ to be the Devil's work), the sound of the band, room and in particular how the band, mics and room integrate are the vital factors in capturing a good result. Christianson will take enormous care in selecting the acoustic space, setting up musicians and listening — not to the output of the mics, but to the band itself. He works tirelessly with the layout of the musicians and orientation of their instruments to get the right instrumental and tonal balance. It seems obvious to him that if the sound of the band in the room is good, he stands the best chance of capturing it on tape. In his opinion, tiny shifts in the position of an instrument can produce startling changes in sound and he so he behaves almost like a photographer composing and framing his shot, with the mics and recorder as his acoustic camera. Only once he is happy with the sound and balance of the music in the room will he listen to the mic output and make a few balance test recordings on DAT or CD-R. He then makes small adjustments to mic positions, primarily to fine-tune the overall tonal balance and level of room ambience. According to Ken, changes of just 100mm in the height or distance of the microphones can radically influence the perspective and ambient feel of a recording.

Christianson's unconventional approach to recording doesn't end with a tape full of music. Mastering from the Nagra to a production-ready Exabyte tape is a similarly idiosyncratic process. With a few refinements, it's the same process developed by Julian Vereker for the Gary Boyle CD. The first step is the production of a transfer CD-R of the complete session tapes minus any definitely fluffed or unsuitable takes. The CD-R is produced on a Naim-modified Philips recorder — one of the first CD-R machines, and in Naim's view, never bettered. The transfer CD is then replayed at Finesplice on a modified Naim CDS player stripped of its analogue stages and fitted with a digital output. The resultant S/PDIF signal is then fed directly into Sonic Solutions for editing, level optimisation, ambience matching (ie. picking sections of background noise to insert between tracks and edits), compiling and finally mastering to a Exabyte tape. The relationship between Naim and Finesplice goes all the way back to the Gary Boyle project, when Vereker was searching for a professional mastering studio that was both utterly committed to sound quality and yet open-minded enough to accept some unconventional working methods. Finesplice had (and has) an industry-wide reputation for musical sensitivity in editing and mastering, and so fitted Vereker's requirements exactly. It's not surprising the relationship has endured.

  Naim Label Highlights  
 
• CHARLIE HADEN & CHRIS ANDERSON — NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART

An archetypal Ken Christianson recording of a jazz duo in a large, sumptuous environment — Cami Hall in New York. It was Haden's request to do a CD of standards with blind, disabled pianist Chris Anderson. Anderson, 71 years old when the recording took place, is one of those secretive, hidden greats of American jazz — revered by his fellow jazz musicians, but destined through the vagaries and injustices of the music business never to have made it into the public consciousness.

• CHRIS ANDERSON & SABINA SCIUBBA — YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT LOVE IS

Recorded at Avatar (previously The Power Station) in New York by Ken Christianson and Peter Williams. Originally intended to be a live, two-microphone recording of piano, double bass, drums and voice, with the balance between band and singer determined entirely by the physical layout of each instrument with respect to the mics. In the end, however, the recording employed overdubs on an analogue multitrack as well as direct-to-stereo recording, because the acoustic layout needed for the two-mic balance made communication and sight-lines between musicians impossible.

• JANVIER JONES — SOUL SEARCHING

One of the largest direct-to-stereo projects for Naim, recorded by Ken Christianson. The drums and percussion were recorded by a pair of AKG C414 mics, while the bass, guitar, and Rhodes piano were recorded in a booth by a further pair of 414s. There was a DI for an ancient Minimoog, and a booth with one singer each side of an AKG414. Everything was mixed live to Christianson's Nagra 4S with just a touch of analogue plate reverb on the vocals.

 

From Fairlights To Finesplice

A glance through the Naim Label catalogue reveals many discs that very obviously were not recorded by Ken Christianson with only two microphones — such as those featuring Italian guitarist Antonio Forcione. These CDs were recorded by Peter Williams, a Dublin-born engineer whose 20-year career in music goes right back to growing up in the same village as U2's Edge and Adam Clayton.

However, Williams decided to seek fame and fortune in London, where he could indulge his passion for the use of computers in music production. Thus his route into the music business and recording was not through playing but through programming a Fairlight CMI. Expertise with the Fairlight brought a flood of work in the early '80s and, at the age of 23, a co-directorship at Dublin's Windmill Lane Studios [home, unsurprisingly, to many U2 recording sessions — Ed] where he put together one of the first dedicated computer/synth studios. Around that time, while visiting a Dublin hi-fi exhibition, Williams remembers getting involved in a heated argument with two opinionated exhibitors over the sound of CD. They were Naim's Julian Vereker and Ivor Tiefenbrun of Linn. Moving on from Windmill Lane, Williams founded Rope Walk, Dublin's first 32-track digital studio. Since 1997, he has worked freelance with his Pro Tools and exotic analogue studio setup, known as The Zerosphere (see gear list elsewhere in this article).

  Peter Williams/The Zerosphere Equipment List  
  RECORDING
• AKG C414 mic.
• Digidesign Pro Tools Mix Plus with Pro Control hardware control surface and 888/24 A-D interface.
• Fairlight CMI Series III.
• Fairlight MFX 24-track digital audio workstation.
• Fostex MS stereo printed ribbon mic.
• Naim DBL loudspeakers.
• Naim NAC52 preamp.
• Naim SBL loudspeakers.
• Neumann U87 mic.
• Speiden SF12 stereo ribbon mic.
• Tascam DA45 HR DAT.

COMPUTER & SOFTWARE
• Apple G4/450MHz Macintosh with 60Gb internal hard disk & Exabyte drive.

OUTBOARD & PROCESSING
• Avalon Audio VT737 valve channels (x2).
• Crookwood Paint Pot dual mic preamp.
• Drawmer 1960 valve EQ.
• Drawmer Spectral compressor.
• TL Audio eight-channel valve line driver.

KEYBOARDS & MODULES
• Korg Prophecy.
• Roland JD800.
• Waldorf Microwave.

MISC
• Digidesign USD synchroniser.
• Naim CDSII CD player.
• Naim custom five-way headphone distribution system.
• Naim NAP135 power amplifiers (x2).
• Naim NAP500 power amplifier.
• Naim Supercap power supply.

 
The argument with Vereker and Tiefenbrun at that Dublin exhibition was a classic example of the gulf that sometimes exists between the recording engineer's approach to recorded music, and that of hi-fi enthusiasts or designers. Where recording engineers hear clarity, precision and accuracy, hi-fi enthusiasts sometimes hear cold sterility. And where hi-fi enthusiasts hear an emotional, involving warts-and-all performance, recording engineers sometimes hear an amateurish muddle. With hindsight, it's obvious that the arrival of CD was going to do nothing but polarise opinions still further. But rather than remaining entrenched in their opposing positions, some 15 years later Julian Vereker and Peter Williams found themselves brought together through Naim's first Antonio Forcione CD. Forcione himself had suggested that Williams engineer the sessions, and so the non-traditionally trained recording engineer and the arch hi-fi radical found themselves working together with a common goal. And as Williams himself explains, there's nothing like a shared goal to break down suspicion and enable former protagonists to cooperate and learn. And they did. According to Peter, he learned that while hi-fi has its share of misguided amateurs (and pro-audio doesn't?), it also boasts many well-grounded, talented engineers with valid and surprising points to make about the reproduction of music. He admits to being astonished at the differences in sound that can result from, for example, alternative CD-mastering processes. Tracks from a recent Naim release, Thea Gilmore's Lipstick Conspiracies (a project taken over by Naim at the mix stage) were used recently to trial different mastering processes. The following different procedures were followed with the same material all the way from the 24-bit Pro Tools mix through to the production-pressed CD:

• Pro Tools 16-bit recording, dithered via the TC Works MasterX plug-in to CD-R, then to Sonic Solutions;

• Pro Tools to Tascam DA45HR 24-bit DAT, then to Sonic Solutions;

• Pro Tools to Sonic Solutions via Philips CD-R recorder and Naim CDS digital playback.

Trial CDs were made of the various sources and the unanimous winner, judged by listeners with no knowledge of which CD was which, was the 24-bit DAT based transfer. This was then mastered using Sonic Solutions, Prism and HDCD dithering, together with the original TC MasterX version, and all four taken to finished production CD. The surprising and clear winner at the end was the 24-bit DAT and Sonic Solutions dithered version. But even more surprising to Williams was the magnitude of the audible differences between the discs. He now uses the CDs during lectures to students in Composition For New Media at the London College of Music to illustrate that not everything in the zeros-and-ones world of digital is as clear-cut as you might think.

Bridging The Divide

For Naim, learning from Williams has meant appreciating that while the Ken Christianson model of recording works for live-to-stereo projects played in small groups, the practicalities and realities of studio-based multitrack recording necessarily involves techniques and signal processing with which a die-hard 'purist' audio outlook is not necessarily compatible. Compression is a good example. For a hi-fi enthusiast, compression is an entirely negative concept. It speaks of distorting the natural dynamics of a musical performance. But for multitrack recording engineers, compression is an invaluable signal-processing technique that quite often makes a performance recordable or a mix viable. And, of course, it's ironic that the pop or jazz vocal recordings that commonly find favour as demonstration material at hi-fi exhibitions often bear evidence of compression.

Julian Vereker passed away last year, but despite his untimely death, the Naim label and its unique ethos continue in the capable hands of Paul Stephenson and Label Manager Anna Tooth. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that there's a naivety to those hi-fi enthusiasts and engineers who see recording as an exercise in capturing the truth — there is often no 'truth' to be captured in the first place. But then maybe there's a similar naivety in professional audio's often blind trust of digital electronics and signal processing, and in its tendency to listen to sounds rather than music. To rework a quote from conductor Thomas Beecham; recording engineers may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes. Hi-fi engineers prefer to look at things from the opposite perspective. The Naim label, at least, is one place where both schools of thought can co-exist in the name of superbly recorded music.

 

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