I have long been a fan of David Chesky. For years I've enjoyed his compositions, his producing and engineering (of not just his work, but the work of others like Rebecca Pidgeon, Christy Baron, David Johansen, Monty Alexander and others), and the fruits of all that on his Chesky Records label. Of course, many of you also know David from his work at HDtracks.com, his high-resolution music download service, with its ever-expanding library, and the ability to get a good portion of that library at master tape fidelity (in other words, substantially better than CD quality). (HDtracks.com also offers the works from many different labels, in addition to Chesky's eponymous label.)
David Chesky and one very large drum.
A couple of years ago, David first approached me about working together to assemble an album of handpicked tracks from the Chesky catalog with which to help Head-Fi'ers evaluate the performance of their headphone rigs. The result was Open Your Ears, an album that's still selling quite well to this day. As exciting as I thought Open Your Ears was, David had other ideas that he bounced off me from time to time--ideas that he felt would even more specifically (and more intriguingly) serve our Head-Fi community. One of the foremost ideas on his list of things to do? Offering binaural recordings of excellent artists, using the expertise that has made Chesky Records a popular label with both music enthusiasts and audiophiles.
In case you're not familiar with what a binaural recording is, let's discuss what it is, and why it's so very relevant, so very cool, for Head-Fi'ers: Many here would agree that excellent headphone systems can open up a recording's innermost details and subtleties like few loudspeakers can. From a price/performance standpoint, headphones, in my opinion, almost always outperform their loudspeaker counterparts in several respects. Still, though, headphone listening has its shortcomings, key among them imaging--when it comes to imaging, headphone listening is fundamentally flawed. As HeadRoom describes part of the problem:
So here's the problem with headphone listening in a nutshell: the sound in the right channel is only heard in the right ear and the sound in the left channel is only heard in the left ear. What's missing in headphones is the sound going from each channel to the opposite ear, arriving a short time later for the extra distance traveled, and with a bit of high frequency roll-off for the shadowing effect of the head.
If you've tried crossfeed, then you know it can help solve some of the imaging issues inherent with headphone listening, helping to form a more cohesive image, but still unable to take the image out of your head. To achieve convincing, realistic imaging through headphones requires much more than a crossfeed circuit can achieve; and this is where binaural recording comes in.
Rather than try to explain the science and mechanics of binaural recording in great detail, let me instead give you links to pages that do a far better job of explaining it than I could:
Simply put, the intent of binaural recording is to capture sound exactly as the human ears hear it. Even more simply put, one of the most common ways to do that is to place high-resolution microphones inside the ears of a purpose-built dummy head, its ear-shaped molds designed to simulate the fleshiness/pliability/resonance and shape of actual ears. (This can be taken further still with a full simulated head/neck/shoulder/torso setup.)
The Neumann dummy head watches over Lenny and Mark as they set up.
So, given what binaural recordings are (and especially because of how they're made), an obvious challenge comes to mind: One cannot simply take existing recordings from Chesky's catalog and create binaural versions of them. You have to start from scratch--you have to capture the performances that way from the get-go. None of the prior recordings in Chesky Record's catalog were recorded binaurally. In fact, look at the libraries of all labels big and small, and you'll find very little--next to nothing--in terms of available binaural recordings. So to produce binaural recordings means having to record new material using the aforesaid recording techniques.
If you know David, you know he's a go-getter--a go-getter who happens to be outrageously passionate about following through with his ideas and wishes, especially when those ideas have to do with music. From when he'd first mentioned it to me, it wasn't long before David had fully committed to do this very thing. And when he told me it was definitely a go, I had to both marvel at his chutzpah, and be touched by his willingness to do something so specifically for us, the diehard headphone audio enthusiasts. It was with this in mind that David had the idea to maybe start doing this for at least some of the future performances he records, so that headphone enthusiasts could enjoy as immersive an experience with his recordings as when listening on loudspeakers--maybe even more immersive.
(left to right) Jamey Haddad, Lenny White, Mark Sherman
To make things even sweeter, David had received confirmation from legendary jazz drummer Lenny White to play on it; followed by also-legendary world percussionist Jamey Haddad, and vibraphone master and multi-percussionist Mark Sherman. "Jude, you absolutely have to be here for this!" said the emphatic Mr. Chesky; and he didn't have to do much convincing. I rescheduled some pre-Christmas family plans so that I could be in New York for the sessions, my supportive wife telling me that I shouldn't and couldn't miss it. A few days before Christmas 2010, David's Head-Fi-specific visions became very real, and, in a repurposed former church called the Hirsch Center, three percussionists, each with a world of experience behind them, assembled and improvised rhythmic explosions and subtle ambiance (and everything in between) recorded in conventional stereo via Chesky's Soundfield MKV microphone, and in binaural using a Neumann head setup--and all of this recorded in 24-bit/176kHz high-resolution.
As with many Chesky recordings, this one (now titled Explorations In Space And Time) was done with no compression or equalization, no overdubbing, no processing of any sort. To get levels right required the careful placement of musicians and instruments at varying distances from the Soundfield MKV four-capsule microphone (for the standard, non-binaural recording) and the Neumann dummy head, with its in-ear microphones (for the binaural capture).
Nick Prout monitoring the soundfield recording.
The first of the two days I was there was final setup and sound-checking; and the meticulousness with which the Chesky Records team does this has to be witnessed to be believed. It's not just the awesome musicians and music that make Grammy-winning Chesky Records revered by audio enthusiasts as one of the top audiophile labels, it's also very much the attention to detail in capturing, recording and mastering it all in their own unique ways. Team Chesky is an experienced, impressive, committed collection of passionate professionals. This album's team was:
- Producer, and generous provider of delicious food, drink and snacks for the team: David Chesky
- Co-producer and recording engineer: Nicholas Prout
- Executive producer: Norman Chesky
- Assistant engineers: Alex Sterling and Rick Eckerle
(left to right) Steve Guttenberg, Rick Eckerle, Alex Sterling, and Edgar Choueiri
As experienced as the above guys are at making great recordings, this album was, again, the team's first binaural endeavor, so David enlisted help from a binaural expert. And, just in case doing a binaural recording properly was something akin to rocket science, David made sure to bring in a 3D audio expert who also happens to be one of the world's foremost rocket scientists--really. Professor Edgar Choueiri is Director of Princeton University's Program in Engineering Physics, and Director of Princeton's Electric Propulsion and Plasma Dynamics Laboratory (EPPDyL). The good Dr. Choueiri is also the director of Princeton's 3D Audio and Applied Acoustics (3D3A) Lab. That latter credential is something that apparently develops when a world-renowned rocket scientist also happens to be an unabashed audiophile. Like I said--really. (Steve Guttenberg--the CNET Audiophiliac blogger--wrote about Edgar Choueiri last November, which is definitely worth a read.)
For the binaural version of this album, Dr. Choueiri was the binaural recording consultant, and he also did 3D monitoring over loudspeakers during the sessions. He was assisted by one of his Princeton students, Lukasz Mosakowski. Dr. Choueiri and Lukasz performed the primary setup and placement of the binaural gear, every bit as detailed and fastidious as Chesky's crew.
Bringing up the rear were Steve Guttenberg and moi. Yes, Steve and I were there partly because we knew it'd be fun--I mean, really, this kind of a thing is rather heavenly to diehard headphone geeks like us. It wasn't all fun and games for Steve and me, though--the two of us actually had our roles in the process, too. Steve and I live-monitored the recordings to give feedback and confirmation on the binaural imaging for some of the tracks. We did this using Steve's HiFiMAN HE5 LE planar magnetic headphones; but Steve also used his Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors, and I the Westone ES5 (the latter two being custom-fit IEMs, or in-ear monitors). (A couple of other guys on Team Chesky also had Ultimate Ears In-Ear Reference Monitors, and they also brought headphones by Sennheiser and Grado for us to use.) Steve and I were also the session photographers. Yeah, okay, so maybe it was all fun and games for us.
After hours upon hours of methodical setting up by the team, the second and final day of the recording session brought the musicians and the team to the heart of the process: Recording. And just so you know a little more about who Team Chesky was recording, here are some links about the artists:
- Lenny White. Again, a legendary jazz drummer, maybe most known for his work with Chick Corea and Return to Forever, he has also played with others you might also have heard of before: Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Freddie Hubbard, Jaco Pastorius, and many others. Jazz aficionado? Look through your collection, as Lenny's probably in there.
- Jamey Haddad. Known for his work in jazz and world music, Jamey has played with such notables as Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Joe Lovano, composer Howard Shore, and many other notables too numerous to list here. Jamey brought with him to the session some percussion instruments the likes of which I'd not previously seen--pieces that had even the seasoned White and Sherman intrigued.
- Mark Sherman. Vibraphonist/composer, Mark attended Juilliard with Wynton Marsalis. He has played with the Cleveland and Boston Symphony Orchestras. David Chesky wrote a concerto for vibes and orchestra especially for Sherman, which has been performed at Lincoln Center. Mark has also worked with Joe Lovano, Peggy Lee, and too many others to name. He performed on the score for the movie The Score, with Jamey Haddad and composer Howard Shore.
(left to right) Lenny White, Jamey Haddad, Mark Sherman
(Click on the photos to enlarge.)
Within moments of completing the setup of their instruments, these three wizards were weaving magic, and having a great time every step of the way. Their energy, enthusiasm and creativity absolutely charged the atmosphere. It was clear that recording day was going to be a blast, and, to say the least, it was.
Live-monitoring the recordings was both great fun, and a great privilege. I split my time between live-monitoring through the systems and being in various locations throughout the performance space while they played, which for me, personally, was important for understanding how effectively the recording would capture being there. So how did it turn out? Absolutely outstanding! Listening to the final binaural version of Explorations In Space And Time brings me right back to the Hirsch Center on that December day.
A few standout tracks:
- Track 1, "Stank": Like Steve said in his article about the album, "The first thing I noticed about the sound was its lifelike dynamics. When Lenny White first whacked his snare drum I literally jumped, and the big bass drums' impact and lowdown authority was as visceral as I've ever heard from a set of headphones." "Stank" is a funky, big-sounding piece, the performance of which very literally energized every cubic inch of the vast Hirsch Center. Lenny was unleashing bombs with his bigger-than-normal bass drum (an unusually deep drum that was admired and played thoroughly between sessions by the other guys), and Mark with his tympani. Jamey seasoned this big jam with his wild cache of hand instruments. After a long primary assault, the guys simmered it down deftly, if not entirely softly, until...
- ..."Stank" rolls into Track 2, "Wood and Metal": As Bill Milkowski says in the album's liner notes, "Wood and Metal" is a "cleansing breath after the onslaught of 'Stank'." "Wood and Metal" is as meditative as "Stank" is fierce. "Tranquility" (Track 6) also deserves special mention as a sort of later-album companion (as I see it) to "Wood and Metal."
- Track 9, "Long Distance": For this track, David positioned the artists a good distance away from both mic setups, each artist separated quite widely from the others. (I think David might have been in there playing something, too.) I may be biased in mentioning this one, as this is one of the tracks that Steve and I had some specific input on, with respect to imaging. This track was one of the two purely experimental pieces (the other being "Phrases"), the idea being to play with unconventional placement of the artists with respect to the microphones (both the Soundfield MKV mic and the Neuman head)--in this case, having the artists at the far corners of the hall.
Having actually been there, I can say that Explorations In Space And Time captured the performance so thoroughly that, again, listening to the binaural version through my headphone systems puts me right back in the thick of it. Headphones on, eyes closed, and it really is like being there again.
Here are a couple of listening notes and tips:
- The first thing you'll notice about the binaural versions (the album comes with both binaural and soundfield versions) is that--because headphone enthusiasts are very used to the very in-head imaging of headphone listening--the center of the image can seem a little diffuse. Listen to all the binaural tracks straight through, however, and I feel confident your ears and brain will adjust to the more realistic imaging well before you get to the end (even your first time through). And, as Dr. Choueiri recommends, "You may want to close your eyes. If you clear out the visual cues, you get even more realism." He is absolutely correct.
- Can the magic of binaural be experienced with inexpensive rigs? Directly out of an iPod, iPhone, etc.? Absolutely. I even tried listening to it with the came-with-it Apple white earbuds, and the binaural imaging came through even with those. (Although if the white earbuds are all you have--not likely if you're reading this here at Head-Fi--I wouldn't suggest bothering with the highest resolution version of the album.)
- There are three available versions of the album (16/44, 24/88 and 24/176). Do you need to download the high-resolution (24-bit/88kHz or 24-bit/176kHz) versions to be immersed? No. You can still enjoy the benefits of binaural imaging with the 16-bit/44.1kHz version. That said, to be fully immersed--especially if you have a highly resolving rig (or are planning to build one)--I'd strongly suggest the highest-quality version (24-bit/176kHz), as that is how it was recorded, and using a conversion utility, you can convert the FLAC files to an iTunes/iPod/iPhone/iPad-compatible format. That is, the highest-quality version, for the most part, is the actual recording, and conversion utilities allow you to easily turn it into either of the other two versions at your whim. (For more information on conversion utilities, check out this link on HDTracks.com.)
Obviously, Explorations In Space And Time is an album I am over the moon about. I think it's the beginning of what could be very interesting binaural things to come from Chesky, and I feel like the luckiest of headphone geeks to have been there for it.
David and I have discussed possibilities for future binaural projects, and I hope they can also come to fruition. Our hope is that there are enough headphone enthusiasts interested in high-rez binaural recordings to make it a viable pursuit. Our hope is that Explorations In Space And Time generates enough interest to set us down the path of making it just the first of many binaural projects to come.
Explorations In Space And Time is currently being offered exclusively to Head-Fi'ers via HDtracks.com. It is available in three different resolutions:
For a limited time, Head-Fi'ers are being given a 20% discount on this album (any of the three versions)--to get this discount, use the code headfiPercussion at checkout.