Higher-fi, making the best-ever sounding recording

Recording session with mics installed in dummy head--where ear canals would be--takes fidelity to the next level.

It may be a lofty goal to try to make recordings that sound as close as possible to real, live music. But every now and then the state of the art advances.

Jamey Haddad, Lenny White and Mark Sherman, with dummy binaural head Head-Fi/Jude Mansilla

I attended such a recording session in mid-December and was treated to the best, most realistically natural sound I've heard. Over monitor speakers the sound was excellent, but the sound over my Ultimate Ears Reference Monitor in-ear headphones was vastly better. I could listen to the music "live," and then rush back to the control room and don the headphones. The gap between live and recorded sound has never been smaller.

All of the music was improvised on the spot by three master percussionists: Lenny White (who played with Return to Forever and Miles Davis), Jamey Haddad (Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon), and Mark Sherman (Tony Bennett, New York Philharmonic). The three men pumped out funky beats, kinetic grooves, and dense musical atmospheres with a vast array of drums, shakers, gongs, and a vibraharp.

Both the conventional high-resolution digital recording (176-kHz/24-bit) and a separate hi-res binaural recording were produced by David Chesky and recorded by Nicholas Prout. Both recordings were completely uncompressed and no equalization or processing of any kind were used. Since it was an audiophile session, no compression or EQ will be applied in the final mastering of the recordings. In other words, the sound I heard at the session will be the sound you hear.

Jude Mansilla and Lenny White Steve Guttenberg

Head-Fi founder Jude Mansilla was also present at the session. He was there for the fun of it and because this recording, "Explorations in Space and Time," will first be made available via high-resolution download, on Head-Fi's Web site in late January. The binaural recording's microphones were installed in a dummy head, where the ear canals would be. So binaural recording playback virtually puts the listener's ears in the microphones positions at the session. Binaural recording isn't new, I remember hearing binaural demonstrations in the 1970s, but I certainly haven't heard any high-resolution binaural recordings that approach this quality before.

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. The dynamic shadings of the vibes, small and large drums, and the magnificent tympani were all distinctly rendered. The spatial realism of the headphone sound was extremely true to life (binaural recordings capture the full 360 degree lateral sound field surrounding the dummy head). The session was held at a large old church in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and the recording captured the sound of the instruments filling the huge space.

That recording approach stands in sharp contrast to virtually all contemporary recordings done in acoustically dead studios, where the engineers have to apply digital reverberation to make the music sound like it was recorded in a live space. Trust me on this, the real thing (acoustic space) sounds far more realistic. Duh!

The recording venue at the church, looking back from the stage. Steve Guttenberg

Between takes the sound of the musicians talking to each other was so realistic I more than once took out the Ultimate Ears because I thought the musicians were standing behind me. The Reference Monitors are, first and foremost, monitors, and now that I've used them that way it'll be hard to go back to using monitor speakers at sessions.

I also brought along my full-size Hifiman HE-5 headphones, and while the sound wasn't as pinpoint specific as the Ultimate Ears, the HE-5's sound was the best I've heard from those headphones. I'm guessing that "Explorations in Space and Time" will be a great demo for establishing headphone performance limits. I also checked out the session sound on Grado SR60 headphones ($79), which were also stellar. So you don't have to have expensive headphones to hear what's special about this recording.

The one downside to binaural recording is the center part of the stereo image can sound a little vague. The engineers at the session did their best to lock in a tighter center, but it still needs work. If you've ever heard a binaural recording, tell us about it in the comments section.

In the interest of full disclosure I occasionally do freelance work for Chesky Records and HDtracks, which will be selling high- and standard-resolution downloads of this music in early 2011.

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