ONLINE - ISSUE 13
My Visit to RTI
Working for PFO has its perks. My new Ferrari 360 Modena is supposed to arrive shortly, and Dave Clark just informed me that my contract with FlexJet for a Gulfstream V has been successfully renegotiated, with another 100 hours of flight time this year. I am the envy of my friends who have corporate jobs and must fly commercial airlines and drive measly Bimmers. Okay Danny, snap out of it. The truth is altogether different—perks yes, but Ferraris and Gulfstreams no. What I do get to do is to visit places and speak to the movers and shakers of the industry, people most audiophiles never get to meet. Steve Hoffman and I met at this year's CES, and after I expressed my desire to take a tour of his kingdom, he extended me an invitation to visit the RTI pressing plant near Santa Barbara.
RTI, or Record Technology Incorporated, is the premier vinyl pressing plant in the U.S. It is the plant of choice when Classic Records does one of their fabulous reissues, or when Chad Kassam of Acoustic Sounds prints a new set of Fantasy 45 rpm LPs. RTI is not only a pressing plant—it also houses one of the most awesome remastering studios around. Kevin Grey, the studio's main man, built this setup for one reason: to allow the highest possible level of critical evaluation of a master tape's sound quality. Kevin, who has been around audio since a very young age, custom-built the room, the speakers, and all of the electronics to facilitate the awesome sound you hear when you play back a master tape. Steve Hoffman also utilizes this studio, and I felt honored to be in the same room with these two remastering greats. I was fascinated by all of the equipment and technology, and was eager to see the remastering process.
According to Steve, the key to making good records is finding the best possible source tapes that you can get your hands on. I say the best possible, since typically there are at least two master tapes floating around—the “actual” master tape, i.e. the two-track mixdown tape and the production master, which usually means the version of the master on which the engineer included the proper EQ and other add-ons, including compression. Because finding the actual master tapes can sometimes be very difficult, many reissues are made from production masters. A recent case in point is Classic Records' reissue of Alan Parson's I Robot. Some years back, Classic reissued that title on their then-new DVD audio (not DVD-A!) 24/96 software. The tapes used in this release were the production masters, not the master tapes, since no one could find them. In 2004, as Classic was getting ready to launch its new HDAD discs, Alan Parsons found the master tapes and was able to provide them to the crew at Classic. The difference, according to Mike Hobson, is dramatic, so much so that they also decided to release a vinyl version of the album.
Once you are equipped with the appropriate tapes, you make your way to a remastering facility such as the one at RTI. There, Steve or Kevin will carefully listen to the tapes, make the appropriate adjustments, and spin off a new copy to the lacquer cutter. The machine used at RTI is a venerable and totally awesome-looking Neumann machine from Germany, made in the 1970s. What is involved in the mastering process? First, the lacquer is cut, then it is electroplated to make the metal master. The master is essentially the negative to the record, i.e. it contains mountains rather than valleys. To get something playable, the master is electroplated to make what is called the metal mother. Here is where Steve and Kevin can do a listening check to make sure things like groove spacing are okay. If all is well, they electroplate the mother to make the stamper. Vinyl junkies are very familiar with this term, as it gives you the stamper number (copy) from which your particular record has been pressed. The issue here is that each stamper wears out over time, and hence is only good for so many record pressings. In theory, the lower the stamper number on your record, the better the sound quality, as it had a fresher stamper to work with. Of course, once the stamper has run out of useful life, lacquer recuts are ordered and the process begins all over again, minus the process of getting to the stampers, unless, of course, changes need to be made, in which case you must go back to the cutting the lacquer on the Neumann machine.
This process takes quite a bit of time and a lot of diligence on the part of the production crew. It is amazing that in an era in which we have kids working computer magic to rip the latest mp3s, we also have a process that is so intricate and full of old-school production skills. Rick, the man at RTI in charge of the actual production of the vinyl, told me that not much has changed over the years—the process doesn't lend itself to much corner cutting. One reason why CDs are favored is that the production costs and know-how required to produce them are minimal compared to vinyl. When I think about the changing times, and about the fact that today's generation doesn't seem to give a hoot about sound quality, I wonder where all this will end. Music is everywhere these days, even on your cell phone, and production values have been dumped in favor of mass produced, over-eq'd, super compressed, and horrid sounding CDs, or worse. Slap that CD into your carefully chosen and set up audio system, and you find yourself grasping for the off switch. Old school production values, including careful setup of microphones and other niceties (heck, even artists that are actually interesting to listen to!) are being phased out of the mainstream in favor of the likes of Britney Spears.
Having toured the facilities and enjoyed lunch at the local brewery, we went back to RTI to conclude my awesome journey. Of course, all sorts of things and issues where discussed which I cant really publish here; suffice is to say that I owe both Steve and Kevin a big Thank You for allowing me into the inner sanctum of a world-renowned remastering studio.
As I got back into my car to get stuck in horrendous Friday afternoon traffic back to LA, I reflected upon my eventful day and came to the following conclusion and wrap-up. My stand regarding SACD/DVD-A has been one of a mixed bag of goodies; on one hand we have a tremendous increase in recording quality, on the other hand what good is the best playback medium if it utilizes an outdated medium of delivery—a smallish silver disc that's been around us for more than 20 years and only captures around 10 songs. It's no surprise to anyone that the advent of mp3 and the proliferation of home computers with gigabytes upon gigabytes of affordable storage has also brought with it the dominance of music being played back anytime, anywhere off some sort of memory or hard disk based storage device. Ever heard of the iPod? (in case you haven't, you may read my reviews in issue 8 and a follow-up in issue 10 of our fine magazine). This debacle reminds me of the issues Philips had (ironic, isn't it?) back in 1990, when it unsuccessfully attempted to mass launch DCC, digital compact cassette, offering superior recording quality with full backward compatibility to the regular CC, the venerable compact cassette, yet another Philips invention dating back to 1962 (if I recall correctly). It failed for the simple reason that while it did offer superior sound quality compared to a compact cassette, its inherent flaw, to capture the movement of the market which was heading towards instantly accessible minidisk formats (mp3's didn't yet exist back then, 386's Intel cpu's where just becoming popular and Windows 3.1 wasn't even born yet; boy have things changed?!). Sony's minidisk format took over rapidly and while even it never really became the defacto mass medium Sony had hoped for, it offered but a glimpse of what was to become the boom of mp3's. In my opinion, SACD/DVD-A both suffer from the same problems—one, most people are satisfied with CD sound; two, if anyone where to offer a compelling reason for consumers to embrace another new format or future format, it would have to fit well within the perceived quality and future proof instantly available sound (either mp3 or, in case of the iPod, full res- AIFF sound or some form of lossless codec, ala MLP); three, the means of distribution would have to be well within the sign's of the times… ie. an iTunes style portal of purchasing music online. Hence, in my humble opinion, SACD/DVD-A are almost predestined for total failure, if it weren't for the wonderful world of… DVD's! The simple fact that most every household now has a DVD player, could potentially be the saving grace for DVD-A as well. If it weren't (again!) for the fact that the computer industry has its own ideas of high-res sound. As of this writing, Intel and some of their technology partners (can guess Microsoft being involved in this venture?!) just finalized the new high-res (including lossless) PC sound standard, which is based on 32bit/192khz resolution/sampling, multi-channel of course. Funny then that today's industry leading web based music portal, Apple's iTunes, could wrap their hands around that new standard too and voila offer full-res multi-channel recordings to the consumer.
What does all this have to do with my visit to RTI? Consider this: Vinyl is enjoying a terrific resurgence worldwide. Because of better playback devices and superior mastering efforts, it yields sound quality surpassing CD and even SACD and DVD-A. So while the world is battling out what will end up being the next new format, audiophiles, and even millions of normal folk, already have access to a super-high-res playback medium—the good ol' vinyl record. ‘Nuff said.