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Conversations with Michael
Green and Paul Geluso: Recording the Michael Green Way
In writing about the process of recording pianist Fernando Landeros recently, in the SUNY Studio, I sat down and spoke with designer Michael Green, and with recording engineer Paul Geluso. What follows are excerpts from those conversations.
Michael Green is the noted audio designer. In 2000, Michael designed a new recording studio at the State University of New York College at Oneonta. Michael was present this past August to assist in preparing the SUNY Studio for recording a solo piano album project with pianist Fernando Landeros.
Paul Geluso is currently a member of the music faculty at SUNY Oneonta, and his teaching responsibilities include instruction in the Audio Arts curriculum, which employs the SUNY Studio as a primary resource; classes typically meet in the control room of the Studio. Paul is an experienced recording engineer, and has also taught at New York University, where he experienced the European Tonmeister tradition first-hand. Mr. Geluso is active as a composer and sound artist, with a varied list of multi-media and installation credits, in addition to his numerous music projects as a recording engineer.
Studio Designer Michael Green, Producer Elias Guzman, and Engineer Paul Geluso in the SUNY Studio Control Room
A Conversation with Michael Green
Michael Green: I've actually gone in reverse from high-end audio. What happened to me that is unusual compared to other designers, is that as they got more into the faceplates, and mass, and weight, and bigger parts, and audiophile parts—I actually went the other direction. I got more into the mechanical, acoustical, tonality. Making the room, the rack, the cable, not have it's own signature—but be an extension of whatever signature was there. And the more I got into that, the more I started heading in a different direction.
I believe that high-end audio is just on the crest of making a turn. I think that high-end audio is all the way over here—you can see it starting to swing back the other way; all these really inexpensive lightweight low-mass digital components. I think you will see people like Dennis (Dennis Had of Cary Audio), and a lot of the companies have a pendulum swing that is going to go way over to the other side. I think all this heavy equipment you see now, I think the whole thing is going to swing.
Sasha Matson: Is that because of the computer interface with 'Generation Whatever' now?
MG: Not only is it the computer interface, but it is designers that are making this happen. The mass world has caught on. Here's what we did—and I will not name the high-end products. We took five or six major high-end lines; heavy mass, da da da,—used them like they were, stock. Then I went to Best Buy and Circuit City and I bought five of their units; the most expensive one was $79. And I did the same process—and into the second step, meaning just putting feet under them, these products were out-performing the high-end products. It was not by a small margin. But now I've got to have proof. So I get up on Tuneland (Note: Michael Green's website and posting board) and I say: "O.K. you guys have all got your high-end stuff. Go out and buy these units." They went out and bought the Samsung, the Magnavox, the Pioneer. And this didn't just happen here in a little audiophile club, it happened in Singapore, this happened in Barcelona, this happened in Montreal, all over the States. They went out and got these units, brought them in, did the same things to them—and guess what? Unanimous.
Here's what I think has happened. High-end audio twenty years ago carved the way. They made products step up. Sal Marantz did his thing, and then mass production had to come out. Then high-end audio came in at that point, and high-end audio put their magic to it, and the press put their touch to it, and it was one community and it fit and worked together. The mass production world took a look at that, and together with some of that thinking, and some economics, they put their spin on it.
Instead of saying "Now I've got a cap(acitor) this big", what high-end audio is now doing, "Now I have to do this same type of thinking, but now my cap can only be that big." And they did it. And that's why you're seeing these small digital amplifiers selling to everyone. What I do, is if you take those things and mechanically ground them—there is the future. We are right there—right on the edge. And here is what is going to happen—Dennis (Had of Cary Audio) and these guys that are out there, are going to get to the place where they say "You know what, it's going that way, and now I'm going to do it." I am going to make a prediction: high-end four years from now is not going to look the same. It's going to be a lot less mass, it's going to be able to fit in the mass production world. And all the guys (in high-end) are going to usher in a whole new world.
SM: Yes, Bill Low of AudioQuest was sharing some similar thoughts with me recently—as he mentioned that the larger part of his business is not any more what he terms "destination audio". It is in-wall and so forth, invisible, but delivering high-quality audio.
MG: Here's another thing that I think is going to happen that is going to make the change take place. Our world, if you follow the history of it, when high-end first came in, high-end fit like a glove in the mid-80's—and a boom happened. Stereophile was right on top of it, there was Harry (Pearson of Absolute Sound), Positive Feedback—all these magazines were right on the crest—they were growing up inside of it. Then, it grew a little too fast. The problem became that it grew so fast that it became compartmentalized. Instead of it being one, it became a cable industry, a pre-amp industry, an amplifier industry—and it needed to be an audio industry. Or an audio-video industry. It wasn't one. Because of computers and the low-mass product coming in, and because of mass production challenging high-end with pricing structures—we're going to see a change.
Who are the people that are the masters at it and who made it work? People who are focused on making everything a whole. Bang & Olfson, Bose, Sony…. The roadblock was people saying "It doesn't sound bad because it isn't my fault." That has to come to an end. "I've got the best preamp in the world, it must have been your speakers." Baloney. When these worlds meet and people start thinking of their systems as what I call the "Audio Trilogy," it's no longer a component system.
SM: When you first got going with all of this, did you study acoustics?
MG: When I was seventeen I was already in Criterion Studios. I never had a chance to study it as I was already in it.
SM: You've learned by empirical listening? By experience?
MG: Knowledge is doing. And wisdom is re-doing. You have to get down to putting your hands on.
SM: I call it 'putting your hands in the clay.' There are these guys who do acoustic designs—who get hired to design major concert halls for example, and who come to it with a highly scientific mathematical approach—we have such and such algorithms, and the measurements are going to be just right—and then the hall gets built and everyone is waiting on opening night going: "Is it going to work?" But lately they seem to be getting better at it. Have they incorporated some of the concepts you have developed?
MG: Here's what happened. Edison did his thing. And then all these brilliant guys came along who never got it from a school—they got it by doing it. But then you have to turn it into repetition, which means curriculum. And then was born the EE (electrical engineer). I know what happened. It's taken this long for the EE to become the EE'Artist. The electrical engineer was pretty much saying acoustic sound waves travel in a straight line—that's where you see that box and the arrows pointing to early reflections and all of that. But when you actually walk into a room you never hear that. Because the actual sound waves are spherical. The artist is all spherical—I'm doing this, I'm feeling that—I don't care about the straight line. For the first time in high-end concert hall building, or high-end studio, or high-end listening—the artist, instead of butting heads with the electrical engineer—they are finally building a bridge.
SM: Are we on or off the record now?
MG: Us saying this in an interview, on the tape recorder, we're going to make enemies. But you know what? You know how many more friends we're making because you've got the engineer and the artist—they always should have been together. We're at the best stage of high-end ever. I think we're going to go from two hundred thousand people enjoying high-end to combining with the millions of listeners out there. It's because of the computer age, and the EE programs lightening up. If you are going to study EE you better not only study physics, but physics and music. You put that all together, and I think over the next ten years we are going to have the best high-end audio we've ever had.
SM: Tell me for the record Michael what brought you here (to the studio at SUNY Oneonta) this weekend. What did you want to try and achieve that we hadn't quite got to in this studio yet?
MG: Just like we've talked about in high-end audio. Robert Barstow (Chair of the Department of Music, SUNY Oneonta ) came to my place, and he experienced the tunable room. He said, "Can you make a studio that way?" I said sure. But after we made the studio, it was never finished.
SM: Did your original concept suffer because of the budget and the materials?
SM: Those walls and floors (in the SUNY Studio) are not physically the materials you had wanted—they're plywood. What had you called for originally?
MG: We use instrument grade wood. We buy instrument wood. Whether it's a ply, or a pulp, or a soft wood.
SM: If the budgets ever allow—would it be possible to re-do that element?
MG: Oh sure.
SM: Are there other studios that you've designed and consulted on that you did achieve the kind of materials you wanted?
MG: Yes. This one is the only one we've ever done with 'treated fire code' wood.
SM: Is that why? The fire bureaucrats came in and said you couldn't do X, Y, or Z?
MG: Yup. No treated stubs—you have to use New York treated lumber. Now that studio is finally starting to sound good. Do you know how long it takes treated lumber to cure? The way they treat it for fire is to put a material into it that basically never cures!
(Laughter) If the basic shell had been different you would have reached your basic harmonic goals sooner.
SM: Re-cap for all of us Michael some of the terminology for your devices in this studio, and what they do.
MG: The 'P.Z.C.s'—which stands for 'Pressure Zone Controller'—and the 'Clouds' are P.Z.C. (devices) that are hanging. And anything that's over-sized that is bigger than the actual acoustical burning part is called a 'Tuning Board.' Like the top of the Clouds is actually a Tuning Board with a burner on the back and a tuner in it. Inside the walls are in-wall tuners.
SM: The interior dimensions and format of the studio are based on your empirical experience of what works?
MG: I did it based on the 'Halos' they are able to create now up in the Studio. I wanted to be able to go from small Halos to big Halos.
SM: Tell me what you mean by the term 'Halo.'
MG: In my world a Halo is when you get into the harmonic structure of a fundamental note. And I spend a lot of my time picking out the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th harmonics and making it thinner, or giving it more girth—making it fat. Those areas are what I call the Halo. What's going on upstairs now, is doing that with a Steinway. If you put a Steinway in a concrete studio you're never going to hear a Steinway. A Steinway focuses on the 2nd or 3rd (harmonic).
SM: Yes, I am in sync with certain audio writers, like Sam Tellig, who put an emphasis on the reproduction—I call it re-creation—of the harmonic series. So that there is some music happening. When they're dead, the music isn't happening for me.
MG: I think that is the next chapter. I think it needs to be talked about. The next level to the end-user is the flavor. The flavor of a Dennis (Had of Cary Audio) design. People should be saying, "What walls do I have, what speakers do I want to use—I want Dennis's sound, I want the way he captures harmonics." So they bring it all—as a designer would.
This is the aspect of high-end audio I am excited about. All the fun stuff that really puts it together is going to go from the 'recommended component list' to a truly designed system. And in the history of the high-end we haven't had that. I think we are getting to a place in our maturity where now we do. I completely disagree with the 'this is better than that' system approach. This is a designer's boutique world—every listener deserves that. My world is complete tunability—make it any way you want it to be. Every designer out there, David Wilson for example, should be able to have their own flavor, their own way. That's why we have a Steinway or a Yamaha—different flavors!
SM: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I assume you are using the term 'boutique' in a positive way. As in, 'I like Zinfandel from winery X' because that's what I like. Even though you might like something else.
MG: When the I started to use the term 'tunability' in the late 80s people started to look at it as an adversarial kind of thing—as in, when do I know if I finally have it right? Well now they are finally coming to say, "there is no right, there is only taste." There are only your taste buds, and the engineer's job is to capture it on a record it so that we can replay it on systems—reshape it to our liking. My job is to say, "I don't care whose it is, whose flavor it is, I need to produce the products that allow you to go anywhere you can go." That's been my whole goal.
SM: This project going on now (in the SUNY Studio) will produce a finished album; but there are always Gremlins, whether it's high-tech or low-tech. Whenever I walk into a room the stuff grinds to a halt!
MG: This recording is the first time they have used all the pieces. The first recording here where the room is really being used. And my frustration has been ...four years? But sometimes it takes that long. The main thing here was them just learning. I know that room like the back of my hand.
A Conversation Paul Geluso
Sasha Matson: Does the album have a name yet?
Paul Geluso: We discussed that; since it is his first album we are just going with the artist's name – Fernando Landeros.
SM: How many days of recording?
PG: One day for set-up, and three full days of recording.
SM: Could you compare Michael Green's design here for the SUNY Studio, with other types of studio designs you are familiar with?
PG: The thing I've noticed about Michael Green is not so much his studio design, but his technique in setting up a studio for recording. The philosophy of the studio is that it is an instrument to be tuned, like the instruments in a recording session. This is present in some studios, but in Michael's that is the main tilt and idea—that the studio is tunable and flexible for that particular session. It was interesting to see how he worked the room for this particular session. His designs are unique in that he has his tunable wall system- the walls have adjustable tension. Michael doesn't rely on diffusion and absorption the way most studios do, he has his own ideas how to control sound—that I haven't seen before.
SM: I've noticed that in a lot of studios you might see some foam or absorbent wood up on the roof, or on the walls, but here there's none of that.
PG: Well, there is that material there, but not placed in a way that a conventional studio would have it. It is running parallel to the walls versus perpendicular. When the sound reverberates from the wall, some reflects, some refracts, and Michael's idea is that he is controlling the sound traveling along the surfaces of the walls versus the incident sound. Where most studio designers are concerned with reflection Michael's designs take into account what he refers to as laminar flow—from fluid mechanics; the currents that flow along a surface. This is a new concept to me that I'm still working with.
SM: Let's get the names of some of the devices straight.
PG: 'Clouds' are pretty standard. And there are' PZCs'—which stands for "pressure zone controller" (Note: also known as 'GoBos' or 'moveable walls'.)
SM: When you were getting ready to record the piano I noticed you had surrounded the instrument with tall PZCs with the hardwood surface (one side is reflective, one side is absorbent) facing inwards in a ring around the piano. That seems like a highly reflective kind of acoustic environment. What was the goal there—what were you trying to get?
PG: Let's start with Michael Green's set-up process. What he does is find a spot where the piano sounds good. He's not so concerned with mathematical angles and formulas—he's a listening kind of guy. He has these tools he's built, the PZC's and the tunable walls, and my take on it is he's not so interested in the mechanical theory behind it but in the results. He tunes things by ear. What he did to tune this particular session was to use reflective surfaces to thicken up the sound, double the attacks on the mikes- and the more reflections the more smooth of a sound—less pointed. Reverberation is a smooth extension of a sound, and what it is is a series of reflections. Those reflective surfaces were providing different reflection times.
SM: You literally had a circle, or ellipse, around this grand piano. So mathematically you would get a whole bunch of different angles happening?
PG: Which is good for recording. For example—poor room acoustics would be if all the reflections arrived at the same time. You would have a very lumpy uneven sound. To create a nice even sound the more variety of reflections you have hitting the mikes, the more interesting sound you have.
SM: Did you add any digital reverberation? (to the recording)
PG: Yes, and that was a stylistic choice. This is an ongoing topic—where does 'chamber music' live? Obviously it was created for people's living rooms, but if we listen to Sony Classical they are putting it into concert halls. To make this recording palatable we did add some reverb because that room doesn't supply a long enough reverberation. But there was enough reflection and detail in the sound that the point of the reverb was to extend the notes in a stylistic way that most people associate with this music.
SM: And of course it is not one effect or process these days but multiple effects superimposed on top of each other—reverb, e.q., etc.
PG: Michael's system when he tuned the room is someone is playing the piano and he walks around and says, "o.k. part of this isn't clear, let's move a wall," changing the delay times and the different reinforcement of frequencies. By moving things around he got an even sound across the scale of the piano. One notable thing about his room (the SUNY Studio) is that the bass is very clear. Clarity is a big goal of his—and you'd think with all these reflections it would hurt the clarity. But the idea was he could adjust these reflections so there was an overall clarity to the sound.
SM: Even a reflector under the piano.
PG: "Reflection" is not a word in Michael's vocabulary—he talks about 'tuning' and 'resonance.'
SM: I asked Michael about objective versus subjective judgments. How do you see it?
PG: It's not a thing where he's measuring and calculating distances and sizes, it is more of a thing where he's listening and reacting to that.
SM: What was your microphone set-up?
PG: We recorded in a three-zone fashion—one set of mikes in the piano, another set of mikes mid-way by the PZCs, and then another set out in the room proper.
SM: Did you use elements of all those in the finished recording?
PG: Yes. I tend to like to use omni-directional mikes, but they didn't work out in this room setting; we used a figure eight pattern for the room mikes.
SM: The recording format itself was via ProTools? (the popular recording software program).
PG: We brought in a John Hardy Class-A microphone preamp for the job. I was also responsible for all the post-production.
SM: How about e.q.?
PG: Yes, I'm a fan of equalization! If you have mikes inside a piano they require e.q. if you are going to use them. Mikes outside the piano require less. It's not a purest recording—two mikes, no e.q.!
SM: Where are you these days in terms of other formats than stereo—surround and it's various permutations?
PG: I'm heavily involved in acoustic recording in surround, and research in this area. I'm hoping to write a book or manual on this very subject—recording 'live' groups, not overdubbing and recording in a surround format. I've recorded jazz directly into surround sound—people set up in a circle with the array in the middle—it sounds unbelievable! Once I started working in surround, stereo doesn't hold a candle to it.
SM: Back to the piano for a moment. There are several acid tests for recording and playback of music, and solo piano is one of them.
PG: In general solo recording is the hardest—solo anything, trumpet, flute, voice. Everything is naked. The piano is really a baby orchestra, the voices and so on, it's somewhere between a baby orchestra and a solo instrument. Nowhere to hide. Most commercial piano recordings I think are a bit 'dusty.' And by that I mean that the mikes are kind of back and there's a little too much air in between. If you are listening to a piano in a concert hall it doesn't have this far away veiled sound. When the microphones are in a place where they get the proper amount of reverb, the piano can end up sounding dull. But you move closer with the mikes and the room reverb isn't present and the piano sounds pointed- but there's something you like about it. So I am a fan of multi-microphone systems to get the proper balance.
SM: Enough tech talk. How was it working with this young pianist Fernando Landeros?
PG: I was lucky enough to have previously recorded all these pieces, (on this album project), some for an earlier album, and others in recitals. I felt that Fernando's selection of pieces was fantastic- they are works from different eras of piano music. Somehow amazingly enough they play together beautifully. I've seen this not work- I've recorded other multiple composer CDs. His interpretations—I think you can tell it is a young person playing, not in a bad way—they are not weighted, they are fresh. Fernando had never been in a studio before, so there were some nerves and anxiety to get over. It was a very enjoyable experience, but a lot of hard work. The first day Michael Green was there, and the press was there, but then everyone went away and we had to make a record!
Michael Green Surrounded by PZCs in the SUNY Studio