Audio Consultants at Crescent Records
Crescent Records recording studio is tucked away in a rather unlikely place among the elegant Victorian villas clustered on a hill overlooking the ugly sprawl of modern Swindon. Next to an agreeable but unimposing house, the studio is in an extension originally intended to accommodate an indoor pool.
The story starts with Damon Sawyer, drummer and recording whizz, visiting the friend who owns the house. He is taken into the ten metre square main room of the extension and asked “What do you think? Would it make a good recording studio?” Sawyer claps his hands and hears a steady fade after the crack; no flutter echoes. “Yes” he says.
Fast forward a while and the would-be pool room with its seven-metre-high vaulted ceiling is now a performance space, the studio’s live room, and artists of all genres, but jazzers in particular, are wearing a groove in the M4 out of London to go and record at Crescent Records.
If the live room is impressive, so too is the mixing/mastering suite. Separated from the live room by soundproof glass doors, it is equipped with a state-of-the-art 24-bit, 384 kHz PCM recording set-up that is unusually high-end. The Merging AD/DA converter, for example, cost around £15,000, in contrast to the couple of hundred pounds that studios typically might spend on this key piece of equipment. The entire set-up has been carefully and thoughtfully curated by Sawyer who, with 25 years under his belt in recording, mixing and mastering, is also still a working drummer. Among other regular appearances he is the third member of blues trio Hundred Seventy Split with former Ten Years After members Leo Lyons (bass) and Joe Gooch (guitar).
Watching Sawyer (above) at work it is clear that if the studio is a little different to the norm, so too is Sawyer, the musician in him able to set visiting players at ease and encourage them to give their best possible performance. But there’s a further way that he is not your standard-issue studio wonk; he is remarkably curious – some might say heretically so – about some of the technologies commonplace in hi-fi land. High-end interconnects, grounding cables and equipment supports are scorned by most recording engineers. But not by Sawyer. When a while back he met Stephen and Alex of Reading area hifi dealer Audio Consultants and the talk turned to the products they install in domestic playback systems, Sawyer was open to a demonstration.
The result of that exchange is that among other measures most studio engineers would dismiss, Sawyer’s recording suite uses grounding cables by Gutwire, and anti-vibration equipment supports from HRS. Supplied by Audio Consultants, the products are not everywhere in the recording system, just in places where Sawyer has tried them and heard a useful difference. He has a Gutwire Consumate grounding cable on the Solid State Logic mixing desk, and a Gutwire Ultimate on his Merging Technologies Horus converter. He notes: “The grounding helps with not only the overall clarity and detail but also to really hear the natural timbre of the instruments and the space/sound stage around them.”
The studio’s data network is centred around an English Electric 16Switch and after experimentation Sawyer placed it on HRS Nimbus feet. He did not think it would sound any different, but the gains were so obvious that he has gone on to deployed Nimbus feet under a number of other key pieces of kit. “I hear much more control in the system, especially in the lows and low mids… just generally less unwanted resonance which, interestingly, most people always put down to room acoustics but often I feel it can be a mixture of both component resonance and general room acoustics… In fact most of my cable upgrades also make me feel like I’m hearing less of the “room”.
When Sawyer says he hears a good sound, we should take notice. Watching him at work is to witness a master-class in aural sensitivity and discernment. At the mixing desk, leading forward, headphones on, deep in concentration, he’s tweaking channels by as little as 1dB. Earlier, settling musicians during the rehearsal for the recording session, he bounds in from the mixing suite with words of encouragement, and an observation that perhaps only a fellow musician could make – might a more expressive dynamic shift part way through the song being rehearsed provide added texture? The musicians go again from two bars out, play the transition as suggested, and it does indeed sound better.
The unusual opportunity to see Sawyer at work was the initiative of Audio Consultants. The dealer invited a group of 20 or so customers to see and hear a top-flight jazz quartet record a selection of songs, see Sawyer make the recording, and then listen as a CDR copy of the mix was played on a quality audio system set up in the live room.
During the first part of the day Sawyer walked the visitors – mind the cables! – around the musicians’ working space. Earlier, rather than set up the drum kit in the purpose-built soundproof booth to the side of the main room, he had placed it next to the studio’s Yamaha CF3 concert grand piano, the two separated only by a low-level acoustic panel. To the side, also behind an acoustic panel, was the chair and mic set-up for the stand-up bass player. To the right of the piano was the vocalist’s microphone stand. This is his preferred set-up for jazz combos; rather than using the studio’s soundproof drum and vocal booths he groups the players as if they were on a gig in a club, As he observes, it’s not an arrangement that works with rock drummers who generally want to ‘play at 11’ all the time, but jazz drummers use more restrained energy levels in order not to overwhelm the other acoustic instruments, and they often use split sticks and brushes for an even quieter result.
During the walk-through Sawyer showed how he selects and places different microphone types to achieve a desired balance. On this occasion the double bass had been given two; a direct input transducer near the bridge, and an omni-directional about six inches away on a stand to capture localised sound pressure, while the piano had three – a matched pair of Vanguard V1s poised left and right above the keyboard end of the soundboard, and at the other end a Vanguard Stereo mic, used in mono and hung about half way between the soundboard and the raised lid, to grab the overall sound being projected into the room. The drum array had the unusual features of no microphone on the high-hat and a 15-inch subwoofer being used ‘in reverse’ as a microphone to capture the kick-drum. Finally, the vocalist’s microphone was a Lauten Audio LT-386, a large, tube-based transducer that can be configured to work in cardioid, omni-directional and figure of eight patterns. A classic AKG 414 was used to capture the ambience of the room, the transducers in aggregate taking up 15 channels of a currently possible 24 I/Os on the mixing desk.
Sawyer’s use of what he smilingly calls ‘esoteric cables’ is necessarily selective. He notes that in an ideal world he’d use the very best right from each microphone to the mixing suite’s converters, but the runs from the live room to the mixing desk are in excess of 15 metres, so on the grounds of cost, conventional studio-grade copper quad-core by Grimm Audio has to do the duties here. It’s in the mixing/mastering suite where distances are considerably shorter and prices more affordable that he has tried various combinations and been blown away by some of the results, those acute ears hearing greater clarity and less background hash as the Gutwire grounding cables and HRS Nimbus chassis noise reduction feet were introduced.
The change in sound has, he says, led him to work with greater confidence in the rightness of the sonic aesthetic that he leans towards. He explains: “When I’m mixing, mostly I feel less is more, especially when working on jazz and acoustic material. With the cables and-anti vibration I feel far more confident that I’m hearing a natural tone and therefore can be much quicker and bolder with my balance and EQ decisions. I think it’s a discipline to not change the performance too much… that’s really key for me… respect the artists’ delivery once everyone is happy with the overall performance. I’m not a fan of over-produced records. I can respect and even enjoy a heavily produced recording, but personally I prefer to keep an amount of the raw performance intact, much like witnessing a live concert. If things sound too perfect, it’s not actually realistic.”
The recording session
Walk-through complete, the musicians now took their places and warmed up by playing some of the material they were due to record, Sawyer meanwhile checking levels at the mixing desk, and occasionally darting out into the live room to shift the position of one of the microphones or check the performers were happy with the blended audio feed in their headphones. Multi-instrumentalist Peter Billington was seated at the studio’s Yamaha CF3 piano, vocalist Fleur Stevenson to his right, drummer Simon Price to his left, and to the side was Alex Dankworth on bass (below).
Even warming up it had been clear that the musicians were a substantial cut above journeyman level. Their positions in the room had been optimised for recording, not for the acoustic balance as perceived by those attending, and so the assembled audiophiles had to adjust to a sound dominated by the piano and drums, the bass being very quiet, and vocals even more so. But this was not a concert. It was a place of work, and all the more interesting because of it. They were now witnessing at first hand part of the reality of being a top-flight jazz musician. All four members of the quartet had talent in spades – of course they did – but as the morning progressed it became clear just how much professionalism and graft are required as well. This was live recording with no opportunity for errors to be erased during mastering. Self-critical to what seemed to the assembled audiophiles to be an extraordinary degree, all four of the performers on occasions asked for re-sets due to errors or nuances that were simply inaudible to the visitors.
Sawyer encouraged the audiophiles to move around between takes. Those who shifted to the mixing/mastering suite heard the morning’s work in a completely different way. Recorded at -24 LUFS* for wide dynamic range, and playing through the suite’s Sonodyne SM100Ak monitors, Stevenson’s captivating voice and the lovely tone of Dankworth’s bass were now in balance with the piano and drums. Indeed, the quartet sounded simply stunning; dynamically expressive and expansive yet at the same time intimate, almost as if listeners had somehow sneaked in on a live session – which of course they had.
It would be quite wrong to conclude that Crescent Records is all about that huge and acoustically helpful live room. It would be much more on point to give Sawyer credit for how he uses it. You want a cookie-cutter recording? Fine. You have any number of perfectly competent studios to choose from. They’ll put you in an acoustically dead space and the results will be as expected. Sawyer can do that too if that’s what you really want, but it would be a shocking waste of his talent and that amazing performance space. Increasingly though, the word is getting around, and acoustic artists including singer/songwriters and a lot of jazz musicians are latching on to Crescent Records’ unique ability to capture the as-live acoustic magic.
The studio has wide range of instruments for use by visiting musicians, but the jewel in the crown is undoubtedly the Yamaha piano. Deliberately tuned to tame to a degree the bright attack that Yamahas are known for, and situated in the acoustically supportive space of the large room, it has a gloriously full, rich tone that visiting pianists reportedly just adore. Certainly, Pete Billington made the CF3 sing, and he looked like he was having a ball while doing so.
The result of the morning’s recording session was evaluated after a lunch break when the best of the material was played back on CDR. The mastering and transfer had necessarily been done in the space of little over an hour and was, said Sawyer, far from the finished article, but enough to give a sense of the sonic outcomes the studio strives to achieve. Pop and rock is typically mastered at -6 to -7 LUFS, but Sawyer likes to go much easier on the compressor and limiter, and generally aims to master jazz recordings at around -14 to -16 LUFS with the goal of maintaining wide dynamic range yet still having some of what he calls the ‘glue and punch’ required to make playback engaging.
Audio Consultants had configured an audio system (above, full breakdown below) using Ophidian’s flagship floorstanding Voodoo speakers driven by a Luxman L-507Z integrated amplifier fed by a Luxman D-07X SACD player. Mains, signal and speaker looms were by Gutwire. Even though the sound pressure level was lower than the earlier live acoustic performance, the system showed that the excellent musicianship of Billington, Stevenson, Dankworth and Price had made it safely across the gap when it was transferred to 16-bit 44.1 kHz PCM CD. Sawyer’s painstaking engineering, supported by the grounding and vibration-reducing products, had resulted in a recording notably free of piano intermodulation artefacts. The system gave a good account of Billington’s lovely clean technique and sense of melody, the sonic weight of the Yamaha, and the signature big acoustic of the room. Stevenson’s voice retained a generous measure of the purity, warmth, emotion and precise diction that, heard live, she deploys to such compelling effect. Even in the cavernous space of the 10X10m live room with its vaulted ceiling, the 1.3m tall Ophidian speakers driven by the Luxman pairing made a compelling case for themselves, giving the replay performance the levels of low-end reach, dynamic expression and scale that only such large enclosures can generate.
Audio Consultants had successfully made its point: a contemporary and well-configured system can bring listeners tantalisingly close to the experience of live.
*LUFS stands for ‘loudness units full scale’. LUFS are similar to dB (decibels) but take psycho acoustics into account when factoring how loud we perceive sound to be.
The Audio Consultants system
Luxman D-07X CD/SACD player £10,000
Luxman L-507Z integrated amplifier £8,000
Ophidian Voodoo loudspeakers £16,000
Gutwire Uno- S interconnects: £2,950 – 1.0m pair
Gutwire Chime Cube AE speaker cables: £5,360 – 2.5m pair
Gutwire Consummate Ground Cable – £1,500 – 6ft
2 X Gutwire Pure Cube power cords: £5180 – 6ft – Furutech FI-1363R/FI-50R IEC. Used from PSM 156 SE to electronic component.
Gutwire Power Cube: £1,875 – 6ft – Furutech FI-1363 R UK/FI-32R (C-19). Used from wall socket to PSM 156 SE.
Puritan Audio Studio Master PSM 156 Special Edition: £2,150 with Furutech UK sockets and high current IEC.
Lateral Audio Cadenz VR – 4T: £995.
Gutwire M3X2-1719 Isolation base (used under PSM 156 SE): £3,095.
Total cost £57,105.