6th June 2023
My report HERE documents our session in December 2022 with Stephen, of Audio Consultants, and Damon Sawyer, of Crescent Recording Studio.
That was an excellent half-day event and Stephen decided with Damon that a full day might give more space for a deeper dive into the processes, and more music.
As with the initial event, attendees will get a CD of the session, which is excellent.
I attended on Sunday 25th June for a 10 am start. Damon was present with his friend and helper for the day Stephen, who supplied some of this article’s photos.
Soon after Stephen Harper and Alex of Audio Consultants arrived and we sat and chatted about how the previous day had gone.
Damon had arranged for the musicians who were to be playing for us that day, two of whom, Peter Billington and Simon Price, had played in the last session. They were to be joined by Fleur Stevenson on vocals and Alex Dankworth on bass.
Damon is himself a drummer, in fact, he is soon to go on tour. Some drummers can play in the studio as though they are on stage. This is akin to the differing technique an actor requires for TV, with minimal inflections, against the stage, where something more flamboyant is called for. In his studio if a musician, be it drummer, brass instrument or singer, decides to fully project then all sorts of reflection and bleed-through will start to occur.
By this point attendees had started to arrive along with the performers themselves. Looking around the Control room an obvious change was the absence of the ATC Monitors and the arrival of a pair of Acoustic Energy AE2, with stands. Asking Damon he is very happy with the AE2s. The ATCs were very good but he feels that the Acoustic Energy gives him a greater emotional connection to the music as he is recording and mastering it. I have to say that during the sessions I frequently sat in the control room and the AE2s, with the £75k sound desk front end, were superb in that space.
Damon has also changed the small active monitors he uses behind his sound desk.
Damon has spent a considerable amount of time determining the best and most natural way to capture the sound of the studio’s grand piano. This is a multi-mike setup which, in line with his overall philosophy, allows him to get the attack and resonance whilst using the minimum amount of processing.
Likewise, we moved on to the drum kit, where he uses an array of microphones. Here the majority of the information will be captured by the two mics suspended above the kit; these are measured to ensure they are equidistant from the snare drum. But there is a reverse wired 15” speaker that gets the essential low-end frequencies and resonance, together with a smaller diaphragm mic hard up to the bass drum, to capture the attack. Some engineers EQ the drum recording to remove the low bass.
I noticed that on one of the cymbals, there was a chain, similar to that which holds a plug in a sink. Damon demonstrated that this sustains the cymbal sound, which it does very effectively. Such a clever idea!
The studio itself had a number of omni, 360o coverage, mics. This could be used to add a touch of ambience to the final mix.
Now Damon moved on to the placing of the band within the studio space. There are particular positions that a particular musician may find within the space, but from a recording perspective Damon needs the musicians to be temporally close, to prevent phasing and smearing.
During the session each musician has their personal mixer, allowing them to control what they hear during the recording via their headphones.
Damon explained that he records at 384kHz. Asked about PCM vs DSD he explained that his opinion is that DSD gives the most analogue sound. However, PCM gives a touch more air. He likes both and would like to use both in different contexts. However, it does add to the complexity and leads to more rewiring during sessions, as well as changes in software.
The raw session files are retained, and give a ground point to which he can return if needed on any project. As he moves forward checkpoints are taken which allows him to set up a new bass point. This doesn’t always prevent the frustration of a client towards the end of a project asking for a small change, from their point of view, that requires a leap back to a much earlier point in the mastering process.
The pressures of modern music-making mean that decisions are being made during the recording process to simplify the later mastering. There are no longer budgets that allow weeks for an album to be recorded and produced. The most Damon can hope for is three days for the initial recording, and frequently less than this.
Damon is aiming to get as natural a recording as possible where any EQ and compression he uses will be as light touch as possible. He works hard to avoid bottlenecks and large-scale computing processing, two hundred tracks ‘in the box’. He aims to have a recording per performer, not just a great recording but one that allows their technique and emotion to be heard.
Over and above the technical, Damon works hard on creating trust. The performers need to be able to relax, and give of their best whilst working in partnership with the engineer to allow their hard work to be captured.
As a part of the process, the musicians will listen to the takes. Further along in the process, the mix will be made available for review and feedback in a format that works for the client.
Depending on the genre then at some point, the files may be sent to someone known for their engineering skills in that area; Damon is known for his jazz engineering, and increasing numbers of performers are heading out to Swindon from ‘The Smoke’ to use him.
During a break in the recording process, I had a chat with Alex Dankworth. I was interested in whether they did any practice sessions prior to their arrival at Crescent Studios, to which the answer was no. There is an active jazz scene with which the four musicians interact. Although they had not played together as a quartet, they had all worked with each other. Jazz pieces generally have 32 bars, they chatted through the pieces agreeing where and who would do a solo and when Fleur would enter and stop. After this, they kept an eye on each other whilst they played.
Having completed a take there would be a chat about the piece, how the solos went and the piece was ended. This might then lead to a second take with a change in some aspect of the music.
As lunchtime approached the performers fortified themselves whilst the audiophiles went to the control room. Stephen Harper had told me that he had left the music selection to Pete and so I grabbed him mid-sandwich. The first track had been something that he and Fleur had worked upon through lockdown but had not had the chance to use. These two worked closely together and have recorded a couple of albums together. For the rest, it was a matter of mutual negotiation during the session.
I joined the others in the control room where Damon was extolling the virtues he had found in cabling, power cords, earthing and vibration control. He has found these to be an interesting topic with his fellow professionals. Something that any user of a HiFi forum will empathise with. Deploying solutions by companies such as GutWire, with the advice and assistance of Stephen Harper, has helped him to improve the results and made him an enthusiast for these treatments.
During lunch Damon worked on doing an initial mastering of the morning session. This was an opportunity to speak to the other attendees.
I was very happy to see a young man present with his father. The father turned out to be our own Tuga. His son is a guitarist, keen musician and budding sound recordist. We sympathised with each other as Tuga has also sung bass in a choir. If you are not pitch perfect, oh how I wish, as a bloke there will come a point where you are the lone bloke surrounded by sopranos and altos at a rehearsal. That is a trial by fire!
Tuga and I swapped system details, trials and tribulations.
Later on I spoke to another attendee who is very much at the DIY end of things. Having initially built his own amps he is currently working on a pair of active speakers.
After lunch more music and recording took place, and preparation for the CD playback.
Audio Consultants had set up what they consider to be a mid-fi system, consisting of:
Luxman D-07X CD/SACD player;
Luxman L-507Z Integrated Amplifier;
Ophidian Voodoo loudspeakers;
Cabling by Gutwire, including: Uno-S interconnects; Chime Cube AE speaker cables; and, Consummate ground cable.
Power distribution using Gutwire Pure Cube power cords, Gutwire Power Cube using a Furutech FI-1363 R UK/FI-32R (C-19), and Puritan Audio Studio Master PSM 156 Special Edition.
Equipment Supports were Lateral Audio Cadenz VR and Gutwire M3X2 isolation base.
I will now hand over to George for his thoughts on the system vs studio vs control room sound, and the views of the Saturday attendees:
This is the second time that those nice chaps at Audio Consultants (Stephen and Alex) have worked with Damon at Crescent Recordings to show audiophiles the recording process from playing the music, to recording the music and then mixing/mastering the final recording. In the first event we had a half day to do the whole process and to be honest, with all the explanations and questions, it was a bit tight on time. So this event was planned for the whole day. And what a day.
Also to make it even more interesting there would be a singer. She was the lovely Fleur Stevenson. She has already recorded 3 CDs so I bought her latest recording (2022); For All We Know. The album featured Peter Billington on piano, guitar, double bass and viola; quite a musician. And he was here on this session ably helped out by Alex Dankworth and Simon Price on the bass and drums respectively. Fleur’s singing was excellent and she managed to get real emotion into her singing, unlike some other soothing female jazz singers who could be singing the Swindon telephone directory as so little emotion is put into their singing. And don’t get me onto the shouters. And guess who the recording/mixing/mastering engineer was on her albums? Yes, a certain Damon Sawyer.
Having introduced ourselves I decided to sit in on the tuning/rehearsals in the morning. The main music room had to feature the musicians and an audience of 20 or so people with some acoustic isolation from the drummer. Damon had properly set up the microphones to record the musicians with some added ambience provided by the acoustics of the room. No worries, Damon knows his studio and the musicians. There was an issue with this setup. Fleur’s delicate voice was going to be swamped by the Yamaha CF3 concert grand piano, the drums and the stand-up bass. A small amplifier was added so the audience could hear her singing. But it had to be kept under control to ensure that it was not ‘heard’ by the other microphones and confuse the audio image. If it was too loud then her voice would be recorded in her microphone and a time-shifted version in the other microphones. It meant that although there was a perfect recording of her voice in the recording studio, her voice was swamped by the other instruments in the music room. This is normally resolved by having the singer in an adjacent booth but that loses the spontaneity of the band. Not a big issue but it was sometimes difficult to hear her singing. Pity.
In the afternoon I stayed in the music room and moved away from the piano to the couch next to Kevin Fiske. Kevin writes for the Ear, Hifi+ and previously Hifi Critic before it was closed down. He wrote up his experiences of the recording for The Ear. It is HERE. In his great write-up, Kevin describes the microphones used and the details of the recording so there is no need to repeat them here.
I can’t resist: Fleur’s voice was recorded using a Lauten Audio LT-386 which is a valve microphone! This probably explains why her voice sounds like a talented human being singing great music, especially when the recording was played back in the music room later in the day.
I spent some time with Damon, who was always keen to show people the recording process and why he uses decent audiophile cables, proper grounding, and analogue and digital reverb. It is always great to see a true professional at work. He is someone who is able to make all the appropriate adjustments quickly and get great results. Still, he has been recording for over 25 years, so maybe that is not so surprising. He is also a musician and was going on tour after this recording with blues trio Hundred Seventy Split with former Ten Years After members Leo Lyons (bass) and Joe Gooch (guitar).
The main recording was done using a digital 24-channel desk. After recording, mixing and mastering Damon used a Nord Class D amplifier with decent speakers. It allowed him to confirm that he had a good recording. He is also a bit of a masochist as he is still trying to persuade his fellow recording colleagues to care about cables, grounding and isolation. Whereas audiophiles would get laughed at Damon just gets looks of pity or people smiling sweetly. Despite that, he continues. Brave chap.
As for the first recording session mentioned previously, he did a quick mixing/mastering onto a CD-R for playing in a system set up by Audio Consultants. This system is documented above.
The Puritan Audio Studio Master PSM 156 was a Special Edition from Audio Consultants that has Furutech UK sockets. The Furutech sockets are better at handling heavier mains cables and sound better.
It was a nice and comprehensive setup.
We played a couple of tracks. The volume level on the first track was a little quiet for me, especially in the large music room. But when the volume went up things sounded much better and the Luxies showed this was not a ‘normal’ recording. Playing these recordings through the system was a great ending to the day.
This was another day where a lot of audiophiles could hear and see the whole process of recording music. It is a shame that this process is normally unseen by audiophiles although knowing that cheap DACs (convertors) costing a few £10s are used by most studios, it is probably best it remains hidden! Of course, Damon uses a lovely Merging converter that costs a lot more (£15,000).
This was a great day and Audio Consultants are planning to repeat the whole process but at the UK Audio Show, on the 7th and 8th October 2023. Now that is brave; trying to record music in the noisy environment of an audio show with the possibility of the room next door playing films at 120db and the guys in the other room showing off their new sub-woofer, whilst you are hoping to record the textures in the bass and nuances in the voice will take some doing. But if anyone can do it, it is these guys. See you there.