I Happen To Have Mr. McLuhan Right Here

Last night, unable to decide what I wanted to listen to, I stuck my hand into the CD cabinet and pulled a record out at random. It turned out to be one I hadn’t listened to in a while, and one that brought back quite a few memories — some very sad, and one that was rather amusing. Here’s the amusing one.

About twenty years or so ago I was out doing errands with the lovely Nina. She wanted to poke around in some clothing store or other — which is, to put it mildly, not my idea of fun. Having noticed that there was a high-end stereo shop next door, I suggested that she could find me in there when she was done. We parted.

I wandered in; the place was empty. I began a desultory inspection of the merchandise. Within a few seconds, a salesman had shimmered into existence at my side. He asked what I was interested in; I said I was just looking around.

We passed a silent moment together.

“Want to listen to some speakers?”

I really had very little interest in listening to any loudspeakers. Like most recording engineers, I regard speakers as little more than a necessary evil. They are all different, and they are all vile deceivers. All an engineer can do is to settle on some speaker or other, and spend years getting used to its idiosyncracies.

But realizing that I had no hope of scraping this limpet off my hull, I allowed him to lead me into a listening chamber.

“What kind of music do you like?”

I replied that I had no particular preference.

“Do you like jazz?”

I told him I did.

“Well, let me see…”

He rummaged around amongst some CDs on a shelf and pulled out a copy of a jazz-fusion album called Time in Place, by the guitarist Mike Stern. (This was the record that I pulled out last night.)

As it happens, I had been the mixing engineer for this record, back at Skyline Studios, in December 1987. I thought this was an amusing coincidence, but I said nothing.

He selected some speakers or other, and started playing the record. The speakers sounded like typical home-stereo speakers. You know: artifically bright on top, a little too plump down below.

“What do you think?”

“Gee, they’re OK, I guess.” (They were awful.)

More speakers. More of the same. I hate speakers.

Finally, having set me up for the pièce de résistance, he said:

“Well, I can see you’re hard to impress. OK, then, check these out.”

He selected the biggest, ugliest-looking pair of speakers in the room. God knows what they were. He pressed Play.

To my surprise, they actually sounded pretty good: bright, with very good transients, but without sounding brittle; plenty of clarity in the midrange, but not harsh; impressive low end without the usual mud. The imaging was fairly precise, with little of the smearing of the center that you often get with multi-element speakers. All in all, not too shabby.

“How about that, huh?”

I said I thought they were very nice. He beamed. Then he said:

“That’s the way it sounded IN the STUDIO!”

This was too much for me. What we were hearing was nothing even remotely like the way this record had sounded in the studio; I had mixed the album using a pair of Yamaha NS-10s, which are rather crummy little bookshelf speakers. (Read about them here.)

I had to clue him in.

“Actually, I hate to tell you this, but that’s not the way it sounded “in the studio” at all, and you shouldn’t go around telling people that. As it happens, I’m the guy who mixed that album, and I did it on a pair of Yamaha NS-10s.”

He was absolutely struck dumb. I could see that his whole world was swirling and dissolving, that everything he thought was real had become a cruel mirage. I knew this must be hard for him.

After a few moments, he collected himself.

“Bullshit.”

“No, I’m serious.”

I had to take out my driver’s license and show him that my name was the same as the one on the record. I then explained that when you are mixing records, you want to use average speakers at best. If you do your mix on hyped-up “audiophile” speakers like the ones he was hawking, it will sound horrible when played back on anything else; but if you can get the mix sounding great on bad speakers it will sound great anywhere.

NS-10s?? But they totally suck!!!”

“Yep, that’s the whole idea.”

He needed another moment to digest all of this; we stood together in silence.

After a minute or so Nina walked in. It was time to go. I thanked my new friend for his trouble. He nodded distractedly. We left.

As I said, listening to that record last night brought back some sad memories, too. I’ll get to those later.

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16 Comments

  1. chris g says

    In ’91 my brother lived across the street from that little bar in the West Village where he had a standing gig. It was on Christopher near Hudson. I think it included 2 drinks with the cover charge.

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Would that be the 55 Bar? Two-drink minimum. And Mike Stern still, I think, has a steady gig there.

    Who’s your brother?

    Posted March 17, 2010 at 11:15 pm | Permalink
  3. chris g says

    Sorry… my brother, Mark, is irrelevant to my post. My post was almost irrelevant. To keep the irrelevant theme going, I will say Mark now lives across the street from the fancy house they used in that movie “The Royal Tenenbaums.” I can’t figure out why he switched from being across the street from Mike Stern & Bar 55 to Wes Anderson and the Royal Tenenbaum house. Feel free to just delete anything I write.

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 2:11 am | Permalink
  4. Ron D says

    Mal,

    This is a great story. Thanks for sharing. That must have been the salesman’s worst day ever! He was right about one thing, though. NS-10Ms DO totally suck!

    Ron

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Thanks Ron!

    Posted March 18, 2010 at 9:53 am | Permalink
  6. Chris G says

    What kind of necessary evils do you & Ron listen with at home?

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    I have an old pair of B&Ws (I forget the model), but I also often just listen to the Bose Wave radio. Not bad once you get used to it.

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  8. Ron D says

    Chris,

    I do most of my listening at home over headphones or in my car. Anything that is being played over speakers at my house is usually Sponge Bob, Phineas and Ferb, and the like. You get the picture. But, I do occasionally check my 5.1 mixes at home with my home theater which is a decent consumer level Polk system.

    Right now at work, I am using 5 Blue Sky 6.5 speakers with the Sat 12 sub. It’s awesome. The mids are incredibly accurate because it is a 3-way system where the mids have their own dedicated speaker cone, rather than the usual cross-over from a traditional 2-way speaker (that use only a tweeter and a woofer). Why are the mids so important? Because that’s where all the dialog (and most vocals) live! So, the Blue Skys really nail that and tell it like it is. Shockingly so, at times.

    And I must reiterate Malcolm’s important point that if a mixer uses speakers that artificially “hype” or enhance the mix, then it will sound awful anywhere else. In other words, if a speaker sounds too good, then it will throw me off. I want my speakers to sound accurate, rather than good or bad. But, I would never go back to anything as bad as the NS10Ms (or the original NS10s back when Mal was at the PStation for those of you who spotted this small difference with the model number). In fact, I reviewed a set of KRK speakers (the professional VST series) for Post Magazine where I talked about how a speaker needs to be accurate rather than good or bad. I think it sums up what most recording engineers/mixers think. Mal, feel free to agree or disagree. If you are interested, you can read it here:

    http://www.postmagazine.com/ME2/dirmod.asp?sid=&nm=&type=Publishing&mod=Publications%3A%3AArticle&mid=8F3A7027421841978F18BE895F87F791&tier=4&id=B6563109FEBD497D964C592A62FEA58F

    Ron

    Posted March 19, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  9. chris g says

    Nice review, Ron. It is sad that such high-end speakers are subject to that Cellular phone noise?!?

    Posted March 20, 2010 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  10. Malcolm says

    Hi Ron,

    Nothing to disagree with there, except possibly to wonder whether the ideal of “accuracy” can ever really be approached by any loudspeaker — or, for that matter, what it even means in the context of our work, given that so much of what we traffic in is electronic signals that were never even “sounds” to begin with.

    That’s a well-written and thoughtful review you linked to.

    Thanks!

    Posted March 20, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink
  11. the one eyed man says

    Sri Chinmoy tells us that next to silence, music is that which best expresses the inexpressable. That may be so, but the inexpressable sounds inexpressably great on Audio Note speakers. Combined with tube amplification, they’re awesome.

    Posted March 20, 2010 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  12. chris g says

    I want some Klipsch Corner Horns.

    Accuracy? No.
    Pee in your pants? Yes.

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 12:03 am | Permalink
  13. Malcolm, what a great story. I thought it very Wodehousian (‘the salesman shimmered’) – ha!

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 3:10 am | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Thanks Salim!

    Posted March 22, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink
  15. RJ says

    Great story, Malcolm, and beyond irony. To this day I think “Time in Place” is Mike’s best effort. An uncanny combination of brilliant songwriting, fantastic arranging, and flawless musicianship. Your superb mix gives that record a wonderful organic element and is the glue that brings it all together. My own interesting experience with that record was one day happening to meet its original tracking engineer (in a dub room of a NYC jingle house, and chatting about that record’s somewhat interesting recording process.

    Posted April 6, 2010 at 4:10 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Thanks so much, Ray, and great to hear from you. I hope you are well!

    Posted April 6, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink