Berklee student Rian Souleles brings CDM this report on
the state of surround, straight from the mouths of some of the greatest
engineers alive.

Recently, on a Friday afternoon, about a hundred music technology students crammed into the hot sweaty live room of Berklee College of Music's
Studio A just to get a glimpse of the current state of the surround
revolution from three of the most prolific figureheads of the industry.
Comprising this trinity was the greatest living sound engineers today,
Geoff Emerick, Elliot Scheiner and George Massenburg.
George Massenburg was on site, acting as MC, while Emerick and Scheiner
were on a conference call. All of these men have jaw-dropping
discographies and accomplishments. Their importance to the art of
recording is hard to express in words.


Geoff Emerick was the Beatles main sound architect and he practically
wrote the book on modern production techniques pioneered by the band's
revolutionary studio escapades.  Legend has it that years ago Emerick
had to fill out a bunch of forms with EMI and get permission before he
could close mic a kick drum.  When they ordered a new piece of gear,
men in green lab coats would drop it off while the men in white lab
coats would configure and calibrate it.  Ever put a guitar through a
Leslie speaker?  How about baby nappies (British for diapers) on
drumheads to dull the sound?

The class spoke with him over voice conferencing while he was on his
"thinking" break at Capitol Studios working on the new Sean Lennon
album. Emerick was very secretive about his tricks and technique.  When
one of the teachers asked him to divulge the secrets behind the famous
Beatles micing techniques, he just replied with classic English wit,
"We used cheap mics and very expensive mics.  We also used close and
distant mic placement".  When George asked the class if anyone had any
questions for Emerick I could barely speak and just felt humble to be
in the presence of such innovators.

Grammy winner Elliot Scheiner is legendary in his own right. He is
responsible for engineering the sonic perfection of Steely Dan, Van
Morrison and Fleetwood Mac.  Elliot has become the 'go to' guy for the
best surround mixing around.  He is a trailblazer in the surround sound
movement.  Elliot even worked with Acura to create the EL model with a
specialized 5.1 sound system.  His DVD-A surround mixes of Beck and
Queen's 'A Night at the Opera' will hopefully get the record buying
public hooked on surround and high resolution like audiophile crack.

After a barrage of questions, Elliot turned the tables on the mostly
student audience and asked why we were going into this business.  The
class became dead silent amongst the rare chuckle.  Well, it's
definitely not for the money, the whole class agreed. Then all of the
sudden, in a blast of harmonic convergence, Elliot, Geoff, George, the
attending Berklee faculty, and almost the entire class all at once
realized it was simply about our love of music.  In that moment, the
elders and pupils realized we share the same passion.  In these times
of change and transition there is still this dedication that gives us
hope and optimism for the future of the art of recorded sound.

George Massenburg, the audio equivalent of a mad scientist, captivated
and charmed the faculty and students alike with his guru knowledge and
wisdom of all things.  George is a fringe digital evangelist and the
father of the parametric equalizer.  He is a true renaissance man on a
personal crusade to find his sonic holy grail. Massenburg, to put it
simply, has an obsessive passion for making great recordings and
transcribing sound in his head with utter perfection. He is a Grammy
winner and has engineered and mixed albums for Earth Wind and Fire,
Weather Report, Little Feat, and Linda Ronstadt.

When someone asked for his preferences on what microphone pre-amps to
use, George was silent and gave an intense dead stare to the
unsuspecting questioner who slumped in his chair.  "Have you ever
visited my website?" George asked. "I use my own pre-amps because they
are the best pre-amps in the world and I build them that way."

He then explained that he doesn't build hardware or program plug-ins so
they can be molested by marketing departments or castrated by cheap
manufacturing techniques. George builds plug-ins because he has a deep
desire for the most accurate and effective sonic tools. If these tools
don't exist or are not up to par with his own personal audio dogma he
just busts out the trusty soldering iron and builds his own.

He was adamant that he doesn't make these tools for the money. "If you
steal my plug-ins I will literally kill you!" said George. George has
too much invested in his plug-ins for them to be just given away and
peddled or passed around among the pirates and thieves of the vagabond
streets of the digital black market. The man has spent many years
working and thousands of hours tediously developing what many would
consider the best DSP on the market. He puts his heart and soul into
his plug-ins. He makes countless personal sacrifices to make his
plug-ins.  What right does some punk kid have to degrade the plug-in to
worthlessness?

George has pride and passion for this industry. George asked Geoff
Emerick about the current state of the Beatles master tapes and if they
were safely backed up on a reliable digital format.  George is a big
advocate of secure digital storage systems for archiving and securing
digital audio.  When Geoff told him they were currently just on digital
48-track tape, George looked like he was going to convulse and cry.
"Holy Shit", was all he could say.

But I beg you, for the love of God, do not pigeon hole Massenburg into
the "soulless gear head stereotype".  There is something divinely
earnest and utterly human about George's passion. The reader may ask
what is the point to this obsessive and maniacal militant passion for
audio. I think George would explain that the crux of this entire knob
twiddling and tweaking is for the producer/engineer to help the artist
tell a story. Anything to make the story more vivid and pleasing to the
overall vision of the storyteller, when done right, is worth all the
blood, sweat, and tears. Music is about conveying emotion and telling a
story. That is all that artists on this little tiny planet are striving
to do.

All three men agreed that surround sound was the future sound format of
the industry.  Elliot Scheiner was quite confident that the format
would be a success. He had no doubt in his mind DVD-A would be the
successor of the antiquated compact disc. With dual discs becoming more
and more popular all of them are hoping that the format will become a
standard and be the much-needed Superman to the music industry.  Can
the general populace be brought to the record or online store by
seductive high-resolution multi channel sound?  This will only happen
if it is done right.  It seems like that is the constant battle between
record companies and engineers.  Some record companies, in order to
save a buck, seem to want to release only fake surround sound formats
with cheap inferior quality.

Now I would like to humbly echo this audio sermon with my own
interpretation that is currently resonating inside of me. The following
is audio common sense.  I speak as a product of the microwave
generation desperately trying to keep afloat in sea of information
overload. I am faced with an overwhelming onslaught of plug-ins, DAWS,
recording magazines, virtual instruments, samples, analog simulations,
dithers, drivers, sample rates, formats, do hickeys, and dongles. My
only comfort or salvation is to remember the three most important tools
of any sound manipulator; ears, heart, and grey matter.  

  • Guest

    Great Story!

  • Guest

    …to Rian Souleles for taking the time to show up and listen to the great questions and answers from both sides of the phone call.

    it's worth pointing out that Geoff isn't really secretive about what he's doing. i find that he more just doesn't really remember what he's done. like Al Schmitt he kind of "twiddles knobs till it sounds right."

    what Geoff did reveal was that "Eleanor Rigby" was recorded for the most part with Shure SM-56's.

    …an existence-defining moment for me i must tell you.

    George Massenburg