Opinionated Audio: David Chesky on Binaural Recording & the Business of Specialized Sound

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There is a method to their madness.

For Chesky Records, the how of recording is every bit as important as the who of their roster. This is an audiophile label that was founded not on the premise of spawning smash hits but on providing a distinct listening experience: creating the illusion of live musicians in a 3D space.

David Chesky, performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

David Chesky, performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center.

David Chesky and his brother Norman started their eponymous label on that path in 1988, their progress since then tracks as an upstart success story. Their artist Paquito D’Rivera’s third Chesky release, Portraits of Cuba, a collection of jazz interpretations of Cuban folksongs, won the 1997 Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Performance.

Along the way, Chesky Records stands as the first company to use 128x Oversampling, and maximized the performance of A/D conversion to help pioneer High Resolution Recordings. They also sport a sister company, HDTracks.com, which allows users to purchase audiophile-grade downloads.

For those who want to listen deeper, Chesky Records launched their Binaural+ series of recordings, which are recorded in 192-kHz/24-bit sound with a Binaural dummy head, to capture the sound of music as you would if you were sitting in front of the band. Proof that the technique works comes in the form of new release like Interplay by the piano/vibes superduo Mark Sherman & Kenny Barron, and In an Ambient Way by Powerhouse (featuring the recently departed saxophonist Bob Belden).

There’s a new release from David Chesky himself, Jazz in the New Harmonic – Primal Scream. It’s an addictive and spacious record of extremely cool jazz, packed with the kind of grooves you’ll dig on repeatedly — even if you’re the staunchest of non-jazz heads (SonicScoop readers can purchase the Primal Scream for 50% until July 15th. Use promo code PRIMALSONIC at http://www.hdtracks.com).

As pure as his intentions are, David Chesky is not a man for all audio – nor is he trying to be. This is a person with strong opinions about sound, and the people who capture it for a living.

What, to you, is the pleasure in listening to a properly executed binaural recording? Explain it to someone who may never have experienced it.
Here’s the thing: most young people now are listening on headphones. Binaural is very cool, because this pinna [points to his ears] tells you everything – you don’t need 20 mics. When you record with the binaural mic in a pinna, it records all the location cues properly: height, depth, 20 locations around.

Think of 5.1 as a hula hoop around your head. But binaural is a sphere – it’s bigger bigger bigger. It’s a density. It’s really 3-D.

How do you personally listen to binaural recordings?
I listen in two ways. All Chesky recordings sound good on speakers, and I also listen on headphones. Right now everyone with headphones or even earbuds will really be in the space.

The B&K 4100 Sound Quality Heard & Torso simulator on duty for Chesky Records at the German Lutheran Church of St. Paul in Manhattan.

The B&K 4100 Sound Quality Head & Torso simulator on duty for Chesky Records at the German Lutheran Church of St. Paul in Manhattan.

What binaural microphone do you use? Did you audition different ones – how did you arrive at the one you selected?
We use the B&K 4100 head and torso simulator. It’s a crash test dummy, basically. They use this primarily to test factory floor noise levels, it’s so precise. It’s a scientific instrument, but we said, “Let’s use it for recording.” And we did.

Neumann makes a binaural head as well. We tested a few different options. The B&K is a really nice matched system – you can shoot a shotgun off next to this thing and it won’t distort.

In what way is the recording, mixing and mastering process to you THE expression, as much as the song?
We’re minimalists. We have this B&K microphone, with a little silver cable that goes into the mic pre-amps, which goes into the A/D converter at 192 kHz, and from there into the Sonic Solutions DAW. That’s it.

Nicholas Prout is our recording/mastering engineer, and he does editing if we make a mistake. There’s no EQ, no compression. It’s pure. Total dynamic range. It’s the opposite of what pop people do: they squash it.

Why is important to you to hear a “pure” recording?
Here’s the thing: I started out as a studio musician. I was in studios all day long as a conductor. I used to record an orchestra, there were 50 mics all over the place, and I thought that was weird – if you put your head into a trumpet [where they were putting a microphone], it will blow your head off. But you don’t hear instruments like that. You hear them from a distance.

When we started this label, it was from the best seat in the house: the listener position. We started with the AKG 24, doing Blumlein recording. Then we did the Soundfield process, and now are doing binaural. All three of these are from one point, and that’s how it happens so you really get true imaging and correct phase.

I really believe that after two microphones, things go downhill for an acoustic recording. If you’re doing a rap or metal thing, anything goes.

What do you say to people who may beg to differ with that statement?
Recording is an art. Just like you’ve got Italian restaurants, French restaurants, and you’ve also got fast food restaurants.

Our thing is recording real musicians in a real space. That being said, the best way do that is with two microphones and to balance the band, in my opinion. You can do that with a binaural head, or separated mics, and you get real true stereo separation.

But doing a pop record with 48 tracks, that’s a different thing, because you’re making the music in the board – that’s the creative process. That’s not our thing. We’re an Italian restaurant. We set up the black and white picture, and take the shot. That’s the whole thing.

The Song’s the Thing

Are the compositions made with the recording technique in mind?
First of all, I come from a classical background, and I’m a jazz and acoustic musician. I’m used to writing for jazz recordings and operas. You do it with one mic or a hundred mics, its written the same way.

The recording has nothing to do with how the music is composed. It’s how we want the listener to experience the music. In my case, I want to put you in a beautiful, ambient space and experience it like that. My thing is, if you go into a studio, you should do the best you can to capture it well.

There's tons of tone on David Chesky's new Binaural+ release, "Primal Scream".

There’s tons of tone on David Chesky’s new Binaural+ release, “Primal Scream”.

What excites me is the tone. A guy like Sonny Rollins practices his whole life to get the tone. A Stradivarius, it’s the tone. And it’s the tone for the guys who play an old electric guitar, and use old Russian tubes in their amp to get the beautiful sound. With binaural recordings, we can capture the nuances of the sound.

Music is about sound. The more crystalline the sound, the better you’re enveloped. It’s a much more satisfying experience.

We could put a transistor radio on the desk here, playing a Beatles song, and it’s not the same. We can play Dark Side of the Moon off of a record, it’s not the same as playing it in a studio and hearing it in there. It’s about taking the sound to the next level. The music is still the same, but it’s a different experience.

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  • menteur

    all our recordings are binaural. all of our albums are free.
    we love you.