INTERVIEW WITH STEVE HOFFMAN

Steve Hoffman not only one of the true legends in audiophile circles, he is also one of the most open minded and open hearted people I’ve ever had the pleasure of talking to. His pure love for music allows him to pay the bills. If you are familiar with any DCC audiophile releases, then you already know Steve. He is loved and well know by audiophiles and musicians all over the world. He is a true magician when it comes to breathing life into music. His work can be heard on albums like The Eagle’s Hotel California, Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, and Joni Mitchell’s Blue. MI: What dragged you into the audio business and where did all begin?

SH: I was working in radio while in high school and then made the jump to a record company and worked my way up. I began mastering in 1982 when I was dissatisfied with the mastering work of the engineers who worked on my compilations…

MI: When you would say audiophile mastering started?

SH: Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs began it in the 1970’s with their Half-Speed Mastered series of famous reissue LP’s.

MI: Do you consider yourself an audiophile?

SH: Yes, Indeed!
MI: There is always this constant struggle for audio reproduction perfection. Would you say it is possible to enjoy quality music on medium priced audio systems that most folks can afford?

SH: Yes, of course; one should be able to hear the difference on the simplest of audio gear.
MI: You get masses of gear to test and you are not (I believe) on a budget when picking up your favorites. Does one really have to spend $10k or more to achieve great performance?

SH: I have found my most satisfactory gear in used stores and my favorite system that I use every day cost me about $1k.
MI: Some say that audiophile pressings and mastering is only for selected people. How do you feel about that?

SH: Audiophile pressings should be for all people. That is my dream but unfortunately, the price of the discs is more than most people want to pay. This is because the little labels have to license the music from the big labels and that is always expensive!

MI: In last few years an amazing amount of headphone amplifiers and quality headphones have come to market. More and more people are reaching for this solution. Do you listen to your music via headphones and how you feel about this phenomena. Do you feel that magic could happen with “cans”?

SH:I try to never listen with cans. I find it unnatural and downright annoying. Of course, for many years in radio I was wearing headphones all day long so probably I got very tired of it!
MI: I saw you got Wavac 300b amp in you main control room. I’m myself a 300b fan-addict. Do you prefer the 300b or the way this amp is reproducing?

SH: I am a big fan of the 300B tube. I have about 20 original Western Electric 300B’s from the 1930’s-50’s. The Wavac does a great job!

MI: No Genelec’s, Dynaudio’s and other pro monitors at your house. They don’t do the trick?

SH: As a rule I don’t like self-powered studio monitors and I need a nice, neutral sound for my work.

MI: Where would you be in the ever going debate on transistor vs tube electronics?

SH: I am a tube person; all of my gear that can be is vacuum tube oriented!

MI: What would be your dream audio setup, if there is such a thing?

SH: Dream set up? I can’t answer because I haven’t listened to everything out there and I can’t possibly! If it makes music sound lifelike and real, that’s a dream system to me!

MI: Do you remember any audio setup that really stunned you in terms of performance?

SH: Over at Universal Studios they had a set up in the main projection room that sounded really good. Entirely homemade though.
MI: Do you think that it is possible to achieve live performance reproduction in home audio system?

SH: No and that should not be the goal. We should concentrate on making all the varied types of music sound as good as they can. Trying to get a symphony orchestra to sound like a live orchestra in your living room is the way to madness!

MI: What is your goal in mastering music. What do you want listeners to experience?

SH: My term for it is “The Breath Of Life”. If it sounds to you like there are living breathing people making music instead of a recording, I have done my job.
MI: What is the criteria or standard that you trying to achieve? Is this different through the projects?

SH: See above, it’s the same thing. The Breath Of Life!

MI: Most of the music I love and prefer was recorded during 50’s-70’s and most of the equipment back then was tape and tube based. Do you feel that this gives certain sound, mood and feeling to those recordings?

SH: Yes, that was really the golden age of analog recording and I miss it. Now anyone can make a recording and the quality has suffered. I have heard some wonderful lifelike recordings from 50 years ago that sound so amazing!

MI: Is analog recording and machinery obsolete today?

SH: Well, for the most part, yes. Some rich studios can still use it but since no one makes it anymore, if a tape recorder breaks down during recording it can be a disaster! Soon, it will be a thing of the past I am afraid.

MI: How do you feel about SACD? Is it here to stay or do you think newer even higher formats will arise and take a lead?

SH: SACD is OK but it didn’t catch on so why bother? Unless the major record labels embrace it, it is doomed to failure.

MI: Do you think CD format was mistake? Is it obsolete?

SH: A mistake? No, just rushed out. I have heard some great sounding CD’s. It’s all in the mastering! In five years the CD will be dead!

MI: How do you feel about digital downloads and whole new era of digitalis?

SH: Digital downloads bore me. Nothing sexy about them at all!

MI: Is vinyl going to stay, or move to fewer selected audio enthusiasts?

SH: Vinyl always surprises me. I have no idea what is going to happen. I am surprised it is still with us but a good LP can sound amazingly good, as you know.

MI: Buying an album, unpacking and listen to it used to be quite a ritual. In this age of hyper activity it seems that all this is fading in a way. How do you see it?

SH: It was a great ritual. The 12” by 12” artwork, the pictures, liner notes, song lyrics, etc. and that lovely big record going around and around on the turntable. I was in love with them back then and still am!
MI: If you could choose. What would you master that is not possible right now. Is there some holly grail that you cherish? Any unfulfilled dreams?

SH: The BEATLES catalog. That would be my holy grail.

MI: Would you change anything about your career?

SH: Well, no, I’ve tried to do good work and I think I have for the most part succeeded.

MI: What are you you most proud of? Which album that you mastered, do you keep as the most intimate? Or is it same with all the music?

SH: Buddy Holly, Who’s Next, Cream/Wheels Of Fire, Nat King Cole, Eagles/Hotel California…

MI: What do you think was so special in the 50’s, 60’s that still amazes so many of us?

SH: Innocence of material, vacuum tubes everywhere, professional musicians, professional engineers, professional dedicated record companies, all trying to release the best product possible.

MI: Do you think that “death” of analog tapes is a big loss for audio?

SH: Yes, now it’s all clinical and “digital” sounding. That can get OLD fast!

MI: If cd’s are going to be obsolete and as you mentioned so will SACD’s, what do you think will be the standard of the future? Blueray? HD?

SH: No idea about the future. Probably all downloads, no physical medium. Too bad; I like holding something in my hand. It seems like more of a prize that way.

MI: Do you find any interest in surround audio?

SH: Surround is ok but you have to sit DIRECTLY in the center and you can’t move your head or else the mix will be off to you. I’d rather not listen to it.

MI: Why do you prefer tubes?

SH: Tubes by their nature are more liquid sounding; they sound more natural to me even though they are highly “colored”. Our ears need whatever help they can go give the illusion of life and tubes do that!

MI: Can you mention few of your favorite artist?

SH: Buddy Holly/Beatles/Stones/British Invasion Music/USA Oldies from 1950’s-60’s, Big Band music from 1935-42, Jazz from 1925-32.

MI: Can you name some of best sounding albums?

SH: Not really; too subjective!!!
MI: There seems to be overflow of recordings, artist, now that technology is so affordable. Do you feel that this is lowering standards for quality audio production?

SH: Totally lowering, yes.

MI: What do you think about mp3 format?

SH: Can’t stand it!

MI: Somehow the ipod and all those mp3 players and online stores reintroduced music to lot of folks especially the younger generation. How do you feel about that?

SH: It’s good but I wish they would be more worried about sound reproduction.

MI: What would be for you an ideal recording medium that would give best sonic performance?

SH: It hasn’t been invented yet!

MI: As you said, if it can be afforded, do you feel that recording in analogue is still great thing?

SH: Yes, indeed. A wonderful medium.

MI: Who in the recording industry would you consider an idol or someone worth looking up to?

SH: All the old-timers in the music engineering biz: John Kraus, Roy DuNann, Norman Petty, Rudy Van Gelder, Bill Porter and all the nameless engineers who worked at Columbia, RCA-Victor, etc.

MI: If you had the chance to work with anyone from any time period, who would it be?

SH: Enrico Caurso
MI: Blueray and new HD formats seem to be bringing high performance. Is this a medium that can become the new cd or lp, you know with booklets, art etc? What do you see for the future of high quality audiophile recordings?

SH: I have no way of telling; it would be nice, but I think (for everyone but true audiophiles) that the physical medium of music is over.

MI: It must be a great thing to do what you love for a living

SH: It is great! I love music!
MI: How important are room acoustics in reproduction. Most people cannot afford to change their homes into only listening rooms. Does this spoil the fun?

SH: No, I don’t feel that is important. Any room will do!
MI: I found that great recordings and quality mastering hold nicely in most room environments. No boomy bass etc. So is this the case for mastering and recording?

SH: Yes, for the most part!

MI: Some of well known folks in the mastering business are highly praising digital. But when you listen to those recordings there is something missing, like the music’s life or something? What do you think they’re doing wrong?

SH: It’s all in the mastering. Digital is a great medium. Any CD can sound good….. It takes a good mastering engineer!

MI: Nobody likes to trade secrets, but…will you share yours? :)

SH: Sorry!

MI: What do you think about mono? Is it really all that better?

SH: Stereo is better but it’s not about stereo vs. mono, it’s about which classic song has the best mix. If the stereo mix “nails it” it’s the mix to listen to. If the mono mix “nails it”, it’s the mix to listen to. In the old days the MONO mix was the one that the producer and engineer slaved over and the stereo mix was tossed off in ½ hour. Each song can be judged on a case-by-case basis.

MI: Does it works because it captures live performances mostly at once?

SH: That always helps, either in mono or stereo.

MI: You are the person to ask regarding mono. When you get master tracks. Does mono comes from many tracks (for example 2-3 microphones each on separate tracks) or do you get only one mono tape?

SH: In the 1950’s, mono was live to one track and the three-track machine was running separately for the final stereo mix. It was only when records started being OVERDUBBED a lot (Beatles, etc.) that the separate mono feed was dropped and the final mono and stereo mix created from the four track tape.

MI: Nowadays, would mono recording technique work and would there be any benefit to this?

SH: None whatsoever.

MI: Is stereo a must?

SH: Not to me. The best mix is the best mix. A song like DRIVE MY CAR by the Beatles, the stereo mix is really weak, the mono mix is really strong and punchy, therefore that’s the good mix.
MI: Computers are more and more used as playback systems connected to high quality DA converters. Do you prefer separate components and why? Are computer audio the way of the future?

SH: Probably but I never use one; I don’t like what it does to the sound.

MI: Any last words for our audience?

SH: Keep good music alive! Remember, as they say in the USA “It’s all about the music!”

Matej Isak