Bob Katz is one of the few mastering engineers that embraced digital techniques very early in life. His words are wide spread among audio technicians and his catalog is filled with great names and performers. Always striving to achieve the best sound with contemporary tools of the trade, Katz does so with his talent and passion for the craft.
MI: Do you consider yourself an audiophile ?
BK: Yes. Absolutely. But, a very rational audiophile. If I discover a tweak that makes the sound better, I want to learn why, and if that tweak seems to defy science, I try to discover why before I endorse it. This has resulted in lots of research on jitter and many of the poor conclusions that audiophiles have reached about it. For example, one audiophile magazine raved at a D/A converter's ability to "reveal" differences in digital cables. Which is so wrong... if a D/A converter sounds different with different digital cables, then it is defective. Unfortunately, too many converters are therefore defective. I am an audiophile and have always been one. I think the best mastering engineers are audiophiles at heart. But the best mastering engineers know how to listen better than many audiophiles. I appreciate the sense of depth and space that a good reproduction system can give. But for me, and for every good mastering engineer, tonal BALANCE has to come first ALWAYS. If the sound is not tonally balanced, then it cannot be good. There are audiophiles who will go crazy over how "detailed" or "transparent" a recording sounds, but if its tone is too bright or too thin or too bassy, then it is fundamentally flawed. Who should care if a recording has a great "sound stage" if the trumpets are screeching in your face?
MI: What was the process that you went through to master your career?
BK: I was always an audiophile and an equipment fanatic as well as a musician. I owned my first tape recorder at the age of 7, and in 1956 that was very early! When I entered college, I started doing recording for the radio station of the school. I began as a recording engineer doing direct to two-track recordings of many different types of groups. I would dare to record rock music and mix it direct to my Revox, music which most people would only dare to mix after the fact. So, I became very good at knowing how to make it sound right without fooling around for hours with a mixing console after the fact. And, I have always kept that ear. Then faced with only a 2-track tape and perhaps some problems, maybe I mixed the bass too loudly, I learned how to use an equalizer and other processors to make my 2-tracks sound as good as they could. This is the essence of mastering, so even before I became a mastering engine, I was mastering.
MI: With new standards coming out in the past few years, like SACD and DVD-audio, do you think that digital format is finally coming into the big picture?
BK: If you mean "digital" recording finally sounds better than "analog", then digital has already won out. I made over 150 44.1 kHz recordings on Chesky Records for compact disc using very customized PCM and analog equipment— whose sound, in stereo, rivals the best SACDs and DVD-audios made today. The real key is attention to detail. So for me, digital format has already broken out and others are just catching up. I recorded the very first 24 bit/96 kHz DVD years before others caught up. The future is going to be surround sound and it is kind of sad that people may forget that it is possible to capture great depth and space with proper use of stereo. Listen to some of my recordings on Chesky to see what I mean. But I look forward to the surround future, provided that mixing engineers learn how to use surround as more than just multichannel mono...
MI: How are the 192 khz recordings? Does so much information bring us closer to the original recordings and are there more problems due to the increase of content?
BK: I have not had enough experience with 192 kHz to say. I like the results I'm getting at 96 K, and in my book I make a convincing argument that it is the converter design that counts far more than the sample rate. We have always known that a well-designed 44.1 kHz converter sounds much better than a mediocre 96 kHz model. And this has always been true. I believe that a good designer will be able to make a 96K converter that sounds as good as anything at a higher rate. But designers are getting lazy, and it is cheaper and easier to get a good sound at a higher rate because the filters are less complex and easier to design. There is nothing magic about the higher rates; it's not the higher frequencies that we're hearing, but rather, more linear performance from 20-20 kHz! Keep that in mind... We really should be labeling converters by their resolution, not by their sample rate.
MI: Do you think that surround’s place is in audiophile circles ?
BK: I think that surround is the future. Even my best stereo recordings suffer without the surround portion and come more alive when the space is expanded to around you. However, I have invented a very natural stereo to surround processor (available from Z Systems) that can take a well-recorded stereo recording that already has good space, and reproduce it in surround indistinguishable from if the recording had been made in surround already. This is, of course, for recordings that do not have discrete instruments in the surrounds. By the way, I am a big fan of localization and too many surround recordings are making the front picture too vague for my tastes, in order to impress the casual listener.
MI: There are still so many LP lovers and most of them are not satisfied with new, digital media. LPs seem to have a mystical or magical quality about them. What is your take on this?
BK: I have many LPs recorded in the 60's and 70's that sound much better than many CDs made today. But, this is a matter of the quality of the technology and the recording techniques used. So many CDs made today have been ruined by over-processing; it's no wonder the old LPs sound better than most. But, I have in my mastering room and have made many, many CDs that sound better than any LP that was ever made. It's a matter of having the right equipment and orientation.
MI: How is with mastering vinyl LPs? Are there still many releases coming out?
BK: I'm afraid not. Most of the LP mastering these days are dance singles for the clubs.
MI: How can audiophiles be assured that the final mastering doesn’t change the original recorded material?
BK: How do we know that the final mastering can't improve the original recorded material? A purist attitude assumes that the original recording is already perfect. Of all the great recordings that have come to me for mastering, only a handful sounded better before the mastering. I have produced a demo CD of before and after and you can make the judgment yourself. Was the mastering better, or did it make the sound worse? You decide.
MI: I don’t remember the name, but I recall from some interview that it was a famous producer-mixer who said that mixing in the 50-60's was so easy and that you could hardly go wrong with all of those tube boards. But, when he first touched solid state mixers in the 70’s, he almost cried. I heard that some big names in today’s music industry say that working with daw (digital audio workstations) these days is a hundred times harder?
BK: Yes, but for different reasons. The early solid-state devices were very poor and produced a type of distortion that was unpleasant to the ear. Since tubes saturate slowly, it is much easier to mix. It's actually a form of compression! But there are some excellent solid-state mixing consoles that sound very good, but because they are so "neutral" it is harder to mix than in the tube days, because the tubes' saturation helped to "fill in the holes". It's the same with analog tape; it helps to fill in the holes and it sounds better; but not because it is neutral, because IT IS EUPHONICALLY COLORED. There is nothing wrong with euphonic coloration as long as you know how to control it. Now when it comes to digital mixing, we have similar problems with the distortion of early DSP processes adding an unpleasant edge to the sound. But there are some excellent DSP processes, they are just expensive. The very best digital mixing consoles can sound very good if you avoid using the digital equalizers and compressors that are built in to them because they still sound cheap. But this is changing as digital technology gets cheaper. As a plain mixer, with just level and panning, the best-built digital mixers can now sound fine with 48 bit digital processing dithered to 24. But no "holes" are being filled as it was in the analog days, so if a mix needs help you have to feed external analog compressors. The other problem is ergonomics of control surfaces, but that has nothing to do with the sound, it's just tough to mix with a mouse!
MI: It seems like today’s music is of a race that is a lot louder and phater than those of the past. Do you feel that today’s music is too loud and over compressed?
BK: Don't get me started! I've written thousands and thousands of words on the subject. In process of mixing - mastering in analog domain it seems that a bit of clipping is not a problem but with digital - software limiters it all up to surgical precision.
A very good, double-sampling digital limiter can take 2 or 3 dB off the peaks and be totally invisible. But only if it's used right. Most mastering engineers these days are abusing the process and making it sound worse in the name of "loudness" (see the thousands of words I've written on the topic).
MI: Do you find most of today’s projects are sounding too digital?
BK: Yes, for the many reasons we've already discussed.
MI: Have you ever worked on a recording that sounded so good that you barely touched it?
BK: Yes, once in a while. It's very refreshing. Or, whatever I try to do to help it makes it sound worse so I leave it alone!
MI: How do you see new compression methods (mp3 aac)? Apple have already over one million songs. They said that songs were put in AAC format directly from masters. Some enthusiasts are saying that certain songs sound even better that commercial CDs. How do you see this and the whole global Internet digitalization?
BK: It has to be for the better. We have to adapt. I believe in the album, not the single, most times, and I hope there will be a place for it. Sonically, if the AAC sounds better than today's CDs that's because they may have converted clean sources that weren't ruined by over compression. But a good CD or DVD can and will sound better than an AAC if the source is good.
MI: Do you find that it is necessary for the artist to be present at mastering?
BK: Not always. Most times I can work at a distance and a phone call and a reference CD do the job. Then I make the corrections the artist wants and we're ready to master.
MI: What would you say is your best mastering work of the project you are most proud of?
BK: Some of my best work is hard to find! More and more recordings are being released independently and that's where the best action and sound is. I'm very proud of my work for Marley's Ghost on the Sage Arts Label, but good luck finding the CDs. Gunnar Madsen's "Power of a Hat" is a fantastic performance-artist-album, available on G-Spot records. Also a recording of Mississippi Charles Bevels but you can't even find him on the Internet. In the Latin-Jazz Field, get "Bajando Gervasio" by Amadito Valdez (of the Buena Vista Social Club), which is available from various Internet sources.
MI: What is the reference recording album that in your opinion sounds the best?
BK: By other engineers. Pick some of the recordings at the top of the Honor Roll at the digido website.
MI: Can you give a brief list of the equipment that you use?
BK: I have so much equipment it would be very difficult to add up... I'm a fan of products by Cranesong, Weiss, Z-systems, TC Electronic, and I've made a lot of my own gear...
MI: It seems that there is an increasing use of valves, tubes, preamps, and amplifiers among audiophiles. Do you think that tubes can bring something more to listening pleasure? How is tube equipment in the mastering process?
BK: Tube equipment can add a lot of pleasure— if it's well-made. I'm a fan of tube equipment designed by Fred Forssell. It's dimensional and clear as well as having tight bass. Much tube equipment made for professionals is artificially warm and fuzzy. Half the key is in the power supply design. Solid state gear can be superb if designed right— look at the Cranesong gear.
MI: Are tape machines still important during processing? Do you get recorded material mostly in digital format or also "vintage" tapes?
BK: From 1990-1997 or so, I used to get 5 or 6 analog tapes a month. Now I only get one or two every couple of months. That's because digital recording is getting better, but also because a lot of project studios are too cheap to afford good analog.
MI: What is the "standard" that audiophiles should have when they’re trying to reproduce the same sound that you have in your studio?
BK: Good acoustics is the key. It should pass the LEDR test (see Chesky, test record I believe the number is JD 37). It should be neutral and in a quiet and sufficiently large room.
MI: One could say that you have quite an esoteric setup in your studio. You have Tim De Parvinchi stuff, etc.
BK: I have a tape machine originally modified by Tim De Paravicini, but these days it's strictly a transport and has my own electronics. The rest of my analog gear is commercial gear from Millennia and Cranesong. Everything else is digital, including gear that I've designed myself. So I don't have that much esoteric analog gear at all!
MI: Can you tell us more about DSD?
BK: DSD is "direct stream digital". Most of what is being said about it is hype, as DSD is simply a method of coding using 1 bit instead of multiple bits. As long as the slew rate of the music is not too fast for the 1-bit coding, then the sound should be the same as the equivalent rate of PCM. However, at low sample rates (up to perhaps 96 kHz) it is possible that DSD may sound better than PCM, but above that if someone tells you that DSD must be "better", it is marketing and not accurate tech-speak.
MI: You do have to make compromises when mastering commercial projects for major labels. People normally don’t have high end speakers and amplification. How does this differ from mastering specific audiophile projects, if at all?
BK: When the client permits it, everything I master is made to the same standards I would make an audiophile album. But when the client wants a "hot" CD, then the quality of my "pop" CDs is not as good as the audiophile albums. If you look at the best commercial CDs of ten years ago, they are a lot closer to the "audiophile" than most CDs made today. There are exceptions, from Telarc, from companies that come to me asking for no compromise, and so on. These CDs are not being pushed for level, and that's the difference.
MI: There is lot of home recording projects going on. In theory, many unsigned artists could do great songs with home equipment. For example, they could record with infinitive takes but then bring the mixes in digital format to bigger high end studios for mixing and then later for mastering. Do you think this is efficient and wise?
BK: The biggest problem with the home recording is the artists are trying to do too much. Generally a good recording is produced by a small team of dedicated individuals collaborating. When the musician is trying to concentrate on his performance, and getting a good recording at the same time, something has to give. There are some exceptions, such as Todd Rungren, who is such a good musician and producer and engineer that he can get an non compromised product. But these exceptions are few and far-between. The other problem is acoustics. There's nothing like a great large room where musicians can work and interact with the natural acoustics. This does not happen in 95% of typical "home recordings".
MI: Do clients send you digital media over the Internet or do you do the job remotely?
BK: Yes. It's already happening. Not for full albums, but largely one song at a time. There is not enough bandwidth yet to wait the number of hours to download a whole album with no data-compression (coding).
MI: Do you like the idea of Internet distribution? What do you feel are the benefits?
BK: Yes. It levels the playing field. Now independent artists can get a lot more exposure and distribution. The downside is that the consumer has no way to distinguish good from bad. There was always a system of peers where the major record company could concentrate on pushing their best artists. But conversely, this has been abused where the large record companies are only concentrating on getting speedy instant profits. The kinds of groups that make good music may only sell 10,000 to 150,000 units and the major labels have stopped being interested in them. Lyle Lovett is a good example; he makes music that is attractive and of high integrity; he should be a million-seller, but he's not. So as an independent artist he will find his audience. The mistakes of the major record labels will be their undoing. The instant-profit mentality will be their undoing.
MI: What would be the simplest approach to record artists outside the studio like in a church?
BK: If the church has great acoustics, the answer is "as few mics as possible", with the musicians ideally located. But I am not afraid to use more mikes if the music calls for it. But it has to be done in good acoustics to work with few microphones, and the engineer has to know how to place the microphones.
MI: What is the process of bringing old tape master tracks back to life and how do you deal with them if they have to be cut to vinyl?
If the tape is an Ampex and sometimes Scotch or BASF from a certain time period, then it has to be baked to re-lubricate the formulation. Tapes from before about 1970 don't have this problem. Ironically, the oldest tapes actually sound better. The rest is the use of good electronics, steady tape guides, tension, and heads and the knowledge of how to adjust the Equalization, azimuth and zenith to get the most out of the tape.
MI: Do you think that it is possible to archive the same experience as live acts on recorded media like playback systems? Have you ever heard any recordings that stunned you?
BK: Yes. I've heard great recordings that stun me. But every time I go to hear the group live in front of me with no amplification, I think that we are so far away from the live experience that we will never have that experience.
MI: What is the compromise that has to be made by normal budget audiophiles to achieve the best possible playback with ordinary equipment? Is this possible, or do we all need high end gear?
BK: I think it can be done for $10,000 to $20,000 US. Anything below that is probably a compromise. But a class B system at less than $7500 U.S. can produce excellent results. It may surprise you that my D/A converter, line amplifier (preamp), power amplifier, and loudspeakers, subwoofers and sub amplifier cost no more than $25,000 U.S., probably less and I consider it Class A+.You don't need $100,000, and if I doubled or tripled the amount of money I've put into the reproduction equipment it would still be class A+, just a little better-sounding A+ :-)
MI: Some esoteric audiophiles say that using the best studio monitors with top quality pre amps is the best combination. Others say that monitors are just studio instruments and do not need to be used for serious listening. What is your opinion?
BK: There are very few Studio-branded loudspeakers that sound as good as the best audiophile models. Many Mastering engineers prefer the audiophile models, surprisingly, over the studio models. There is some overlap, Dunlavy (which is no longer made) was popular both for audiophiles and mastering engineers. KEF, ATC, Dynaudio also make both professional and audiophile models. But most of the rest of the studio speakers, including the brand you mentioned, are too colored for me.
MI: Tubes and analog vinyl are often associated with magic. How do you see them?
BK: This is partly a repeat of the above. Magic comes from the performance first, then from the use of components whose distortion is consonant and not dissonant. The cheap digital processors tend to be dissonant. But digital processors from Weiss, for example, properly used, can also produce Magic.
MI: When the day ends what are listen to?
BK: I go out to clubs and try to watch live music!
MI: Most popular music sounds really bad in comparison to some audiophile recordings and I can never quite understand why this is happening. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
BK: Most recording engineers have no idea what natural sounds like. But if you listen to the best popular music recordings of the past 60 years, some of it sounds just as good as the audiophile. You just have to be careful and picky!
MI: In the 50’s and 60’s music artists like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerlad, and others of the Jazz, Blues and specifically Classical music (RCA living etc.) eras made exceptional records. Is this due to the process that involved all artists to be recorded at once?
BK: When the performers are performing all at once, the magic is easier to happen. But Ella and Frank Sinatra and Louis were one of a kind performers whose magic could have happened if the recording was made with two tin cans and a piece of string!
MI: Is analog summing a cure for modern DAW projects?
BK: The major difference is NOT in the summing, but in the processing. Digital compression and EQ generally require more power than is available INSIDE a typical DAW.
MI: But, doesn’t too much compression kill the music. Where is the limit?
BK: I've written entire articles on the subject. For home listening, a popular music recording with a reasonable peak to average ratio of somewhere between 20 and 14 dB is a place to start. However, even heavy metal benefits from some dynamic range, and if you listen to the analog-recorded metal of 20 years ago it generally sounds far more magical than that of today, because of the over compression, however, analyzing the older recording, probably only has about a 6 to 10 dB peak to average ratio, which may be just right for "metal" genre.
MI: In the last few years there has been amazing growth of really quality headphones and head amps. Do you think that high end sound will meet quite normal price tags?
BK: For headphones? Sennheiser's HD600 are very good and can be very satisfying, but I'll take good speakers in a good room every time.
MI: In our name and on the behalf of our readers, we thank you for your time. I wish you many years with your Golden years and God bless you.
BK: An unintentional pun on your part! My Golden ears better have some more golden Years or I'll be in trouble! Best wishes.