A Conversation with John Atkinson,
John Atkinson, JA to over 80,000 readers, is the editor of Stereophile
magazine and a man with a lot to say about audio. But long before Atkinson was an
audiophile, he was an avid documentary recordist. Some of his earliest recordings can be
found on The HFN/RR Test CD 1, as well as on each of the three Stereophile Test
Discs. The three Stereophile discs are excellent tutorials for anyone
interested in why recordings sound the way they do -- they feature the same material
recorded with different microphones and different microphone techniques. Atkinson has also
engineered a superb series of recordings for the Stereophile label, several of
which I had the distinct pleasure of assisting him on. (All of the Stereophile compact
discs are available at www.stereophile.com
) Recently, Atkinson recorded pianist Robert Silverman's complete traversal of Beethoven's
piano sonatas for the Orpheum Masters label, a recording that I believe is one of the
treasures of the year 2000, due in no small part to the full-bodied dynamic recording
acoustic Atkinson achieved -- against all odds, as he explains in the free-wheeling
WP: You're best known as the editor of
Stereophile, and before that HFN/RR, and prior to that you were a
professional musician. Where did the desire to be a recording engineer come from?
JA: I got into high-end audio because I
was recording the bands I was playing in, and I had an interest in preserving what we were
doing on tape. I was extraordinarily naïve -- remember, this was 1964 or 1965 -- so it
came as a great shock when I tried different microphones that I got very different
sounding recordings, even on analog mono recordings at 3¾ ips! The hot vocal mic for
bands back in the Sixties was the Shure SM57 cardioid and I actually made some pretty good
recordings with a pair of those. I was very surprised to find that it sounded so different
from the Reslo Ribbon, which was also a popular mic back then.
John Atkinson and Wes Phillips flank jazz musician Jerome
Harris at the Rendezvous recording sessions.
WP: Did your priorities
change when you got a really good hi-fi?
JA: Not so much. I carried on doing
documentary recording throughout the early Seventies. The band I was in at the time was
using a lot of what was then very new multitrack recording technology -- the very first
album I was involved in was recorded on an eight-track, and then the album after that was
recorded at Abbey Road studios on 16-tracks, and then the rhythm section of that band
became the house-rhythm-section for a studio in Cornwall, which at first had a 16-track 3M
machine and later a 24-track recorder.
So, coming from documentary recording, I then spent the
early part to mid-part of the Seventies doing the kind of recording I now find somewhat
un-musical, which is layers of multitrack -- where you'd end up with something that was
technically perfect and musically sterile. I didn't enjoy that kind of recording, so I
think that's why I went back to documentary recording, where you labor to preserve real
music, happening in real space as accurately as possible.
WP: The engineer at that Cornwall
studio has come a long way, too.
JA: Yes, the Sawmill studio at Cornwall,
England is famous now because bands like Oasis record there, but at the time it was very
much a small-scale operation. The chief engineer at that studio was Jerry Boys, who shot
to fame as the engineer for Buena Vista Social Club and quite a few other
recordings that are well-regarded for their sound quality.
WP: Did your renewed embrace of
documentary recording owe everything to your experiences with multi-tracking?
JA: I joined Hi-Fi News & Record
Review in 1976 and the editor at that time, John Crabbe, was a total devotee to the
Blumlein philosophy of recording, which is basically a two-channel recording where the
amplitude information in the two channels very accurately reflects the directions of all
the sound sources. There's only one theoretically correct way of doing that, which is to
use coincident-crossed figure-eight mics and the downside of that is, yes you get great
stereo imaging, but those mics themselves generally have poor low-frequency response and
there's also a real problem in finding the best spot in the hall to get what is both the
right stereo image and also the right musical balance between the instruments. If you have
unlimited time, you can actually get to that spot. But -- in the real world -- you
might sometimes have only minutes to set up your mics, as in some of the live recordings
you and I did for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival.
I started out as a purist and, ideally, I would still make
recordings in that way, if I always had a good hall to record in. Without a good hall, you
have to use somewhat compromised mic positions regarding the accuracy of the stereo
imaging, which will then give you better capture of the low frequencies and better feeling
of the envelopment of the space in which the music is being performed.
WP: Serious recording technology used
to be the realm of only a handful of well-financed engineers, but that's changed over
time, hasn't it?
JA: Audiophiles are going to hate
to read this, but it was the advent of relatively low-cost digital technology which
revolutionized recoding. Analog tape recording is an art and I was never very good at it.
I'm all thumbs when it comes to editing with razor blades. I still have an Ampex ATR
half-inch tape machine in storage, but I don't ever use it.
If we go back to my philosophy of documentary recording,
the more I can do to put off quality-making decisions to the comfort of my own listening
room, the better. Then all I focus on in the recording is the placement of mics -- all
other things, such as mixing, changing the time alignment of the mics, anything like that,
I'd much prefer to do under low-stress conditions back home, and digital technology has
been a boon to that.
In digital, the actual sessions themselves are like
data-gathering, that's all. My whole focus is capturing those sounds with the mics I have
chosen to use and laying them down on digital tape. Then I come back home with all the
digital tapes and that's where the creative process begins. Digital technology has
made that so easy.
WP: So the editing is where the art
JA: Yes -- and, of course, it helps if you
have a flexible digital audio work station in the form of a Sonic Solutions Sonic Studio.
One of the things I do now, almost by habit, is to have two, or even more, pairs of
microphones up to record the event. One pair is optimized for stereo imaging; these days I
tend to use a pair of ORTF cardioids, that is two cardioid microphones with their capsules
angled at about 115 degrees and spaced about seven inches apart, which gives you a
relatively limited amplitude-defined sound stage, but, if your mics are seven inches
apart, you get a .6 or .7 millisecond time delay between the two channels, which gives you
a time-defined stereo image. That reinforces the amplitude-defined stereo image and the
combination actually works very well.
A lot of Gordon Holt's classic recordings were made in
exactly that manner -- some of these are on the first Stereophile Test CD. My
problem with cardioid mics is that they tend not to have enough bass -- they give a
beautifully defined stereo image that tends to be rather lightweight. So now, I always
have a pair of spaced omnis up, which to a purist -- as I used to be -- is almost anathema
because you get almost no good stereo image. However, you do get great low frequencies and
a very natural midrange tonality. So my basic recording technique now is to capture four
channels with those two pairs of mics and then, when I'm back home in my listening room, I
can slide those pairs of tracks around in time so I can get the well-defined stereo
imaging from the central pair and the full-bass, excellent midrange tonality from the
My starting point in editing is always to align the tracks
in time with one another. To facilitate that, I always have an assistant (or the musician)
create a synch pulse when we begin recording, using a slap-stick. This gives me a time
reference similar to the clapper board on a movie set. What's interesting is that what is
theoretically correct time alignment may not be what is on the final mixdown.
Recording Robert Silverman's Beethoven cycle -- note how close
to the walls the piano is located.
Take the Robert Silverman Beethoven set, for
example, which you wrote about for onhifi.com several weeks ago. That was
a very unsuitable hall. Given my druthers, I'd have preferred to have done the recording
somewhere else, but you have to sometimes roll with the inevitable when it comes to
recording venues. When I aligned all the mics so they were theoretically perfect, you were
just so aware that the room was too small, too live, rather unsuitable for such a
large, powerful piano. So I ended up ultimately delaying the omnis by several
milliseconds, which made the acoustic more anonymous, but also more comfortable sounding,
in that the early reflections of the sounds from the walls (see photo) were smeared over.
That's a move away from documentary recording, but I think, in this case totally
justified, because the hall was not optimal.
That's what I did for the 44.1kHz/16-bit recording for the
CD. What's interesting is that I originally did the recording at 88.2kHz/24-bit, and at
the very high sampling rate, the theoretically correct coincidence of the mics was
acceptable because it was so unambiguous. The character of the hall was preserved with
such accuracy that you could adapt to it and forget it -- just as you would in real life.
When I downsampled the recordings to 44.1kHz, I also lost a quite a lot of that precise
definition of space and time so you couldn't adapt to it -- it became annoying.
WP: What does that say to you about the
future of hi-rez digital audio?
JA: I'm totally sold on it, myself,
because there's an ease to the sound, as there is in real life, which enables you to
adjust to what you're hearing and then forget about the acoustics and get into the music.
Whether we'll all be experiencing high-resolution digital through DSD, as used in SACD, or
high-speed linear PCM as used on DVD-Audio, for me, the jury's still out on which is
WP: I was reading your article on
recording the Beethoven project in January's Stereophile, where you describe how
you arrive to record over eleven hours worth of music in two-and-a-half days and discover
that the piano is in a tiny little box of a room and that it can't be moved even six
inches. What did you do?
JA: I put my head in my hands. We were
under such time constraints. But the beauty of the situation was that we were using
the Bösendorfer reproducing piano instead of a not-always-cooperative musician. So I got
Jim Turner, the producer, to set up one of the most dynamic passages in one of the sonatas
and just keep it in "repeat play" while I did a lot of listening to the piano
from different places in the hall.
I worked out what I was hearing and determined good
starting places for the mics. As coincidence might have it, the piano technician, Mike
Kemper, came in to work on the piano and told me that I had the mics more or less where
NPR's engineers had placed theirs when they'd recorded the piano for Performance Today.
I started out with some of the Neumann large diaphragm mics, and I thought they might
reach deeper into the piano sound. They did, in fact, but they were also more colored than
my B&K 4011s, my old trusty mics. I went back to the B&Ks and did some test
recordings. (B&K the measurement company sold off the microphone division and it's now
known as DPA (Danish Precision Audio.))
We then made test recordings, moving the cardioids about a
total of four inches further in on a line towards the piano. I thought the position
closest in actually revealed the best balance between the sound of the hall and the sound
of the piano. However, we then picked up a lot of piano action noise. Now if you think
about it, a piano is actually a percussion instrument; you have a felt mallet hitting the
string and it actually produces quite a thump. So I backed off about three inches
from that position, which gave me more hall than I would have liked, but also lowered that
thump to the point where we all felt it was acceptable.
I got there at 1:00PM and had all my gear unloaded by
2:00PM and we were scheduled to roll tape for 6:00PM, so you can imagine it was all pretty
John Atkinson recording Musical Fidelity's Anthony Michealson
at Blue Heaven Studio. The disc will be released in May, 2000.
WP: Ah, the glamour of
recording! But, as they say, the height of art is to conceal art and the recordings
certainly don't sound sweaty. I guess we should tell people how to order the set.
JA: We've just put it up on our Website,
so you can order it at www.stereophile.com,
where my article on recording is posted, and there's also an order form posted on
the secure recordings page. You can also order it directly from Orpheum Masters.
WP: A ten CD set for only $65.00 --
that's very reasonably priced.
JA: Yes -- and it includes a comprehensive
booklet on Robert Silverman's attitude toward performing the sonatas that's worth reading
on its own.
WP: Yes, I regret not mentioning it in
my review here -- it's a wonderful piece of writing and thinking.
JA: I have to say that, having been
totally immersed in these sonatas as performed by Bob and having heard him live at HI-FI'98,
he's a consummate performer of these works. He really has a passion and a fire that
perhaps is out of fashion in Beethoven performance these days.
WP: People will get a chance to hear
Bob perform Beethoven sonatas at Home Entertainment 2001 in New York this spring won't
JA: Yes, we've scheduled Bob to perform
several of them on Sunday afternoon, May 13 at the Hilton Hotel on 55th Street.
WP: I'll be there!