INSIGHTS: Interview with George Massenburg
Producer, Engineer, Hardware
outspoken critic of digital limitations
Interviewed by Mel Lambert in July 1997
George Massenburg is a hard guy to pigeonhole. He is as passionate about the failings of current technology as he is about music. And with a career that spans more than 30 years, he has been involved in virtually every aspect of production for records, film and television. He has also designed and operated studios, including L.A.'s landmark The Complex, and, as the founder of GML Inc., has developed innovative electronic systems. This year, Massenburg has been invited to deliver the coveted keynote address at the AES convention in New York; his theme is reported to be "Returning to Reality."
As producer/engineer, Massenburg has worked with a wide cross-section of artists, including Aaron Neville, Little Feat, James Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, Lyle Lovett, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Ruff and Linda Ronstadt. In 1990, he won a Best Engineered Non-Classical Grammy for Linda Ronstadt's Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, and in 1997 he won as Producer for Best Musical Children's Record for Ronstadt's Dedicated to the One I Love. He won TEC Awards for Best Recording Engineer and Best Producer in 1989 and again for Best Recording Engineer in 1992. In 1990, he became an inductee into the TEC Awards Hall of Fame.
Born in Baltimore and raised there and in Macon, Georgia., Massenburg became keenly interested in music, electronics and sound recording at an early age. At 15, he was working part-time in both a recording studio and electronics laboratory. He later abandoned his major in electrical engineering during his sophomore year at Johns Hopkins University and never returned. Massenburg was chief engineer of Europa Sonar Studios in Paris in 1973/74, and during those years he also took on freelance recording and equipment-design projects. In 1982, he chartered GML Inc. to produce equipment required for specific recording applications. Notable GML developments include the parametric equalizer (described in his landmark 1992 AES Paper) and third-generation recording console automation/control systems.
Currently Adjunct Professor of Recording Arts and Sciences at McGill University, Montreal, Massenburg also lectures regularly at UCLA and USC in Los Angeles, and MTSU in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. These days, he divides his time between Los Angeles, Marin County, CA, and Nashville.
What first attracted you to the recording business?
It goes back to my growing up in Baltimore, down the street from [leading designer] Dean Jensen. He had just moved to Baltimore with his father, who'd moved the whole family from Princeton. Dean was a couple of years older than me, but we hung out as [teenagers]. With his friend Lee Furr who is now at the University of Arizona, Dean had built a hi-fi system for the school. Dean discovered an Ampex 601 stereo [portable tape machine] and bought a used U67, which I still have.
At the same time, Dean introduced me to a very small recording studio in Baltimore that was doing a lot of media work and commercials. I started dabbling in recording and loved it - it just hit me the right way. Suddenly you have power over something that has a visceral effect; you can push a button and capture music.
The church that we went to had a terrific Moller pipe organ, which was the first real musical instrument that I had to experiment on. Also, the little studio I worked with had a deal to do the Tuesday night broadcast on a local FM station, WBAL. We would go down, set up mics and then either record [the session] or drive [music] lines to the station. Early on, I had the experience of setting up for a symphony orchestra and working with friends that also loved that orchestral experience. My earliest experience was with moving mics, experimenting a lot and having fun.
The earliest electronics I remember building were a copy of an MX10 mixer using different transformers - not using the Beyer transformers - and I remember building a line driver from parts we got from the military surplus yards. When I was 15, I worked for [Mix columnist] Stephen St.Croix's father, Dr. Curtis Marshall, building a Computer of Average Transients, which used a storage tube called a Radichon - which, ironically, had been developed by Dean Jensen's father, Dr. Arthur S. Jensen, at Westinghouse. We did most of the design with tubes. [That's how] I learned how to design electronic circuits - early vacuum tube and solid-state computer circuits; I was just 15 at the time.
I took the money I earned that summer and bought a used Ampex PR-10 [tape deck], which was a miserable machine. But keeping that machine running and working taught me a lot about electronics and recording. I went out and recorded high school bands and choirs and things like that. I'd played trombone since I was six, and played in marching bands. In an effort to be more popular, I switched to bass in college, played with a couple of bands and ended up in a bluegrass band.
How did you get your first recording session?
I first started as a formal recording engineer - getting paid for it - in '63/'64 when I was 17. From my earliest days, recording was doing whatever it takes to get through the session. But to get my first break, I lied the way we all did - they'd ask if I had I done something before, and I'd say "Sure."
What was your first impression of artists working in the studio with a producer?
The question is rather: "What is the process with modest musicians?" because we grew up in a market that was limited in terms of musical ability. These were bar bands that sounded great when they were drinking in live halls. But get them into a studio, confront them with what they actually did, and it was ... shocking.
Nothing dominated my early years more than product coming out of Motown, Atlantic and, especially, Stax Records - I loved the work out of Memphis. We tried to emulate that sound. It was a lot harder than we thought it should be. Since the sound coming out of our speakers didn't match the sound on these records, the [band and producer] would say that there was probably something wrong with the equipment. I worked my ass off trying to make things sound better.
Occasionally, we would take sessions up to Sigma Sound [in Philadelphia] to find out how real records were made. Even though, by today's standards, the equipment was pretty modest (except for the live reverb chamber) - Electrodyne consoles and Studer 8-tracks - the musicians were fantastic. They had the natural sense of meter and could tell a story musically without concentrating on playing right. I began to suspect that I had technically maybe moved past what was really required.
How did you translate hearing what you liked into electronic designs?
If somebody was playing particularly well and the hi-hat stood too far out, I might try to build a better mic preamplifier. Going to more and more tracks was helpful, but I'd have to build my own machine. I made a lot of mistakes and wasted a lot of time.
What was the main difference with working with, let's say, a garage band and somebody who is able to use the studio as a creative environment?
That question makes me think of so many things that characterize great artists. What I look for in an artist is the ability to tell a story musically, and not just go through the motions. I associate the ability for the artist to [perform] with my ability to stay out of the way both technically and socially. Keeping a recording situation transparent in the sense of retaining the magic of the musical moment is vital. It's so obvious, but at times we still blow it. There are other little things that I think artists rate highly, like making sure the headphones work, or fixing the mic cable before putting it back in stock!
As an engineer/producer, do you prefer the artist to be well rehearsed and familiar with the material?
There isn't any formula - as soon as we have a formula, we lose the flexibility to respond to the moment.
The most important thing is to have enough energy to do whatever's necessary - you're 12 hours into a session, something needs to be done, and you've still got the passion; to be that flexible and not to have so much of an internal agenda is what works for me.
There's a new band coming into the studio. What do you like to find out about them beforehand?
I'm talking to a band in Toronto. I'm going to go up and listen to them and find out what they're trying to say musically. They're a competent and multitalented group, and play different instruments and acoustic styles. I sure want to know what they listen to. I really want to make sure that I'm not just working with folk who are trying to turn in the record to get the advance. Somebody who really wants to make music is what I'm looking for.
Do you get approached by a lot of artists to produce them?
I get approached a lot both as an engineer and a producer, and also as somebody to just to listen to their work. My criterion is: Who is asking me? Tony Brown asked me to listen to Lyle Lovett. I like Tony; I like him as an instrumentalist and producer, and all the way up to a head of a record company, so I listened. People in the business that I have a deep respect for have a lot to do with how I listen to suggestions.
What I go with internally is the degree to which I can bring "transparency" to a project, which presumes that there is something to be transparent to. A good example is Lyle Lovett. Tony Brown brought me Lyle and said that we should work together [on] the tribute to the Grateful Dead, which resulted in a really good track. I'm really impressed with Lyle's ability to tell a story - he really "sees" these stories; we did a great record together.
How would you sculpture the session - flesh out that basic concept?
The emotional compass is the degree to which something touches me. That's what we're in the business to do. You learn the tricks, and I've got a mighty big bag of them - I've got every other journeyman's tricks, and I have my own, and I learn more every week. Every time I lose a mix to a flavor-of-the-month mixer, I find out what he's doing, and I know why the artist has picked his work over mine. I won't necessarily use [that technique], but it becomes another color for my palette.
Are you interested in remixing a project that you didn't track? Will you willingly give a mix to someone else?
I've remixed, and I've seen the benefits of being remixed. I have remixed other people's recordings, and I've benefited them. But it's a little uncomfortable. You live with a record for however long, and you have your evolving dream of what it could be. You're reaching for that dream, and then suddenly you have it snatched away [when] somebody else mixes it, and they take it somewhere else. It's a shock. But the object of the business is to touch people deeply, and for a long time. I don't think remixing always takes into account that transparency - more often, it goes for the quickest response, and most often the response of a record company's A&R staff.
As you review some tracks you've been asked to remix, do you want to know about the session?
I don't want to know anything. When you put on the record, it has to speak for itself. When you put up a multitrack tape [to be remixed], you form an idea of what's really there without the prejudices or imagined realities of the original producer or artist. Now, you can really mess things up if you don't have the imagination to know where they were going and how some parts fit together.
What do you look for in a recording environment for tracking and mixing? A large control room with monitors you're familiar with? Or do you bring your own?
I always bring my own monitors. I use Genelecs, and also Tannoys with Doug Sax's tube amps. And I augment that by listening on headphones - "Flim" Johnson got me started listening to headphones because you hear things you won't hear on monitors - little pops, etc. Maybe you'll take them out and maybe you'll leave them in, but you should know they're there. Otherwise, I listen for a natural acoustic ambience in the control room as well as the studio. And the surroundings have to be nice, like Conway in Los Angeles.
What do you take as a favorite recording, so you know what the room's doing?
Nothing - I walk in and start from scratch. Every time I walk into a studio, I walk into it for the first time. My job is to learn this record from scratch. If I can, I want to make a new record.
What would you look for in a studio?
Same things that I'm looking for - the ability to allow the performance without getting in its way. Good maintenance. A good board. I generally gravitate towards 8068s and 8078s - older Rupert Neve consoles that I know would work. And if I had to, I'd move my whole studio over; I have 48-tracks, and consoles, processors, mic stands and cables. Just tack up some Sonex and go!
I think that the [Sony PCM-3348] is a fast and useful machine - but our industry has moved past it now. In the next five years we'll probably be tracking to 24-bit/96 kHz [sample rates] or better.
What do you prefer as a mastering format?
Either half-inch [analog] or Sony PCM-9000, because of its extended resolution. I usually run at 44.1 kHz, because if there is no editing, I can transfer straight across to a CD Master, without sample-rate conversion.
Do you miss having your own studio?
Yes, I do. But The Complex [Los Angeles] was too big - too much to keep up. We had two control rooms and two more soundstages, with our own [custom-designed] consoles and monitors. And we had ATR-102s and ATR-124s, which were great machines. These days, I'm back to recording analog, after 15 years of resisting by trying to squeeze good performance out of digital. And analog gives you something more to listen to - I can hear the sound of a hi-hat again! When digital came along, we realized that we had to change the way we worked, and our expectations of what we heard. But I'm heading back to analog.
Were you consulted about the reasons why early digital machines didn't sound the way they should?
People ask other people's impression of equipment for the same reason that people ask for the impressions of the record that they've just done. It's not for criticism but for affirmation. So, when a company asks me how something works the last thing they want to hear is my criticism! And they respond accordingly. Most manufacturers find that I'm pretty grouchy and opinionated and critical - and often I'm not asked again. People don't want to know what I think - people want me to like it.
You've used the Sony 48-track for a long period of time, despite its limitations.
We knew its limitations going in. Allen Sides [owner of Ocean Way Studios in L.A. and Nashville] and I listened to it at Atsugi [Sony's R&D Headquarters, close to Tokyo]. While doing listening evaluations one day, we told them that it did certain things to the high end and asked them to fix it. The next morning, it came back and somebody had designed [a circuit] to correct maybe a quarter of a dB at 19 kHz, at the expense of increased group delay. Well, we couldn't have that, so our fix didn't go in. It was a compromise; you do the best you can and then take your best shot. I like to think that I make the best compromise at the last possible moment. Isn't that the art of engineering?
But if you don't have access to a piece of equipment, your firm, GML Inc., has the resources to go build it. Witness the outboard EQ and dynamics processors, not to mention the custom consoles and moving-fader automation. How did that development come about?
It kind of started again with not having enough money to go out and buy something that was already built. The [Model 8200 2-channel parametric] equalizer started when we were looking at how to build a different kind of EQ. I was looking at an old Western Electric filter handbook, and I saw this T filter; the circuit that evolved looks very bizarre, and as such, if anyone copied it they could only get it from one place.
The basic idea was not that complicated. What was unanticipated was the difficulty selling it - demonstrating it to people. The first person that bought it was Gerhart Lehner, chief engineer at Barclay Studios in Paris. But very few people had his imagination to see what it was about.
You are often cited as the first designer to use the expression "parametric" for a device that provides cut/boost/bandwidth.
I am. The T filter was used in one other device that I know of at the time, but with switches; we used pots. The topology had been around, but the idea of actually making everything variable - including the "Q" - wasn't realized. What I wanted to do was reach into sounds and do the things you couldn't do at that time. To get the "boink" out of the snare drum. To reach for the frequency of the Helmholtz Resonator of an acoustic guitar, which, when picked up with a cardioid mic, can be "boomy," and just take that much out.
You also produce a highly regarded mic preamplifier, the Model 8300. What's special here?
Everybody and their brother makes a mic pre, but mine is my personal choice for transparency. I haven't heard one that is more open and transparent. There are others out there that have a different kind of "sheen" and color, but mine is cleaner, I think, and a little bit more forgiving on vocals.
What's your favorite vocal mic?
An old [Neumann] U67 - which was Dean Jensen's originally - recently refitted with a Stephen Paul 0.3-micron capsule, and either my mic preamplifier or maybe a Doug Sax, which also has its virtues.
You also produce a fancy compressor/limiter, the Model 8900 Dynamic Range Controller (pictured left). What was the thinking here?
Here's the way I design things: You're sitting there with the artist, and they say, "I can't hear myself," or "Why are you making me sound so [crappy]?!" Everything I've ever built has been to try to bring out the artist's performance so that he or she can hear themselves. While testing dynamics devices leading up to my Model 8900, I was working with Lowell George [late lead singer with Little Feat]. He finally said, "I can hear myself." We liked the effect of the box; it gave Lowell something that let him find his pitch better, and hear his phrasing better, than anything else we had. He had more fun, so that makes for a better performance. Severe gain control is there - as much as you could ever need - but without so many artifacts.
And the Model 9300 A-to-D converter (pictured left)?
It just sounds better than anything else I came across, but I'm not really trying to sell it; the market's saturated with boxes and claims. I made sure that the input didn't go though shitty ICs at the front end! The jitter circuit is one of [Apogee Electronics' founder] Bruce Jackson's, so that works well. Finally, people were paying attention to jitter performance. It was another one of those things that people ignored for years.
Staying with things digital, you are pretty critical of the initial choice of sampling rate and bit resolution for the CD, and where the hardware industry moved in reaction to those decisions. Was 44.1 kHz such a great choice? The rumor is that Sony opted for it simply because it was the highest rate at which the R&D Department could run its initial A-to-D converters at the time the CD was being developed.
The numbers should be based on our hearing, not mathematics. Most of the physiological frequency response data are from [numbers] that were taken years ago; we don't have any modern sense of where a population's hearing extends. The numbers [derived from Fletcher-Munsen curves] we have for hearing performance and cut-off are for a narrow segment of population, but not necessarily kids, [who] hear far better than we do. And way beyond the brick wall, 20 kHz cut-off response of a 44.1 [kHz] CD.
Based on my experience, digital recordings do not sound the same as analog. Part of it has to do with the extraordinary high excess response of the analog chain; we have (or had) analog consoles that are flat out to 200 kHz. James Boyk [LA-based piano artist, writer and teacher at Cal Tech] has shown frequency response plots of a harmonic series of trumpets with Harmon mutes that show really extended frequency response. We know that violins have excess high-frequency response; we know we can't record violin to the point where it can fool us - we can almost always tell the real from the recorded violin. Whether it's frequency response or phase coherency or minimizing the time-granularity, we don't know.
And I've been looking at it a little differently. Hearing data is processed so differently from visual data - a large portion of the cortex is allocated to image processing/visual data, and a rather smaller part is for processing perceived sounds. It's possible from what I've read that we may process what we hear a little differently than what we see. The subconscious or unconscious may come into play. We may process sounds other than with a direct, immediate response to, say, "Yes, I hear an 18 kHz sine wave."
We have timing cues that allow us to identify and separate images in space that let us determine where a sound is located in a room, for example. And these cues have very fine gradations - perhaps far finer than the approximately 20 microseconds available in current digital conversion techniques. Maybe we need finer resolutions - maybe down to 5 microseconds, maybe further. I can't really find any hard research numbers on this.
Empirically, have you found that recordings made at 88.2 kHz or 96 kHz sample rates sound better?
Yeah, I think so. I hear more high end. But "empirical" means more than just a listening test. What I need to do is make recordings and have them be a part of my life for a time. It's the texture - lace-filigree delicacy of a performance, ambiguities in playback - that, over time, will fill in a sound picture. But, so far, with digital at [CD sampling rates], I cannot achieve that integration of music into my life the way I used to with my favorite records.
Audio has sunk to a great low with the takeover of the CD. We came from a great, warm and safe medium that made us want to go home and put on a record; I don't love to put on CDs. With the CD, another style of recording has emerged. It's extremely clear and dimensionless, but it doesn't have any depth. I'm looking for a step forward in resolution.
I respectfully submit that we need a very much better mastering format. Ninety-six kHz may not even be high enough! I just know that it's got to be better. I believe that we're going to see a blossoming new box market of converters and storage media. We're going to be generating a lot more data at [enhanced] sample rates, because that technology has become a lot more accessible. A DVD player [can access] data at rates up to 10 Mbits/second right now. I can go out and blow an ASIC [Application Specific Integrated Circuit] that will format that 10 Mbit data steam into multiple converters. It's not black magic anymore.
But I think that independent manufacturers of these elements will emerge to satisfy specialty markets. Maybe we'll look at 192 kHz rates, and then five years from now, when somebody wants to release this on one of the new enhanced DVD formats, we'll have a master recording that can do justice to future listeners.
The next step in DVD requires a Trojan Horse of a format: multichannel reproduction - 5.1 channels to pull through our other agendas, one of which is more resolution and more bandwidth. The future is moving this boundary out beyond 44.1 kHz.
You also ultimately believe that 5.1-channel surround sound is a more enveloping environment than the traditional 2-channel?
I think that's a good way of putting it. It's a better format than 2-channel - maybe not the optimum format. We need something with height or elevation. A flexible DVD format will be able to encompass a variety of options - maybe [Ambisonics] B-Format plus some DSP that allows the listener to re-create a variety of playback environments. We could really look far into the future.
Why are we still squabbling? Why haven't we developed an audio format for DVD?
Because there's no real market yet; no one can write down a specific market in dollars for [Audio-DVD] on a business plan because there isn't one, folks. All you can point to - as Dolby does - is the existing 10 million ProLogic decoders in the domestic market, which means that many consumers have at least some sort of multichannel playback system. The other reason we're slow to come around is the controversy over what [the delivery format] should be: how narrow the specs should be, whether to use a variable-bit-rate stream, the audibility of compression and so on.
What we need is enough flexibility in the [Audio-DVD] format so that people can find what suits them. Record sales last year went down 16 percent. What if we could develop a DVD-Audio format with enough flexibility to accommodate what everybody hears? If somebody still wants to work with stereo, let's give them stereo; if they want to make a three-hour production let's give them stereo at 44.1 or 96 kHz - whatever they want.
Where do you get the market demand? I believe you can get it from stereophile shows. The challenge is to come up with a basic starter set of formats: 5.1-channel, 44.1/96 kHz, 20- or maybe 24-bit, with lossless data compression options. To capture somebody's imagination, you don't need a 70-minute production. All you need is 20 seconds - listen to this!
But what can I master on now? I'm not buying any more converters. The next converter I buy is going to be based on 96 kHz/20-bit. Then I need 96/20 effects units; a reverberator with uncorrelated ambience front and back.
Let's talk about another of your pet peeves: The marginalization of recording artists, engineers and producers. Basically, music has become a commodity. How do we make sure we're heard - and maybe avoid having another 44.1/16-bit technology compromise forced upon our industry?
I don't think we can. As soon as we have a given technology demonstrated, we might be able to be a little bit more critical of it. Early on, we can only look at it as something we're going to have to live with, maybe for a long time, and try to understand what its benefits are and what its costs are. And what its compromises are. When I first heard about the Compact Disc in '81, I'd have loved to have made a stink. A few people did, Doug Sax did right away; I wished I'd joined in that early cry.
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