As a musician during the '80s, I spent a lot of time in recording studios working on original rock and jazz material, jingles and even a movie soundtrack or two. This was before the era of digital recordings when the studio was a magical (read: analog) place - all whizzing tape machines, tube microphone preamps and live-only instrumental recording (no Pro Tools manipulation yet). I imagine this was my first taste of the high-end audio life, hearing the raw playback coming over the studio monitors only seconds after I had laid down my sticks and hurried into the control booth. This was also before the predominance of the dreaded Yamaha NS10 studio monitors, ear-piercing speakers with a bleached treble that makes music sound like fingers on a chalkboard. Back then, JBL L100 studio monitors were all the rage, creating a big wooly sound that was by no means accurate but didn't take your head off.

Fast forward to the present. While I have packed up my sticks (gotta sell those drums sets), I still hear a lot of live music. When listening to recordings on anyone's audio system, my desire is to return to that sound of the raw playback. I want to hear exactly what the artists heard when they were cutting the record, live and in the studio. Newer software formats like SACD and DVD/A are the closest I have heard yet to get there. As a columnist for Downbeat Magazine writing their monthly Audio Files column, I have had the honor of reviewing all manner of SACD and DVD/A hardware and software from the likes of Krell, Classé, McCormack, Linn and McIntosh; and Chesky, Sony, Telarc, High Note, Concord and Classic Audio to name a few. I laugh at those listeners who claim they hear no difference between the high-rez formats and ordinary Redbook CD but I do allow that there are good SACDs/DVD-As and bad ones. Perhaps the detractors have only heard the poorly mastered, phony treble extension and soft resolution of those discs produced by inferior labels. Without naming names, some companies are better than others at getting the most out of the high rez format. Some of the best DVD/As I've heard to date are manufactured by AIX Records from West Hollywood/California. From big band and small ensemble to trio, vocal and orchestral offerings, AIX is at the top of the game. AIX discs are extremely natural and alive sounding, with solid placement of vocals and instruments much as you would hear in a small club or concert setting. Productions are straightforward and practically under-produced - there are no crazy effects and corny soundstaging issues present.

AIX DVD/As are value-added products, offering full videos of the recorded event with multiple camera angles, interviews and discographies. In video mode, you can choose between "stage" and "audience" listening angles. Recorded in 96/24/5.1, AIX DVD/As create outstanding palatable fidelity. On small group recordings, instruments are positioned simply center, left and right while big band discs benefit from large hall acoustics. AIX DVD/As are recorded in owner/producer Mark Waldrep's state-of-the- art production facility using multiple stereo pairs of large-diaphragm microphones and preamplifiers connected directly to the recording console. Three of AIX latest discs, Laurence Juber's Guitar Noir [AIX 80018], Cheryl Bentyne's Among Friends [AIX 80020] and the Emil Richards/Joe Porcaro Allstar Big Band's Odd Men In [AIX 80035 are three superb reasons to go high rez, today.

Played through the Arcam FMJ DV29 ($2,999), the AIX DVD/As revealed a warm, organic character that makes the music easy to get into. The DV29 brought out the creaminess of Cheryl Bentyne's vocals as well the saucy flavoring of Laurence Juber's acoustic finger picking. The cracking big band dynamics of Odd Men In was also thrilling through the DV29, this universal player's sound being one of warmth and faithfulness to the recorded event rather than the analytical contours found in many high rez playback machines. With ever-improved chips and oversampling, too many universal machines focus on the candy-coated details over the meat of the music. But the Arcam goes a long way in creating a total musical experience. It mightily impressed me with its full-bodied sound and relaxed nature.

Odd Men In sounded naturally dynamic throughout the frequency range. Trumpet and piano solos emerged from the center of the recording surrounded by the other instruments like a donut, recreating a true stage perspective (that any musician will instantly recognize) even though I was playing the disc's audio portion. Cheryl Bentyne's Among Friends sounded more intimate, present and tangible. The sound was first row and very natural, as though the singer was standing in my living room singing for me and me alone. The simple L/R placement of instruments replicated a small Manhattan club performance, only without the waiters and annoying tourist chatter.

The Laurence Juber DVDA combined the best qualities of the Arcam FMJ DV29 and the AIX approach. Intimate and rich, with a black background that allowed the instruments to speak with clarity and sparkle, Guitar Noir sounded very upfront, the guitar palpable and huge in the mix but not implausible. Rather, this lucidity and extensiveness made for a tranquil concentration into Juber's shocking guitar work, especially on "Strawberry Fields Forever" where the guitar's runs, rips, slides and slaps replicate the song's dizzying orchestral samples, Mellotron and vocal effects.

I spoke with AIX founder and producer Mark Waldrep about how he gets such a great sound

Your discs are very palpable and live sounding. What elements go into getting that sound?
The uniqueness of the sound found on AIX Records tracks is the result of a number of critical factors. Perhaps the most important is the use of an acoustically reverberant concert auditorium rather than a traditional recording studio with their deadened walls and isolation rooms. We place the performers in a circle on the stage and don't try to artificially isolate them from each other acoustically or electrically. The sound of the music blends naturally in the space and creates an openness and transparency that is virtually impossible to recreate digitally during the post-production process. Additionally, we use multiple stereo pairs of microphones placed close to the sound sources to capture the intimacy of the sound and to provide some level of control during the mix. Stereo miking techniques enhance the spatial depth of particular sound and contribute to the invisibility of the speakers in our 5.1 channel surround mixes.
In audiophile terms, I notice extremely black backgrounds and a lower noise floors than on other DVD/A discs. What are you doing right that others are missing?
Most of the DVD-Audio discs in the marketplace (and SACDs) are analog or low-resolution digital masters that have been repurposed for the new formats. The noise floor and fidelity are 'locked' in at the time of the original session. As a completely new audiophile record label committed to producing projects that would take full advantage of the higher sampling rates and longer word sizes, I had to start from scratch and build a completely new catalog - a high-resolution catalog. After five years, AIX Records has one of the largest collections of new recordings and is the only audiophile label to have never issued a standard CD. The increased fidelity of the new DVD-Audio makes doing CDs -- even carefully done CDs -- meaningless.
As far as recording, mixing and mastering, what do you differently from other DVD/A manufacturers?
We're not actually a manufacturer. AIX Records is an audiophile record label that specializes in producing new high-resolution, multi-channel DVDs. We record new tracks using state-of-the-art equipment in a 'live' performance space without employing processing of any kind. We provide full-featured discs with alternate mixes ("stage", "audience" & stereo), video of the recording sessions and lots of bonus materials. We do not master our titles. There is no EQ, compression or artificial reverberation. Essentially, the placement of stereo microphones establishes the sonics of the tracks. I simply mix for spatial placement.
Do you engineer all your AIX discs?
I share that responsibility of recording the tracks with my associate Dominic Robelotto but I do handle all of the mixing and post production tasks.
What role does mic placement play in your mixes? Are you more minimalist or maximalist in that regard?
We capture up to 36 tracks of high-resolution PCM audio derived from lots of stereo pairs of microphones. I find the minimalist approach lacking in presence and harmonic richness. As a musician, the ability to listen from among the musicians is preferable to me over being in the audience. I'm particularly careful to capture the music and not the mechanics of producing sounds.
Is it all about using the best gear -- and what might some of that be -- or is it more about skill and having good ears?
The production of a first rate recording is the result of both great equipment and creative/technical skill. I have been an engineer and musician for 30 years. I have advanced degrees in music composition, acoustics as well as computer science but have also been actively recording music of all types for a very long time. From analog tape to high-resolution digital, I've enjoyed seeing the advancement of technology as applied to music reproduction. Every engineer/producer finds his own comfort zone and preferred sound. My philosophy of recording balances intimacy of sound with a sense of space. The tools that I utilize to achieve that are some of the finest available. I have lots of vintage microphones from Neumann, AKG and some wonderful new ribbon mics from AEA in Pasadena. Preamps are from Benchmark Systems, the A/D converters by Euphonix along with the recorder and console. We mix to Sonic Solutions and monitor through B&W as well as Piega Speakers using Butler and Bryston amps. Playback is through a Meridian 800/861 DVD-Audio player and processor.
What do you listen for in your recordings?
My goal is not to recreate the sonic reality of a concert hall or small club. If that's the primary responsibility of an audio engineer/producer, then I'm on another road. I seek to enhance or maximize the emotional impact of music reproduction by using state-of-the-art technology and new recording techniques. I want to hear and deliver recorded musical sounds that are transparent and detailed, rich and full of dynamic variety and placed seamlessly all around the listener. There is tremendous life in music. My personal goal is to allow that musical essence to flow into each listener and do what music can uniquely do - speak directly to one's soul.
How do you test the DVD/As? Do you play them in mid fi players as well as through the studio system?
I have a variety of listening environments in which we test our products. The studio is the first line of QC and features great equipment and acoustics. The Meridian 800/861 and the playback chain provide incredible detail for our titles. Additionally, I listen to the work in my office on a Bose "Lifestyle" system and then again in my Acura TL automobile with the ELS Panasonic DVD-Audio system.
What do you say to those who say DVD/A and SACD is no big deal, that a good CD sounds just as good?
Anyone who is satisfied with the sound delivered through the Internet or from a CD has not really experienced a great high-resolution, multi-channel recording. It is unfortunate that a lot of so-called high-resolution titles are not actually high-resolution at all. They may present the very best of analog or be recaptured through an analog mixing desk at 96kHz/24-bits, but according to my definition of high-resolution they do not provide a compelling next-generation experience. It's only when someone hears what these new formats can really achieve that they will truly know that there is another level of musical reproduction that is worth their investment of time and money.
What are some of your favorite DVD/As or universal players?
I have a Denon 9000 DVD-Audio player in my home media center and the previously mentioned Meridian setup here at the studio. I also enjoy my Panasonic automobile system and the Bose system in my office.
How did you develop this recording technology?
I have been involved in many thousands of recordings and began to notice that the involvement of less technology seemed to free up the sound that I captured. It was during a session at Lucas Ranch over 15 years ago that I first experimented with using a large room to capture small sounds using lots of stereo mikes. We used hundreds of MIDI tracks playing into dozens of speakers and recorded them in the acoustic space of the large Lucas studio. What an amazing sound! This led to the current model of recording things live in a big hall and using a refinement of the microphone techniques used back then. I have never been satisfied with the sound of commercial recordings. Luckily, there is a healthy resurgence in the recording quality. The future is bright for listeners interested in the return to fidelity.
After hearing one of your discs, do the musicians in your sessions often run out and buy a DVD/A or universal machine?
Yes. Actually, I insist on them owning a system that they can use to experience the fruits of our labor. It used to require a new purchase but these days, most of them have the necessary equipment. I got a call from an artist who we recorded 5 years ago and who recently played on the Grammy show. He called to let me know that he now understands what we were trying to do all those years ago. He didn't realize at the time how far ahead of the curve AIX Records was in 2000. It seems now musicians are coming to recognize the value of quality and the contribution of new technologies to their art.
AIX website