ProRec Interview: Steve Carr

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on in May 2002, contributed by then Staff Editor Tatiana Nu. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

Steve Carr is the one man operation known as Hit and Run Recording in Rockville, MD. He has recorded and remixed for Faith Hill, Nils Lofgren, Salt ‘n’ Pepa, among others. He received the Platinum Album Award for Time-Life Music’s “Classic Rock”, and has produced and digitally remastered virtually every Time-Life compilation of hit recordings. He also digitally remastered Rolling Stone Magazine’s “25 Years of Essential Rock History”. He was a W.A.M.A. (Washington Area Musical Association) Best Studio/Engineer nominee 1995 through 2000 and recorded their 2000 album of the year.

Steve’s track record proves he knows how to make other people’s music sound its best, but his latest project is one completely of his own conception and design: the “A/B CD” is a collection of a/b audio comparisons of recording equipment and components that promises to make many people who hear it re-think basic assumptions about how good recordings are actually made. Over the course of our on and off-line discussions, I’ve gotten to know a person who works very hard and cares deeply about maintaining a high level of integrity in everything he does. I already know he will help me make *my* music sound better- I thank him in advance!

TN: Can you describe the thoughts and events that led to this project? Was there a “eureka! I’ve got it!” moment that you can recall?

SC: I purchased 24 tracks of ADAT in the fall of 1995. By that time, I had read numerous articles in trade magazines describing the sound quality of digital versus analog and I was really curious to hear how the ADATS sounded compared to my 2″ analog 24 track. From the start, I envisioned putting out a CD of the comparisons so that people could actually hear what all the talk was about. The first A/B test I did was when I recorded an acoustic rock group onto both 24 tracks in 1996. During those sessions, I started thinking about doing other A/B comparisons that would be useful for people to hear.

I also realized early on that for this CD to be scientifically valid, all of the components of the recording process (including the human factor) would need to be compared. Comparing all of the components of the recording process on one CD has the added benefit of allowing the listener to discover which categories of components have a greater impact versus other categories of components. “Eureka!” moment? Hmmmmm, the title of the CD came to me and it was like “Yes!”

TN: The title is hard to top! But how did you decide where to begin, which elements to compare, in such a vast pool of possibilities? This could easily turn into a many-volume set…

SC: I decided to compare digital versus analog components first because that was, and still is a topic of significant discussion. From there I went down the list of all the other components in the recording chain because they are all a part of the same process. I could have gone into subcategories like comparing brands of recording tape, but with Volume I of The A/B CD I was just attempting to create a useful and valid starting point.

TN: Considering all the possible variables, establishing a foundation for your scientific process essentially from scratch must have must have been complex and time consuming.

SC: Time consuming?- Yes. All in all, from beginning to end of this project, it took five years. Keep in mind, I average a session a day at my studio and when my paying session was over I would then work on The A/B CD. I spent virtually all my spare time either doing tests to derive a valid process for a particular component comparison and then doing the comparison itself.

I also spent a lot of time rounding up musicians who would exchange their playing on the CD for studio time only to have the the final recording not meet my expectation for artistic quality. I would then either have to find another band to record the comparison or play AND engineer all the tracks myself- which was quite a challenge.

To make it ³easier² on myself, I composed a song in E minor that was easy enough to play in time and in tune so that I could record the takes in a timely manner. The “test song” was arranged so that the chord at the end of the songbite was the same chord at the beginning of the songbite which made it ideal for really hearing any difference when the song bite for equipment “B” plays. The “test” song was used for a number of the equipment comparisons.

Complex?- Yes again. The logistics of designing the equipment comparisons for each component of the recording chain required a different way of “splitting” the signal to create the A/B comparison. With the digital vs. analog mixers I used test tones and the same DAT machine (for the meters) at both studios. I rehearsed the process at my studio to make sure that it would work and when I booked time at the studio with the Yamaha O2R for the digital mixdown, both the country rock song and the R&B vocal song took only 1.5 hours to mix.

The splits for the analog digital recorders could have been done two different ways: through the mixer’s bus outputs or through a patchbay split. Some engineers might say one way is better than the other so to satisfy both camps, the a number of the recorder comparisons on The A/B CD were done one way and a number were done the other way.

For all the hard work, I really enjoyed the engineering challenge. Though I must say that it was a little frustrating when a few companies said my idea for The A/B CD was cool and implied that they might help but ended up not following through. On the positive side, I must openly thank Eric Blackmer of Earthworks mics for taking my phone call out of the blue and loaning me some excellent matched pairs of Earthworks mics for the pre-amp and XLR cable comparisons. Matched pairs of condenser and dynamic mics were used to split the signals for those component comparisons and I included two reference tracks to to validate that process.

TN: How did you make your decision about what music to use for comparisons? You chose a nice range of styles, which makes for fun listening.

SC: With the analog versus digital recorder comparisons, I planned to archive how the equipment impacted the sonic quality of three styles of music: “metal” rock, hip hop and acoustic folk rock. I recorded these three styles of music because they include a majority of the instrumentation that makes up popular music. I also wanted to present the recorder comparisons in a way that people with different tastes in music could relate to.

But I didn’t always chose the style that would be used for a comparison; a number of times it was the other way around. Like the day I was recording a scratch vocal track of a female rockabilly artist, and the producer and I were noticing how great the Shure SM58 was sounding on her voice. When we got around to recording the real vocal we set up the Neumann U87 and the SM58 side by side to record her vocal track. This ended up being the A/B comparison on Track 14.

TN: Just laying out the insert booklet, which serves as the guide to the comparisons, looks like it was quite a task- and I think you did a very good job. You chose to not feature all a/b comparisons in the order of a compared to b, instead leaving some comparisons unmarked in the track list so that occasionally, the listener is forced to listen without previous knowledge as to which version is which. You then provide a key to those unmarked tracks at the end of the booklet.(see fig 1)Did you find in yourself and in others that this kind of careful elimination of preconceived notions yielded different results? In other words, in this context, just how much does our listening appears to be colored by expectation?

SC: From my experience, preconceived notions can at times dramatically influence what a person thinks they are hearing. An example of this phenomenon would be a situation where a vocalist in a windowless booth requests “a touch more of something be added in the headphone mix” and before the engineer can get to the fader, the vocalist says “that’s perfect”.

In this example, the vocalist is “blind” to what was going on with the equipment. The vocalist/listener expected that there would be a difference and then imagined they heard “a touch more of something” was added to the mix. Who hasn’t read information that can influence what can be expected when it comes to the sonic differences between things like analog vs. digital? This is why I put the “B/A key” at the back of the booklet on page 15 – so that people could listen to the comparisons objectively and thereby counterbalance what might be expected or imagined with the reality of the equipment’s actual impact on sonic quality.

TN: Did any a/b comparison yield results different from your own expectation?

SC: A number of them did, for example Track 33- Drummer A compared to Drummer B. After I recorded the drums with drummer A on May 5th, I set up a session with drummer B for May 7th. None of the equipment was touched. Because I had worked with these drummers previously, I knew there would be a difference, but this was beyond what I expected- it sounded like a totally different drum kit. The drums sounded so different that I started to think that maybe the studio was a little cooler in temperature on the 5th or maybe drummer B, while moving the drums a little, caused the change. I rechecked the placement of the snare and tom mics and recorded anyway.

This was all the tracking I was planning on doing for the drummer comparisons, but because the difference was beyond what my experience expected, I set up one more session with drummer A. We then recorded track 34 on May 8th to find out what it was that made the drum
tracks sound so different.

TN: So did you find the cause in the end?

SC: It was the way the drummers were hitting the drums, not the slight repositioning of the mics or drums, that made the difference. Anybody who is having difficulty getting a good drum mix happening should check this track out.

TN: Where there any other elements in the recording process that just turned out to make more or less difference than you expected? I know you don’t want to color the readers opinions or give them preconceived notions…

SC: That’s true, I really don’t. So that question might be best answered by the person listening to the CD. But I’ll try my best. For example, with the analog recorders, I expected to hear some tape hiss during the sections where the musicians “rested” and sure enough, there was more tape hiss during the analog portions of the Analog/Digital recorder comparisons where the musicians weren’t playing. But how do I describe the amount of “tape hiss difference” in writing? This is one of the issues the A/B CD addresses.

Another example of this would be if I were to describe the difference I heard in some of the other comparisons. Example: I might be inclined to say one of the cables sounded “dull” when compared to an oxygen free cable, while at the same time, someone else might say that the oxygen free cable sounded “not as warm”. This is one of the reasons why I made the A/B CD. By laying ALL the cards on one table, the listener is then offered the opportunity to hear how everything adds up to best determine the route to take when going for the sound THEY are going for.

TN: Which brings up the issue of taste. Because really, on this CD, we’re largely talking about stuff that sounds pretty darn good. There are so many home project studios and affordable gear that can get “pretty darn good” results, given some experience on the part of the user. Some even feel that good or bad sound has to do with taste- you can get underground music that is recorded with all the grunge and artifacts or just a purposefully amateurish sound that others work hard to eliminate. What one hears on the a/b cd is high quality clean sound, so within that range there are still differences, but they may or may not be as large or as small as one might assume from what one might read…

SC: Interesting the subject of taste has been brought up while we’re are here discussing audio. To draw the parallel to the sense of hearing, what I am doing with the A/B CD is offering a taste test to the people who have read that “this or that spice” is what their mix needs to be appealing taste. As far as “underground” music (the kind that people like to listen to) goes, it might be made up of different flavors, but it shares a lot in common with top 40 music-like “the burger is on the bun”.

From what I’ve experienced, it seems as though a number of people who are recording have been reading information that puts the focus on the the condiments, creating arguments over the benefit of using “Grey Poupon over Frenche’s mustard” while being oblivious to the fact that they are serving up a slab of cold grizzle that has obviously fallen on the floor.

TN: You¹ve succeeded in revolting my vegetarian ears….!

SC: This analogy is getting a little abstract…let me explain what I am talking about with this example: I was recording a group at my studio (not for the A/B CD) and this particular group was kind of a cross between Green Day and REM . It was one of those sessions where the group was attempting to record, mix and master a 5 song project in about 20 hours. Very do-able if the group knows what should be the focus of attention before they get into the studio.

We recorded the tracks using digital and had the capability to correct things like the timing of the rhythm section and the pitch of the vocal, but all they seemed interested in was the type of flanger effect we should apply to the mix and making certain words echo. They weren’t aware of it, but the drums were played inconsistently to the point where triggers wouldn’t work. The bassist also played inconsistently and was out of time with the drums by more than 2 hundredths of a second while the guitars were more out of time and proportionately out of tune than that.

This lack of timing alignment is what I would describe as “the burger is off the bun”. We were spending all this time going through all my rack gear looking for the perfect flanger sound (like the guitarist’s pedal-which was not at the studio during the mix) and that’s when I related to them the “many types of mustard” analogy in an attempt to get the focus back onto meat and potatoes of their music.

Their recording ended up sounding pretty cheesy (bad) which was not what they were going for. They were going for a sound that could be sandwiched between Green Day and REM on an alternative rock station without sticking out like a sore thumb. But it was out of my control. And it had absolutely nothing to do with the type of mic pre amps and flangers we used or the fact that we recorded using digital. It had to do with the way they played their instruments.

TN: Another testament to what you *can’t* fix in the mix. And really, don’t you think (almost) everyone needs to be repeatedly reminded of this? I keep coming back in my mind to the notion of this explosion of home studios. We take it so for granted that we might not consider its repercussions in terms of the practice of recording and *musicianship* as a whole. Again, affordable digital recording technology means more people with all sorts of backgrounds can do recording. The explosion of web technologies means more people can put out their music, regardless of mass popular appeal. And that’s in essence a good thing.

But somewhere along the line, we have to remember that just because its easy doesn’t make it good. With stand alone software that can record add effects compress and EQ, it seems like anyone might be able to make something good or at least highly passable. But the bottom line is, ease of use is no substitute for experience and certainly no substitute for quality tracks with good musicians (or midi instruments) playing well.

I think Photoshop might provide a good analogy- just about everyone has it. But to see what people who have years of experience creating specific custom methods can achieve vs. what anyone can do just slapping a couple of filters on a half way decent photo is to understand that there still is a place for artistry and virtuosity in a time where putting technology in everyone’s hands appears to be the emphasis. Its not that I don’t think having access to technology is wonderful, there just seems to be something missing in the equation sometimes….

SC: Right. “Fix” it in the mix. Who hasn’t heard that expression? It’s funny that you mention Photoshop. Jeff Sarli did some sessions at my studio in between tracking sessions for The Rolling Stones A member of the band took some pictures of Jeff and I also took some pictures of Jeff. But there’s a difference between these photos.

This is a visual parallel with what is going on with people who struggle getting a recording to sound the way they like. The problem for people who are recording themselves in their home studios is to be able to zero in on what needs to be fixed. They have all this equipment that is technically on par with the equipment in a world class studio but why doesn’t their end product have the sound they are going for?

While mixing can fix things like volume, EQ adjustments and such it is up to the operator to be able to identify and make the necessary adjustments to the tracks they have recorded, or better yet, record the tracks the “right way” in the first place. Photoshop can remove the baseball cap label in Jeff picture A, but it can’t do anything to make picture B more appealing than A. This is a visual representation of what I am doing sonically with The A/B CD and A/B Online.

TN: With these photos the lesson learned might be: its better to have a closeup shot at a flattering angle with warm lighting and the subject creating a pleasing expression than it is to have a wider view snapshot of poor composition with unflattering lighting and the person rendering an unclear expression (in this case pain?). I think most people would understand that clearly, yet many of us end up with snapshots like “B” and think “Well this is the only picture of Uncle Bob I’ve got, maybe I can gussie it up in Photoshop and send it to him for Christmas!” But if the goal is to get a really good picture of Uncle Bob, its better to get together with him and shoot about 4 rolls of film…

SC: Sometimes many takes (rolls of film) is not in the available budget of time and money. In cases such as this, it would be best to know ahead of time what should be the focus of attention within the frame. If the picture’s purpose was to pay homage to the Hamilton music stand, unsung hero for millions of musicians worldwide, then picture B has some possibilities. Also, in some instances the background would be of more importance.

What I wanted to point out about these two photos is that there seems to be a supply and demand thing going on here: Picture A “looks better” because there are more pictures like B floating around. In other words, If every photo you ever saw looked like photo A, then when a picture B was presented, it would be like “wow! cool!”. What I am doing with the A/B CD is taking apart the process for the purpose of revealing what makes A different from B so that the listener can better be aware of the tangible particular components and elements that make up the art they envision.

TN: In you’re A/B CD, there really isn’t much that sounds as bad as that B picture looks. OK, well maybe that ghastly “standard violin”. Yikes- my French turn of the century instrument valued at over $10,000 (which isn’t exactly much for professional quality instrument) isn’t a Strad but it sounds a heck of a lot better than that other instrument! I bet there is a story as to how you got access to a Strad, this being hardly an every day event.

SC: Oh yes, the Stradivarius. A great local producer named Billy Kemp booked a session at my studio to track a violin track for a bluegrass session I was recording. He said “Steve, guess what? We’re recording a Stradivarius next week”. I immediately started thinking “this would ice the cake for the A/B CD”.

After we did the bluegrass session I spoke to the violinist, Janice Martin, about doing a comparison of her Stradivarius for The A/B CD. I gave her the “demo” so that she could understand what the a/b cd was about and in the meantime I created a midi version of the multi tracked arrangement that would be used to compare the Strad to the circa 1970’s low priced violin. As we did the session, I would solo each part of the midi arrangements and Janice would emulate them. The tracking took less than one and a half hours- Janice is such a professional.

TN: So who is your target market for the a/b cd? Has there been a good response so far?

SC: I think the response has been pretty good. It ended up on the front cover of Electronic Musician 12/01. One of the “target markets” is audio engineering schools. University of Maryland Baltimore Campus sponsored an A/B CD seminar last November and Sheffield Institute for The Recording Arts sponsored an A/B seminar in March.

The reactions of the students to some of the A/B playbacks led to interesting discussions. I am very grateful to Mike Cerri of University of Maryland Baltimore Campus and Sal Chandon of The Sheffield Institute for the Recording Arts for inviting me to meet with their audio engineering students and get some ‘real world” interaction happening with the A/B CD. There were a number of “ah-ha!” moments when the students finally heard what all the talk was about and in some cases, not about.

The A/B CD really does offer a unique learning experience and I enjoy the interactions during these engineering school seminars.

TN: What are your hopes for the a/b cd as a contribution to the recording world?

SC: I think The A/B CD has the possibility of influencing certain recording trends by creating a better understanding of the impact different components have on the process. It is my hope that people who are into recording can utilize it to make better recordings. By laying out all the cards on the table, the a/b cd can let people know that their gear need not impede them in getting the sound they want- that in the end its about the music they want to make.