The Audio Interview: Telarc's Jack Renner--Recording Without a Net (July 1984)

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As multi-track became more accessible, engineers yielded to demands to have more flexibility, to have bigger safety nets.

You might say Jack Renner has been living out the American dream. In just over two decades, the Telarc Records founder and president has gone from making records of high school bands to the van guard of classical recording. Though Telarc s catalog includes barely more than 50 titles to date their notable quality, both in the LP and CD formats, has earned the company an international reputation.

The fact that Renner and partner Bob Woods have achieved all this from a base in Cleveland may seem shocking to some jaded New Yorkers or devout denizens of Hollywood and its environs. But Renner himself reckons that had he seen surrounded by too many paddle rooted in the record business, they probably would have convinced rim f is goal of establishing a major classical label was impossible, causing him to abandon it.

The son of a professional trumpeter who worked with some of the big bands of this time, Renner himself played trumpet and, after graduating from the Ohio Stat School of Music, taught high school until tempted to earn his living at location recording and custom record production. From recordings of school and church groups he moved on to waking records of professionals, such as organist Michael Murray and individual members of the Cleveland Orchestra which were sold largely by word of mouth.

Even these attracted the attention o some audiophile reviewers as did the 1977 production of Direct from Cleve land with Loren Maazel conducting the Cleveland Orchestra: the first direct-to disc recording of a symphony orchestra this was an effort that drew boos along with kudos.

------- (top) Jack Renner knows recording from the engineer's side and the musician's (above, with Placido Domingo)

The following year after convincing Soundstream’s Thomas Stockham to increase the upper limit of his digital recorder beyond 17 kHz. Telarc used the machine to master its first digital sessions, featuring Frederick Fennel and the Cleveland Symphonic Winds I hate to be trite about it the 49-year-old Renner smiles "but the rest is history. Classical music lovers and audiophiles alike can only hope the historic few years to which he alludes are merely the beginning of an epoch and that Telarc will endow us with many more records at least as remarkable as those it has already produced.

Telarc has attained a formidable reputation in a very short time. When you began to record digitally, did you envision where you'd be now?

I wanted to have 50 titles out in five years and that's what we've done have to say it was not a structured plan any of us had around here, but that's where I felt I wanted to be with this company. Maybe I was naive enough not to be concerned that I was taking on the giants of the industry.

Did you feel at the time that you had something to offer that these giants weren't providing, that perhaps they were doing something wrong?

I'm not so sure they were doing something wrong as perhaps not doing a lot of things right. I had gained enough confidence over the years with my simple approach to microphone technique that I knew it was workable, and I had listened to an awful lot of the major companies records and knew there was just a classic case of overkill going on here. There was also a growing awareness on the part of the consumer that there was something basically wrong about the approach the major companies were taking to recording classical music. That rested primarily with their approach to choice of microphones and equipment and the use of them. It's just ludicrous to think that you have to put 40 microphones out to record a symphony orchestra, and that's what many of the major companies do.

The president of Shure Brothers told us not long ago that recording engineers tell them all the time that, if they discontinue a certain mike that's been in the line for years, they'll switch to another brand.

This keeps them on safe ground. I'm in one way delighted and in another way a little bit threatened by the fact that Philips, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and also RCA and CBS, strangely, in the last five years have started using fewer microphones and they've started buying the same kinds of mikes that I've been using. Now that just didn't happen. There's definite pres sure that we have brought to bear.

Where did your ideas on miking come from?

Well, I have to give credit where credit's due. Bob Fine [of Mercury]. He proved in the '50s and '60s that you can go out with two and three of the right microphones and in the right acoustical environment, and you have to choose your halls carefully-but having done that, and having found the right spot in the hall for those micro phones, you can make recordings that no one can really criticize. Take some of the old RCA recordings that were made with three or four microphones back in the early '50s, the Chicago Reiner stuff, the Boston Munch things. Beautiful recordings.

Why do engineers use so many mikes? Is it so they can airbrush the acoustical photos, as it were, if they have to?

The producer on the job has gotten to the point where he wants the safety net of being able to go back to the studio and decide, away from the heat of battle, what that recording should sound like. The part that really concerns me is that he will decide, not necessarily in consultation with the conductor. The other part of the whole package is that, as multi-track became more and more accessible over the years, engineers were yielding to the demands to have more flexibility, to have bigger safety nets, and every one of them has said to me such things as, "It's a lot easier to put out more microphones than you're going to need. It's a lot easier to turn on microphones than it is to go out and move people around."

Is less always more in terms of micro phone techniques?

It certainly has been for me. What I find is that, the more microphones you put out, the more temptation there is to fool around and to change not only the musical balance that the conductor's working so hard to achieve, but also the perspective of the instruments. The common deficiency you hear on a lot of classical records today is that, when there is a solo passage and the recording's been made with a number of microphones, you tend to hear that solo player move closer to you when the solo's being played and then move back into the orchestra when the solo's over. Some people like this. I happen to feel it's not realistic, that it's not the way it happens in a concert hall. I really think that, if the conductor is balancing the orchestra the way he wants it heard out in the hall, then I ought to be able to give this back to him. After all, we are in a re-creative process here as opposed to the rock and pop field, which really is a creative process. There, the finished record sound is really made by the engineers in the studio.

The introduction of the Compact Disc last year marked the start of a very interesting period for your business. Do you think the CD will become the new standard, the music storage medium of the future?

Yes, I do. I'm not prepared to say it won't go through some changes over the next few years, but I am personally committed to the CD. I happen to be on the side of the fence that says CD really is good and really sounds fine.

Do you hear the edginess in the midrange, the coarseness that some other people claim to hear?

Yes, when I play it back on equipment that I feel is contributing this to it. The different brands of CD players out there may look on paper as if they all sound alike, but that couldn't be further from the truth. It's like every phonograph cartridge that's flat from 20 to 20k sure doesn't sound that way. I really think what the digital detractors are hearing has more to do with what is being used to play digital sound back than the actual digital process itself.

We did an interesting experiment at our first digital session and we've done it many times since then. When there were a certain number of what I would call golden ears in the room, we would go through a process of comparing the input of the console itself, which is what's coming right off the microphones before it goes to the tape recorder, and then listening back off the digital tape-with the Soundstream you actually can monitor the playback off the tape, just like you can with an analog machine. And I would say I've done probably 60 sessions with digital equipment, and so far no one has been able to tell the difference. Now, we've lined up digital players in our sound room here and put the same Compact Disc on each one, cued them so they are in sync, so you can pop back and forth with your preamp, and there is a startling difference between players. The players we don't like have this midrange edginess; they have a sense of graininess to the sound, and it's exactly what the people who don't like digital sound are describing.

How do recording engineers fit into the equation?

I think digital has been grossly mis used by a lot of recording engineers who, over the years, have developed their whole approach to recording with the analog product in mind, and there tends to be some masking that goes on. A lot of overly bright microphones have been chosen in order to give an excessive amount of presence, some of which will be lost in the whole transfer process from microphone to finished disc. And they have learned much to their horror, that you can't go out and put up 20 or 25 excessively bright microphones and feed this signal into a digital tape recorder without it sounding really strange.

How much does the Soundstream machine itself have to do with the quality of Telarc records? Do you feel it's a factor?

Absolutely. This machine is superior in every way, sonically, to anything that's out there. I can go out and make outstanding digital recordings with other people's digital equipment, but they are not going to sound as good as with the Soundstream. But, by the same token, an awful lot of the major companies have used the Soundstream machine and have gotten recordings that have been roundly criticized for their edgy sound, which goes back to the fact that the Soundstream machine it self does far and away the best job of giving you back exactly what you're feeding to it.

Are the differences in digital recorders measurable, or are they like some of the differences in speakers, things that we can hear but maybe haven't figured out how to measure yet?

Well, I haven't actually gone through the exercise of trying to measure the differences. I think most of them have to do will- how you are actually hearing them, like speakers. As I said earlier, you can line up an awful lot of phono cartridges--or preamps or amplifiers--that on paper you can almost lay the specs one on top of the other and, boy, they sure don't sound the same! What I did in assembling my equipment package was to try to find what I felt were the most neutral-sounding pieces of gear-microphones, mixing desk, speakers and amplifiers-so at least the signal that I was feeding to that recorder had been colored as little as I felt possible within the confines of what's available.

The advent of the CD means that audiophile labels no longer have an exclusive option on such sonic qualities as wide dynamic range and quiet surfaces. How is your company facing this challenge?

First of all, by not considering our selves as just an audiophile label. I think it could be fatal if we were to continue to try to sell ourselves as we did early in the game, with the best sound in town. I think we sill have the best sound in town, but we are trying to pair tat more and more with internationally recognized performers--conductors, orchestras, soloists, whatever.

You've worked primarily with American-based artists so far.

Yes, but we are making a very conscious, planned effort now to establish, if you will, a European connection in terms of our branching out in our re cording activity--because we are internationally recognized, and we need to have a larger percentage of our catalog devoted to performers who are highly visible internationally and also have European roots. As far as Telarc and the major classical labels are concerned, we've competed and, I think, in most cases won on strictly a sound basis. I still think we are ahead of them on that. Now we are going to take them on in regard to artists. That isn't to say we're in a position--nor do we want to be--to build a stable of Telarc artists who are committed exclusively or on a semi-exclusive basis to us, because that could lead you into obligations that might be very hard to fulfill. But we do expect to be working with more and more internationally recognized people. We can do a limited number of records with some big names each year and do them very well, and that's the direction we're headed in.

How long will your CDs continue to be better than those of the majors in sonic terms?

I think they will continue to be for a long, long time. Our competitors can assemble the same kind of equipment, but there is still something to be said for the fact that I have come into this from a totally different direction. I've done very few multi-mike jobs in my life. I have always believed a simple mike setup is a more accurate way to re-create the musical experience. The major companies are coming from the other direction. They've got to establish a totally new reference, and they are being very cautious about coming down from this huge overkill. I am not going to be foolish enough to say that we will take on the Deutsche Grammophons of the world forever at the sound game. I really don't think we can stay on top forever, but I will be very happy in a few years to be able to have a solid catalog and still be recognized as the company responsible for a lot of innovations in this business.

(adapted from Audio magazine, Jul. 1984)

Also see:

The Audio Interview: John Charles Cox--A Matter of Precedence (Jan. 1985)

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Updated: Saturday, 2018-10-27 8:47 PST