The Sheffield Story (about Sheffield Lab and The Mastering Lab) (Jan. 1977)

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The first time an audiophile hears a Sheffield Lab direct-to-disc record on his own music system, his jaw usually drops in astonishment because his system never sounded better. When you tell him how this was accomplished, his jaw will drop again. The "secret" is decades old-Sheffield Lab entirely avoids the use of tape recorders, instead using the signal of the studio's microphone mixing console to directly drive the record cutting lathe.

In the last two years they have expanded and diversified their record catalog from two to seven albums, all cut direct-to-disc. Thanks to their disc's recent popular success and widespread use by hi-fi stores and audio firms, Sheffield Lab is finally emerging from its low profile status.

Their latest release, The King James Version, featuring Harry James and His Big Band, should further enlarge public awareness of direct-to-disc records and prove to be a delight for both audiophiles and big band buffs alike.

Sheffield Lab is the child of Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga, who have shared a personal and professional interest in music and recording since the late 50s. Sax is the head of The Mastering Lab in Hollywood, which he and Mayorga own. Record companies send their master tapes to The Mastering Lab, which cuts the master lacquers used to form pressing stampers which manufacture the final discs.

The Mastering Lab is the facility that makes Sheffield Lab direct-discs possible.

Mayorga has been a studio musician for almost 20 years and his arrangements and piano playing are featured on the first three Sheffield direct-disc albums. As avid record collectors, both Sax and Mayorga were intrigued by the fact that many records made before 1945 had greater presence and dynamic range than later records. They wondered if the advent of tape recorders in the 40s had somehow eliminated these characteristics. In 1959 they tested this hypothesis by recording a piano with the signal from the microphone being fed directly to the cutting lathe, which normally receives the signal from the master tape. When they played back this test lacquer, they heard the phenomenally "live" sound they were looking for.

-----36a Thelma Houston singing for I've Got The Music In Me, and being congratulated by Lincoln Mayorga after the final session.

In the early 60s Sax and Mayorga made several attempts at direct-disc recording, though limited by the fact they were both working full time and had to finance everything themselves.

When they did manage to line things up, they discovered a host of technical problems in trying to resurrect a 20-year-old recording technique--lathes, amps, mikes, transmission lines, and lacquers were faulty or simply not up to the demanding nature of direct-disc recording. By 1966 Sax and Mayorga realized they would need their own state-of-the-art mastering facilities to record a direct-to-disc album. In 1968 they opened The Mastering Lab, which was designed by Sax's brother, Sherwood. Sherwood custom designed the electronics, which are heavily tube oriented, and even the monitor speaker crossovers.

In November, 1968, just one month after installing one of the first operational Neumann SX-68 stereo cutter heads, they recorded Lincoln Mayorga and Distinguished Colleagues Vol. 1 (Sheffield Lab catalog number S-9), featuring Mayorga's arrangements of pop tunes accompanied by session musicians. The recording took place in the Producer's Workshop studio located in the back of The Mastering Lab building. This allowed the signal output from the mixing console to be sent literally down the hall to the Lab's cutting lathe.

The first sessions were plagued with technical difficulties' such as blemished lacquers, mysterious radio interference signals, and other problems that demanded instant solutions.

Mayorga and Sax discovered that the most difficult aspect of direct-disc recording was the exacting nature of recording totally live music in real time, which differs greatly from standard recording production technique.

Typical Record Production

The advances in multi-track tape recording during the last two decades have allowed the record producer to isolate musical instruments on individual tracks. At any time, the record producer may add to or subtract from any given track, and he may layer them and remix them to the point where a pop album may need six months or more of studio time just for the tapes to be reworked and finalized.

Typically a producer has musicians record the primary rhythm tracks of the song first. These tracks serve as a reference for both the producer and later musicians, who record in small groups while listening to headsets.

The producer gradually builds up layers of instruments and vocals on the remaining tracks of a 16-, 24-, or 32 track tape machine. The producer can alter any track by use of a host of effects, such as echo, compression, phase shift, equalization, etc. Usually the vocalists add their tracks last, using as many takes as they wish, and they may even record phrase by phrase.

After the sessions are done, the producer may spend weeks or months modifying the tapes during the mix down to the final two-track master tape.

Recording Direct-to-Disc

Sax and Mayorga feel the repeated dubbing, editing, transferring, and signal processing of the standard technique dramatically increase the noise and distortion of the final record, which is often a patchwork of many different takes. They also feel the primary victim of this preoccupation with technology has been live music. Most so-called "live" albums are enhanced by some reworking of the tapes, and, of course, there are usually several different performances of a given tune to select from. By foregoing the primary advantage of tape, Sheffield Lab's direct disc recording by definition means their musicians play absolutely live, and the takes are completely unaltered.

When recording Vol. 1, the musicians and technicians found out that recording live for 17-minute takes is brutal. The engineer must mix all his takes live in real time. The lathe operator must manually adjust the groove spacing to get as much music as possible on each side, and, of course, the musicians must play flawlessly. Despite these difficulties, the disc turned out to be state-of-the art fidelity. The album was sold primarily by mail order and in selected hi-fi stores.

Recording Volume Two

Late in 1971 Sax and Mayorga recorded The Missing Linc Vol. II (Sheffield Lab catalog S-10). Despite their previous experience, many new problems cropped up, with damaging and costly delays, because in a direct disc situation nothing is accomplished until the entire ensemble has played the 17-minute take perfectly and it has been successfully cut on the lacquer.

For Vol. II a second cutting lathe was mechanically linked to the primary lathe to produce a duplicate lacquer and double the pressing potential. While a 30-ips tape was made for checking performance and mix quality, it is not used for generating additional lacquers. Thus, the number of Sheffield albums is automatically limited by the number of lacquers cut during the actual sessions, and because it is a limited edition, each Sheffield record is an instant collectors item, with both Vol. I and Vol. II now out of print. Sometimes Sheffield Lab is able to record more than one performance on each side successfully, and these alternate takes increase the sales potential, plus being sought after by record collectors.

How to Succeed By Really Trying

In November 1973 Sax and Mayorga recorded Lincoln Mayorga and Distinguished Colleagues Vol. Ill (Sheffield Lab catalog Lab 1). Bud Wyatt, the design engineer for the Producer's Workshop, revamped the entire microphone console for higher and cleaner signal levels, and the engineer for this album was Grammy award winner, Bill Schnee. The ensemble included a full brass section as well as several top-flight pop and jazz musicians.

The sessions ran into problems almost immediately. The combination of Schnee's aggressive mixing, the impact of the brass, and the unusually clean electronics of the board gave the lathe operator too much signal to fit all 20 minutes of material on one side. Rather than use electronic limiting, one song was deleted from each side to allow room for wider groove spacing. Upon its release, Vol. III met with critical acclaim as well as enthusiastic public response.

In early 1975 Sheffield Lab recorded I've Got The Music In Me (Sheffield Lab catalog Lab 2). Rather than featuring just instrumentals, Sax and Mayorga wanted to try something in a more contemporary vein. Bill Schnee's previous experience with Sheffield and his background in rock music made him the logical choice to produce and engineer this album. Another first-time experience for Sheffield Lab was the use of a vocalist.

Through the auspices of Motown Records, Thelma Houston and a group of six background vocalists were used.

I've Got The Music In Me, by Thelma Houston and Pressure Cooker (as the band came to be called), was released in May, 1975 and achieved almost all the musical and technical goals set for it. The energy of a rock band coupled with superb vocals produced an outstanding level of both fidelity and immediacy, and because of its popular orientation, the disc's domestic and foreign sales were the quickest and largest of any Sheffield Lab record.

--- Dave Grusin, at keyboards, and members of his Jazz Quintet (from top) Harvey Mason, drums; Lee Ritenour, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; and Larry Bunker, percussion.

Recording The Harry James Album

Sax and Mayorga wished to diversify their catalog by featuring well-known musicians as guest artists, so they did a recording of Harry James and his big band in March, 1976. But going on location with two enormous cutting lathes to record in the sort of hall such a group would normally perform in was virtually impossible. By a coincidence more favorable than they had a right to expect, there was the Wylie Chapel, with the right acoustics, a block and a half from the Mastering Lab. After the necessary tests and arrangements were made, a 600 foot line was run from a portable mike mixer in the chapel through the parking lots and across the street to The Mastering Lab itself. All the sound was derived from a single stereo mike's perspective, and engineer Ron Hitch cock's only other mikes were on the bass and piano.

The test pressings from the March sessions were very good in all regards except one, Harry James' trumpet.

The technicians spent many weeks trying to analyze what went wrong and why, and by July they had performed all the necessary modifications for the sessions to begin again in Wylie Chapel. These sessions started off poorly, with the first six hours producing nothing usable. Finally everything got together, and the result was The King James Version (Sheffield Lab catalog Lab 3). James says he has never been so pleased with a recording, and the Sheffield staff feels that audiophiles and big band lovers alike will be delighted with the album.

--- Harry James wails for The King James Version at the Wylie Chapel with other session-men at the final cutting.

Why They Sound So Good

The most usual question and audiophiles ask is why are the Sheffield Records capable of such fidelity? The first factor is the special amalgam of talents and chemistry when an entire group of musicians are recording live.

In addition, there are numerous technical advantages in recording direct-to-disc; the process has greater recording headroom which permits an increase in the dynamic range, the most obvious characteristic of Sheffield Records. The full instantaneous peak energy of most instruments, particularly percussive ones, is somewhat higher than any standard meter can indicate, and it is these transient peaks which saturate the tape and create distortion. To avoid this problem, most all conventional albums use some type of compression or peak limiting, which results in a distortion free recording but one with limited dynamic range.

Direct discs also benefit from a significantly lower phase shift because two generations of tape have been eliminated. Of course, direct-disc recording also removes two entire generations of tape electronics. Doug Sax feels the electronics and hardware of The Mastering Lab play an important role in Sheffield Lab. Not only is state-of-the-art and custom designed equipment used throughout the Lab, but each component in the system has been carefully modified to function properly as part of an interdependent electronic system.

Audiophiles may wonder why more musicians don't record direct-to-disc.

While where have been several other direct-discs produced recently, few musicians or record companies are willing to submit to the unforgiving circumstances of direct-disc recording. The James' sessions in March, 1976, are an example of the sort of failure that can occur in even the most carefully planned sessions. Also record companies would not be pleased with the limited pressing potential, particularly in view of the costs and chance elements involved, as it is not only quite difficult to record direct to-disc, but the album isn't likely to produce much profit.

The release of the Harry James album, as well as the forthcoming release of Mayorga's classical piano album, plus a jazz quintet album featuring Dave Grusin, represents a desire to expand the musical directions of Sheffield Lab. These direct-disc albums represent a pinnacle of achievement in many ways, but Doug Sax and Lincoln Mayorga continue to be motivated to expand beyond the accomplishments of their current albums. As for the audiophile, Sheffield Lab Records offers him a much fuller appreciation of his music system.

(Source: Audio magazine, Jan. 1977; Andrew P. Teton)

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