Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

Blogging-On-Audio

“I’m an audiophile first,” Peter J. Moore said when we first sat down for what was supposed to be a fairly quick interview in his Toronto, Ontario, studio on November 27. “I’m a modder to the nth degree -- nothing I have is stock. I use Black Gate caps, which you can’t get anymore, so I bought all of them I could get. There are military-grade parts in a lot of my gear, including my ½-inch tape players.”

Peter J. MoorePeter J. Moore

But Peter isn’t only an audiophile and a component modifier -- he’s a high-fidelity perfectionist who channels his passion into his profession as a recording, mixing, and mastering engineer who works extensively with digital and analog media. If Peter’s name isn’t familiar to you, his recordings likely will be. He was chiefly responsible for the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session, which since its release in 1988 has been an audiophile favorite due to the minimalist approach taken to recording it (a single Calrec Soundfield microphone and digital recorder). Trinity has also been a reviewing tool for as long as I’ve been critiquing audio components. In other words, I’ve had his work swirling in my head for a long, long time. He has also had his hand in more than 1000 recordings by such artists as Oscar Peterson, Neil Young, The Band, Blue Rodeo, The Sadies, Holly Cole Trio, Garth Hudson, and Neko Case, to name just a few. To learn about the many others he’s worked with, go to his website, www.peterjmoore.com, for a partial list -- partial because Peter says it’s five years out of date.

Peter’s in the unique position in the recording industry of being able to do it all if need be -- recording, mixing, mastering -- which isn’t always the case. According to Peter, in the US, which is a much bigger market than Canada, people usually specialize in one thing. “Being able to do everything,” Peter says, “is a Canadian thing.” He’s also a recording engineer who understands the things that audiophiles want -- soundstaging, imaging, neutrality, clarity, etc. If you don’t believe me, listen to The Trinity Session on CD or vinyl -- he’s a recording engineer who gets it.

Peter J. MooreMoore aligning a cartridge on a turntable he's modifying

Peter also just won’t let things be if he thinks they can be done better. The resurgence in vinyl hasn’t only increased his workload producing masters for the medium; it has also caused him to investigate turntable construction in a serious way, so he has a number of turntable models in house that he’s modifying to make even better. He’s proven to himself that the motor’s control of the platter, which should spin with sufficient torque and no variability in speed as the needle passes through the record groove, is crucial to achieving topflight playback. “It’s like diamond polishing,” he says. “The speed must remain constant.”

James Tanner of Bryston arranged my meeting with Peter, since his company supplies him with some equipment for his custom-built, tweaked-to-the-max Toronto-based studio. So James was there the day I was. The latest Bryston stuff to arrive in Peter’s studio: Mini T speakers and a 4B SST2 amp. The amp, in particular, he was quite taken with. “Its top end has the smoothness of tubes -- quite something,” Peter said to James.

James Tanner and Peter J. MooreJames Tanner and Peter at the recording console

But the idea of a regular interview, which is what I had originally planned, rapidly vanished the moment the three of us began to talk -- or, rather, when Peter started to tell us what he knew about the music-making process. Suffice it to say that he knows way more than I ever could have imagined he would (how many pro-audio engineers do you know who modify turntables, or modify their electronics?), so I had to find a different way to relate the experience, which I found terrifically enlightening, to better serve our readers. His vast knowledge was also the main reason I had to change the original title of this article from “Peter J. Moore on Mastering,” which describes a lot of the work he does these days, to “Peter J. Moore on Everything,” which better captures the essence of what went down.

So instead of asking Peter pointed questions that might limit a response, I brought up broader topics and let him expand on what he’s learned in the decades he’s been involved in audio. Occasionally I interjected if I wanted him to flesh out a topic, but usually I didn’t have to. The result is still really just a snippet of what he said because, frankly, he spoke about so many topics so quickly that I often couldn’t keep up. (I wasn’t recording him; I was typing it on my laptop, since I never anticipated hearing so much.) As you’ll see, sometimes one topic would lead into another, even though I didn’t direct it that way. That’s because Peter loves to talk about audio and music, and when he does, the subject can start in one place and end up in quite another, but he always has a point when it comes to producing the best sound. So here’s what Peter had to say.

On recently attending TAVES, a consumer-based audio event

“I was really disappointed going there, since it’s not about fidelity. They’re worried about this thing and that thing, but they don’t even seem to know what something really sounds like. I asked some people in a room, ‘Do you even know what a hi-hat actually sounds like?’ They stared at me blankly. It was obvious they didn’t. It’s disappointing, since fidelity doesn’t seem to be what many audiophiles are after these days.”

On upgrading wall power

“A better thing to do than spending $10,000 on a power conditioner is to have an electrician come in and install a star-grounding system. Then do a ‘home run’ to each plug in the room and put an orange receptacle on it like those. I have them throughout my room. [Peter points to a number of them.] That will make a much bigger difference.” [A home run is Peter’s term for a dedicated line.]

On why vinyl is coming back

“My daughter doesn’t even have a turntable, although she can borrow one of mine any time, but she buys LPs. For her it’s a work of art, something to admire, so I think that’s some of it. A CD or a download doesn’t have that.

“What I like about vinyl is that it’s a unique performance -- that needle is dancing in the groove and is putting on a performance for the listener every time a record is played. And it will never play the same way twice, because it’s a mechanical device, so the vinyl changes after it’s played. It heats up. If you play it again right away, it will not sound as good.

Peter J. MoorePeter with the Cowboy Junkies' five-LP The Nomad Series box set

“I don’t like to give away my secrets, but I will. After I play a record, I put it in the freezer for an hour. After I take it out and play it again, it will sound close to the same as before; otherwise, you have to wait a day or so.

“By the way, do you know why an S-shaped tonearm has that shape? [Peter walks over to a turntable to show us one he’s modifying.] It’s to break up the standing waves inside them. I just learned that a month ago. Another way to do it is by tapering the tonearm.

“But digital doesn’t play the same way all the time, either. The drives consumers usually use have error correction. And the new solid-state drives are the worst for that -- it’s the nature of them. Unless you’re buffering, the error correction is kicking in and changing data all the time. That's why I use SCSI drives still, since they don’t need correction.”

On Rick Rubin being responsible for the “loudness war”

“The ‘loudness war’ thing is really interesting. It’s not new, although some people think it is. I wrote an AES paper on it. I actually researched this right back to the jukebox. In a jukebox you don’t have control over the volume, so the louder song often sounds better and people will tend to play that more often. Imagine a bar and people getting up and dancing to a Muddy Waters song because it’s louder and everyone can hear it better. So when they realized this, they would tell the mastering engineers, ‘Cut it harder -- we want ours to play louder.’ Ultimately, the loudness war is all about making more money.

“By the way, there are 40 slots in a jukebox -- that’s where the Top 40 came from. [At this point James and I simultaneously said, ‘I didn’t know that.’] The whole jukebox thing was called ‘race music,’ meaning ‘not white’; in other words, not Bing Crosby. My point about that is this: the first black-owned radio station was in New Orleans in the early '50s. They started the whole thing by playing the top 40 songs from the jukeboxes, and the whole thing exploded. Other people tried to take credit for it, but that’s bullshit. It started from the black-owned radio stations.”

On high sampling rates

“People ask if we need sampling frequencies of 88.2kHz or above. A 30-IPS tape has response to 30kHz -- always has. They’ve proven that we can sense frequencies that high. So, yes, why not? Why limit ourselves to what CDs can do, which is about 22kHz? But I don’t really know if it’s the higher sampling rates giving us the better-quality sound. I think it might be the better equipment involved in working with those rates. They have better clocking, noise performance, grounding, etc.”

On playback software

“Decibel sounds better than Amarra on a Mac. There’s a big difference. In fact, QuickTime sounds better than iTunes. Here, listen to this on computer speakers. [Peter then plays identical songs back to back using iTunes and Decibel on a MacBook Pro, and the difference isn’t subtle.] Look, I don’t even have to point this thing at you -- it’s stupid, the difference, and it’s through the computer’s speakers! I think Decibel sounds the best. Depending on what someone is listening to, that could affect a speaker-purchasing decision. [James’s eyes open wide, because his company is now in the speaker-making business.] I think it’s the algorithms they are using that are causing these differences.”

On Daft Punk’s latest album, Get Lucky; Neil Young; and The Dark Side of the Moon

Get Lucky is really bass heavy, really thumpy. If I was mastering it, I wouldn’t put that much bass on it. It probably really sounds good on small speakers and laptops, though. But I really like it. I listen to it all the time. [Peter then played it through the Mini Ts, and the bass just slammed in his room.]

Peter J. MoorePeter at the controls

“Neil drove up in this and it freaked my neighbors out. [Peter showed us a picture of his huge, fully customized RV.] Do you know that Neil can sing in perfect tune? Perfect. He was playing a piano in my other room and practicing. I recorded him and then checked it. He was dead on.

“You know the heartbeats at the beginning of The Dark Side of the Moon? I heard they tried for six months to create those, and then a young intern asked them what they were trying to do, and they said they were trying to make a sound like a heartbeat. The young kid tapped on the top of the microphone and said, ‘Like this?’” [Peter then played the surround version of Dark Side through his setup and had us each sit in the sweet spot that the room was optimized for. The sound was amazingly clear, the soundfield completely enveloped the listener, and the locations of the speakers completely disappeared.]

On The Trinity Session and air

“The really deep bass on ‘Mining for Gold’ is the subway below the Church of the Holy Trinity, where it was recorded. ‘Mining for Gold’ is the only song where I miked Margo Timmins’s voice directly -- we recorded it a week after the other tracks. With the other tracks you’re not hearing her voice directly; you’re hearing the speaker that her voice was playing through. It was a heavily modified Klipsch Heresy, actually. A lot of people now are using effects on voices -- ‘filters’ they call them. It’s EQ, really, but the hipsters like to call them filters. It thins out the voice and adds sparkle. Anyway, that’s how we did it back then.

[I asked if it was true that the album was recorded with only a single Calrec microphone and a DAT machine, which is what the liner notes claim.]

“The microphone is true. It was really recorded on a modified Nakamichi PCM-F1 processor, although we did have a DAT machine there recording as well. The Nakamichi had these Apogee A-to-D converters in them that I wired through the top. So both were recording. The F1 just sounded so much better so we used that.

Doug Schneider and Peter J. MooreDoug Schneider and Peter with the famous Calrec Soundfield microphone used for The Trinity Session

“Here’s another tidbit nobody knows: ‘Mining for Gold’ is about guys with hammers and chisels, so they make sounds with those tools. The radiators at the church used to plink and tink like crazy. At first I didn’t know what I was going to do about them when I was recording, so I decided to work with it and use it instead of eliminate it. It was November, so pretty cold, so we needed it on. I asked the janitor who worked in the church to turn off the heating system and then turn it back on when I was recording to get that plink and tink sound that was like hammers and chisels.

“At the time, the late '80s, everything was MIDI -- drums had this real MIDI sound. [MIDI is short for Music Instrument Digital Interface. It’s a technical standard that allows electronic instruments and computers to communicate with each other.] I got a Billie Holiday Verve recording around then and listened to it and wondered where we had gone so wrong since it sounded so much better than what we were listening to. So with The Trinity Session I wanted to make a statement and produce an organic sound and show a direction to the industry. I wanted to slam a pendulum so far the other way from what was going on then. I knew Trinity was going to be a great record, but I had no idea it was going to be as big as it was.

“I’m working on a remastered version of The Trinity Session, you know. I went back to the original recording. The reclocking that I can do today is like the lens has been cleaned. It’s clearer -- you’ll hear things you never heard before when it comes out.

[Peter then played a clip from the new master.]

“Can you hear the slight buzz on the snare? Listen to the room. You can hear everything.

[I then commented on how good that recording sounded; in particular, how analog like, even though it was a digital recording with a processor.]

“It wasn’t screwed with; that’s why. If you record a quartet direct to DSD, you can’t get better than that. That’s sort of what we did. You know what the mixer was for The Trinity Session? Air. I used the air in the room to mix it because it’s the perfect summing amplifier. I choreographed the musicians so they’d move on the floor as they were playing to act as faders.

“Air is interesting. You know the popping sound when a rocket is taking off at Cape Canaveral? It’s not the microphone or electronics clipping, which is what people think. It’s the air. [Writer S. Andrea Sundaram calculated the limit to be 191dB.] A friend of mine was recording it once with B&K microphones, which are good. He couldn’t figure out the clipping. He even moved his gear back farther and it was the same. That popping is the air -- it’s the dynamic limitation of air.”

On studios and homes

“Some audiophiles think music is a documentary and it’s truthful, but it’s an artificial form created in the studio. Even the classical recordings done with a single microphone are edited from many different takes. Direct to disc is different, and I really respect that -- I just remastered a Rough Trade direct-to-disc recording, and it sounds amazing. Most recordings are edited heavily, though.

James Tanner and Peter J. MoorePeter shows James a guitar originally built for Ron Wood of The Rolling Stones

“A lot of people watch a movie and they don’t realize there are many cameras and many takes that all come down to one thing at the end. That’s why it takes so long to shoot and create them, because there’s so much involved. In music it’s similar -- it’s broken down into smaller pieces and then assembled. Even a live recording is taken back and fixed up like crazy. You know The Last Waltz? Most of that was rerecorded.”

Finally, fade outs

“I hate recording-engineer fade outs, which is where the levels just go down. I prefer to let the band finish and let the natural decay finish the song. That’s what I did with the Cowboy Junkies.”

That seemed like a natural place to fade out of this article about Peter J. Moore, at least for now. But given his vast knowledge and experience, I think another discussion is in order at some point in the future -- perhaps when those turntable modifications are complete.

Doug Schneider
Publisher, The SoundStage! Network