Cuttin-Edge, On-the-Spot Reporting

Have You Seen?


A couple of years ago while reporting from High End in Munich, I was enjoying the superb million-dollar system in Nagra’s room, when they introduced a presentation by a recording engineer named Mike Valentine. With so much to report on, I wasn’t sure I could spare the time to stay, but thanks to my fascination with the recording process, I couldn’t resist. What followed was one of the most engaging presentations I have ever heard—on any subject.

Mike waxes lyrical at a recent hi-fi show

Mike is one of the most gifted recording engineers in the world. The recordings on his Chasing the Dragon record label are some of the most lifelike that I have ever heard. He is also a leading underwater cinematographer, with a list of film credits that includes five James Bond movies, the Bourne Identity movies, Atonement, The Da Vinci Code, Basic Instinct, Star Wars, Trainspotting—the list goes on and on. As if that wasn’t enough, he was on the stage with Freddie Mercury holding a BBC camera filming Live Aid at Wembley Stadium back in 1985.

I was keen to find out how this all began and how Mike produces such astonishing sounding records with his wife and partner, Françoise Valentine.

Mike and partner in crime Françoise

Mike was a teenager in the northwest of England during the golden age of rock—from the late 1960s into the early ’70s, and so naturally fell in love with music. This passion led to his first job in a hi-fi shop in Manchester where he learned how much impact choice of equipment, cabling, and setup had on the resulting sound. While there, Mike decided to apply to the BBC and in 1972 he was taken on as a trainee sound engineer. His career at the BBC flourished, and he participated in many productions, the last of which was Live Aid in 1985.

During his time at the BBC, Mike took up scuba diving as a hobby and became a passionate underwater photographer, winning many awards. His passion for diving led to the next big opportunity. Nicolas Roeg, director of films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth, invited Mike to the Seychelles to film underwater scenes in his new movie Castaway, starring Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe.

At this point, Mike had no experience of underwater cinematography on a big-budget movie, but armed with his BBC training he embarked upon the next chapter of his life. Since then, he has shot underwater scenes for over 100 feature films all over the world, rock videos for countless bands, and commercials for companies as diverse as Shell and Smirnoff. You start to realize the magnitude of his success when he pulls out his phone to show you something audio-related, and his pictures include hundreds of him sitting beside high-profile movie stars on locations all over the world.

Mike filming Eva Green while Venice sinks for James Bond’s Casino Royale

With his film career taking off, Mike was finally able to fully indulge his audiophile passion and he set about assembling an exotic high-end audio system featuring a Kuzma turntable, Dan D’Agostino amplification, and Wilson loudspeakers.

Chasing the Dragon, the record label owned and operated by Mike and Françoise, came about purely by chance. While holidaying in Italy, they stumbled across a wonderful musical ensemble playing Vivaldi in a nearby church. Mike was so impressed with their playing that he asked to record them purely for fun. He is a huge fan of the old Decca recordings of the 1950s, many of which were recorded using a “Decca Tree,” an array of three Neumann M50 microphones capturing left, center, and right information to form a cohesive stereo image. The tree nomenclature came about because when the three microphones were set up on a single upright stand, the structure resembled a tree. Mike purchased some Neumann M50 valve omnidirectional microphones and recorded the ensemble in a nearby monastery. At the time, this recording was only intended for the players themselves, but a friend heard the results and asked Mike to make some further recordings to create a demo CD. Chasing the Dragon was born.

Mike adjusts his main stereo pair—the devil is in the details

As Mike explained, most classical recordings are made in studios that are isolated from the sounds of passing traffic and airplanes. The problem is that such recordings can sometimes sound a little acoustically dead. They often require artificial reverberation, which of course compromises fidelity. Mike realized that if he recorded in a church, he would have a natural acoustic space with the level of reverberation determined by careful microphone placement. Put the microphones too close to the instruments and you might as well be in a recording studio; place them too far away and you’ll be in a swimming pool. Get it just right and you’ll end up with a supremely natural-sounding recording. As a result, quite a few of the early Chasing the Dragon recordings were made in churches. Mike isn’t the only producer to recognize the benefits of this approach—think of the Cowboy Junkies’ The Trinity Session album, which was recorded by the legendary Peter J. Moore.

Chasing the DragonAn early Chasing the Dragon recording from London’s Church of St-Martin-in-the-Fields

At this stage, Mike was releasing his recordings on CD and download, but given his preference for analog replay, he decided to explore an old technique for producing the best-quality vinyl records: direct cutting. In essence, direct cutting removes an entire stage from the recording process by cutting a record lacquer live during a performance. This has big benefits sonically because it means that records are not being cut from an analog master tape; instead the cutting head is driven by a direct feed from the mixing desk in the studio. This isn’t a popular method of recording because it means no editing is possible. If a wrong note is played, the lacquer is useless and the orchestra must start all over again.

Chasing the DragonDirect cutting on the Neumann lathe

Mike believes that the one-shot nature of this process tends to make the performance more intense due to the heightened emotion in the room. The process does require a recording studio though, because no church has access to a cutting lathe. The first record Mike made using this process was Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, performed by his favored Venetian ensemble, Interpreti Veneziani, and recorded at Air Studios in London. This became the first Chasing the Dragon direct-cut LP, and it was released to a rapturous reception on vinyl, digital download in double-DSD and 24-bit/192kHz WAV formats, CD, and reel-to-reel tape.

The Four SeasonsThe sublime Chasing the Dragon recording of The Four Seasons

I’m a huge fan of The Four Seasons; it’s probably my favorite piece of classical music ever. For decades I considered the finest version of this work to be the L’Oiseau-Lyre recording by the Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood. But after hearing only a few bars of the Chasing the Dragon recording, I realized that my old favorite had been toppled.

One vital element that makes Chasing the Dragon recordings unique is the use of an optimized signal path for each release format. For vinyl, the label uses direct cutting. The digital download is captured on high-end 24/192 PCM or double-DSD Tascam recorders driven straight off the mixing desk, while reel-to-reel releases are recorded directly to two-inch analog tape as a multi-track recording and then mixed down to two-track reel-to-reel tape. Specific vintage (read expensive!) microphones are chosen and placed with the utmost precision and care.

StuderA Studer A820 two-track reel-to-reel used as a master recorder or for mixdown, one of a selection of exotic recorders owned by Chasing the Dragon

For all Chasing the Dragon recordings, Mike replaces the common pro-grade interconnects, microphone cables, and mains leads found in studios with ultra-high-end Nordost cables—the cabling for his main stereo microphone pair alone costs £90,000 (all prices in GBP). Attention to cabling is not common practice in the commercial recording world and so his insistence on high-quality interconnect and mains cables has often been treated with a degree of scepticism by fellow engineers—until they hear the results.

NordostThis must be what a million quid’s worth of Nordost looks like

The next recording Mike undertook was Big Band Spectacular featuring the Syd Lawrence Orchestra. This double album is an audiophile delight because it features the same session on both discs. The first disc is a direct-cut recording of the session, while the second disc is produced conventionally from a 24-track two-inch master that was mixed down to half-inch two-channel tape at 30 inches per second. Direct comparison between the direct-cut and tape versions is thus possible and leaves one in no doubt that Mike is right—direct cutting provides a far greater “jump factor” and transparency than conventional recording methods. This is a magnificent record of superb jazz standards by Glenn Miller and the like. It’s so close to being in a live jazz club that I can practically smell the cigarette smoke.

Big Band SpectacularThe magnificent Big Band Spectacular album

For monitoring purposes, Mike uses a range of different loudspeakers including ATC SCM150s, which he loves for their honesty, sublime midrange, and speed. For near-field monitoring, he favours ATC SCM25s, while at Air Studios he uses the custom-built Dynaudio control room main monitors with six 15″ woofers located above the main control window. For monitoring the Tascam digital recorders, Mike uses Sennheiser’s HD 800 S headphones. I concur; these are the best headphones I have ever heard.

RhiannonThe author’s daughter, Rhiannon, a songwriter and singer, monitoring the signal to the digital recorders at Air Studios on Sennheiser HD 800 S headphones

Chasing the Dragon now has over 20 recordings in its catalog, encompassing classical, jazz, and singer-songwriter repertoire. The firm sells to customers all over the world and to select hi-fi shops globally. None of these recordings are available on streaming services because they are simply so costly to make that sales of downloads, vinyl, and reel-to-reel are the only economically viable distribution methods. Prices are reasonable though with downloads starting at £30 and LPs starting at £50.

A session at Air Studios

So that I could learn more about the direct-cutting process and the way that Chasing the Dragon records in the studio, Mike invited me to join him at the world-famous Air Studios for the recording of his most recent release, Vivaldi in London.

BuildingThe legendary Air Studios, London

As a Beatles fan and music lover, it was an enormous thrill to come to the converted church that is Lyndhurst Hall, Air Studios. To any music fan, this is holy ground. The studio was built by Beatles producer George Martin after Air Studios Montserrat closed following a freak storm. The huge hexagonal hall has extraordinary musical properties, which means this is one of only a handful of studios in the world with full orchestral recording capabilities. Chasing the Dragon had booked into the larger of the two studios—the Air Hall—because Coldplay was recording in the smaller Studio 2.

Air Hall Studio 1—Air Hall

I confess to being a studio groupie. There’s just something so incredibly cool about these places, all soft low-key lighting and high-tech gear. But it’s more than that, much more. This is where artists come to cast their creative legacy in plastic, silicon, or ferrous oxide. It’s in places like this that some of the most cherished and celebrated artistic endeavors in the history of mankind are laid down.

There’s magic to be found here. It’s as if the voices and musical notes of everyone who has gone before are etched into the structure of the building. The products of studios like this travel across the entire globe forming the soundtrack to people’s lives and bringing joy to billions.

Jonathan The author at the Neve mixing desk in the control room at Air—I thought my Airbus A320 had a lot of buttons!

By the time we arrived at Air Studios, the Interpreti Veneziani ensemble was already setting up and Mike’s microphones had been positioned around the performers, linked by expensive Nordost cabling to the superb Neve 88R mixing desk. Introduced in 2001, the 88R is perhaps the finest analog mixing desk ever made.

MicrophonesTelefunken ELA M 251 microphones with Jecklin Disc at Air Studios

Mike’s favoured main stereo microphone pair on this record comprised two omnidirectional valve Telefunken ELA M 251 microphones, still widely regarded as perhaps the finest vocal and acoustic microphones in history. The pair were mounted high up 18″ apart and separated by a Jecklin disc. This 14″ fur-covered disc casts an acoustic shadow between the two mikes to prevent sounds from the left above 1000Hz from bleeding into the microphone on the right, and vice versa. This considerably improves the precision of instrumental location, rather than having the sound bleeding across both omnidirectional microphones.

StuderThe magnificent Studer A80 VU Mk IV

Reel-to-reelReel-to-reel and stunning engineering

For the reel-to-reel release, Mike had brought in his modified Studer A80 eight-track reel-to-reel recorder, which was set up in the main control room behind the Neve mixing desk. This machine is physically imposing with its rows of VU meters and giant tape heads. Don’t even ask about the cost of the one-inch tapes it uses.

TascamTwo Tascam master recorders perform digital duties

Also in the control room were a pair of high-end Tascam digital recorders recording in double DSD and 24/192 PCM. These were taking a two-channel feed off the Neve and would encode digital downloads for the Chasing the Dragon website.

NeumannThe Neumann VMS 80 cutting lathe

The vinyl cutting operation was located in a completely separate area. A quieter environment is vital when cutting vinyl as the cutting head will vibrate in sympathy with noisy surroundings. Here John Webber was monitoring the sound through a set of ATC SCM150 loudspeakers and controlling the cutting of the pristine lacquer. The cutting lathe used was a specially modified Neumann VMS 80. This is a very sophisticated cutting lathe, even though it is a couple of decades old, because it was the last model that Neumann produced.

DeskJohn Webber monitoring the cutting feed on ATC’s SCM150 loudspeakers

Cutting lacquer in real time to live performance is a stressful job, because one is constantly trying to balance cutting level to optimize dynamics without exceeding the limitations of the record groove. Cut too loud, and the grooves will end up too wide, reducing the duration of the side and running the risk of burning out the cutting head. Cut too quiet, and background noise inherent in vinyl playback becomes intrusive. It’s a delicate balance requiring a great deal of experience and skill.

Other microphones being used at the session were the Neumann U67 for a close stereo pair while the harpsichord and double bass were served by AKG C212s. It is worth noting Mike’s strong preference for valve microphones. He believes they deliver a sweeter sound compared to transistor types. Chasing the Dragon’s recording of Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet with the Locrian Ensemble includes some fascinating comparisons between valve and transistor microphones. When I listened to them, my preference was clearly for valve microphones despite my love of transistor-based hi-fi amplifiers.

NevenSenior engineer Jake Jackson helming the Neve desk

Our day in the studio slipped by in a blur of gorgeously played Vivaldi and a whole lot of amusing banter. While there, I met the delightful Neville Roberts, a fellow audio scribe who is also a friend of Mike Valentine. The atmosphere in the studio was very jovial between takes and Mike is a born raconteur with a highly developed wit, but everyone was extremely focused as soon as the music started and the tape started rolling.

GroupMike Valentine discussing microphone placement between takes with the author’s daughter, Rhiannon, fellow scribe Neville Roberts, and assistant producer Adriano Pennetti

Nowadays, many classical recordings are made by recording small snippets of a piece, perhaps even just a couple of bars, then stopping, then perhaps playing the same two bars again. Pieces are stitched together from small sections, rather than recording an entire movement in one take, which is what Chasing the Dragon does. Mike says the conventional approach bores musicians who lose the flow and emotion of the piece, which is another reason why he chooses to record the way he does.

Jonathan GorseYours truly at the helm of proceedings

My overriding impression from an extraordinary day spent at Air Studios was the extreme care Mike and his team take over each recording. It’s painstaking work and he’s keen to emphasize that listening is vitally important. In the middle of the recording sessions for his España album, he decided to reposition the microphone on the cello by just two inches, and it made a very significant difference to the sound.

Antonio VivaldiEngineer Jake Jackson and Françoise Valentine celebrate another successful take

Shortly after the session, I was sent a 24/192 WAV file of the Vivaldi in London recordings from the session. These sounded outstanding when I played them on my Naim NDX2 streamer, better than 99 percent of the recorded music I have ever heard. This £6000 streaming DAC is a superb performer, and because the files were 24/192 WAV and being played from a local NAS, this is about as good as digital gets.

A few days after that, Mike turned up with vinyl test pressings from the session and I was genuinely surprised to hear them sounding even better than the digital version. The NDX2 blows replay via a laptop or many competing streamers into the weeds. Far from being an analog crusader, I’m a huge enthusiast of streaming. Most of my listening is on the NDX2, so I wasn’t expecting the vinyl to trounce the digital copy quite so easily.

For vinyl replay, I use a Michell GyroDec with SME Series IV tonearm and an Audio-Technica AT-ART20 cartridge into a Trichord Dino phono stage with some very clever power supply topology. At around £12,000, this vinyl front end is almost double the price of my Naim streamer, but it’s a long way from the most expensive turntable in the world. The vinyl sounded more transparent, had more jump factor on the lead violin, and captured the hall ambience slightly better than the digital files did. It just sounded slightly closer to the sound I had heard in the hall during the recording on the day, and for once I was there!

TurntableA formidable combination: Michell GyroDec with SME Series IV and Audio-Technica AT-ART20

I was so astonished by this revelation that I couldn’t help asking Mike about it as he sat beside me listening. His face beamed into a smile as he retorted: “Nobody has ever made a cow from a beef burger.” When you think about it, this is exactly what digital attempts to do. Classical musical instruments produce a continuous sound wave that is captured by direct cutting on vinyl or on analog tape without the need for A-to-D and D-to-A conversion.

Four decades into the digital revolution, such conversion is still problematic, even with the very best technology and methods that digital has to offer. It’s worth noting, however, that what we are comparing here is an audiophile recording where the signal paths have been optimized for digital and analog distribution. Vinyl records are very often cut from digital masters. I believe those will always be inferior to digitally replayed versions. But the inescapable conclusion here is that when done right and recorded optimally with an all-analog signal path and direct cutting, analog is still the superior technology.

A few weeks later, Mike arrived at my house with the finished vinyl production pressings and these were slightly better again than the test pressings, with a slightly fuller bottom end and richer sound. The difference was smaller than it had been between analog and digital, but it was still evident.

VivaldiFinal production version of the Vivaldi in London recording

Vinyl isn’t even the ultimate format. In Mike’s view, his reel-to-reel tapes are the definitive way to enjoy Chasing the Dragon’s exquisite recordings, and he cites these as superior even to the vinyl issues. I guess this goes some way to explaining why reel-to-reel is held in such high esteem by some reviewers and enthusiasts. Despite my passion for audio excellence, though, I don’t have the financial resources to begin collecting music on yet another music format—not if I want to stay married.

TapeThe finest music format ever made?

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—live

Chasing the Dragon has bold plans to stage the Beethoven Ninth symphony in a Turkish amphitheatre next year (shades of Pink Floyd!). As part of the preparation for this, they elected to put on a performance of the Ninth in London on the 200th anniversary of its first premiere. I was invited to attend this prestigious concert at Cadogan Hall in the spring of 2024. Located in Chelsea just off fashionable Sloane Square, the venue started life as a Christian Science Church in 1907, but was repurposed as a concert hall in 2004. Mike was planning to record an archive copy of this performance. As the work is scored for full orchestra, choir, and four solo vocalists, it necessitated the purchase of yet more vintage and exotic microphones. Mike informed me that he was spending more than £100,000 just on microphones for the concert.

BeethovenA glorious concert demands a glorious venue

I heard the Ninth performed at Birmingham Conservatoire in 1989 when my then-girlfriend was playing viola and a good friend was playing trumpet—it left me in tears. I’m pleased to say that this performance was every bit as stirring. The Ode to Joy section in particular was utterly mesmerizing. I closed my eyes several times during the concert and imagined I was listening to the world’s best hi-fi system, but no hi-fi system ever sounded like this with dynamics off the scale and a soundstage 200′ wide and 70′ deep.

BeethovenThe superb orchestra delivered a rousing performance

I’m hoping to hear this archive recording at some point in the future, just to see how much of that immense power and scale Mike managed to capture. It might just be musically his biggest challenge yet, but I can’t think of any recording engineer in the world with a better chance of pulling it off.

BeethovenI can’t think of any recording engineer in the world with a better chance of pulling off a recording of the immortal Ninth

In case you’re wondering if the Chasing the Dragon records justify my obvious enthusiasm, here’s a unique opportunity to satisfy your curiosity. Mike has kindly offered to make two free music downloads available to SoundStage! readers. You can find them here. So, download a recording, stream it to your audio system, turn the volume up to the kind of levels you’d hear from instruments live in the room, and prepare to have your socks blown off!

This might just be the very best audiophile record label on earth. The problem with many audiophile labels is that the music itself is so often lacking. We’ve all had our fill of audiophile dreck that just happens to be well-recorded. Chasing the Dragon isn’t like this; they record some of the most popular classical, jazz, and singer-songwriter pieces in the world, so you’re bound to find several albums to your taste in their catalog.

SwissAfter meeting Mike, you start to wonder if you have chosen the wrong career

Chasing the Dragon is a passion project, and it shows in every note. In these recordings, you’ll hear uncompressed dynamics that defy belief and sublime performances that stir the soul. Your hi-fi system will sound better than you ever thought possible. Top-flight music and top-flight musicianship, captured by probably the finest recording engineer in the world. It doesn’t get better than this.

Jonathan Gorse
Senior Contributor, SoundStage!

Jonathan’s favorite Chasing the Dragon recordings:

  • Vivaldi’s Four Seasons
  • Vivaldi in London
  • España
  • Eleanor McEvoy: Forgotten Dreams
  • Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade
  • Big Band Spectacular

Associated Equipment

  • Turntable: Michell GyroDec turntable with SME Series IV tonearm and Audio-Technica ART-20 cartridge.
  • Phono preamplifiers: Trichord Research Dino Mk 3 with Never Connected Dino+ power supply; PS Audio Stellar.
  • Streaming DAC: Naim Audio NDX2, Naim NDX.
  • CD player: Naim CDI.
  • Preamplifier: Naim NAC 82.
  • Power amplifier: Naim NAP 250.
  • Power supplies: Naim HiCap.
  • Loudspeakers: ATC SCM40.
  • Power: Dedicated 100A mains spur feeding two Graham’s medical grade six gang power blocks. Naim Hydra, Naim Powerline Lite
  • Cabling: Chord Company Sarum T loudspeaker cables, Naim NAC A5 loudspeaker cables, Naim interconnects on all Naim amplification, Chord Co. Sarum T Super ARAY XLR, Chord Co. SignatureX Tuned ARAY DIN-RCA, Chord Co. SignatureX RCA-XLR, Chord Co. EpicX ARAY RCA. Chord Co. Chameleon interconnects for phono stages, QED interconnects for secondary sources.

Chasing the Dragon Audiophile Recordings

For sales contact Françoise on

Phone: +0044 (0)7880 792331