A Conversation With David Chesky
Editors Note: Sometimes a little chaos is a good thing.
Having been mightily impressed with David Chesky's efforts over the years, I thought my trip to New York would be a good time to get to know him a little better. Steve Guttenberg set up a meeting at Dave's office late one afternoon, and we commenced an enthusiastic ramble through each other's head. Monk mighta called it an ugly beauty dialog.
Big thanks to Steve for recording and writing up the conversation. I took the pix and chopped them up.
Welcome to New York!
Tyll Hertsens: I am a pretty abstract thinker. I don't know a lot about you, but the little I do know suggests that you have significant familiarity with thinking about things in abstract ways. I want you to speak in those terms, in abstract terms now.
I find it interesting that humans have evolved in a way that we can shut our eyes, but we can't shut our ears. We can look at something, and see particular and separate things, and the distances between stuff. But when we hear sound it feels subjective, it feels like everything is united in a soundscape. It's like with sight you experience the difference between things, but with hearing you're experiencing the connection between things. What do you think?
David Chesky: I agree ... totally. Next question.
TH: (Laughs) What does sound mean to you?
DC: Let's break it down, hearing is a defense mechanism, and we auto-locate 360 degrees of sound with two ears. If I'm outside and I hear a twig break 100 meters to the left, I know something is there. The localization cues are not as precise directly in front or right behind me, and each one of us hears a little differently because our ear shapes are different, but our brains compensate to a degree. When we're at a concert we 'hear' with our eyes and our ears. The visual input overrides the auditory, and the best proof of that can be seen on the 'McGurk Effect' video on YouTube.
TH: When you were younger did you feel sound was more important to you than it was to other people? When I listen to the birds in the morning it has an effect on me ... like music.
DC: Let's separate sound and music. The natural order in the world of sound is chaos. The composer rejects all the chaos, organizes and puts order to it and creates music. It's how you look at it, but when music gets so abstract it sounds like chaos again. Maybe in 100 years music will have thousands of layers of noises and natural sounds, or sounds created solely by computers, and that will be the music. In the future they will look at our music like we see cave paintings.
TH: My dad would say there's art and then there's craft, and they're two different things. Art is something that speaks of its own self, and craft is making something that's functional and/or beautiful. Can you tell me something about art?
DC: I think high-end audio designers are artists, but they don't use paint, they use a soldering iron or create a new circuit. That's why I love high-end audio, the real innovators aren't motivated by money, they don't care about being the richest or biggest, no, they just want to make the best. If you walk up to a speaker designer and tell him 'You make the best speakers,' his day is made.
TH: Okay ... what about you? When you're making a recording, what are you striving for?
DC: It's a magician's trick, the sound is coming out of two speakers or a pair of headphones, and I'm trying to recreate the event. We started off doing Blumlein recordings with an AKG C-24 mike, and we did a lot of those, and then we went the Soundfield Technology route, now we're doing Binaural+ recordings. It can do space and depth better than other microphone techniques.
On the new 'Dr. Chesky' album you can hear me walk from 30 feet away and then whisper directly into your left ear. With other mikes my voice would just get louder and louder as I approached, but binaural mikes 'hear' more like we hear. With most recordings it's like looking through a window, when I listen to the organ tracks on that binaural album I'm in the church and I hear sound from all around me. I'm there.
TH: I agree, that first organ chord was almost overwhelming, it was like being dipped in Bach chocolate. It was unbelievably intense!
Steve Guttenberg: You feel like your head is inside the space of the recording venue.
TH: Yeah, it's almost like your head is being pushed around by the vibrations of what's going on. Spectacular sound!
DC: When I hear 5.1 surround over speakers I feel like I'm in a sonic hula-hoop. With binaural there's a density of depth to the sound, and there's a vertical dimension to the sound. Sometimes at the session when someone onstage speaks and I'm in the control room with headphones on, I think they're behind me, it sounds that realistic. That happens all the time.
TH: I agree, there's a spatial coherence to the sound. It sounds organic. Dr. Edgar Choueiri works with you and he's developing a technology to deliver a 3D sound experience over two speakers. I went to his website to check it out, and I was shocked how three-dimensional it was ... even over the cheap little USB speakers I use with my laptop!
DC: Dr. Choueiri developed those BACCH (Band-Assembled Crosstalk Cancellation Hierarchy) filters for stereo speakers, and they can make a three-dimensional soundfield with binaural recordings. They're not part of our recordings---he's working with hardware companies. His filters can put sound directly behind you, from two speakers!
At that point David's brother and business partner Norman Chesky walked into David's office.
Norman Chesky: Do you want to interview me?
TH: Sure, how would you characterize the difference between you and your brother?
NC: We each have our different strengths, David makes the cookies, then I have to figure out how to sell the cookies. David makes sure the HDtracks' download manager is working well, and he watches over the quality control, and I'm getting the whole music community and the labels onboard with HDtracks. We locked up Universal Music, then the Warner Music Group, EMI, and right now we're finalizing a deal with Sony Music.
TH: Are you an artist?
NC: Absolutely, I'm a musician, I play the Jewish piano -- the cash register!
NC: Bye guys!
TH: Bye Norm. So David, I want to talk to you more about your music ... not that I understand it.
DC: That's because it's ballet music...