The making of "Dr Chesky's Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show!"
I worked side-by-side with David Chesky on dozens of Chesky Records sessions in the 1990s to the early 2000s, so I know firsthand how obsessed he is about making great sounding recordings. Great sound is, like most things in audio, purely subjective, so before we go any further I'll try to define Chesky's approach. Simply put, he wants to faithfully record the true sound of vocalists and instruments.
That type of sound is rarely heard on commercially released rock or jazz cassettes, 8-tracks, LPs, CDs, SACDs, DVD-As, or high-resolution downloads. Most albums are equalized, dynamically compressed, processed, overdubbed, multitracked and close-miked. There's nothing wrong with any of that, and lots of great music has been recorded that way, but those recordings can't sound truly realistic. They were designed to sound "good," or commercial, or whatever the producers or artists wanted them to sound like. Realistic is the least likely objective.
Take, for example, any commercial recording with a singer and a band. In real life and 100% unplugged -- there's no way you'd ever hear the singer -- he or she would be drowned out by the band. It would be just as hard to get a balance with acoustic guitars and drums, unless all of the guitars were boosted and compressed in the mix. Everything gets recorded to separate tracks in acoustically dead studios, and reverberation is added in the mix, usually from digital reverb units to create a sense of space. Thanks to the skills of the engineers and producers we accept the illusion of the whole band playing together, but some of the musicians may have never met each other, or even played or sang in tune. Their music was pitch-corrected, processed, edited, assembled and manufactured, and while the end result might be great it probably bears little relationship to the true sound of the band. There's not a lot of there there. David Chesky was never interested in making those kinds of recordings; there's already plenty to choose from.
So starting in 1988 David and his brother Norman Chesky set out to make recordings that preserved as much of the live-in-the studio sound (with no overdubbing) of the original event as possible. By the mid 1990s they had stopped recording in studios, and favored churches for their livelier acoustics. They knew a lot of the best musicians in New York, and many played on Chesky sessions.
Starting last year David Chesky, engineer Nicholas Prout and assistant engineer Alex Sterling took the sound to the next level, with binaural recording techniques. No matter how large or small the band all of the instruments and singers are recorded "live" with just one pair of mikes mounted in the ears of a "dummy" head (a Bruel & Kjaer 4100D), which was connected to a MSB Technology 384-kHz/32-bit analog-to-digital converter and a hard drive recorder. I went to most of the binaural sessions and monitored the sound with a variety of headphones, including UE Reference Monitors and Jerry Harvey JH-3A IEMs; and Hifiman HE-500, Audeze LCD-2 (revised), LCD-3, and Audio Technica ATH-M50 full-size headphones. The Dr. Chesky recordings can sound great over speakers, but you get more of the full-blown, you-are-there realism with headphones. You hear exactly what the B & K binaural mikes heard. That's so cool!
The first "Dr. Chesky's Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show!" sessions were recorded at the Hirsch Center (the former St. Elias Church) in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in February of this year. The 130 year old building is run down, but the High Victorian Gothic cathedral's plastered walls and ornate wood trimmings yielded ravishing acoustics. Chesky brought in a parade of musicians: everything from high-energy electric grooves to New Orleans jazz, acoustic folk, and chamber groups. The musicians all took to recording to the B & K head with ease, and didn't miss playing directly to an individual mike. They came to see the head as a stand-in for the audiophiles who would eventually hear these recordings.
The next series of recordings were held at The Chesky crew recorded Bach's "Toccata and Fugue" on the Church's world-class organ (built in 1965 by the M.P. Moller Company, and restored in 2000).
Inspired by 4th & 5th century early Christian basilicas in Ravenna, Italy, the Church is 284 feet long, 121 feet wide, and 114 feet to the highest point of the towers, which are 38 feet square. The acoustics of this 127 year old building are amazing, and have even longer reverberation tails than the Hirsch Center's. The crew recorded a choir singing Mozart's "Ave verum," and you can really hear the voices filling that huge space.