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HFR Feature Article

 High Fidelity Review Feature:
 Brothers in Arms 20th Anniversary Edition
 High-Resolution Mixing in 5.1 — the Chuck Ainlay Way ~ Part One

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Chuck Ainlay (left) and Mark Knopfler (right) at British Grove Studios.
Introduction

Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers In Arms’ needs no introduction. It was arguably the Compact Disc’s ‘killer-app’ album which almost single-handedly launched the new digital format over two decades ago into households across the world, not to mention bringing digital recording technology into studios. Two decades later at Mark Knopfler’s own recording facility at British Grove Studios, the album gets the high-resolution surround-sound treatment we’ve all waited for. Renowned audio engineer, Chuck Ainlay — known to some as “Mr Digital” — explains to High Fidelity Review’s Martin Fendt how he remixed this project to DVD-Audio and SACD formats.

Before going into all the ‘nitty-gritty’, it is worth noting that the honour of following in Neil Dorfsman’s footsteps to remix Dire Straits ‘Brothers In Arms’ (BIA) onto high resolution DVD-Audio and SACD came to Chuck Ainlay mainly by circumstance, since he has been the default producer and recording engineer for all the recent Mark Knopfler solo albums as well as the last couple of Dire Straits ones — ‘On Every Street’ and the live album ‘On the Night’. Once he received the call and agreed to take on the project, the most pressing task was to actually locate the original master tapes — which as luck would have it, were scattered far and wide.

Ainlay recalls: “When we started out with the search for the tapes, we assumed that for an album of that magnitude these things would be highly protected in a vault and everyone would know precisely where all the assets were. But as it turned out, some of the reels were in LA, some were in Europe in the Mercury vault, and some were found in Mark’s own vault. In fact I’d been asked to come over to British Grove Studios in London a couple of times to mix the album, only to realise that we didn’t have all the assets we needed. It was not until the second week of January 2005, when I went through all the notation, that I was pretty certain we had everything necessary to mix the album.

Transferring from 16-bit DASH Format

It should be noted that the original transfers were recorded digitally to the then new and pioneering Sony 16-bit 44.1kHz DASH format, which at the time only supported 24-tracks. Ainlay also faced the fact that pre-emphasis had been applied to the recordings on the DASH tapes. In essence, this was intended to help reduce PCM quantisation noise by basically boosting the high-end on record, and then decreasing it again, with the inverse slope to flatten the response back out on playback. Even today, the problem is there is no practical way to strip the emphasis whilst staying in the digital domain. In the end, the solution Ainlay came-up with was to use the machine’s analogue-outs which would output with the frequency response re-corrected on playback. Moreover, to achieve the best possible sound quality, the team used the latest model of Sony DASH machine they could lay their hands on: the 3348HR which used much better converters than those of the original 3324.

The next stage was to directly feed the discrete multi-track output, along with the 24-track analogue slaves, into Apogee 16X converters and save everything onto hard disc using Steinberg’s latest Nuendo software running at 96kHz and 24-bit. The digital-audio-workstation (DAW) PC used was supplied by AMD and was equipped with dual Opteron 64-bit processors. While this process was underway, everything was locked to time-code to make sure it was all perfectly synchronised.

Subsequently Ainlay A/B compared the captured tracks with the original master to make certain that the tracks he was using corresponded to the ones used on the original production. “This stage was necessary because in many cases there was no documentation on the tape boxes, or in some cases, the track sheets were missing altogether,” he notes. “I just had to do much of the checking by ear to make sure that every element was present and correct. It was quite a ‘needle in a haystack’ search to try and find all the relevant masters, and so it was therefore a somewhat tedious process just to get to the stage where we could say that we had everything, and were in a position to actually mix the record.

Analogue Mixdown

The digital tracking then came directly out of the DAW via 48 discrete channels of Apogee 16X D-to-A conversion and mixing was subsequently performed on a Neve 88R console. In short, Ainlay was able to bus-out the appropriate tracks all individually from Nuendo and directly into the Neve console. Moreover, there were additional channel outputs from Nuendo comprising a complementary five-channel surround-effects mix which was created in Nuendo , and which he could then bring up on the console to mix in together with all the other analogue and digital effects on the Neve. SSL’s new surround compressor was used on the Neve’s mix buss insert, before the master fader output feeding the mixdown machine.

The resultant 5.1 mixdown — which did not involve any analogue tape intermediate stage — was then saved to another Nuendo system via a set of Prism A-to-D converters, which was once again performed at 96kHz. Finally, when all of that was complete, the mix went to Bob Ludwig at Gateway Mastering where he performed the final mastering, EQ and compression.

I recall spending about 12 days actually mixing the album at British Grove Studios in London,” says Ainlay. “There are nine songs, so it was not a long project in that respect, and I pretty much mixed one song each day. However, adding in the amount of time it took to complete all the transfers, we are probably looking at 20-25 days to produce the entire album.

Analogue versus Digital “In the Box”

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Rupert Coulson assisting with the remix of Dire Straits’ ‘Brothers in Arms’.
Some people naturally question why — given all the high-resolution digital technology available today — did BIA’s 24-bit, 48 channel tracking actually come out of the digital domain and be mixed in analogue before going back into digital again? Ainlay explains: “In essence, it should be appreciated that to accurately model a compressor or an equaliser digitally would have taken huge amounts of horsepower from the computer, especially if you are talking lots of channels of EQ like we require when we are mixing a record — practically everything has to have an equaliser on it and some degree of compression associated with it. In short, to try and do all that ‘inside the box’ — with EQs and compressors which really model the analogue equivalent — is still something which is not quite possible, even with today’s massive computers.

He adds: “Of course there are Nuendo plug-ins which I do find particularly useful, but I still find to a large degree that I just can’t realise the same sort of high-quality result from a digital equaliser unless I was able to do it on some highly oversampled one. However, once again, I stress that it eats up so much horsepower that I can only use it on a few channels. So for these reasons I still prefer to mix on an analogue console for the sonics as well as the ergonomics. Therefore my approach is still basically a hybrid one — until things progress further. Granted, things are getting better, but we are still not quite there yet.

He points out that Steinberg’s most recent Nuendo release [used on ‘Brothers in Arms’] already benefits from the new Opteron Dual core processors which provides the computer with nearly twice the power. Looking ahead, he hopes that future versions of Nuendo like Cakewalk’s Sonar 5 will be written with native 64-bit floating-point engines [rather than the 32-bit of today’s applications] to take full advantage of 64-bit operating systems and processors. “Only when this does eventually happen, might we get to the point where I can actually mix entirely ‘in the box’ with results as good — or better than — I can presently only achieve in the analogue domain on a quality console such as the Neve 88R.

As an aside, readers will certainly be intrigued to know that this “hybrid” and arguably convoluted D-to-A-to-D-to-A-to-D signal routing, by coincidence, actually mirrors what Neil Dorfsman undertook in 1985 with the original stereo album. The main ‘architectural’ difference when comparing the two respective approaches being the intermediate tracking into Nuendo at 24-bit 96kHz resolution. “The original album, which I consider to be a masterpiece, was mixed in a SSL4000 analogue console from the analogue outputs of the DASH 3324,” says Ainlay. “However, I would still consider that to be an ‘all-digital’ album. To be honest, at the time, there was no way of doing a pure DDD album, so the analogue stage of mixing through a console was never differentiated on the CD jewelbox. Anyway, apart from a few analogue slave reels, there was never any analogue tape storage stage where you would ‘lose’ it, so to speak.

 •  Part Two - Preserving the Original Intent... DVD-Audio or SACD?

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