Sonicraft A2DX Lab: Ultimate Multitrack Analog to Digital Transfers
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In February of 2006, David Weiss interviewed Sonicraft's Steve Puntolillo for TapeOp. Here are some excerpts from the interview entitled "Steve Puntolillo and His Sonicraft" as published in the July 2007 issue:

"If the good men and women of NASA who put the Hubble Telescope together were ever to visit Sonicraft in Freehold, New Jersey, they just may come away ashamed of the shoddy work they'd done. That's because there resides the Sonicraft A2DX (analog-to-digital transfer) lab, built to astonishing specs and capable of what creator Steve Puntolillo calls the 'ultimate a/d analog-to-digital transfer'. Originally simply a sound maven with extra-sharp ears, Puntolillo became a man who realized that the path to incredible digital audio begins with incredible analog capabilities. Thus began the quest for an obsessive method to transfer that sound from the realm of tape to the realm of bits and sample rates.

 

"DW: What was the pivotal event in starting you on the path of audio engineering?

"SP: I heard playback in a studio control room in, I'd guess it was 1968. That was a totally mind-blowing experience for me because I'd never heard what music could sound like straight off tape on a really good monitoring system before. I was like, 'It could sound like that ?!?'

"DW: And what did it actually sound like?

"SP: Like nothing I'd ever heard before. I'd only had basic record turntables until then, so to hear the sound of a control room - I just couldn't believe my ears. I was hooked. My primary reason for being in recording studios up to that point was playing drums in them, but once I heard that playback, the music playback system became very important to me. I started trying to build my own speakers, upgrading what I had to listen on, and what began to take over was the whole process of recording, playback and listening to music. It got to the point where it became as important to me to see how you could get a recording and capture that content as it was to play the music itself. That was really a big shift for me.

I didn't have a lot of money at the time, so if I wanted to learn how a piece of audio gear worked I would buy it, hook it up, experiment with it, and then I would sell it so I could buy the next piece. It was an empirical process to get from, 'What is this stuff? How does it connect and interact?' to the point where I was helping people to wire their studios together. Later I was working with a company called Audiotechniques, which at the time was NYC's premier pro audio dealership, and I got to the point where I was specing out entire recording studios. Eventually I started a studio with some friends. I moved on from that, but it was a good engineering experience, with bands moving in and out constantly.

"DW: Didn't you drop out of audio engineering entirely for a while?

"SP: I was a little bit burned out after I got out of the studio. The LinnDrum came out and then MTV and I said, 'I don't really know if I want to do this.' You could see where MTV took music, and the LinnDrum was the start, to me, of programmed music. I decided to do something else entirely, and I got out of pro audio and into computers, where I ramped up really, really quickly and started building graphics systems. Eventually, I did sales, marketing and PR for a computer graphics software company. But, after some pretty decent success with all that, I did an executive bailout, because I wanted to go back into audio. While I was doing all this computing, great sound and listening to music had become my hobby. In this room (now the Sonicraft studio) were a pair of Urei 813 monitors, some couches, and an outrageous listening environment. It was my no-stress zone.

But that also started an inquiry: With the advent of audio CDs, there was no excuse, in my mind, why the sound of a recording shouldn't be the same as it was in the control room. Before that, vinyl intrinsically changed the sound of the recording - I don't care who mastered it, vinyl sounds different from tape playback. They're just not the same, and I prefer tape playback. With CDs, they're transferring the masters right onto CD, I should hear just what the control room engineer heard, but a lot of times in my 'control room' environment, CDs sounded dead, or cloudy, or grainy and nasty. This started a search for me: I had to learn all about digital audio to find out why some CDs sounded good and others didn't.

"DW: That's a deep question.

"SP: Yeah! This was in 1996 or so, and a huge help was Bob Katz' Digital Domain website ( www.digido.com ). I started to say, 'I don't like the way these CDs sound, so I want to fix them.' So I started capturing CDs back into the computer to remaster them so they'd be the way I wanted them. The other thing I did was I went out and found an old Ampex tape machine so I could get some of my old tapes and mixes onto CD. So I had this little mastering chain, a tape machine and a computer running digital audio, and some of my friends that were still in the audio or media business started saying, 'Can you do this or that?' They started bringing me work, and before I know it I'm archiving all the tapes from the John Cage Trust, doing soundtracks and sound design for AT&T's multimedia productions, and CD mastering too. So I woke up one day and realized I'm in business. I let the day gig go ten years ago and decided to name the business Sonicraft, feeling there was a need to emphasize that great sound is a craft.

"DW: Is that when the A2DX analog-to-digital transfer lab was founded?

"SP: That's when the concept basically arose. At that time, I had the capability of transferring up to ½' 4-track, but I didn't really need to be able to transfer any more than two tracks as a mastering engineer. Then two things happened. One of them was I looked at my 2-track machine and said, 'This really needs to be a killer machine, because any serious mastering engineer that masters from analog tape has to have a way of playing tape that is beyond average.' Otherwise, why would you go to them? Right? So it became sort of a quest of, 'How good can I get this 2-track machine to sound?' as I looked for ways to improve the machine and the signal path.

Then in the middle of all this, I had a client, that wanted to master a surround DVD here. His artist was based in Santa Fe , and he had sent his 1' 8-track tape to my client in NYC who was going to supervise the mix session. I wasn't set up to transfer that format, and to make a long story short, we went through an incredible ordeal to get the transfer accomplished. We figured there would be great facilities to do that in NYC, but the fact of the matter was the best of the best - and we're talking about a huge studio with a world-class reputation here - did a job that was totally unacceptable. It turned out that there was really no place in the area that was equipped to do such an essential task at a high level of quality, and maybe even passable. When we got the transfers, we discovered they hadn't even bothered to decode the DBX noise reduction! After a night of pure insanity tracking down the right decoders in the middle of New Jersey , repairing them and running the transfers through them, we finally had 8 tracks of decoded audio ready to go.

It was the middle of the night by the time everyone left. I sat on the stairs and I remember clear as day saying to myself, 'Somebody needs to do this right.' Then the thought went through my mind, 'Why don't you do it?' but it seemed like too huge a job. I realized that to do it right meant that the same type of madness I had already put into my 2-track machine had to go into a machine with up to 24 tracks. It's hard enough to get two tracks to audiophile grade, to do it right with 24 tracks is a tremendous undertaking.

"DW: So what changed your mind?

"SP: I initially dismissed it as too expensive and time-consuming, but the idea sat there like an itch in my psyche. And there were some breakthroughs that I found when I was working on this Ampex 440 2-track I had. One of them was certain changes I could make in the signal path. Another one was that there was a significant uptick in quality when I changed to Flux Magnetics heads. Another one was that Bob Starr of RTZ Audio had developed a replacement repro card that would work in the 440 that basically kept all of the great Class A discrete transistor single-ended design of the original Ampex line amps, but replaced all of the components with today's devices which are, in point of fact, much better. He even put Lundahl transformers in these things.

So between the changes to the signal path, the flux heads and the RTZ cards, I was getting playback from the 440 that was really, really exciting. It was pure and transparent, but pleasing. Never harsh, but smooth, open and clear. And I began to think to myself, 'You know, a (2' 24-track) Ampex MM1200 uses the same audio circuitry as a 440. So what would happen if I got one of those and made all these same improvements, and you multiply all this wonderfulness times 24 tracks?' I had an idea it was going to be good, but no how idea how good it was going to be.

"DW: Is there a reason you picked the Ampex MM1200?

"SP: There were four primary ones. First off, of course was the sound quality: the MM1200's playback amplifiers are discrete, Class A single-ended and plugging in the RTZ amps made them truly audiophile quality. It also uses a capstan and pinch roller design that gives it a very high degree of control over tape motion and speed. Thirdly, the design itself is very straightforward, which means it's more open to modifications, as well as boding well for future reliability. Lastly, there's some excellent resources out there that continue to make advances in the components that are available. So all those factors made the Ampex MM1200 the primary candidate for the countless man-hours of testing and prototyping that we would go on to subject our A2DX machine to.

"DW: The restoration sounds like an involved process.

"SP: Well, really, it's a never-ending process, but there were three critical phases that defined it. First was fleshing out the platform itself, which began by purchasing three complete MM1200s. Each one of those was given an exhaustive evaluation, part by part, until the best parts from all three machines had been selected for the final build. After that, we took them outside of their host machines and fully reconditioned them, although sometimes we replaced them with newer versions. The MM1200 that was in the best condition overall was earmarked as the final platform, disassembled and cleaned inch by inch - that includes the wiring harnesses and all electrical contacts, plus cosmetic restoration as well.

One key step in the recapping and custom wiring of the chassis was the installation of switches to allow the machine's meters and transformers to be switched in or out of the signal path at the output stage. We can also easily switch between a stock Ampex head and a Flux Magnetics ME head. As a result, our clients can choose between a classic 'Ampex' sound or one that's best described as more pure or transparent. At that point we reassembled the machine, adjusted it, aligned it, tested it and evaluated its overall operations.

"DW: Sounds time-intensive.

"SP: That was just the beginning! As I mentioned before, one of the reasons we picked the MM1200 in the first place was to build on its amazing sound. We selected those RTZ playback amplifiers that retain the Class A single-ended discrete transistor flavor of Ampex' original design, but they also show how far transformer, component and circuit-board design and layout have come in the two decades since the original amplifiers were built. I don't use the term 'audiophile' lightly, and these are audiophile-grade: they have Lundahl input transformers, Roederstein metal film resistors and capacitors by Wima and Panasonic, and lower distortion and additional headroom to accommodate the extended response of the Flux Magnetics ME heads.

"DW: It sounds like you spent extra time with the heads.

"SP: Every single part of the tape path was examined and questioned to bring the audio performance of this machine to the highest possible level, and the heads were obviously a huge part of that. Before we get to that, our decision to upgrade the head assemblies with an ATR Services modification, which replaces three static guides in the tape path with precision rolling guides, is a good example of our approach.

A mod like this is extremely important to the sound quality. When tape passes over a static surface, the friction between the tape and the surface sets up a resonant vibration of the tape, like a violin bow on a string, which clouds up the sound. It's called 'scrape flutter'. By replacing the static guides with rollers, we were able to significantly reduce scrape flutter, and that results in markedly better signal clarity, as well as reducing stress on tapes.

At this point, we realized we really were on the verge of achieving extremely high accuracy, transparency and purity in our transfers, which was the goal all along. There's a genius I'd worked with in the past named John French of JRF Magnetic Sciences that I called again to build the ultimate head assemblies. He built, customized or restored all of the many head assemblies we use here. For many of these we chose hand-built Flux Magnetics ME playback heads. These heads are designed and hand-built by Greg Orton, and made an incredible difference versus stock heads. They provide a full extra bottom octave and ultra-flat, low-frequency response when operating at 30 ips, and no matter what playback speed we're talking about, there's benefits all over the audio spectrum. We got flattened and extended low and high frequency response, tighter bottom end, and overall gains in clarity. There's a page on my website that goes into greater detail about all this, but the point is that anywhere we could find that would result in an improvement in clarity - great or small - we implemented. All those improvements add up in a big way at the final output.

"DW: You've done this with more than 2' 24-track format, though, right?

"SP: It's easier to say what formats we can't handle at the A2DX lab at this point. We had to cover as many bases as possible because a lot of times people come to us with projects that were recorded on more than one kind of tape format. We didn't want to have to turn people away because we could only transfer part of their project. The MM1200s have 2' 24-track, 2' 16-track, 1' 16-track and 1' 8-track capabilities. We have a completely restored ' Bridgeport ' Scully Model 284 recorder that has three OEM head assemblies so we can handle 1' 8-track, 1'4-track, and even 1' 12-track on that machine. An amazing Ampex MR-70, which may be the best-sounding vacuum tube analog tape recorder ever is on hand for ½' three-track. And, by the way, we're not yet done with MR70s. And so on. There's currently more than fifteen different machines in operation not counting backup machines and over 40 head assemblies. Then, there are all of the project studio type smaller formats and the list goes on and on - again, it's all on the website with lots of pictures and detailed information.

"DW: What are the considerations after the audio leaves the tape machine?

"SP: The next thing is noise reduction. If it was used on the tape, what's the use of handling somebody's transfer if you can't decode the noise reduction? When you try to decode the tapes and the noise reduction system is not the same vintage as the one it was made on, does that matter or not? Noise reduction is an encode/decode process, where dynamics - with respect to frequencies - are compressed during the encoding, then expanded again during decoding, which is when any errors you make in playback are going to be much more noticeable. That's what makes the accuracy of the Sonicraft machines so important, because if your playback machine is less than optimal, it can cause artifacts like pumping and breathing, or even cause your decoder to mistrack, which is bad with a capital 'B'. We listened to a ton of decoding systems, and came away equipped with 24-track racks of Dolby A, Dolby SR, dbx Type I, and Telcom C4, and with the A2DX machines in the path, these decoders do the best job they can possibly do.

"DW: I'm sure everyone wants to see your wiring scheme.

"SP: You can't go this far and then forget about the wires! All the runs here are short, discrete, with the heaviest gauge Mogami cable out there. The patch bays and patch cords are hand-soldered and ¼' military-spec, and we power the analog equipment using an extremely high-quality isolation transformer. The connections between the analog-to-digital converters and the capture workstations are optical, which keeps the electrical systems of the analog gear isolated from the computer.

"DW: Your converters were supplied by another NYC-area mad scientist...

"SP: Michal Jurewicz! The Mytek 8X96 converters are amazing, they're the crucial last link in bringing the audio home into the workstations. I had Michal modify ours to have mastering-style stepped attenuators on each channel.

"DW: What's the mindset you need to have to evaluate your systems to such a fine degree?

"SP: You're looking at the signal path and what's in it. What's this audio touching? Basically it's a process where you look at what the key points in the signal path are. Is the audio traveling through a coupling capacitor or a transformer, for example? What effect is that having on the audio? Good effect? Bad effect? No effect? And no effect is perfectly acceptable, although nothing has no effect, by the way, it just might be negligible. A lot of times you'll find that there's just one particular component that, for whatever reason, maybe they just couldn't make it well enough back then, or maybe the manufacturer decided not to spend a lot of money, and you say, 'If the audio is going to go through this thing, what happens if I put a better one in, or just a different one?' Or, 'What if I go around this thing?' So you look at each stage of where the audio is going and say, 'Is this helping us or hurting us?' And you try it.

The transformers are an excellent example of this. Transformers usually have a sonic signature, and you can change the sound of the machine by changing the transformer, or you can bypass them. The question then becomes, 'Do you want what they do to the signal or do you not?' In the case of the MM1200, I have a switchable bypass to the output transformer of that machine, which is one of the things that gives the MM1200 that 'MM1200 sound'. But by bypassing it you get an almost audiophile type of rendering, so it becomes a question, 'Do you want a stamp on that transfer that says MM1200, or do you want something that's closer to what's really on the tape?' By default, I opt for what's really on the tape, but if someone says, 'I want it to sound like it came off of the MM1200,' I just have to flip 24 switches, which is no big deal.

"DW: I'm interested in what you learned about what constitutes a positive, upgraded signal path as you did this?

"SP: Well, the definition of that is different things to different people, but I deemed something an improvement if, I after I did it, I could hear more than I could before. Here's a concrete example: Let's suppose you have a recording of acoustic instruments, you change components on the tape transfer machine, and now you hear more of a sense of the room that it was done in. There's clearly more information than there was before. Every time I took a step closer to being live in the space that it was recorded, I chose that. So the before-and-after comparisons of these machines is that someone took a blanket off of the speakers. If you prefer the blanket-over-the-speakers sound, you may disagree with some of the decisions I made, and some people do. If you later want to do things to the sound to make it less clear, go ahead. You can always do that, but my goal is, 'How close to the clarity of what's on the tape can I get to?'

I have a 24-track tape here - the last tape I did before I exited the studio business in 1984 - and I remember during the recording I was driving the engineer crazy because I wanted to hear harmonics and a tactileness in the instruments, and during playback it was all sounding dead to me. With the mix I did back then, I felt I was fighting an uphill battle to get the vibrancy and life out of the recording that I wanted. When I did the first transfer through the A2DX MM1200 and brought it up in my mix environment, everything I had fought and struggled to EQ and never really achieved was just sitting there waiting for me. It was like a whole different recording. Now I was shocked in a whole new way, I thought, 'How many tapes are out there with this sound locked in there that no one's ever heard?'

"DW: So who's calling you for transfers? Where does the business come from?

"SP: We do have the actual owners of the tapes calling us directly. More often we're being called by recording studio owner/managers who have a client with analog tapes and they don't have the particular format of playback machine that the tapes are. We provide them with the files that they need to keep working with the project so that they don't have to turn that client and their business away. We're also getting some record label work and some independent engineers and music producers.

"DW: What have you discovered in your quest for pristine analog sound - and therefore pristine digital sound - that might be useful to other audio engineers who might want to get a little more obsessed themselves?

"SP: The succinct answer is that good sound is not necessarily about spending money, it's about spending time. It's all in the little details, just looking at your tools and each step along the way, putting aside all the hype and superstition of what is and isn't supposed to work and really listening for yourself, detail by detail. Because what happens is that old cliché about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts: As you go through your whole method -- from the condition of the gear to the plugs in your wall to the speaker position - and you work on these things, the quality goes up and up, and you reach a point where it gets harder and harder to make improvements. You keep refining and refining, as you clear away the negatives you're left with the positives, and the result can be a slap in the face better than what you started out with."

 

 
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