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Intel Artist Profile: Allen Sides

United States
8 October 2007 — Intel processing power played a pivotal role in a groundbreaking recording session in early 2007, when engineer/producer Allen Sides recorded a special in-studio performance by Mary J. Blige of her GRAMMY-winning song, “Be Without You,” with a full orchestra, choir and band. Sides simultaneously recorded 48 tracks of 24-bit/192 kHz audio to a single PC, a feat made possible by Intel’s multi-core processor in a PC AudioLabs computer running a special pre-release version of Cakewalk’s SONAR 7 software.

As Sides relates, timing was everything. Until recently, the tools simply did not exist to support the tracking of such a large number of simultaneous inputs at such a high sample rate. But when record producer Ron Fair approached him to engineer the session with Blige, the stars were already beginning to align, says Sides: “I said to Ron, I’ve been talking to Intel and they have this quad-core processor and Cakewalk has software that will allow me to record 48 channels at 192 kHz.”

Sides has recorded over 400 albums and won two GRAMMY Awards, with six nominations. He is the owner of two successful studios in Los Angeles, Ocean Way and Record One, that regularly host sessions by the crème de la crème of the music industry, which places him in an ideal position to observe recording trends. “People used to be stuck at 44.1 kHz and 48 and all of a sudden almost all our projects are at 96k. Now we’re doing double lock-ups in Pro Tools to 192 kHz. But we couldn’t record more than about 32 tracks at 192.”

Until now, anyway. And that final step up in resolution makes a big difference, according to Sides, who is well known for his near-obsession with audio quality. Sides, a musician, has always been a self-confessed sound freak, opening his first studio in 1973 primarily to produce suitably impressive demo material that would show off the monitors that he was making commercially available, due to the dearth of any other recordings of sufficiently high quality. “The difference between 44.1 and 96 is certainly notable and audible, but to me, between 96 and 192 is much more dramatic. So when the opportunity came to have a system that would record this many tracks at 192, I said, let’s give it a shot.”

For Sides, recording at 192 kHz offers digital audio quality that is finally approaching analog. “Analog 24-track is a highly imperfect medium, but it is relatively high resolution. If I’m recording on one of my Ampex ATR-124s, maybe with 16-track heads, it sounds better than almost any digital format. Then 192 rolled along and all of a sudden it’s beginning to sound like the mics are beginning to come alive again. It’s beginning to sound like it used to. I can’t tell you how exciting it is.”

The session took place in Studios A and B at Capitol in Hollywood. “I oftentimes can’t get into my own rooms,” laughs Sides, whose Ocean Way facility is much in demand by top artists. “We did the last Rolling Stones record, the last Eric Clapton record, the last Paul McCartney record, Green Day, Radiohead, Beck, Dr. Dre, Eminem, 50 Cent.” But, he continues, “Capitol is one of the rooms that I’m comfortable in, so I work over there.”

For the Mary J. Blige session at Capitol, a new recording of “Be Without You” with an arrangement by Ron Fair and Jerry Hey, Sides reports, “We had 16 violins, four cellos, four violas, an acoustic and an electric bass, three percussionists, background vocals, a full horn section -- flutes, woods, trumpets, “bones, French horns -- and Mary J. singing live. We did two complete passes with her singing live with no fixes, so what you hear is her singing the second pass. I’ve done some recording with Aretha [Franklin] and Mary J’s got a lot of that quality; she’s really talented.”

“Be Without You,” which originally appeared on Blige’s record-breaking, GRAMMY-winning album, “The Breakthrough,” garnered the singer a GRAMMY Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song for the writers. The recording of the new arrangement that was engineered by Sides may eventually be released, but was also used for a special performance by Blige at the 2007 GRAMMY Awards Show.

Sides explains, “We did another version for the GRAMMYs, which was a pre-record, where I did a pre-mix for stereo horns, stereo strings, stereo drums. On the show broadcast, he says, “The drums were live, but they used all our horns and strings and backgrounds. Mary J sang live and they pulled in some of the live horns along with it. I think it sounded great.”

Everything was tracked through Sides’ pair of vintage discrete API 1604 consoles into SONAR running on a PC AudioLabs machine. “Intel got this special computer going, with four hard drives, and it was smooth as silk; no issues at all,” shares Sides. “I don’t know of any system that can do what it did. I’m going to be doing projects with this in the future.”

SONAR’s superior 64-bit/192kHz sonic quality was apparent from the first playback according to Sides and only possible at such a bandwidth-intensive, high track count due to the processing power of the Intel and PCAudioLabs rig. “There are various terms you can use to describe it: more air, more space, more low-level, high frequency detail, more ambience around instruments. Things are wider. All the things that make something sound more real. It’s sufficient that anyone can hear it; you don’t require a trained ear to hear the difference.”

Elaborating on the Capitol session, he continues, “The strings were in a separate room, so I had a pair of Neumann M 50s over them plus spot mics. I used all tube [Neumann] KM 54s for spot mics. In the big room, where I had the drums and horns, I had M 50s overall, plus section mics. Everything was mic in, directly to the mic pre, straight to the converters with a little compression on the vocal, otherwise no other compression.”

The setup imparted a vintage flavor with a modern twist. “In certain respects this recording is pretty old-time sounding, because there is tons of leakage. Because there’s lots of leakage it has a retro sound, but what makes it not retro is it has tremendous impact and punch.”

Sides has a reputation as something of an audiophile, and confides that he is, but only where the end result is concerned. “If the end result is pleasing and musical, if I had to do some unorthodox stuff to get there, it doesn’t matter. I don’t preconceive that this has to be a certain way or you have to do this. I find new ways of doing things all the time.”

Harnessing the power of Intel multi-core technology in order to record at the highest possible sample rate may seem counter-intuitive in an age when everybody seems happy with the quality of the data-compressed tunes on their iPods. Not so, says Sides: “I’ve got to tell you, it makes more difference now than ever before. When I teach my UCLA class, I say, the one thing you can be sure of is that it will never get bigger. If you start out with a lousy recording, by the time it gets to the bottom of the chain it’s going to sound like crap. If you make an impressive hi-res recording, even if it ends up as an MP3, it will be a noticeably better sounding. So making a good recording is even more important now than it’s ever been.”

That’s not to say that elements recorded at lower resolution have no value. “If you have tracks recorded at 48 kHz I find you can up-sample and it sounds great. It’s going the other way that doesn’t work so well.”
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