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Intel Artist Profile: George Massenburg

United States
8 October 2007 — George Massenburg, equipment designer and manufacturer, engineer, producer and educator, is a big fan of innovation and the development of new audio tools to carry the industry into the future. Case in point: digital audio. Tape may have been what got Massenburg into the industry, but he’s glad to see the end of it. “The digital recording format in general is way more gratifying for me,” says Massenburg. “In particular, I can do a lot more with editing live performances together. And I think that’s the key to re-inventing the music business: we have a lot of work to do to help new artists improve performances. This is so much easier in Nuendo and Protools and Logic than with tape. I hate tape; I never want to see tape again. I like these modern tools much better.”

For Massenburg, those modern tools now include a new multi-core Intel chip-based computer supplied by PC AudioLabs, among others. “Now we can work at 96/24 and still be fast,” he comments. “That’s the key; it’s really a powerful machine.”

PC AudioLabs’ service went beyond the call of duty, he shares, helping with a seemingly insurmountable problem of transferring software authorizations from one machine to another during the transition. “Tom Bolton was great; he even helped with that.”

In 1972, Massenburg designed, authored and presented the AES paper on the parametric equalizer. He and his company, GML, Inc., are researching extended automated work-surfaces, high-resolution graphical interfaces, extensible network automation for audio production environments, and automation data interchange standards. He has designed, built and managed several recording studios and contributed acoustical and architectural designs to many others, including Skywalker Sound. Individually or collaboratively, he has participated in over 200 record albums during the past 30 years. He has been nominated for and won many Grammy’s and other industry awards. In 1998 he received the Grammy for Technical Achievement, one of only four such awards presented in the history of NARAS. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Recording Arts and Sciences at McGill University in Montreal, Canada and visiting lecturer at many schools including Berklee in Boston, Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington, University of Memphis and Tokyo University of Arts and Music.

Anyone who has spoken with Massenburg knows that he has some strong opinions, and he isn’t shy about sharing them. His reasons for using a PC in the recording studio are as much about impacting the hegemony of companies like Apple and Digidesign by encouraging competition as they are about audio quality. “This is why I’m into the alternate DAWs running on the Intel platform: Steve Jobs & Bill Gates need to be confronted with some kind of competition. Competition boosts innovation. And all of this is why we keep Nuendo up to date and offer to run sessions on it when appropriate. On the road Digidesign has made it difficult for me to take out a simple Protools HD. So I’ve grown used to taking Nuendo on the road. Yes, the professional recording business, such as it is, is locked into Protools, and we have to stay up to date. But the business is growing beyond Protools in spite of that.”

The new PC AudioLabs machine certainly has a place in the front of the queue of hot new machines, he says: “It keeps us at the edge of the curve. I have some really good converters. Often, we do work where the BWave files go right to Protools. But it’s still an important part of our workflow.”

He points out, “I’m not as much a fan of PC as I am of Intel. Of all the chip companies, Intel is the one that seems to have a vision of how to take the risky business of chip manufacturing into the future.” The Intel-based PC offers pro audio at least one innovative path forward. “With the tremendous growth of in-the-box processing power, we’re moving away from DSP chips. DSP chips were important for the Digidesign business model, because they lock users into proprietary hardware. But it’s only a matter of time before you see a new paradigm emerge. And only a matter of time before you see users add Intel boxes when they need more for something they’re doing.”

The recording industry has come full circle from the early days when PCs were used for running sequencers, notes Massenburg. “So today we see more on the PC.” But he believes the operating system has some catching up to do - Apple is way ahead of the game in many respects, but in one area in particular, the MacOS, they’re by far the best. I simply don’t like the Windows operating system; I never feel like I’m in control of it. And, it always seems to be four to five years behind whatever the Macintosh is running.”

Intel power certainly supports Massenburg’s way of working, which is all about flexibility in capturing the best performance. “Just about everything we do in the studio here is live. Here, it’s all about making live performances work all together in one room. And, yes, I’m in the room as well, and there’s less tweaking to be done while recording. I’m mostly listening for music.”

Advances in computing power mean that Massenburg records everything at high resolution. “I almost always work at 96/24. We’ve done a couple things at 192, but we won’t do anything 48 any more. I generally multi-mic instruments—for instance, three mics on acoustic guitar, or three mics on the guitar amp--and decide on which way to take the sound later. In the heat of battle, I’m more likely to make bad decisions about how much things should be tweaked. As a result, a lot of tracks will go down live…maybe 40 to 50.”

Although there’s plenty of power to support processing on every channel, Massenburg says, “I’m reluctant to use plug-ins to address musical issues. There’s just no button on any plug-in labeled, “Better Performance’. There’s no button that says “Add Gratification’.”

Whether using Nuendo or Protools, he says, “Everything we do has 5.1 subs and, later, stems and is downmixed to stereo as part of the workflow. As you work on a tune, you can playback a stereo mix or switch on the 5.1 and refine panning stuff out. So we’ll finish and deliver a stereo mix; but then later, when you’re asked to deliver the 5.1 mix, you just have to make level adjustments, and print it.”

Massenburg already has his eye on the next innovation. “What is really needed is not a faster computer but a better work surface and better, more ergonomic integration with the software tools. What the business really needs is an intelligently-laid out work surface for music production.”

George Massenburg Labs: www.massenburg.com
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