I first learned of the amazing guitarist Mark Wingfield through his releases on Moonjune Records, and subsequently discovered his multiple talents as producer, recording and mixing engineer, along with numerous mastering credits. I had a chance to recently sit down with him and discuss the process used to create high resolution recordings, for which readers of Hi-Res Edition, like myself, tend to be passionate about.
Wingfield has a long history of audio engineering and released several solo albums that have led into a futuristic guitar sound unique to his jazz fusion style, including his 2018 album “Tales From The Dreaming City”which I reviewed last year. His collaborations with touch guitarist Markus Reuter, bassist Yaron Stavi, and drummer Asaf Sirkis have left an indelible mark on the improvisational world, all recorded, mixed and mastered with incredible clarity.
Breaking down the process, Wingfield walked me through the first steps of microphone selection and placement, onto tweaking and mixing, and finally mastering. Undeniably it all starts with the initial recording, which for several of the jazz related projects have been tracked live to a Protools 10 HD2 workstation at 24 bit 88.2 kHz using a Neve 5106 recording console for some microphone preamps as well as various external preamps at La Casa Murada Studio. Two of these albums are titled Lighthouse and Stonehouse and are from a few sessions during which guitars and bass went direct, typically flat without compression or equalization. However, the unique guitar effects which define the sound of both Wingfield and Reuter were recorded directly from their rigs, and like an acoustic instrument or voice, becomes the characteristic nature of the part.
Wingfield’s direct feed is made up of three stereo pairs, each plugged into a variety of pre-amps before being converted into the digital realm and finally recorded to the multi-track Protools system. He plays a Patrick Eggle LA Plus guitar through the Roland VG88, a self-contained guitar processing/modeling system which allows a level of sound sculpting not available in conventional effects processors. The guitar is also routed through a laptop computer using an RME 2 in 4 out converter whereby he can add in effects such as pitch following ring modulation, wave shaping and other affects not available in the analog world. He also uses the laptop to create sustaining and evolving soundscapes created from what he plays. These involve sometimes very complex parallel chains of effects plugins. Each of the stereo pairs output specific aspects of the guitar signal, which are then blended together in the final mix.
Similarly, Reuters guitar outputs a stereo pair that is chalk full of effects, and second stereo pair from his laptop. Like Wingfield he feeds his guitar into the laptop, and uses it to create generative soundscapes. He also has with a dry direct line from his guitar that can be selectively blended into the final mix. Likewise, Stavi’s bass is directed through specific pre-amps and later re-amped using plugins during mixing.
When mixing Mark uses many modern software compressors and equalizers with advanced attributes unavailable in the analog world. In addition to these he uses software emulations of hardware compressors and EQs for their unique characteristics. Some of these include the Urie 1176, LA 2A, Fairchild, Massive Passive, Sontec, SSL, Maag, various Neves etc... as well as emulations of custom hardware pieces. Mark also uses a range of harmonic enhancers and transient shapers many of which go beyond what is possible to do with hardware in terms of the control of tone and detail. Wingfield notes that getting the right combination of new tools and emulations is the secret sauce in finding the perfect tone for the style of the player and track.
When it comes to the drums, Wingfield prefers using Shure KSM137 single cardioid microphone as overheads. He says these are fantastic for picking up detail and for jazz related music he places them close to the cymbals, Literally like spot mics. Citing the dynamic range of Sirkis from decisive power hits to intricate detailed snare work, he passionately speaks of the Rode NT5 condenser microphones which easily handles the hardest hit while still picking up every nuance. He tucks the Shure Beta 52A Supercardioid by the kick drum and uses dynamic mics on the tom-toms.
While each element is isolated to a separate hi-res track, the use of direct signals and close microphone placement yields a very transparent yet flat sounding mix. It is at this stage where Wingfield turns to high end reverb tools, such as the Bricasti M7 and Lexicon PCM 91 to create an ambient space. Spreading parts across the mix and adding depth to the crystal-clear tracks yields an exceptionally wide and deep mix, which also maintains the distinct clarity of each part, providing for an excellent separation across the stereo field.
For the geeks among us, Wingfield also went on to explain how the effects are stacked in the mixing signal chain. The stacking could mean that a compressor may come before an equalizer or reverb, but an engineer has the option to move those effects around in the chain, naturally resulting in unique sound characteristics depending on the order. He additionally noted that for mixing as the sampling rate increases, the demand on the CPU also increases, thus audio engineers may find themselves running into limitations with some equipment.
Digging further into the technology, Wingfield spoke about 44.1kHz sampling rates and how filter needed to remove the aliasing caused by the digital to analog conversion process only a 2kHz bandwidth (between 22kHz and 20kHz) within which to do this. The result of such a steep filter can cause distortion in the audible range. For 88.2kHz and above the filter is rolled off with a much lighter touch, yielding a natural sound that hi-res enthusiasts have come to expect. Having said this the differences are subtle, on a good playback system a 24 bit 44.1kHz file can sound superb if it has been well recorded and mixed.
The sample rate issue is a more serious and audible problem during mixing however. This is because many software processors can not effectively remove aliasing at 44.1kHz, and this can yield nasty harmonics in the audible range. For this reason Mark recommends recording at 88.2 or 96 kHz. At these rates all aliasing will be easily removed from the audible range by any professional mixing software. A work around if something has been recorded at 44.1 or 48 kHz is to up-sample before mixing. This won’t improve the original sound quality, but will remove those nasty harmonics which would otherwise be introduced during mixing, yielding a more favorable aural quality. Additionally, these unwanted aliased harmonics are what typically is referred to as the cold sound of digital, and also will close in the soundstage when mixing down the tracks.
Stepping back a little to the actual recording phase, Wingfield described how close microphone placement actually yields a un-natural sound. He notes that we realistically don’t stick our head inside a piano, nor right next to the strings of an upright bass, yet this is functionally how close microphone placement works in small studios. If you are lucky enough to record in a large beautiful sounding room, microphones can be placed further away and avoid this problem. However few record labels or musicians can afford such studios these days as CD sales have plummeted across the board and streaming pays virtually nothing. As a result most things are recorded in small studio these days, where close microphone placement is a necessity. Close miking is great for detail and isolation, but when all of the elements are actually mixed together, they fall flat across the stereo mix without any depth, which Mark specifically describes as being dead sounding and akin to a cardboard cutout. The result sounds congested and flat, with parts sitting right on top of one another. Of course, our ears don’t naturally listen this close to each part of a band, thus during the mixing phase depth is added through the use of reverb and other time based effects to build a more natural space. Wingfield commonly adds a greater amount of reverb to some instruments, while adding a much smaller amount of reverb or another spacial effect to the others. The advantage to this style is the entire band isn’t drenched in a wet reverb space, but rather the space is more subtly established and each instrument is placed within it.
Over the past few years digital technology has advanced improving on many of the tricks first employed in the analog world. Side chain audio ducking is a perfect example, whereby when the kick drum is hit, it triggers audio ducking on the bass part, allowing for the kick to be heard more distinctly in the mix. Modern day advancement now allows for ducking of specific frequencies which change dynamically based on the source, which would be the range of the kick drum in this case. This technique improves transparency, in turn creating a more vibrant mix.
Wingfield uses the Adam A77X self powered (so they are bi-amped) near/mid field monitors when mixing, describing them as unflattering due to their extremely flat response from 40hz on up to the top. For him they reveal a ton of detail without coloring the sound, while offering plenty of headroom. Alternatively, when mastering he uses a pair of speakers designed by John Dunlavy. These Dunlavy's are no longer made, however the Lipinski Sound monitors are based on their design, and have become the favored speaker for many mastering engineers around the globe. These moderately tall speakers are really like a microscope, even when listening from the choice spot of a few meters away.
Much of the detail in mastering is subtle changes to the EQ for which Wingfield has a small arsenal of component tools, each with their own set of characteristics. Some are excellent at handling lows and highs, while others can add in a touch of harmonic distortion or transient smearing that color the sound in a nice way, adding for example a "silkiness" to the top end or a "solidity" to the low end. He often finds that adjustments between 200 and 400hz are required due to the typical lack of adequate acoustic treatment in mixing rooms which cause the engineers not to hear these frequencies accurately. This can be accomplished with a dynamic or static EQ to remove the excess resonance. He also mentioned that some use of light compression may be employed during the mastering phase to add punch, smoothness or solidity depending on the music, but as often as not, no compression is used.
Wingfield has two workstations setup at opposite ends at his mixing and mastering room, Heron Island Studio. For mixing he uses both Pro Tools and Logic depending on the client. For mastering he uses Logic and then DSP-Quattro for CD layout.
Mark noted how the recent international loudness standard which streaming platforms are now all following in one form or another, has decreased the requests to push the signal levels higher, typically referred to as the loudness wars. High-resolution audio has also changed the way mixing and mastering is done. Preserving the dynamic range and keeping distortion to a minimum produces a much better sounding high-resolution master than the traditional methods of over compressing and slamming the signal into limiters to achieve maximum loudness. The increased dynamic range has dramatically aided in mastering at levels well below the point that crushes the music, which occurs when the peaks cross an upper limit and become restricted, in turn flattening the dynamic range to make things louder. As the high-resolution audiophile market greatly values this added fidelity and sonic detail, engineers like Mark are mixing and mastering with these listeners in mind. While he only creates a single set of high-resolution files, these are manipulated by vinyl pressing companies and streaming services. For CD however, he creates a separate set of 16 bit 44.1kHz files using custom dithering to get the best aspects of 24-bits encoded into 16-bits as possible for each track.
As fans of high-resolution audio, it is great to know that the progressive move by the industry into hi-res has accelerated the actual quality of the music recording, mixing, and mastering process. Audio and mastering engineers have found greater consistency across the industry, leading to an improved product, now this truly is music to an audiophiles ears.
Coming later this spring is a new duo album of immense beauty with Mark Wingfield on guitar & Gary Husband on piano titled "Tor & Vale." Also a slightly modified lineup returns to La Casa Murada for another improv album with Mark Wingfield on guitar, Markus Reuter playing touch guitar, Asaf Sirkis on drums, with special guests David Cross playing both keyboards, and violin, plus Fabio Trentini hitting the lows on bass guitar. This improv album is scheduled for release mid-winter 2020. Also Wingfield has already recorded two new ambient duo albums with Markus Reuter and duo album with David Cross. Wingfield also spoke about another new album due for release on MoonJune Records in early Fall on which he plays guitar and features Jane Chapman on harpsichord and Adriano Adewale on percussion.
Meanwhile dig into the incredible back catalogue of his solo and group projects, several of which are listed below and available in hi-res formats through BandCamp.