Sono Luminus was created in 1995 by Cisco Systems founders Sandy Lerner and Len Bosack. They felt that the skills that had made Cisco so successful - namely their expertise in digital signal processing, computational mathematics and physics - would enable them to pioneer a new level of recording. Since the launch of the Sono Luminus imprint in 2005, the new label has continued that reputation for excellence, receiving the Audio Engineering Society’s Award of Excellence in High Resolution Audio (2007), a Latin GRAMMY ®, as well as numerous GRAMMY ® Nominations in engineering, producing, and for their ensembles. We sat down with head engineer Dan Shores to learn a few of their secrets.
Cisco is a huge company who revolutionized the whole world of networking and connectivity. How did the two founders of Cisco get involved in recording top-end classical music?
Well, it was the two founders. Len was already very involved in music and audio. He's been a member of the Audio Engineering Society for around 30 years or so. It's always been an interest. Both he and Sandy were interested in the scientific aspect of it, the precision of it, as well as their love of music.
“Without stellar music, there’s really kind of no point”
So it sounds that although this had a very theoretical, scientific basis, it was always driven by that passion for great music?
That is correct. It really is. Without stellar music, there's really no point. It was always a focus on capturing exactly what the musician was doing, being able to capture a very fine early instrument and capture every essence of that instrument. It's about every nuance that the performer was putting into that performance and translating that as accurately as possible through the scientific end of things to the listener.
There's a real lunge towards the nostalgic, the vintage mics, vintage compressors, vintage desks, but it sounds as if you are really trying to really nail this to be as close to reality as possible. So are you much more scientific in the way that you capture your sound?
Yes, actually I'm sitting in my mixing room right now. We don't even have a desk (console). We do everything from microphone to pre-amp to convertor to hard drive, and even in our approach we're very minimal. We release everything in Pure Audio Blu-ray and release it with a stereo, 5.1 and a 7.1 mix. For those mixes (let's say the 5.1) there are 6 microphones capturing that 5.1 mix.
And is that using a Decca Tree arrangement?
It's a modified version of that so we would have the rear channels. Then we will tweak it as needed but basically with the ITU surround set-up in mind. So we'll have one microphone for the center, one for left, right, rears in that sort of a configuration.
So it would seem that what you are trying to achieve is an immersive listening experience, putting the listener right into the space?
That's exactly it. I truly want the listener to be able to experience being in the space with the musicians. We had an album by a group called Duo W named "Entendre" where there's a cello and violin. We had them up in the front channels but we're still recording 8 channels of information. So when the listener is sitting in the sweet spot, they're having the fully immersive experience of the whole of the room. I do believe that you can create a great two channel recording and all of our recordings do include a two channel mix. However, sound comes from more directions than just in front of you. It's the company's belief that we want to really be able to pinpoint that sound and deliver it to the consumer to give them a listening experience that is something truly special.
So, do you have a kind of philosophy that's the same across each recording? You've done several symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras, and other ensembles. Are you making the decision to put the audience in the front row of the stalls or choosing to put them were the conductor is standing? Is that done on a project-by-project basis?
That's done on a project-by-project basis, based on the music. The music is the driving force behind everything. That's where we draw our decisions on placement of the musicians. What does the music call for? You want to give an amazing experience to the listener but you don't want to make them feel uncomfortable or have something that just sounds awkward. We just had a new release with the UCLA Philharmonic where we have 200 singers on stage as well as full orchestra and soloists. With that, we worked very hard to think "where is the listener going to be sitting, where in the hall?" We want to give them the best possible seat in the house to experience the music.
How do you deal with the preconceived idea of how that orchestra sounds? Surely the listener is expecting it to sound like they're sitting in the hall it was performed in.
If we do our job correctly, they're sitting there going "wow, this is incredibly enjoyable and incredibly new and different." There are tons of stereo recordings of the same works. You might get a great performance out of it but we feel that we can deliver something more to the listener.
Let’s be honest. How many more versions of Vivaldi's Four Seasons or The Planets do you want to listen to?
Exactly. And it's funny; we just had a release of The Planets, though it was for piano-four-hands.
Let's talk about reverb because you said from the very start that you're about purity. You're about not using effects. You're about not using compression. Yet you've made a decision to use Exponential Audio reverbs. Can you explain that?
Well a lot of times in a hall you end up with an issue either because of the set up of the ensemble, or the amount of people in the room. There are any number of factors which lead to a lack of decay in the room. Our hall in particular has a gorgeous warm sound and a lovely reverb. But after about a1-2 seconds it does start to fall off. You know it's partly due to the construction of the room: it's about 100 years old and it used to be an Episcopal church. Where we find that the Exponential Audio reverbs really excel is being able to match that natural sound and extend that tail out. It's just that extra little bit that you know should be there. If you were in the room you would hear a little bit more of that, but the microphones don't necessarily pick up because of their proximity to everything else. So a quality reverb is really the only tool that I find to be of extreme importance to us, other than a good noise removal tool.
“If we do our job correctly, they’re sitting there going “wow, this is incredibly enjoyable and incredibly new and different”
So what were you using before Exponential Audio reverbs?
For a number of years I used the Altiverb plug-in. But what I found with the convolution reverbs is even though they're mimicking a real space, I noticed almost a combing phasing kind of bizarre sound to them. It took me a long time to actually figure it out. I was putting a room on top of a room because we're not capturing things with incredibly close microphones. We generally use the space around them so we are capturing the natural room sound. I think that is the thing about the PhoenixVerb. I'm able to take that natural sound and draw it out and really work with all the parameters to create a truly natural sound, a really elegant and beautiful tail that I couldn't otherwise get using other tools.
So the surround features must help on your recordings?
That’s the biggest thing for me, that it had not only the great two channel version but then the surround version came around. Rather than what I was having to do before--essentially build different two channel reverbs and kind of chain them together--this really gave me not just a great 5.1 but a 7.1 reverb where everything was interacting. I could have independent control over the different channels. The sound and the way it works are revolutionary in my opinion. This tool is truly giving me the feedback and the instantaneous control that I need to be able to craft these individual channels of reverb and their interplay. We've used it on every record we've done since we got them.
I'm guessing though you almost don't want people to know it's there, that it's the naturalness and transparency perhaps that works for you?
That's exactly it and that's one of the things that I do like about it and I do aim for when using it. If I've done my job right and really matched the decays and everything else, it's so natural and so transparent, you don't know it's been used.
Until you turn it back off again.
Exactly. And that's the thing; it's able to do it without having to stand in front. There are so many reverbs that I've heard, to even know that they're there, you have to turn them up to a point where you really are hearing them. This can be used so elegantly and so transparently that it's kind of like this ethereal addition to the project that just makes it sparkle at the end.
So the journey from connectivity to conservatoires continues. And the people behind Sono Luminus seem to be making as much of a dent in the world of high end recording as the founders did in global networking. It seems ironic that as the battle rages over net neutrality, the same people who worked so hard to deliver this are now working just as hard to deliver sound without limits. That really is music to our ears.