By Alan Silver President, Connoisseur Society, Inc. New York, NY
Philips of Japan was the customer, Jazz pianist John Lewis the artist.
"In 1984 I was offered the opportunity to record the legendary jazz pianist, John Lewis, in the 24 Preludes and Fugues from J.S. Bach's Well Tempered Clavier, Book One. It was a large assignment intended to take five years with completion scheduled for 1989. Each prelude was to be recorded exactly as written on solo piano and each fugue was arranged by John Lewis for piano, bass, guitar and varied combinations of strings. In addition, an interlude of jazz improvisation, played by Lewis, was to be integrated seamlessly into each prelude and fugue.
The record company was Philips of Japan, and they wanted me to match the solo piano sound they had heard on one of my Connoisseur Society recordings recorded earlier in a New York church. They ordered me to spare no expense in hall rental, engineering, or any other part of the master production. I hired a renowned engineer, his Schoeps microphones, and Studer mixer, and used the same hall as before. Kiyoshi "Boxman" Koyama, a noted producer of jazz recordings and writer on jazz subjects, was sent from Japan to New York as executive producer for Philips.
Koyama and Lewis were satisfied, and four years of fascinating music making followed, utilizing three different top-rated mixing desks and two engineers. But at the end of 1988, as preparations were being made for the final group of sessions in 1989, the engineering staff for the last several sessions was not available, and I was asked by Koyama to hire someone else. But in the preceding two years my wife, Patricia A. Duciaume, had become my engineering partner for all new Connoisseur Society records, and we had a full complement of digital recording equipment of our own, including a prized Benchmark MPS-420 microphone mixer. So I approached Koyama with the idea of having the last sessions be an all Connoisseur Society team. Koyama was concerned that our equipment didn't include a famous name-brand mixing board with its dozens of faders, solo buttons, E.Q., and pan pots. Also, he pointed out, we were customarily using more than 4 microphones for these sessions, and panning was essential.
Pat and I countered with a guarantee that we would provide pan pots and up to 8 mic capability. Koyama agreed, and we faced the next hurdle of getting more than 4 microphones into and out of our 4 channel Benchmark mixer. We consulted with Benchmark president and chief engineer, Allen Burdick, who recommended using two MPS-420 mixers. He offered to design an interface so that the two mixers could be ganged together, providing a maximum of 8 in and 2 out. Additionally, Burdick designed new circuitry for adding pan pots to the mixers, with the promise that they would not degrade the excellent noise and distortion characteristics we had come to admire.
The December 1989 session finally arrived, and as we set up, Koyama looked somewhat apprehensively at the two slim but elegant Benchmark mixers now replacing the large mixing desks of earlier sessions. But he politely said nothing and we began our work. After the first few playbacks, Koyama moved over to my chair and said with a pleased look that the sound was definitely the best of all the sessions since we began in 1984. It was cleaner and more transparent. But since we were using the same type of microphones and digital recorders he wondered if the improvement could be coming from the Benchmark mixers. I assured him that was the case.
Koyama is a sensitive man and I wondered if he was as enthusiastic as he said. The question was answered a few months later when he invited Pat, me, and our Benchmark mixers to record John Lewis again, this time in a new project for Polygram, Paris."
While this application note is now somewhat dated, the MPS-400 and the MPS-420 microphone preamplifier systems are not. We recently received high praise from one of Canada's top mixing engineers who had purchased a very highly regarded competitive preamplifier system, only to return it in favor of the Benchmark MPS-400. These systems are regarded by those who own and use them as the finest available.
Secrets contributor Sumit Chawla recently caught up with Benchmark’s VP and Chief Designer, John Siau to get a little more in-depth on several subjects.
Q: "Benchmark is one of the few companies that publishes an extensive set of measurements, but you also balance that with subjective testing. Can you talk about the equipment, the listening room, and the process for subjective testing?"
Q: "Was there ever a time where you learned something from a subjective test that was not captured by measurements?"
Q: "You conducted some listening tests to determine whether distortion in the “First Watt” was audible. What test material did you use for this, and what did you find?"
Q: "The AHB2 amplifier incorporates THX Audio Achromatic Amplifier technology. When and how did the partnership with THX come about?"
Q: "Linear power supplies have been and remain quite popular in high-end devices. You favor switch-mode power supplies. When and why did you make this switch?"
... and more!
At Benchmark, listening is the final exam that determines if a design passes from engineering to production. When all of the measurements show that a product is working flawlessly, we spend time listening for issues that may not have shown up on the test station. If we hear something, we go back and figure out how to measure what we heard. We then add this test to our arsenal of measurements.
Benchmark's listening room is equipped with a variety of signal sources, amplifiers and loudspeakers, including the selection of nearfield monitors shown in the photo. It is also equipped with ABX switch boxes that can be used to switch sources while the music is playing.
Benchmark's lab is equipped with Audio Precision test stations that include the top-of-the-line APx555 and the older AP2722 and AP2522. We don't just use these test stations for R&D - every product must pass a full set of tests on one of our Audio Precision test stations before it ships from our factory in Syracuse, NY.
Paul Seydor of The Absolute Sound interviews John Siau, VP and chief designer at Benchmark Media Systems. The interview accompanies Paul's review of the LA4 in the December, 2020 issue of TAS.
"At Benchmark, listening is the final exam that determines if a design passes from engineering to production. But since listening tests are never perfect, it’s essential we develop measurements for each artifact we identify in a listening test. An APx555 test set has far more resolution than human hearing, but it has no intelligence. We have to tell it exactly what to measure and how to measure it. When we hear something we cannot measure, we are not doing the right measurements. If we just listen, redesign, then repeat, we may arrive at a solution that just masks the artifact with another less-objectionable artifact. But if we focus on eliminating every artifact that we can measure, we can quickly converge on a solution that approaches sonic transparency. If we can measure an artifact, we don't try to determine if it’s low enough to be inaudible, we simply try to eliminate it."
- John Siau