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Positive Feedback ISSUE 33
september/october 2007


Steve McCormack's "Lady Day" Preamplifier and the road to audio "Virtual Reality"
by Jim Merod


Calling All Sleuths

Audio design guru Steve McCormack has been up to it once more, deep in the bowels of his semi-secret audio laboratory. When you're able to snag his attention a moment for commentary on his soon-to-be-released VRE-1 pre-amp (for Virtual Reality Engine) you'd better have questions ready and not waste his time. This guy is on a mission.

For three years, or thereabouts, McCormack has been steadily (stealthily) building, refining, tweaking, and further developing a state-of-the-art analog preamplifier. His secrecy has nothing to do with subterfuge ...merely such high-resolution devices need all the "know how" and focus a design engineer can bring to bear.

I've been one of the lucky few (perhaps less than a "few," in fact): Maestro McCormack has allowed my ears to follow his trek along its constant, somewhat meandering course from start to its near public unveiling. I've heard the extraordinary "you are there" quality which seems to implicitly (virtually?) mock other pre-amps. The motto of this machine just might be: "the music is all here but the preamp is not"...

I take it as my good fortune to have heard several iterations of this pre-amp across the creative journey of its unfolding precision. The very first "VRE" preamp, in truth, did not have that name attached. The progenitor of McCormack's signature preamp invention was dubbed "Lady Day" ...and it underwent an ongoing series of refinements that, throughout the scope of development, captured my full attention again and again.

Actually, the LADY DAY did more than grab my interest. It stole my heart. After a series of hard to believe improvements, month by month, I knocked on Steve McCormack's lab portal often enough (obnoxious with hope) that the fine fellow finally—but only recently—relented and let me purchase that glorious sonic instrument. My insistence paid off. I now own this gorgeous box. Without question, it has enhanced my main listening and mastering rig. I'll assure you that this is a cost-no-object device, regardless of its eventual price point. I'm not merely gratified to have this prototype permanently in place @ Casa BluePort, but astonished that I snared it from its creator's ferocious grip.

The Skinny

How do you describe a preamp that has no sonic footprint? The Zen quality of this new preamplifier is perhaps its most stunning characteristic.

Let me list two unusual sonic virtues this remarkable audio engine accomplishes.

First, its dynamic force and rightness shows up immediately with 24-96 master tapes passing signals unadorned through its capacious maw. One thinks of the tenacious white whale, Moby Dick, or the whale that swallowed the young boy and transformed his experience forever. The whale-like opening of gigantic jaws that deliver one into another cosmos is, imperfectly, a correlate to the enormity of image reproduction, dynamic reach and sonic delicacy produced via my Lady Day. The fact of the matter here is that Steve McCormack has continued (still!) to slap this beast around his hidden lab quarters so that, in the most recent iteration I've heard of his emergent VRE-1, even greater openness, reach and resolution are available.

Understand here that I'm not in the least making a complaint. I adore my Lady Day. It has literally improved every aspect of musical reproduction in my life. But I'm amazed that more transparency was possible and that the indefatigable McCormack has not stinted to find it or make it or simply let the full Zen transparency of his creation maximize itself to further degrees of "not being there"...

Second, the palpability of tones, notes, and sonic clusters is spooky with these preamp genies at work. This eerie sense of effortless analog and ambient sonic truthfulness may well be the quality that first (and continually) engaged my attention. You feel "in the complete presence" of well-recorded music, as if the performers are in the room with you; as if the acoustics of club or hall were surrounding both the musicians and your own hearing.

I like that illusion ...and it's that, the reproduced and inevitably illusory character of the Lady Day and the VRE-1, which must've goaded Steve McCormack to dub his final preamp creation the "Virtual Reality Engine," since clearly musicians are not truly in the room where I hear them as if they were in three-dimensional space along with my chunky embodiment.

So, "virtual" or otherwise, the illusion of sonic and musical truth is just flat out too much for an obsessive "on location" recording engineer to avoid. Never in my experience has "virtuality"—something not wholly there but demanding one's attention—been so non-virtual, so utterly life-like, so alive with the tactile force of music's flesh and bones.

Temporary Conclusions

I have no idea what the street price for the McCormack VRE-1 will be when it moves through its marketplace debut, at the Rocky Mountain Audio Show in October, and on to distribution. But I'll attest to this: many audio products that are under-whelming in their delivery of musical truth stand waiting to snag pocketbooks at prices out of whack to their subordinated achievement. I'm confident that the McCormack VRE-1 will neither be overpriced nor disappointing to those whose genuinely audiophile ears seek an ultimate audio and musical experience.

I'd say that this hard-won, time-tested, long-gestating audio engine might just as easily been dubbed "Virtual Reality Discernment Extraordinaire."

Regardless of names—Lady Day or VRDE-1—Steve McCormack appears to have moved to the highest plateau of his long-admired audio engineering work. His VRE-1 is likely to gain many admirers from each segment of the High End across the globe.

SMc Audio
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