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Octave Records - In Pursuit of Studio Recording Excellence

08-03-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 122

Hurray for those obsessed by the pursuit of sonic excellence! Octave Records, founded by Paul McGowan of PS Audio, is an exemplar of compulsion for audio excellence in studio recorded music. And they are giving us much to celebrate.

Octave Records was founded in 2019 in Boulder, Colorado, as a subsidiary of PS Audio. It comes out of CEO Paul McGowan's passion to achieve sonic excellence in studio recordings at the highest audiophile standards. To accomplish this, Paul has charged Octave to invest in using the best possible equipment, apply the best practices in recording philosophy, and work with the best available technology for capturing the most accurate acoustic signal. For Paul, this means recording to DSD.

Importantly, Paul McGowan is making a tremendous commitment to supporting artists in this venture. "Octave is covering 100% of all studio, mixing, mastering, production, distribution and marketing expenses – so that artists may directly share in retained sales revenues. The artists will also retain ownership of their music. The label's intent is to give artists a creative as well as financially supportive environment." (HERE) This commitment deserves support from all of us as listeners!

As I read more about what Paul wished to achieve, I was intrigued.

I'm used to listening to the highest quality sonic results for classical music. I long ago gave up expecting anything of sonic excellence from popular music studio recordings—the sound quality has just been too highly compromised. May I say "marginal at best"?

Recently, I've been encouraged by the pioneering work on the pop/country/blues side of my musical world by the efforts of producers/engineers Barry Diament of Soundkeeper Recordings (HERE) and Andy Duncanson of High Cross Sound (HERE). When I read about PS Audio's push with Octave Records, with their corporate resources fully behind the effort, I thought that here we may have a player that can make a bigger impact on the larger industry. So, I've been listening to their releases, about a dozen albums this far, to see what Octave is accomplishing.

And I am impressed with what I'm hearing in these recordings.

  • No compression.
  • Very clean and clear.
  • Highly detailed.
  • Extremely natural-sounding instruments and voices.
  • Strikingly "analog" in overall sound quality.

This is a great start. Paul and his team are making a tremendous commitment to getting the best sound quality in their recordings that they can achieve. But, keep in mind that, with a few notable exceptions, these are STUDIO recordings in overall recording style and aesthetic. They are multi-track and mixed, artists performing with headphones on and isolated, and with instruments layered in the mix but without a true "natural acoustic" soundstage image. For the most part, these albums come out of traditional pop studio recording philosophy—focused on the sound of the instrument but not attempting to capture a live performance as an organic thing unto itself.

And this "studio sound" is a valid aesthetic preference.

Just be aware that these recordings, by and large, do not capture the energy and natural perspective of a live recording on stage—that's not what they are about. For that live performance aesthetic, look to the work coming from Soundkeeper Recordings and High Cross Sound. At the same time, the sound of the instruments on Octave Records is supremely well captured given their commitment to DSD as their preferred recording format and to high sonic quality in the post-production. This is where the sound quality of Octave's recordings shines.

You should definitely check them out. And to that end, let me share some thoughts about a few of the releases to get you started…

Temporary Circumstances, Clandestine Amigo, 2020 HERE

This is a terrific record. Compelling, thoughtful lyrics, interesting combinations of instruments, all very well performed and beautifully/tastefully recorded.

Clandestine Amigo is a Colorado band founded by singer/song writer Jessica Carson. This first album released by the band features Jessica's very personal songs about lost love, resilience, and the refusal to be defined by one's mistakes. Jessica comments that these songs come from a certain time in her life

Jessica's lead vocals and Giselle Collazo's harmony vocals create a delightful melding of complementary voices. What we are told by Octave is that their voices "were recorded simultaneously using a single Tim de Paravicini-modified AKG C24 stereo mic and a Bock Audio 507 mic. A few vocal overdubs were added later but what you mostly hear are live, unedited, honest vocal performances."

While clearly multi-tracked and over-dubbed, it is tastefully done. Giselle notes, "the arrangements fit the songs, but without being distracting or having any overplaying. We kept going back to the question: 'how does this serve the songs and get an emotional effect from the listener?' You won't hear any 'multi-track congestion' on this record!"

I think they have largely succeeded in this.

Levelland, Bonnie and Taylor Sims, 2021 HERE

Levelland is the first acoustic duo album from Bonnie & Taylor Sims. After performing together for over 15 years, this album is an answer to years of fan requests for a stripped-down acoustic duo project. Octave Records describes their sound as Soulful Roots County, and this strikes me as about right. It is a lovely collection of country music that is unpretentious, soulful and honest.

By way of introduction to this duo, Octave Records says: "Bonnie & Taylor have established themselves as leaders on the Colorado music scene from playing countless live shows and festivals around Colorado and the Western US; tours to Europe and Canada; multiple studio albums…" Each performed for a number of years with their separate bands. Bonnie, with her band Bonnie & the Clydes, released four studio albums over ten years together. Taylor, with a bluegrass band called Spring Creek, started performing in the Texas panhandle but he and the band decided Texas was not a bluegrass state so they packed up and headed to Boulder, Colorado. After five of six years of touring success with 150-200 dates each year and four albums, he says "the band had about as much as we could take of life on the road and decided to call in quits and the band Spring Creek was no more." He then joined Bonnie's band (Bonnie & the Clydes) where they combined their talents. Today, they continue to tour and make records but they have also started teaching and working with kids in music camps to help form that next generation of musicians.

The musicians on the album include Bonnie (vocals, mandolin), Taylor (vocals, guitar), and Brad Morse on upright bass. The vocal lead alternates between Bonnie and Taylor on the various songs, with the other proving backup or harmony vocals. The result is always an easy, collegial mixing of talents. The sound is up close and personal, with heartfelt harmony vocals, dexterous finger-picking, and all without any studio embellishment. It's just pure, honest music-making.

The performances were recorded by Octave's engineer, Gus Skinas, at Animal Lane Studios in Lyons, Colorado in pure DSD on the Sonoma multi-track system. It was then mixed at PS Audio on a Studer analog mixing board that was once owned by Neil Young.

Things Worth Remembering, Clandestine Amigo, 2021 HERE

Things Worth Remembering is the second album by pop/rock band Clandestine Amigo. It features the songs of lead singer/songwriter/pianist Jessica Carson, singer Giselle Collazo, and the addition of vocalist Katie Mintle. Clandestine Amigo's earlier album, Temporary Circumstances (see above), is a bit different sounding, but the songs continue in a similar vein. Jessica says, "There are songs that are in the same vein as Temporary Circumstances, but this is an album that has a sense of closure on those earlier songs."

The overall sound is "more produced" than the earlier album, which she says is intentional. With this second Clandestine Amigo release, Jessica says wanted the story of the new batch of songs to be told with new instruments and a different voice. "For me," she writes, "the title Things Worth Remembering is more than just the name of one of the songs, it captures the intent of the album. These songs were written about personal experiences, feelings, love and heartbreak that are long gone but worth remembering. It's a collection of songs that bookends a certain time in my life."

The multi-talented Jessica Carson is also the Executive Producer for Octave Records and her knowledge of the many musicians who have worked on Octave Records releases enabled her to pull together a stellar group for this outing. In addition to the core band of Jessica, Giselle, Michael Wooten (drums) and Kyle Donovan (acoustic and electric guitar), the record features guest appearances from Octave Records artists Gabriel Mervine (trumpet), Bradley Morse (upright and electric bass), Tom Amend (organ, flute), Jonathan Sadler (vibraphone), Eben Grace (pedal steel) and Jay Elliott (tambourine).

When Copper Editor Frank Doris asked Jessica what made her decide to hand over lead vocals to Katie Mintle, she replied: "I found Katie on Instagram! I saw her and thought, wow, this woman has such a beautiful voice, a smooth kind of sultry voice that really lends itself to jazz. We met, and hit it off. I feel like she really gets it, especially for the more emotional kind of softer songs."

Mintle is featured on three tracks: "I Wish," "Things Worth Remembering," and "Let It Be."

And the result is indeed very special.

And the entire album is engaging and very special with evocative, highly personal songs by Jessica and excellent performances by the entire band.

Things Worth Remembering was recorded at Animal Lane Studios in Lyons, Colorado. As with other Octave releases, this is a studio album with tracks laid down and mixed to a final result. Jessica recorded her piano parts on a Yamaha 7-1/2-foot concert grand piano and the basic tracks were recorded live in the studio using a Sonoma digital audio workstation (DAW) in pure one-bit DSD.

For Frank Doris' full interview with Jessica Carson and additional information about the recording of this album, see his article in Copper, HERE.

Dreams of You, Jeremy Mahoney, 2022 HERE

This album is a fun return to some swing roots. Jeremy Mahoney on saxophone and vocals is the driving force behind the band which additionally includes guitar, banjo, double bass, drums, and trombone. This small-group ensemble just bounces along with a nice toe-tapping energy gently evoking a bygone era in jazz.

According to the liner notes, Dreams of You was recorded mostly live. The music was composed in advance but with room for improvisation. "We wrote out the chord charts and memorized the melodies and riffs," Mahoney said. "That's the way they would have done it back in the day. We wanted to make sure everyone had an idea of what they wanted to do but kept that on-the-spot spirit of improvisation." And this easy collegial playing is exactly what we here, with a nice swing.

The recording was made in the new Octave Records studio using the Sonoma 32-track DSD recorder with Meitner A/D converters. The sound of Mahoney's voice and accompanying instruments is captured with clarity and warmth, with each instrument well-defined and in its own nice natural acoustic space.

For a nice further introduction to the album and an interview with Jeremy Mahoney, see Frank Doris' article in Copper HERE.

Ragtime World, Augustus, 2021 HERE

This is Octave's first rock and roll album from the Indie band Augustus. And the pure DSD sound truly rocks right along with some toe-tapping beats and haunting melodies. Octave and the band employ a full complement of studio tricks and treats, as one might expect to hear in this genre, but the quality of that sound so surpasses the mere dreck-sound one so often hears that it just makes me want to jump up on the table and shout for joy! Finally! No compression, no distortion (except as intended), nicely captured voice and instrumental timbre, very pure overall sound. Just great. Even the fuzz and reverb is pure clean and enjoyable.

And the music? Yes, the music is very interesting, very engaging. Excellent lyrics, driving rhythms, intriguing mixes of instruments and textures. As Russel Welton writes in a review on the Octave website HERE:

"There's a wonderful depth of the 70's not just in the instrumentation but in the feel of vocals. For me it conjures up imagery of America's Horse with no Name and the timbre in the vocals of early Bread tracks. How fantastic to hear the feel of that era but with such modern clarity and spaciousness in the recording and mix which is super revealing."

Yes, yes, and yes. Just listen to the final cut on this album, "James Dean," to hear why I'm excited about this release. Very much recommended. 

For more, check out the video: https://player.vimeo.com/video/587633719

Nightmares, Gasoline Lollipops, 2022 HERE

Country-Americana-Rock band Gasoline Lollipops is known throughout the state of Colorado for their rollicking performances that get people dancing. In this album with Octave Records, the band brings a nice range of intimate songs for a spacious, acoustically-oriented listening experience. While the band remains true to their signature style on the dark and bluesy, electric harmonica-laced "Devil's in the Ace" and country-rock shuffle "Fast Train" featuring a no-holds-barred electric guitar solo, Nightmares is also brimming with intimate tender moments. Sonically, this sounds like one of the more natural "live stage" performances coming out of the Octave Records studio, despite perhaps too much love (and to my ears, overuse) for the studio's otherwise excellent reverb system. Overall, however, I found this to be an musically satisfying and very engaging listening experience. The songs consistently have thoughtful lyrics and the music is fresh and innovative with a strong bluesy-roots grounding.

Gasoline Lollipops studio recording session.

Analog mixing board in control room at Octave Records.

So, my friends, here has been a summary of several albums, any of which I'd recommend to you. The recordings Octave Records are releasing are high quality, with interesting artists, varied and interesting music, and terrific "classic studio" sound. I encourage you to check them out. 

With this venture, Paul McGowan is making a great contribution to studio recorded sound quality, he's laying down a marker for others to work towards. And, he's making a great contribution to supporting musicians and helping them expand the audience who can value what they create. Bravo! Now if Octave could just make the full move to releasing in DSD256 [hint, hint...].