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Soundkeeper Recordings – Bringing The Live Performance

03-21-2022 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 120

Such a pleasure! A recording label for country, bluegrass, pop, world and other acoustic musicians that truly brings the listener into the presence of the live performance. Soundkeeper Recordings is making direct-to-two-track recordings that I'd love to hear from more labels. This is the way acoustic music should be heard.

Barry Diament, founder, chief recording engineer and mastering engineer for Soundkeeper Recordings, has a simple goal: "make recordings that provide the listener with a perspective similar to what they’d experience in the presence of the performance."

This goal sounds simple, but it eludes most recording companies.

Too many recording companies get lost using way too many microphones, separating musicians from one another into acoustic booths hearing only through their headphones, relying on "fixing it in post" rather than getting it right in the performance, using layers and layers of electronics that mask the sound, miles of cable that lose the delicate overtones of the instruments, and not recording in a natural acoustic space in which the instruments reverberate and integrate. The result of such recordings is a totally different aesthetic. But whatever the virtues of such recording processes, the result they provide does not deliver listeners into the presence of a live performance.

If your goal is to enjoy hearing the musicians as if in the presence a live performance, to experience the energy that only live performances create, then you should explore the recordings Barry Diament is making at Soundkeeper Recordings. Your goal as a listener will be aligned with his goal as a recording and mastering engineer.

Soundkeeper's current catalog includes music from country/bluegrass, world, and pop musicians, but there is no reason it won't expand to classical, or jazz or other acoustic genre as opportunities present themselves. From what I've heard thus far, I'd venture to listen to any music Soundkeeper Recordings releases with high confidence that I will enjoy the recording and that the musicians will be worth hearing. If this matches your interests, read on.

Cosmic American Derelicts in their recording session for The Twain Shall Meet, discussed below.

Before founding Soundkeeper Recordings, Barry Diament worked in the recording industry as a recording and mastering engineer. He started in the industry in 1975 and he left Atlantic Records in 1987 to work on his own as an independent recording engineer, founding Barry Diament Audio. To expand beyond contract recording, Diament founded Soundkeeper Recordings as the music label under which he can release albums that meet his expectations: recordings that sound like live performances and that place the listener in the presence of the musicians. To do so, he maintains three key principles:

  1. The best way to achieve the excitement of a real performance in a recording is to record a real performance.
  2. Record in a venue with the right supporting acoustic for the music and instrumentation.
  3. Use a system that gets out of the way.

Each of these principles present multi-layered challenges to achieve.

The most difficult challenge, according to Diament, is "finding artists whose music moves me and who are also capable of making a recording the Soundkeeper way, which is to say, those artists who can perform their music in real time, without requiring the safety of the studio to fix mistakes or requiring an engineer to balance the music." In other words, they need to be able to play a full five-minute set! He describes his philosophy as "recording without a net." Namely, his first principle: the only way to achieve the excitement of a real performance in a recording is to record a real performance.

Getting the system out of the way means, among many other things, recording in a pure way, nothing close-mic'd, and no limiting, compression or outboard EQ to get in the way of the natural dynamics of the sound. It also means there are no overdubs, no mixing after the fact in post-production. Microphone setup is simplified with a focus on getting both the microphones and the musicians optimally positioned in the acoustical space. And the musicians play live, in real time. They determine the musical balances and musical dynamics as they are recorded directly to stereo. 

My first exposure to one of his recordings was the Cosmic American Derelicts' new album The Twain Shall Meet (2022). It's an excellent album that demonstrates all the virtues of Diament's recording goals.

The Twain Shall Meet, Cosmic American Derelicts. Soundkeeper Recordings 2022 HERE

Cosmic American Derelicts are a country/bluegrass performing group with a nexus in the northeast U.S. Founded in 1998, their lineup for this album includes George Kapitanelis (bandleader, bass, tambourine), Scott Lauro (vocals, harmony vocals, guitar, banjo), Danny Pavas (vocals, harmony vocals, guitar), Ed Rainey (harmony vocals, dobro, guitar), Nick Reeb (fiddle).

The album is a nice blend of tunes, excellent musicianship, great finger-picking, and nice vocals. The band plays together with excellent blending and support of the various musical voices throughout. I really enjoyed the variety of instruments used throughout to create variety and increased musical interest. This is music-making with vitality and integrity. It is music-making to enjoy!

As I first listened to this album, my immediate reaction was: Oh, indeed yes. Something very right is going on with this recording. When I finished, I immediately shot an email off to Dr. David, our dear editor, to say that Soundkeeper Recordings is definitely onto the right track for me. This sounds real, it is authentic. It sound fresh and clear and open and very much a real performance in a real space.

And with no disrespect meant to country and bluegrass music, this sounded to me like the classical chamber music recordings that I value so highly for the way in which they capture the sound of a live performance in a natural acoustic space (e.g., the recordings from Channel Classics, Cobra Records, Eudora, Northstar Recordings, TRPTK).

And yet this is country/bluegrass music. Halleluiah!

So, my curiosity asked whether other recordings from Soundkeeper maintained this same recording aesthetic. Is there a consistent track record of results? For that answer, I had to get some more albums from the Soundkeeper catalog to compare.

And the short answer is yes.

Diament is consistently delivering in his other recordings the very natural, live-performance sound that I am hearing in The Twain Shall Meet. Here are three additional albums to which I've now been listening, and I can happily recommend any of them.

Ka Sa, Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn. Soundkeeper Recordings 2018 HERE

Equinox, Markus Schwartz & Lakou Brooklyn. Soundkeeper Recordings 2010 HERE

Grammy-nominated percussionist Markus Schwartz is an intriguing multi-instrumental percussionist. Surrounded by jazz as he grew up, he has devoted more than 25 years to learning the wealth and complexity of traditional Haitian religious music. Moving in and out of Haiti since the early 1990s, Schwartz followed Haitian percussionists on pilgrimages into the countryside to learn the intricate and powerful drumming styles of the various lakou (historic religious compounds), such as Badjo, Soukri and Souvenance.

Markus Schwartz

These two albums for Soundkeeper are performed with his own ongoing band, Lakou Brooklyn, in single take recording sessions. They are as alive and natural sounding as any recordings in my collection. The capture of the percussion is tactile, but with that ever so important natural reverberation and air that comes only to a recording where the instrument has been allowed to breathe in a natural acoustic space (and not with the microphone jammed within an inch of the drum).

For those interested in learning more about these recordings sessions, Barry Diament has written up thorough descriptions in his blog. You will find his discussion of Equinox HERE and his discussion of Ka Sa HERE.

In the next album, Winds of Change, we shift gears fully into pop with songs written by lead singer, Art Halperin. Soundkeeper's website describes Halperin as a musician whose abilities have taken him in many different directions. 

Winds of Change, Work of Art. Soundkeeper Recordings 2014 HERE

As a composer, songs Halperin has written for other artists have appeared on Billboard's R&B, Pop and even Classical charts. The legendary producer and talent scout John Hammond Sr. (the man who discovered Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Bruce Springsteen among many others) was so impressed with Art's music that he signed Art as the first artist on Hammond/CBS Records. A ten song album was completed for the label. Since Hammond passed away, rock history books have noted Art as "John Hammond's last discovery". HERE

Intrigued? Yes, so was I.

And I found it most enjoyable. 

Good lyrics. Good music. Nice combination of instruments. Nice arrangements.

Barry Diament shows us in this album that even pop music with amplified electric instruments can be recording using his Soundkeeper philosophy. See the photo below. Yes, those are guitar and keyboard amps/speakers unloaded and ready to be carried into the old church that served as the recording venue for this session. And the sound? Deliciously real.

Winds of Change is Soundkeeper's second album with Art Halperin and his group Work of Art. I haven't heard their 2007 first album, Lift, but given Teresa Goodwin's enthusiasm for it, I will look forward to hearing it. See her review in Positive Feedback's Issue 61 from 2012 HERE. Yes, it is worth researching the archives! If Teresa liked it, then I want to hear it.

Let me encourage you to explore the Soundkeeper Recordings catalog. In addition to the most recent The Twain Shall Meet, there are six more. If you value recordings that bring the live performers into your listening space, take a listen to any of the albums with music you might enjoy. I know you'll enjoy the sound quality. Given Barry Diament's tastes, it's likely you'll enjoy the musicians as well.

See Soundkeeper's current catalog HERE.

A word about the recording format... The astute reader who has reviewed some of the links provided may now be asking: "But, Rush, I thought your brief was to review DXD and DSD256 recordings? These are PCM 24-192 recordings." And to this question, all I can offer is a shrug. Format is not the only thing that makes for an excellent recording. It's perhaps the least of the variables. The more important to me are microphone selection and placement, a compatible venue with a nice acoustic, and very low noise electronics. As Barry Diament comments in one of his blog articles about recording, if you get the microphones right, you've captured 90% of the sound quality. The rest of the recording chain is about retaining what the microphones have heard. Format resolution is one of those factors, as are electronics transparency and low noise, A/D conversion quality, cables, power... The list goes on and on, just as it does in our home reproduction systems.

In my experience, Diament's choice of 24/192 places him squarely at the inflection point for digital. Might 24/352.8 (DXD) or DSD256 provide an even further improvement? I believe it would based on my listening in playback. So, sure, I'd love to hear the results he'd get using a Merging Technologies Hapi A/D converter to DSD256 with its optional analog input cards, and then mastering that album with Signalyst's HQPlayer 4 Pro so the music stays entirely in the DSD domain. His recording process is perfectly suited to this purist approach, and I think the results would be superb. But, I'd far rather have a 24/192 recording where attention has been paid to all the other factors, as Diament is doing, than a DXD or DSD recording where the microphoning is not up to his standard.

Any reservations you might have should be discarded. These results are simply exceptionally good and not often heard in recordings of these genres.

Well done, Barry Diament. More power to you. I look forward to hearing your next recording venture.

Photos courtesy of Barry Diament and Soundkeeper Recordings