HFC talks to the jazz chanteuse on her mission to raise awareness of high quality recording processes and solid audiophile sensibilities
Whenever the subject has come up for discussion at HFC, it seems that professional singers and musicians generally aren’t into audiophile-grade hi-fi. Why would they be? Immersed in their own music for a living, even the world’s greatest system is going to come off second best. Their ‘hi-fi jollies’ don’t involve 24/192 downloads but living and breathing the music itself. We can understand that. There are exceptions, though, and maybe one exceptional exception.
Meet Lyn Stanley, originally from Tacoma, Washington, working out of sunny California and notable visitor to the Bristol Sound & Vision hi-fi show this year. People call her a jazz chanteuse with a voice to make you melt, but she’s more than that – not only someone with solid audiophile sensibilities, but also a denizen of the mixing desk and on a mission to ensure her music, beyond the live experience, can be enjoyed in the highest quality possible.
Remember the ‘Is it live or is it Memorex?’ ad for compact cassettes back in the seventies where Count Basie had to say whether he was listening to Ella Fitzgerald singing in a sound booth or a recording of her singing on a Memorex cassette with MXR, Oxide? Rather surprisingly, he couldn’t. Almost half a century on, Lyn occasionally lends her pipes to repeat the exercise at hi-fi shows across the world (minus the Memorex, of course) and now the closeness of the result is a genuine jaw dropper. Good for Lyn’s presence as a performer among those of us that take our sound quality seriously, good for sales of her meticulously engineered and mastered albums on vinyl, CD, SACD, hi-res download and even reel-to-reel tape (38,000 and counting), and good for the high-fidelity cause period.
They say life is a journey. Lyn Stanley’s has certainly taken a few unexpected turns to arrive where she is at today. Exposure to well-reproduced music, however, is a vivid early memory. “My introduction to high-end audio equipment happened at my parents’ home in the sixties and seventies when I was growing up,” she says. “My stepfather had a massive Pioneer amplifier that took a college degree to figure out. And an expensive Technics phono stage. I think the speakers were JVC. If memory serves, he moved to Macintosh systems in the eighties. We had a good collection of classical music and Sinatra swing albums on LPs, but he also dabbled with reel-to-reel on a beautiful TEAC.
“I was allowed to play the vinyl as long as I followed the instructions I was given. I didn’t want to lose that privilege, so I was very attentive to the details. Everything was done to a level of perfection and I guess I just bought into that by training. But most important was the chance to play great old standards, instrumental and classical albums at our home. I thought I was lucky compared to my friends.
“Unfortunately, my mother didn’t engage with my stepfather’s hobby and on his passing, without my knowing, she gave away his equipment. I was heartbroken.”
It would be many years before Lyn found jazz as a performer and a host of behind-the-glass legends of the genre – especially those of the Great American Songbook standards persuasion – found an ‘exceptional talent’. In that time she’d ‘lived’ – as a competitive ballroom dancer and a college professor while taking up a prolonged residency at the school of hard knocks. Two divorces, a cancer scare and a career path seemingly entrenched in corporate marketing is a chequered back story for an artist described by Los Angeles radio station KKJz-88.1FM as: “One of today’s outstanding jazz vocalists”. But Lyn insists that one informed the other. “I’ve been through a lot,” she explains, “and if I don’t have it in my background, I can’t sing it. When I’m singing, I try to see in my mind where I was at a time in my life.”
The big break came with her first stage performance in 2011 where she was accompanied by legendary ivory tickler Paul Smith (Frank Sinatra, Ella, Tommy Dorsey, The Beatles). So impressed was Smith, he invited Lyn to tour with his trio for the next four months. Her first album release, Lost In Romance, followed in 2013 while last year’s The Moonlight Sessions Volume Two brings the catalogue total to five. Unsurprisingly, it’s the most immaculate set yet, thanks in no small part to the glowing production skills of mixing engineer Al Schmitt and mastering engineer Bernie Grundman – Grammy Award winners both. At the time of writing, over 70 jazz radio stations are airing her work worldwide.
Bernie Grundman was an early fan and supporter of Lyn’s style and vocal gifts. She relates: “When I met Bernie for the first time at his mastering studio, I felt like I was back in my childhood again. It was Bernie that told me my debut record was so good and well recorded. He thought I would be a hit in the audiophile market and that I should make a vinyl record. I agreed and with his help my first album was pressed by Pallas in Germany with 180g vinyl and at 45rpm. I did this to state that I was in the audio market with my best foot forward and with Al Schmitt at the mixing desk I knew the recording would be the best it could be.”
Lyn enjoyed meeting British audiophiles at the Bristol show, describing them as true enthusiasts with little time for equivocation. One, after hearing her work, bought her entire back catalogue on the spot. “That’s what I love about the Brits,” she says, “no middle ground – if they’re in, they are in.” And she’s in a good position to judge. As well as delivering the odd impromptu song, Lyn is a seasoned speaker at high-end shows, giving fans a taste of what it’s like to record at top studios with top-tier engineers and world-class musicians. “Many audiophiles are real music lovers,” she continues, “and they want to know about the behind-the-scenes activity that goes into making reference recordings. In all my time on the audiophile circuit – and I go to Munich, Hong Kong, Japan, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as other shows – I usually get requests from the rooms to play my music and give them feedback on their systems. The best of these demos is when we can play a vinyl, reel-to-reel and SACD of the same song or album and watch the reaction of the room audience to the different formats. I’ve done this with Tim de Paravicini at Munich and Hong Kong and we packed the rooms – great fun. I hope to do something similar at the Bristol show if I come back next year.”
The analogue challenge
Lyn certainly isn’t afraid to experiment as a means of research into what constitutes optimum sound quality. She explains: “Back in 2013, a 24/192 recording was considered high-end digital, so that’s what we used for my first album. In pure terms, if you start with 24/192 you should stay there as you go through the recording process. So the album was mastered in this format too. But, once I had entered the audio market and attended shows, I got a taste for analogue recordings which, to my ear, are not as bright and ‘in-your-face’ as digital. So with my Potions album, I did an experiment and challenged my album buyers.
“Most of the tracks on this album were recorded on 2in 24-track analogue – just as it was done in the fifties. But three of the songs on this album were recorded differently. One was recorded entirely digitally at 32/192, and two were hybrids where some of the musicians were kept on the analogue track and a few of the other musicians were replaced by a digital track. I wanted to see if the audiophiles could figure out which tracks had the variances. With regard to recording formats, Al Schmitt has a strong opinion about what he would do if it were his money on the line. He told me a story about recording with Bob Dylan using both tape and digital and asking Dylan which he preferred. According to Al, Bob decided the digital was fine and not taken on the additional expense of tape. Tape cost? It’s very high today. You can easily add an extra $25,000 to an album to make it an analogue tape recording. But I like analogue because you can do anything with it after you’re done, even convert it to digital.
“As a producer, you have to weigh the costs against the advantages. For instance, I will never make a reel-to-reel of my first album because it was a digital recording and I think that would be ripping off the customer. If he or she really wants it on tape they can make a copy for the price of a blank tape. This is my philosophy and many music tape manufactures don’t agree. It’s just quality control for me. As much as I’d love to make more money, you’ve got to set standards for your work in the audiophile world.”
So, great sound in the studio, great sound at home, right? It’s crucial, states Lyn. “Even modest systems will sing with an investment in a great recording. What you put in will dictate what you get out. If you hire engineers that make a good living at what they do, they buy the best and they keep their equipment in tip-top condition at all times. It’s a mandate. Hire an engineer that has to rent his equipment and you are getting used equipment that does not have the same attention to detail. Use great studios that have high standards. When I record, I pay attention to the pianos in the studio now more than ever. I’ve learned lessons along the way. The same goes for my musicians – they know that the instruments they bring to play need to be in top shape when recording. That’s why studio musicians are the salt of the music earth; they know a bad sounding instrument could mean no more work for them in recording sessions.
“I believe in investing in music for obvious reasons. But do it smart and trust engineering know-how. Of course, I also think great sound means great music, but I know several audio fanatics who will disagree with me and some will play the wildest music for the sound reproduction only. Of course, I cannot do this. I hear every off-pitch instrument or unlikely mesh of instruments and sometimes cringe. I am a music lover who uses the systems to produce lifelike performances”. DV
Read the full feature in the May issue (436) of Hi-Fi Choice.
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