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Parametric Music: An Interview With George Massenburg

"The idea just seemed like magic to me. Still does..."

By Bootz October 5, 2012

George Massenburg

This article is provided by Audiofanzine.

It’s always a great and unusual experience to meet someone who has contributed some much to the evolution of the way we work. In addition to the videos previously released on Audiofanzine, we had the extreme pleasure to get together with George Massenburg during his last Parisian visit and to talk more about music production. An interview with a real open-minded master.

Bootz: George, just before we start, what are you working on at the moment?

George Massenburg: I have three recording projects that I’m working on right now. One is not really recording; it’s finishing an Opera McGill production—Don Giovanni, Mozart—and I’m directing and post-production supervising. It’s an 8-camera hi-def (video) shoot that we did with students with a new methodology, a new way of shooting opera that I think is spectacularly effective because it reveals more about opera, as it’s more intimate and more suited to the new generation of kids that want to see something on a small screen.

That, and I’m doing two music projects— McGill Jazz 1 and a Stan Kitten record, cut for commercial release, which is great because Jazz 1 has many many players which are fantastic. Just great songs, great kits, great drums, great bass, great guitar, great piano, great, great great.

And then I’m working with a new pop group called Urban Creature, from Toronto. They write and produce their own records. This is a personal project to see how the new model would work. I work completely for free, participating in the recording of the group, and we’ll see how that goes.

And on the other side, you’re still working with GM Labs?

Well, I’ve got three jobs: education, producing electronic equipment, and recording. It’s kind of a mix, but I’m unhappy if I don’t do one of these. I want to do all three, and they inform each other. I have to keep recording to stay current with the methodology of the studio; I listen to everything that I can get my hands on. I hear new work being done and I want to try it.

I’m in the studio a lot. Also building equipment—right now we have two software products in process for MDW and one that is a hybrid product for GML, which is the next generation of the 9000 controller, but with a DSP sidechain. And this takes a long time to do because internally it looks to run at 384 kHz, very fast, not quick (to develop, NA).

As far as software products, we have new products out for the new Pro Tools platform for 10.2 called AAX, and both DSP and Native. It’s a lot of work!

Speaking of the balance between all these projects, I’d like to go back to your early age, to the first period of your career. I’ve read that you started at the age of 15, you were working at a laboratory and at the same time were working at a studio.

I had joined a recording studio at Baltimore, Maryland. But it went back to when I was four years old and I used to unscrew a light bulb and stick my fingers in, and “Aaaahhh!” just to experiment (Laughs). But I loved music recording from a very early age. I had the good fortune to grow up in the same area as Deane Jensen, who was a pioneer in making transformers. He was a friend—a personal friend—and we did ham radio, amateur radio, and photography. 

And then he bought an Ampex 602 tape recorder—wow!—and headphones and a U67. I bought his U67, and still have it. Very early on, I knew that I just loved recording. There was a tremendous power with recording. Ed Cherney said, “I always thought it was a miracle that music could go through this wire. That’s magic.”

Anyway, the idea just seemed like magic to me. Still does.

So then, Deane Jensen was your first mentor?

He was really my first mentor. My second mentor was Dr. Curtis Marshall, and I worked for him in a laboratory to build an early computer that used a very strange storage mechanism called an Image Radarcon, a tube that would just scan in and then destructively output a number of scans. It was used to accumulate electron info graphs sensors into an averaging reports so that a neurosurgeon could read an electrons info graph much faster. But it taught me early on about electronics.

I’d like to go back to your concept of parametric EQ that you first introduced in 1972, if I am correct…

It was 1971, and then I gave the AES paper in 1972. It was a combination of people who had this idea, but we got there first. Dan Flickinger had kind of a sweep equalizer in his console, but he didn’t have a cue control; Gotham sold an equalizer made by EMT I think – the EQ1000 – and it had a notch filter, but it wasn’t continuously variable. So we took a notch filter and an early discrete op amp because chips weren’t very good, so we had to have an op amp so built our own op amp and an early equalizer.

Then I had to show how it worked. I took it to the AES show and people would say, ‘that’s OK, but I need to click stops.” No, we’re getting away from click stops, it’s much more powerful! You can tune this exactly to the resonance of a guitar or to a snare drum it controlled.”

It was easier designing it than selling it. It was a whole new idea and people didn’t get it. Especially the idea of cue control. For so long people complained about the cue of the SSL equalizer being too sharp. And when it was too broad, because Hugh Padgham complained, then people complained that it was too broad. So it was always a good idea to make it adjustable, but people had to get used to the idea of what that sounded like.

And that meant they had to listen, and that has always been the problem. Generally, it’s hard to get people to listen.

We have to listen and to hear how to make it work. Did you have to spend a lot of time explaining and educating? You started educating people about this new concept of parametric EQ?

Well, ultimately what sold it was making records, especially Earth Wind & Fire records in 1974, 1975. They came on so bright and big that people were saying, “What the f*ck is he doing?”

Well, now I got your attention. So it really helped. Talking about music is like singing about football. You only get so far before you have to demonstrate what it is: “And here is what that sounds like.” That’s the key, demonstrating.

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