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On The Right Track: A Veteran Engineer Discusses His Favorite Recording & Related Matters

Long-time front of house engineer Dave Natale on his favorite reference tracks for tuning sound systems and the history behind his choice.

Editor’s Note: When we contacted Dave regarding system tracks he favors for tuning, to be included in our recent Roundtable article (here) on this topic, we received this remarkable reply and are pleased to present it in its entirety. Enjoy.

I’ve been using the same CD since about 1985 or so, a Sheffield Lab recording entitled “James Newton Howard & Friends.” The original vinyl version was recorded direct to disc (no stopping, no mistakes, no overdubs) by the legendary Bill Schnee at the then MGM Scoring Stage, now the Sony Scoring Stage that’s also known as the Barbra Streisand Scoring Stage.

Mastered by the late (and legendary) Doug Sax, the album features keyboardist/composer James Newton Howard on grand piano and keyboards joined by his friends from the band Toto: David Paich and Steve Porcaro on keyboards, Jeff Porcaro on drums, and Joe Porcaro on percussion. That alone should be an immediate indicator of why I use this recording when equalizing/tuning systems.

According to Steve Porcaro, some time around 1983 he asked Paich and Newton Howard to play a set with him and a drum machine for Yamaha at the Winter NAMM show in Southern California. Fast forward a year later and they were together again, working the same gig only this time they were accompanied by Jeff Porcaro on drums and Nathan East on bass. As it happens, producer/engineer Schnee was in the audience, heard the set, and thought that it would make a great project for Sheffield.

The first time I listened to the vinyl album, I was at my friend Dave Wilkerson’s house. He and his then-roommate Rex Ray had (and still have) some of the best ears and endless electronic/audio knowledge of anyone I know. At the time all three of us were engineers at Clair Brothers Audio.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to show up at their place, and one or both of them would be sitting around reading the “Audio Cyclopedia” like a novel as opposed to a reference book. The most comprehensive reference text on audio engineering, it’s been called the “audio bible.” The latest version, “The Handbook for Sound Engineers: The New Audio Cyclopedia,” contains 100-plus pages of articles on console design by another friend, noted audio designer Steve Dove, who I had met on my first tour with the band Yes.

The Clair Brothers folding console.

Dave and Rex have forgotten more about audio than I will ever know. We used to sit around and design analog consoles and other circuits and systems for fun. I’m not talking about front panel drawings, but rather, entire consoles with summing buses, EQ… everything.

I recall taking one of our designs to some of the fine folks at Neve to discuss building a new live analog console that Clair Brothers had expressed an interest in.

We presented our drawing and everything seemed to be going rather well until, for the sake of portability, we told them that it had to fold in half like the Clair Brothers custom 32-channel console that I was using at the time.

I demonstrated for them by folding the console up in front of them while it was running a mix that I was doing. We never heard from them again.

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Listening Endlessly

We would sit around in the living room and listen to this album over and over through Dave’s crazy stereo, an AC-consuming, heat-producing behemoth consisting of gigantic Class A Audio Research amplifiers, a preamp, and reworked electrostatic loudspeakers that Dave had custom-welded frames made for – they were one panel wide and went from floor to ceiling.

Electrostatic loudspeakers, albeit newer models than were in Dave Wilkerson’s living room.

The exposed rear sides of the electrostatic panels were connected directly to the plates of the output tubes of the amps. This also doubled as a convenient bug zapper in the summer months and was the equivalent of a sort of human “sand trap or water hazard” as we tried to make our way out to the kitchen for a beer without getting burned. It was just another added dimension to help maintain agility that kept us on our toes.

Dave also had a pair of relatively small, but highly customized, double 12-inch subwoofers. They started out life as conventional subs but Dave removed one of the drivers, covered the resulting hole, and then mounted the driver over the top of the remaining one, wiring it out of phase.

I’m not 100-percent certain, but as I recall, he wired the two drivers “push-pull” on separate amps via 50-pair phone cable that ran under the living room floor: 50 wires twisted together for positive and 50 twisted together for negative. He conservatively estimated a combined wire gauge of 11, just to ensure that there was a solid connection.

To this day it’s the best stereo system that I’ve ever heard. We would listen to it endlessly at what we referred to as “realistic volume” and it would sound like the whole band: drum kit, grand piano, synthesizers and percussion all right there in the living room. It was as close to reality on a scale of “one inch equals one inch” in audio terms as you could get. We played it so much that I heard and remember every nuance of the performance, to this day.

I remember when “Chicago 17” came out and we listened to it through this system at “realistic volume” – the bass synth shook the bedrock under the house and made the road outside look like an asphalt sine wave. I’ve often wondered what the neighbors thought… but never for too long.

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