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SONIC SCOOP – Research & Development: Inside the Making of Machine Matrix from Endless Analog

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

How does an audio offering come to life? Welcome to the new SonicScoop series “Research & Development” where we’ll be exploring the genesis of hardware, software and services that catch our eye.

What's the story behind Endless Analog's new Machine Matrix? (Photo Credit: Jake Harsh)

First up: When Endless Analog first launched the CLASP (Closed Loop Analog Signal Processor) in 2010, there was no guarantee that the world would warm up to their system.

Patented by Chris Estes, the CLASP design bridged analog and digital recording techniques by seamlessly integrating tape machines into Pro Tools. The result was the ability to record to tape while maintaining the speed and flexibility of a DAW, delivering real-time analog monitoring with zero-latency through a mastering grade audio signal path.

In 2012, there are no doubts: CLASP is here to stay, with deployments for Lenny Kravitz, Aerosmith, Abbey Road Studios, John Shanks, Nathan Chapman (Taylor Swift), Beck, Michael W. Smith, Denis Savage (Celine Dion), Butch Walker (Panic at the Disco, Pink, Avril Lavigne), Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson), Chuck Ainlay and John Fields (Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, Switchfoot), and more.

As Estes spent time in the field with CLASP, however, he discovered that something more was needed for the line — CLASP users with multiple tape machines needed an additional level of control. For that, Endless Analog has just introduced a powerful complement to the CLASP line: the Machine Matrix ($3,750). Here, Estes explains how and why his new made-to-order system came into being.

(l-r) Chris Estes and Lenny Kravitz. (photo credit: Mathieu Bitton)

What’s the principle behind the Machine Matrix?

With the Machine Matrix and a CLASP system you can switch back and forth between tape machines in the middle of the song without any patching or re-syncing all with a single mouse click. Machine Matrix is software/hardware controlled analog tape with mastering grade auto signal routing.

What sparked the original idea for this addition to the Endless Analog line?

The original idea for the Machine Matrix came from Lenny Kravitz’ studio. I spent a good amount of time with Lenny at his studio in the Bahamas and he was one of first customers to utilize CLASP with the Studer J37 one inch four track. His J37 was actually used by The Beatles to record Sgt. Pepper.

He has several different tape machines, and and he wants to use them all. So that was the inspiration for creating the Matrix — a seamless way to switch between tape decks during a session that doesn’t disrupt the creative flow. With our old CLASP software you needed a separate template for each machine, but with the Machine Matrix and our version 3.5 software and hardware there is only one master template for all your tape machines, so you never have to stop the creative flow of the session, break down, and connect your Pro Tools and patchbay to the new machine.

With the Machine Matrix it’s just literally as easy as one mouse click, and within the time it takes to click the mouse your CLASP is switched over to a new tape machine, and everything is patched and synchronized instantly.

For example, let’s say your studio has an Ampex ATR ½-inch machine at 30 ips, but you also have a Studer A80 1-inch that’s running at 15 IPS. You could have 20:32 of tape left on the Studer machine, while the Ampex ATR is running at 30 IPS with 07:31 minutes left — it doesn’t matter. The Machine Matrix keeps track of it all. When you switch to the new machine, the CLASP hardware is automatically updated to the newly selected tape deck.

What did you learn from the rollout of the original CLASP – what was surprising/unexpected for you in terms of how studios were integrating them into their workflow, and using some of the features of the system?

(click to enlarge) This diagram depicts a CLASP system installation using pre existing D-Sub patch bays and pre existing wiring. There are 3 patch modes; (1) CLASP mode which requires no patching. (2) Pro Tools Only mode which requires only one patch from the mic pre outputs to the Pro Tools inputs. (3) Analog Tape Only mode which requires one patch from the analog tape deck outputs to the console line inputs. All of the patchbays are half normaled except for bays 1 & 2 (microphone lines to mic pre amps).

One of the things we learned was how to efficiently and economically integrate CLASP into a studio with minimal wiring. We now have a patchbay configuration diagram that uses mostly your pre-existing wiring. And if you already have a DSUB patchbay then it’s even easier. (see diagram) CLASP is designed to be plug-and-play, you take it out of the box, plug it in and go. It only takes literally one minute to install the software in your Pro Tools.

Another thing we learned was how to improve the software interface and its functionality. We had great suggestions from a few engineers at Abbey Road.

So with those in mind I reworked the interface, and in this new version 3.5 you see the culmination of suggestions from our users — a much better GUI where you can see the track arming status of all 24 tracks of the CLASP hardware simultaneously, better functionality such as Input Monitor and Repro monitor controls on the plugin. An auto update feature that scans for track arming eliminating the need to bank through channels manually with HUI. And we’ve put more controls on the plugin to control the hardware, because that’s mostly what the software is doing — controlling our hardware.

In addition to Lenny Kravitz’ studio, can you give us another example of how the Machine Matrix can optimize the CLASP workflow?

The Machine Matrix makes it extremely convenient to work with all of the machines in your arsenal for overdubbing, mix down — you name it. For example; you might decide to track with your 2-inch machine, but then overdub with your half-inch 2-track and then mix. Or you might be in a tracking session and you have two totally different 2 inch machines you want to A/B for a song. Well, now you can A/B without stopping the session.

You’re one mouse click away from any machine you have in your room. It’s possible to have three completely different 2-inch machines, 1-inch machines, half-inch, quarter-inch or any combination all connected to the Matrix at the same time. It takes as long to switch between decks as it does for you to click the mouse.

One of the best examples I have seen is a CLASP studio with two different 24-track machines (Studer A80, MCI JH24) and an ATR 102 that used a different 2-inch for each song at different tape speeds that best suited the vibe of each song while tracking, then switched into the ATR for vocal overdubbing and the final mix processing.

It’s really exciting to see how people use CLASP. A lot of guys are using it in the mix stage now. They insert the half-inch two-track into the mix chain after their bus compressor and set it on “input” using the VU meters on the two-track to keep an eye on the mix buss gain structure. After the mix is about 80% dialed in, they set the two-track into “repro” and take its transport online with the CLASP.

So now Pro Tools is driving the tape transport (automatic) and they are listening “through the tape” and making final mix and buss compression tweaks, letting the tape react to the fast transients instead of their buss compressor. They fold the output of the two track back into Pro Tools on a fresh channel and use a make up gain plugin like the Slate Mastering Plugin to offset the gain difference going from 0db @ -18VU. The results from this are amazing.

Back view of the Machine Matrix. (Photo credit: Jake Harsh)

What’s the most challenging aspect of designing an entirely new product, as you’ve done with the Machine Matrix?

I think the most challenging thing is to do it so it integrates with our pre-existing lines — that’s what I set out to do. Seamless integration was the goal: When you have a Machine Matrix and want to plug into a CLASP 8, 16, or 24, you’re there. It just plugs in and sees it.

The form factor also takes a lot of careful consideration. Originally we were going to make the audio routing and machine control routing of the Matrix as a separate pieces of gear, but in the end we decided it made more sense to put everything together — that this would give the customer more value. Fortunately it wasn’t difficult to integrate! I just had to re-work the circuit board designs.

Lastly, why is product evolution an essential part of what you do – what are the market forces that make new product features and models a necessity for manufacturers like Endless Analog?

As a music artist it is necessary to keep writing, performing and inventing. I used to write songs and make records — that’s what I did for a living, and then I had the idea for CLASP because I was feeling frustrated about how my digital recordings were sounding. So this is just me being an artist, just like when an artist writes a new song: You have the song in you, you want to get it out and make it happen you want to see it materialize. These are my songs in the form of gear.

Eventually CLASP will be a lot more than what you see right now. It took about five years for us to get the first patent issued for CLASP, which is kind of like getting your songs copy-written. So these first pieces of Endless Analog CLASP gear are like the first few tracks on an album that has been written. Now we’re recording the rest of the album for release a few tracks at a time and hopefully people will continue to like our music.

Just like we each like different genres of music, some engineers like plugins, and that’s fine. But when it comes down to it, we like the sound of using the real thing any day over a simulation. And why not use the real thing if you can? A real tape machine running in the studio is always way more inspiring than a plugin any day.

– David Weiss


USA TODAY – Music lovers pursue technologies to return to high fidelity

Friday, January 27th, 2012

    SONY / ARISTA Records Country Music Artist Jarrod Neimann with Engineer Brian Kolb and Producer Dave Brainard

    SONY / ARISTA Records Country Music Artist Jarrod Niemann with Engineer Brian Kolb and Producer Dave Brainard use the new CLASP technology to record Neimann’s new album release.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Recording engineer Pat McMakin approaches his work with an almost obsessive pursuit of the perfect sound.

The difference between CD, MP3 via The Tennessean

By the time a recording makes its way to fans via iTunes or over Internet radio, it possesses a fraction of the total sound information captured in the studio — as little as 3% of the original, live sound waves. Even CD formats are stripped of up to 90% of the live recording to fit onto a 4 3/4-inch disc.

Often gone are the last lingering notes of a bass guitar, the echo of a drumbeat, the very high and very low notes.

But now, in Nashville, a handful of Music Row businesses are beginning to invest in new products and technologies to increase the fidelity of music at every stage of the recording and listening process, from new in-studio recording technologies to new music formats to home stereo equipment.

Whether consumers who have grown accustomed to listening to tunes over $10 ear buds will be willing to pay for better sounds, however, remains a big question mark.

“I already invest a lot in my music, in my laptop and my iPhone and my Wi-Fi at home,” said Corey First, 28, a marketing assistant from Franklin, Tenn. “I don’t have the bucks to spend more. I have no complaints about my music.

Still, the steep drop in sound quality as digital music has taken hold remains a source of aggravation for artists and music professionals — and audiophiles among consumers — who argue that music is losing many of the subtle qualities that gave it emotion, spaciousness and depth in order to make songs Internet ready.

“The irony is that we’ve been making better- and better-sounding records in the studio, but the technology has been dumbing them down for years,” said McMakin, director of operations at Ocean Way Studios on Music Row.

“All of us —the engineers, the artists, the musicians — put a lot of heart, a lot of time, a lot of care into making music. For us to hear the same piece of music on an MP3 or radio sounds disheartening,” said McMakin, who has engineered audio for Many in the music industry are now beginning to advocate for sound quality solutions.

Last week, singer Neil Young took his campaign for higher-fidelity digital music to a technology conference, revealing that Apple’s Steve Jobs, before his death, had been working on creating bigger digital files to capture a wider range of sound. (Jobs, Young noted, preferred listening to his music on vinyl records.)

Hybrid approach

Last month, at the former historic RCA Studio A on Music Row — now known as Ben’s Studio — country artist Jerrod Niemann recorded tracks for his latest album with a new invention he hopes will increase the audio quality of even the digital versions of his album.

The recording studio is the same Music Row space where stars such as Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins and Joe Cocker made albums during an era in which bulky analog tape decks faithfully captured the sound in a studio and music was sold on vinyl records. Analog captures the entire spectrum of sound, as does vinyl, because the music isn’t compressed or squeezed to fit.

Digital recordings, on the other hand, are captured by computers, which record only certain slices of sound at split-second intervals that are then encoded into computer language. All those 1′s and 0′s end up representing a numeric interpretation of sound.

But Niemann’s recording session relied on a new piece of recording machinery known as CLASP, which takes a hybrid approach.

It records on analog tape and feeds it into a digital machine, giving producers the ease of editing digital with a better-recorded sound, said CLASP’s inventor, local music business entrepreneur Chris Estes.

Estes is marketing the equipment to artists, producers, studios and record companies after spending six years tinkering with the invention in his Bellevue home.

Thus far, its $3,000 to $7,000 price tag has attracted established record labels rather than new independent artists.

Taylor Swift, Adele and the rock band KISS are among the artists who have hired Estes to record with CLASP to capture what Estes calls that “warm, detailed, musical sound.”

“It’s way clearer to listen to,” said Niemann, 32, who is signed with the Sony-owned label Arista Nashville. “I want the fans to hear the music the way it’s supposed to be, the way that I hear it. It’s way better than digital.”

Vinyl is most faithful medium

Although no medium is capable of duplicating exactly the quality of a live performance, the best audio recordings and playback equipment capture the entire range of sound in the studio.

Vinyl is the most faithful medium, with no compression or translation of music.

Among digital recordings, Blu-ray offers one of the highest resolutions possible — the biggest digital space to capture and then rebroadcast a much higher portion of the recorded sound.

But CDs subtract portions of the sound to fit on discs. And MP3s subtract even more.

In mathematical terms, a typical Blu-ray song contains 2,304,000 bits of information. A CD contains a third of that — about 705,600 bits.

But a digital version — an MP3 downloaded from iTunes or the Internet — captures just 70,000 bits.

For all of the hundreds or thousands of minute human-driven adjustments of microphones, sound boards, mixing and mastering that go into constructing a professional album, it’s a computer software program that uses a standard algorithm that decides which of the millions of bits of information aren’t necessary for the human ear — in effect, which parts of a song a listener can do without.

Dynamic ranges (louds and softs) and frequency responses (high and low notes) are often casualties of the compression process.

“The computer program has to take all this information and make it so it can cram down a little pipe and then make it sound good on the other end,” McMakin said. “But it’s like a computer program you put a short story into and it decides all the letter v’s are unnecessary.”

Sound quality then further depends on the consumer’s playback equipment — ear buds and laptop speakers, for example, versus higher-quality stereo systems.

“It’s very frustrating, but when the computer came in people plugged in those little speakers and they seem satisfied with that,” said John Corigliano, 73, a New York composer in contemporary classical American music circles who records with the Franklin-based Naxos label, the biggest classical music label in the world.

“I work long hours getting the sound quality just right,” he said.

To increase the quality available to fans, Corigliano is working with Naxos to produce audio Blu-ray versions of his orchestral compositions. But higher-quality sound isn’t cheap.

At about $19, Corigliano’s Blu-ray Circus Maximus is twice the price of the CD version of his work. No other major label is issuing sound-only Blu-rays, although the format has been used for concert films.

Klaus Heymann, Naxos president and founder, said the company has had to roll back its original plans to issue all new recordings on Blu-ray because it hasn’t yet caught on among consumers.

“We are trying very hard to get other labels on board,” Heymann said. “Some who are not as financially strong as us don’t want to spend money on something that’s not yet a sure thing. But we think it will be because we’re seeing more people buy surround-sound TV systems, and we think consumers are going to understand that equipment is not only good for their video, it’s good for audio.

“The Hong Kong-based Heymann predicts that a proliferation of Internet-ready televisions in the near future probably will make listening to music on computers a short-lived phenomenon. Increasing Internet bandwidth to allow for bigger files that capture more sound information to stream or download also is critical, he said. That would allow for bigger digital files — a step that a handful of recording label executives also want to see.

Gibson jumps in

Nashville’s Gibson Guitar is counting on a resurgence of consumer interest in listening to music at home.

Recently, the longtime guitar maker announced it had created the Gibson Pro Audio division, which includes a partnership with Japanese consumer electronics manufacturer Onkyo to make and market stereo systems, speakers and home theater systems to consumers who, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz believes, want better-sounding music.

“With Onkyo, our goal is to bring the same exceptional experience artists demand in the studio to a larger consumer base,” the Gibson boss said.

Gibson’s Onkyo partnership includes high-end home system equipment that runs to the thousands of dollars, as well as receivers that run only a few hundred dollars.

That may be a big leap for many consumers, but others seem to be inching in that direction after years of eschewing bulky home systems.

In 2011, sales of such audio systems reached $4.4 billion, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. This year they’re projected to reach $4.53 billion. That’s still down from the $5 billion in sales in 2007.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to full-content audio and CD players in the home,” said Sean Murphy, senior analyst with the Consumer Electronics Association.

“But we’re seeing home receivers equipped with digital playing abilities running through a receiver that are 100 times better in terms of sound quality than listening to an iPod on a speaker dock.”

There are a few other factors giving some Nashville music makers optimism that consumers are ready to return to better-quality sound products. Gamers are demanding better audio to go along with increasingly sophisticated video systems, said McMakin, who last week recorded a full score by an orchestra for an upcoming Sony PlayStation game.

Bandwidth probably will expand, allowing for bigger digital music files that store more sound frequency.” My instinct is there’s going to be an ‘aha moment,’” McMakin said. “There’s going to be a generational shift where there will be more reasonable access to alternative formats than we have now, and people will hear the difference.”

Lenny Kravitz

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

Click for more information

CLASP inventor Chris Estes with Lenny Kravitz in Lenny's new studio Gregory Town Sound.

"I love the CLASP. It has made it possible to finally use my entire collection of tape machines from the Abbey Road J37 to my 3M M79 and the Studer 827 all at different ips settings. I really like the way I can hit the tape machines as I normally do and instantly be able to edit in Pro Tools, without having to do syncing or bouncing back and forth between the two mediums. I’m happy someone finally figured out how combine tape and Pro Tools and now it is an integral part of my studio setup. Thanks Chris and Amy for preserving analog.”

Lenny Kravitz…

P.S. Tell Grandma I miss her brownies.

( photo credit Mathieu Bitton )

Eric Greedy

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Eric Greedy

Engineer and Producer

Hurt, Atomic Solace, Destiny’s Child, Smashing Pumpkins, Barbara Streisand, Ringo Starr

"This is the greatest thing to come along since I can remember…. TAPE AGAIN!! …it works seamlessly. It makes ‘the difference’ more than any plug-in, or any other piece of outboard gear, I can think [of]. Now I am only bummed it’s not in every studio I visit. I just recommend it hands down… especially of you already have a tape machine and you do any form of rock. I used to love tape… haven’t had it in a few years, and I love it. This made using it with pro tools so easy and kept the work flow smooth as well as making it so you only need one reel per project."
Eric Greedy


Eric Greedy CLASP Recording

Endless Analog - Digital Controlled Analog Tape Recording