Which has a greater impact on what we hear through our headphones or loudspeakers: the digital file format or the recording/mastering process that preceded it? The answer continues to surprise newcomers: a well-recorded/mastered recording delivered as a lossy 320kbps .mp3 will, all other things being equal, almost always sound better than a poorly-recorded/mastered recording landing on our hard-drive as a lossless FLAC.
We should remember this as we move metaphorically to Hard Wax, Berlin’s pre-eminent record store and purveyor of “cutting-edge electronic dance music, such as techno, house, dub and bass music”. Berlin’s extended lockdown means the physical store remains closed to punters like you and me but for Hard Wax’s online store it’s business as usual.
Last Friday night, drum n’ bass (and ambient and house) music producer Calibre (Dominick Martin) took a box of records to play a DJ set to no-one but himself and two PPE-d technicians recording the audio/video stream for YouTube. Boiler Room it wasn’t:
The occasion? A low-key lockdown launch of a new Calibre & DRS EP (‘Bad / Badder’) that features two dubbed-out versions by Hard Wax founder and former Basic Channel member Mark Ernestus: stylistically, they sail closer to Rhythm & Sound’s The Versions. Previews can be heard here.
Regular readers will know that Hard Wax is this writer’s local. And it’s the only place you’ll find the Bad/Badder 12″ before its wider release on 12th February. I’ve already ordered a copy.
I’ve also twice visited Hard Wax in an official capacity: once as part of my round-up of ten of Berlin’s best destinations for vinyl collectors and once to talk Justin Greenslade, designer of the Isonoe 420 rotary mixer that sits at the end of record counter between two Technics SL-1200 MK3; the very same setup used by Calibre to create his ambient/IDM/dub/drum-n-bass set last Friday night. For the trainspotters, Hard Wax’s Technics are fitted with Shure M44-7 pick-ups and Calibre’s mix is 90% his own compositions.
Isonoe most obviously connects the DJ world to the audiophile world but Mark Ernestus also has a keen interest in sound quality. In addition to making music and running Hard Wax, he works with Michael Zähl on developing the all-analogue AM-1 mixing console (as used by Ricardo Villalobos, Ben Klock, Tobi Neumann, The Chemical Brothers and Richard James). Ernestus also uses a very well-known pair of high-end headphones and a very well-known British DAC/headphone amplifier alongside the AM-1 console in his Kreuzberg recording studio.
With an eye on sound quality and wholly digging the Calibre mix, I pulled on his manager’s coat about the possibility of getting a FLAC version to publishing on these pages. What came back was a ‘yes’ with the caveat that the FLAC file had been created from a .wav pulled from Hard Wax’s M4V file — a video container file that relies on AAC to lossy compress the audio portion, in our case, an (unknown) ADC applied to the Isonoe 420’s analogue output.
Remember where we came in? Lossy compression won’t impact what we hear as much as the recording/mastering quality of the records used by Calibre to create his mix, each record’s pressing quality and current condition, the Shure pick-ups, the turntable setup and Isonoe’s rotary mixer.
Moreover, a FLAC copy allows us to sidestep YouTube’s own video/audio compression to put the best version available of Calibre’s Hard Wax mix onto our hard drive with a single click. This
zipped FLAC download (NEW link) will be live for a week. Meanwhile, Calibre’s new album Feeling Normal is slated for release on 26th February.