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AIX Records

Prof. Mark „AIX” Waldrep

AIX Records
2050 Granville Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90025 | USA


ark Waldrep’s CV is impressive: he has been the founder and main engineer for AIX Records, author of articles published in professional audio magazines (e.g. “MIX”) and audiophile magazines, speaker at AES conventions, and member of the CTA/CEA audio section, The Recording Academy (NARAS) and the Audio Engineering Society (AES). For the last 20 years, he has been teaching sound engineering students about sound at a university.

For a long time, Mark Waldrep has been known in the audiophile world mostly for his perfect records that he released in the AIX Records record label that he established in 1994. He was a pioneer and tireless promoter of digital PCM records of 24 bit resolution and 96 kHz sampling frequency, both in a stereophonic and multichannel form (the latter is more important from his point of view). These puristic records have made many skeptics believe in this format. But Mark Waldrep, as I would put it, is a much “broader” person, as he has a PhD degree in musical composition and two other scientific titles, including one connected with computer science. In spite of that, he is mostly known as a sound engineer and record producer.

Although in a moment I will try to present his profile from a broader perspective, the angle that we look at him from will probably stay the same for a long time. When I met him during the High End 2018 exhibition in Munich, we had to buy a book that he had just published, which summarizes his reflections on topics connected with recording and playing back sound: Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound. To a large degree, it is an extended collection of articles that he has published on his blog where he has fought with many beliefs established in the audiophile world.


Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound

AIX Publishing 2018

Music and Audio… is a book which carries much weight – both in reality and metaphorically. It is as thick as a brick, with 850 pages and an extra Blu-ray disc which serves to demonstrate selected problems and to calibrate equipment. The book was published using Mark Waldrep’s own funds, by a division of AIX Records – AIX Publishing which was created for this purpose. The book consists of twenty chapters, each divided into subchapters. The numeration method makes one think of university textbooks – not without a reason. It is an ordered lecture on topics connected with recording and reproducing sound, starting with information on the sound of Blu-rays, through the basic concepts used in music, such as melody and harmony, an overview of digital signal coding methods, a presentation of all important digital formats and sub-formats, a lecture on what hi-res signal is and what it is not, finishing with a discussion of audio equipment and accessories, and interviews with experts.

The book is a quick and easy read – it is very easy to feel the “newspaper column character” of many of the chapters, which is also visible in the author’s line of reasoning and constant “conversion” of readers to the author’s own “faith”. I will return to this in a moment. Topics discussed by Mr Waldrep are interesting, up-to-date and actually constitute “ready solutions”. There is no doubt we read material prepared by an expert – both a theoretician and practitioner. I think this is one of few books on audio issues which combine these two ways of exploring reality well.

At the same time, I disagree with the author in many respects, often fundamentally. The author often contradicts himself. Let us consider his deep dislike for the DSD format, or actually for reproducing this format in its native form, without converting it to PCM. Theoretical objections, which are hard to contradict, appear many times and in different chapters. It is similar with XRCD – the author literally discourages his readers from spending money on such records, even though in a moment he says: “this is the way a CD should be made”. He also questions the sense in using expensive digital power cords and other cables many times, and he also sometimes heavily criticizes magazines published by the audiophile industry, although he also willingly quotes them to demonstrate how they have praised him.

It is because the most important drawback (and the main strength) of this publication is its journalistic character, expressed by constantly returning to the author’s favorite motif, i.e. the supremacy of PCM 24/96 records over everything else. Mark Waldrep cannot refrain from pointing out theoretical weaknesses of all other methods of sound recording, including the analog tape. Starting the book with a chapter devoted to the format that he considers to be the only right one –hi-res 24/96 sound on Blu-ray discs – only makes this book more inconsistent in terms of its genre.

What I missed here was a scientific attitude, which can be summarized in the following way: “be careful with what is certain, as we do not know everything and what we know is temporary”. So, although Music and Audio… has been planned to be some kind of an academic textbook for music lovers and sound engineers, and a handbook for audiophiles who are possible to be saved from the tentacles of audiophile press, it is actually an ordered, extended and more comprehensive blog in a printed version, i.e. a polemic with everyone who has different views than the author, divided into chapters.

But… There is a great BUT indeed. Be it journalism or not – the reviewed monograph carries an enormous charge of knowledge and great observations. Although it will often make us gnash our teeth and ask rhetorical questions, such as: “Why does the author not say anything about listening sessions, but only theorizes?” or think how it is possible not to hear “this” or “that”, it is a book that one should have and return to, even if only in order to open some field for discussion. Although I disagree with a lot of views presented by Mark Waldrep (even though he probably considers them to be dogmas) and I simply hear something else, I appreciate the knowledge, reason and engagement behind these views. If this is what a discussion is to be like, i.e. if things are to be discussed at such a high level, I am FOR it. It is because one can get somewhere and go further only in this way.

Mr Waldrep sold and signed his books at a stand which he shared with other Americans: Todd Garflinke with his M•A Recordings record label, Chris Sommovigo with the Black Cat Cable and Christopher Hildebrand, the owner of Fern Roby Audio. I noticed that they all looked at the senior author with respect and took his opinions into account. So, together with Bartek who is responsible for news published in “High Fidelity”, we bought the book, asked for an autograph and made an appointment to conduct an interview.

WOJCIECH PACUŁA: Please tell us something about yourself.
MARK WALDREP: I’m 65 years old. I grew up listening to the music of the 60s and my father’s record collection (mostly jazz and classical music), studied guitar and played in a cover band as a teenager, and learned how to build and repair electronic equipment from my father (he was an amateur radio operator). I loved both the art of music and the technology which made it possible to capture and reproduce it. By the time I was 10 years old, I already had a small reel to reel tape machine and stereo system.

At the age of 20, I left university life in Michigan and headed to California to pursue a career in the music industry. I studied audio engineering at a private vocational school for a couple of years and started acquiring my own recording gear while continuing my academic education in southern California. I earned a Ph.D., M.F.A., M.A., and B.M. in Music Composition, a B.A. in Art, and a M.S. in Computer Science over the course of the next 10-15 years.

I started my first recording company during my years studying and working at CSU Northridge. CSOUND offered music students cassette tapes of their recitals. I learned production sound from the legendary Mike Denecke (the inventor of the timecode slate), worked in an analog multitrack recording studio doing commercial rock and jazz projects, did live sound for the 1984 LA Olympics, and continued to do location concert recording with my Nagra IV-S and QCB large reel adaptor. My recording experience covered a very wide range and exposed me to every type of analog audio engineering.

In 1989, I opened the Pacific Coast Sound Works, which specialized in pre-mastering CDs using the new Sonic Solutions DAW and NoNoise software suite. As a classically trained musician, my clients (CBS Records, New Albion and Ellipsis Arts) took advantage of my ability to follow complex scores when assembling and editing album releases. I purchased one of the first CD recorders (for $17,500!) and began to work with Warner New Media on CD-ROM and interactive media. PCSW mastered hundreds of CDs for a wide range of artists/clients, including The Allman Brothers, Kiss, Bad Company, Widespread Panic and Blink 182.

The arrival of the DVD format in 1997 was a turning point in my life. I expanded into surround mixing and mastering, digital media production and authoring. Now called AIX Media Group, my little company produced the very first DVD-Video discs ever released in the US. And I continued to provide audio and DVD authoring services to a variety of movie studios and record labels.

When DVD-Audio emerged in 2000, I looked around and saw that all of the other labels were remixing albums from their catalogs in 5.1 but no one was making new high-resolution recordings. AIX Records was founded in 2001 to demonstrate that high-resolution audio had the potential to deliver fidelity beyond the traditional CD – perceptible or not. Over the course of the past 17 years, I’ve produced almost 100 high-resolution music albums.

They are unique in that each has three different mixes, all are made with 96 kHz/24-bit PCM audio and most have video of the sessions. All of these releases have frequency and dynamic range specifications that eclipse Redbook CDs. Over the course of the last two decades, I have advocated for REAL high-resolution audio. I have also been a strong and persistent critic of the major record labels, the CEA/CTA, NARAS, the DEG and so-called “hi-res audio” digital music download sites for their false and misleading campaigns in favor of high-resolution music.

In 2013, I started my blog called and have written over 1100 articles about high-res audio. My book “Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound” was funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign in the fall of 2015 and published earlier this year. The book — and accompanying Blu-ray disc (or files) — analyzes the entire music production process, discusses all aspects of the audio chain, contradicts a lot of the information promoted by the mainstream audiophile press and focuses on inexpensive and easy ways to improve music listening.

My goal is to provide unbiased, unfiltered and honest information about all aspects of music production and reproduction. A little information can save readers a lot of money.

Your main interest, however, is now AIX records, isn’t it? Could you tell us the story behind your label?
Actually, I have not recorded and released a new album on AIX Records in over 4 years and have no plans to begin any new projects. The label was founded to demonstrate the superiority of high-resolution, surround, PCM-encoded music over vinyl LPs, analog tapes, compact discs and compressed sound files.

Do you think it is the best form of music presentation?
Throughout the history of recorded sound, technologies and techniques have generally advanced. As a result, fidelity — our ability as audio engineers to capture ALL of the sound components produced by live instruments or amplified sources — has increased. However, the introduction of “computer audio” in the 90s, the accompanying need for “lossy” data compression formats and the trend to favor loudness (i.e. the compression of musical signal and not the compression of files) over quality pushed fidelity backwards for the first time in the history of audio recording.

MP3, AAC, Dolby Digital, and MQA are all lossy encoding schemes that attempt to solve a specific problem. Some were necessary and successful, and others are unnecessary and only cause problems and industry confusion. Contemporary delivery formats and network bandwidths can store and deliver high-resolution (96 kHz/24-bit PCM) audio without resorting to lossy encoding schemes. It was true for physical media back in 2001 and now it is available for downloads AND streaming.

AIX Records adopted a somewhat unusual production philosophy. As an audio engineer with many years of experience in both classical/jazz and commercial multitrack recording methods, I imagined a hybrid process that would combine the best aspects of each. I wondered whether I could record an entire ensemble performing an album’s worth of material in a single session like many classical and jazz “live” album releases. But I didn’t want to compromise the sound of my recordings with a PA system or limit myself because an audience was present. I also wanted the intimate sound of commercial recordings, which use lots of close up microphones.

After a few experimental sessions (I once placed 8 stereo pairs of microphones in and around a grand piano), I was satisfied with the sound. My associates and I recorded all of our albums the same way: live performances in an acoustically rich chamber music auditorium, all musicians/singers play at the same time, lots of stereo microphones, real room reverberation, no equalization or dynamics processing during any stage of the production process and no mastering (other than sequencing and relative volume adjustments).

And we captured the performances on standard and high-definition video — the musicians were all on stage performing, so why not capture them with video, too. The post production process involved mixing the digital multitrack masters through an all-digital signal path (96 kHz/24-bits) to the mixdown masters: traditional stereo, 5.1 surround from a “stage” perspective, and 5.1 surround from an “audience” perspective — users get to choose which mix they prefer.

The initial releases were immediately recognized by reviewers and customers as “something uniquely different”. We won awards, built a dedicated following and received lots of positive feedback. Andrew Quint of The Absolute Sound magazine visited the studio in 2011 and wrote: “…the multichannel audio, emanating from five B & W 801 loudspeakers, is quite simply the most realistic and involving instance of recorded sound I can recall, from any source format. Mark Waldrep knows what he’s doing” and an attendee at the annual AXPONA show in Chicago wrote: “I want to thank you for the most memorable musical experience that I have ever heard! Hearing is believing!!! Nothing in my 50+ years in audio reproduction has impacted me the way your recordings did.” These reactions are not unique.

It seems it is possible to move beyond the traditional methods and formats. AIX Records succeeded by embracing new technologies and new techniques, and getting back to the essence of music – talented musicians performing together.

Your Music and Audio… book is supposed to be, as it seems, a summary of the knowledge of audio, am I right?
I was prompted to write Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound for a couple of reasons. First, I read a number of books by “so-called” audiophile authorities that were misleading, gave bad advice (we shouldn’t recommend using “bright interconnects” to compensate for a “dull sound”) and were outright wrong on many counts (left and right surround speakers in a 5.1 system should be at 110-120 degrees NOT 135-155!).

All those books seem to promote the same myths and misinformation I see in advertising-supported audiophile magazines. I felt it was important to give an unbiased alternative to audiophiles. Secondly, I was inspired by another successful Kickstarter campaign mounted by another writer (sadly, he has failed to deliver his promised book and disc after more than 5 years). I thought if he can go it, then I can too. And I delivered my book.

Most authors of books on high-end audio systems are not experienced audio engineers and operate on a purely subjective level. Their nonsensical endorsement of expensive power cords, support for the myth of hi-res audio and “revolutionary” new encoding formats like the new MQA makes me highly suspicious.

I have over 40 years working in professional audio and have demonstrated through my audio releases that I understand what it takes to make superior sounding albums. And I do it with regular IEC power cords, inexpensive interconnects and uncompressed hi-res PCM 96/24 signal in a state-of-the-art recording studio. The book has already been called “the gold standard” and more than a few readers have written to applaud my honesty in the face of an industry full of falsehoods. And I’m happy to report that it is available in Europe through Hi-Fi Test magazine.

Who is the projected or “virtual” reader of your book?
The target audience for Music and Audio: A User Guide to Better Sound are individuals interested in learning about high-end audio, ways to easily and inexpensively improve their systems, and anyone contemplating spending money on new gear or audio accessories. The book is broken down into chapters on music, production techniques, equipment, formats and acoustics. Spending time reading selected sections of this book will pay big dividends when shopping for new equipment or accessories.

The first chapter carefully breaks down all of the demonstration tracks and format comparisons presented on the Blu-ray disc. It’s very compelling to hear examples of real high-resolution audio and see the waveforms, dynamic contours and spectra. The final chapter has interviews with a number of industry luminaries, including Bob Stuart from Meridian/MQA, Robert Margouleff – engineer for Stevie Wonder, Richard Schramm of Parasound, Bob Hodas and Sam Berkow – acousticians, and many more.

A large part of the book is devoted to a polemic with some audiophile beliefs. For example, you question the value of XRCD and HDCD, etc. Is it based on your listening experience or just your academic knowledge?
I have written extensively about XRCD, HDCD, SACD, DSD, DXD and, lately, also MQA. Whenever I begin to research a potentially interesting topic or technology, I read the promotional materials, study the science (attend AES paper sessions), speak with other experts, listen carefully and see if hyperbole has crept into marketing material. I try to balance an objective and scientific approach with my background as a musician and composer.

The specifics of XRCD are an interesting case. The JVC process produces very good CDs — but they are still limited by the Redbook specification. Anyone making a claim that they somehow are able to deliver fidelity beyond 44.1 kHz/16-bits is pushing a false narrative. Likewise, gold CDs do not deliver more fidelity than aluminum sputtered discs… It’s all marketing and support from uninformed audiophile writers.

It turns out that a large portion of “audiophile wisdom” is based on the subjectivist position that it “just sounds better”. People spend crazy amounts of money chasing ever higher levels of sonic nirvana when simple solutions and common sense will get them there for much less money.

Is there any documented correlation between measurements and listening impressions? Which is more important? I mean, if something sounds good and the measurements are not so great, is there a fault on the equipment’s (producer’s) or the listener’s side?
The definition of fidelity is: “the degree of exactness with which something is copied or reproduced”. In the case of audio/music, fidelity means that whatever audio is produced by the musicians, it should be captured and reproduced without any change. Of course, audio engineers, producers and artists mess with sounds in lots of creative ways — even to the point of degrading the sound. Analog tape and vinyl LPs have a lot more distortion than a CD, but are cherished by audiophiles for their “sound” and not their fidelity to the original.

If the only basis for audio fidelity is whether you like the sound of one format or system more than another, then we have no basis for objectively measuring equipment or content. I would never insist that listeners abandon recordings that lack fidelity — everyone is entitled to their own personal tastes. But I do have difficulty accepting statements that make absolute claims about the superiority of vinyl LPs or analog tape over the potential of new high-resolution digital media.

There is a correlation between specifications and the fidelity of an individual recording. The ultimate “sound” of a track is the responsibility of the engineers and producers.

How do you select the equipment that you use – through measurement or listening?
I make sure that the equipment I’m using meets true high-resolution specifications and then I listen. You have to know that your baseline will deliver the fidelity of the sources. When I set up a demo room at a trade show like AXPONA, I partner with suppliers that I know have equipment worthy of my recordings.

The last show we did, I used a custom OPPO machine with multiple S/P DIF digital outputs connected to 3 Benchmark DAC2 HGC digital to analog converters. The analog outputs of the DACs were then passed to bridged mono Benchmark AHB-2 power amps, which can deliver the extreme dynamic range of my tracks (120 dB plus!). The final component was a set of 5 Revel Salon II speakers and a couple of subwoofers. Last year, we used 5 Emotiva T2 speakers that sounded amazing, too — for a lot less money.

The sound of that demo produced true high-resolution fidelity, probably the only room in the hotel that did.

If I get it right, you strongly opt for PCM-based recordings, at least 24/96 ones. Do you hear any differences between optical disc-based and computer-based systems (streamers)? I mean, do physical media offer any advantage for high-resolution signal?
At least AND AT MOST 96 kHz/24-bit PCM! There is no additional fidelity gained by exceeding this specification. Moving to higher and higher sample rates and longer word lengths doesn’t provide any better sound than 96 kHz/24-bits — it just results in bigger files. In fact, my recent HD challenge found that most people — even those that said they could “easily tell the difference between an HD file and a CD version” — couldn’t tell them apart. With a good quality, independently clocked DAC like the Benchmark mentioned above, the digital data coming from a physical disc player and the equivalent stream from a computer would — and should — sound identical.

Do you think that USB is a “high fidelity” link? Or should we avoid it?
There is no compromise when using a USB digital connection in a high-end system. And using an expensive USB cable will not change the data, provide additional “low level details”, “widen the soundstage”, or otherwise enhance fidelity. Designer cables that claim to be capable of “low jitter” are snake oil. Any high-quality DAC throws away the incoming clock and uses its own.

Do you have your favorite microphone setting? Do you prefer small membrane microphones? Or does it depend on the purpose?
It depends on the instrument/voice and specifics of the music. I have a lot of large diaphragm microphones and generally use them on the lower register of a piano or stringed-instruments. The smaller KM-84s or AKG 460s I reserve for acoustic guitars and upper register instruments. I do use AEA ribbon microphones for brass and male vocals. Their 84 was perfect for a baritone like John Gorka or Willie Nelson.

Could you tell us about your audio system?
I have several audio systems. The AIX Records studio was custom designed and built by Peter Gruenheisen of nonzero architecture. It is 30 feet long, 14 feet high and 24 feet wide. It has a raised floor, double walls and extensive acoustic treatment. The sources are an Oppo BDP-105 or a Benchmark DAC2 HGC (depending on whether I’m listening to MCH audio).

I use either a Bryston 4B or 9B MCH power amplifier to a set of 5 B&W 801 Matrix III speakers positioned in a circle around me (ITU setup). I also have a TMH Labs Profunder Subwoofer powered by another Bryston amplifier. Each channel has a 1/3 octave equalizer in between the output and power amplifier, which were used by Bob Hodas to tune the room to a flat response. I was given speaker cables by Audience and Cardas but would not invest my own money in cables in that price range. All analog interconnects are Canare and pass through a 3/16” patch bay. Digital cables are Belden and I use IEC standard power cords throughout the room without power conditioning. I have a dedicated ground behind the studio and isolated ground connections for all equipment.

Are you happy with your recordings or there is something you'd like to improve?
Honestly, I love the sound of my recordings – especially when experienced in a high-end 5.1 surround playback environment. The “stage” perspective mixes provide a level of involvement and space that I haven’t heard from any other label.

Tell us please what 10 albums High Fidelity readers should buy and listen to right away – and why?

Here are my favorite recordings from the AIX Records catalog:

|1| The Latin Jazz Trio: incredible “quiet” Latin Jazz with great piano sound.

|2| Laurence Juber, Guitar Noir: this won the 2002 award for “Best High-Res Recording” from the CEA “Demmy Award”. It’s my best-selling album with a former Wings guitarist.

|3| John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbotson, Nitty Gritty Surround: a winner of multiple awards which features Jennifer Warnes. Great singing and playing of Americana/bluegrass music.

|4| John Gorka, The Gypsy Life: my favorite singer/songwriter with a gorgeous baritone voice and amazing songs.

|5| Albert Lee, Tearing It Up: very few guitarists define a category of playing. Albert Lee does. Formerly with The Everly Brothers, Emmylou Harris’ Hot Band and Eric Clapton’s bands. This is the first Blu-ray surround album awarded “record of the month” by Stereophile.

|6| Ernest Ranglin, Order of Distinction: an album recorded by the “father of ska” described as the best jazz guitarist from Jamaica. Features Monty Alexander and a variety of famous partners: Robby Krieger (The Doors), Alana Davis, Elliot Easton (The Cars) and more.

|7| Afro Cuban Latin Jazz Project featuring Kamasi Washington, El Vuelo: up tempo Latin Jazz with complex rhythms and sax solos.

|8| Old City String Quartet, Mozart Clarinet Quintet: this is what a chamber music experience can be when played by an energetic ensemble AND captured with close up microphone techniques.

|9| G. Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra, The Brandenburg Concertos: one UK reviewer wrote that he’d never heard such depth and dimension as he heard with this recording of two of the Brandenburgs. Stereo microphones placed close to the ensemble make that difference.

|10| NJSO – Zdenek Macal, Beethoven Symphony No. 6 and Respighi Pines: big orchestral music in full surround shows off the potential of high-resolution audio.