A Sound Pro Goes Hi-Fi
A producer and engineer reacts to our demo systems
Daniel Wonacott, left, and his business partner Rich Zahniser run Prime Royal Studios in San Dimas, just a couple of miles away from Upscale Audio.
"I can hear all the frequencies clearly separated... almost in layers."
Daniel Wonacott is listening to a Naim Audio Atom driving a pair of Focal Aria 948 loudspeakers, and it's making him think about his artistic future through the lens of dynamic compression.
Daniel is a producer, sound engineer, and musician, and he's also the friend and musical mentor of Sam Mountain, our graphic designer. He works just a couple of miles down the road from us at Prime Royal Studios, which he runs with his business partner Rich Zahniser, and popped in one day with Sam just to listen to whatever we had set up.
When he first heard the system in the studio-like hush of our demo room, he was truly impressed with how all the frequencies seemed so clearly separated. "It's really easy for me to hear what's going on at every level."
These days, sound mixing and producing often go hand in hand. Solo artists come in with half-written material, and Daniel will collaborate on songwriting, adding bass and guitar parts while mixing the entire time. "It's an evolving production process," he says.
Ultimately, Daniel has to sit in front of his NS-10 monitors and let experience take over.
"My job is to foster a critical ear," he says. "To be able to listen and identify problems at, say, 12k or 40 Hz."
Daniel played several tracks on that Naim/Focal setup, including ones he'd mixed himself, and was startled at how clearly he could hear the presence of compression and the exact amount it had been used. "It revealed both its power and drawbacks."
Dynamic compression, which, at its most basic, makes the softer parts of a track louder without affecting the loudest sections, is necessary to some extent. It helps tame excessive transients and is used on snare drum tracks, for example, to give this vital instrument the pop and snap that drives the song's rhythm. But, as we all know, compression is the tool of the Loudness Wars, the big squish that takes great music and makes it a woolly blur in a bid to gain decibel advantage on the radio and small playback systems.
Daniel is not a soldier in the Loudness War, but he does have to accept that he's mixing for an audience listening mainly on AirPods and Bluetooth speakers. Even so, his ears were opened at Upscale Audio, and he was struck by just how much end-listeners on home systems are capable of hearing into the mix.
Sam, who, in addition to being our graphic designer, is the vocalist and guitarist for his alt-rock/post-hardcore band, In Urgency, added that listening to these systems made him think more about his playing as well. Daniel agreed that it wasn't just about finesse while mixing—he is now driven to better his guitar studio sound and performances.
"The detail [audiophiles can hear] will make me insecure when playing," half-joked Daniel after he came out of a second demo with a pair of Focal Sopra No2 on the end of a heavyweight signal chain featuring Aurender, Berkeley Audio, and PrimaLuna.
It was nice for us at Upscale to have a mini-vindication of the levels of crazy we go to in this industry and hobby. While we have the perspective of many pro-audio people who are also seasoned audiophiles (such as EveAnna Manley, see story below), it was exciting to bring an experienced sound engineer into our little corner of the world.
"I've come away with something aspirational," says Daniel.
An Aria for a Song
Get $1,320 off the speaker that inspired sound engineer, producer, and musician Daniel Wonacott of Prime Royal Studios to rethink how he mixes. The Focal Aria 948 is on sale for $5,278 a pair, down from $6,598.
Focal Aria remains one of our favorite speaker lines. Those flax cones and Al/Mg tweeter sing together with detail, weight, great attack, and just a hint of warmth in the mids and bass.
The Aria 948 is the top of the line. Just below are the Aria 936 and Aria 926 floorstanders, and you can't go wrong: Choose one depending on the size of your room. Also, do not miss a chance to grab the last of the Aria 906 standmounts for only $1,758 a pair, down from $2,198. Add the Aria CC 900 center speaker, and you can build a stunning home cinema that does music and movies with equal dexterity.
Want something a little different? Check out the Aria K2 936 and Aria K2 906 with their characteristic yellow Kevlar drivers and warmer, more tape-like bass reproduction.
A Peek at Manley Labs
Manley Labs, just down the road from us in Chino, CA, is the home of the great Chinook, Snapper, Steelhead, and many more iconic tube audio products. EveAnna Manley, president, and long-time employee Gamaliel "Gamma" Ibarra, newly appointed COO, give an Upscale Audio contingent a factory tour. Most notable are the impressions Upscale staff came away with as a result of their visit to this legendary pro audio and hi-fi brand.
What We're Listening To
By Sam Mountain, Graphic Designer
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, I'll review one of my all-time favorite albums, Year of the Spider, by post-grunge rockers Cold.
I originally discovered the album in middle school after the aggressive opening track 'Remedy' was used as the theme song for a WWE pay-per-view event. I fell in love with the band immediately; they helped define my musical taste and inspired my songwriting for years.
Originally released in May of 2003 and produced by the great Howard Benson, Year of the Spider emphasizes Cold's grunge-inspired, haunting, heavy rock sound while also adding several acoustic and string-based ballads into the mix.
Vocalist Scooter Ward passionately touches on several subjects throughout the album, including toxic relationships, addiction, and different types of loss. 'Black Sunday' focuses on losing a loved one, while 'Wasted Years' focuses on losing time due to addiction. One of my favorite tracks, 'The Day Seattle Died,' is inspired by the loss of Ward's heroes, grunge icons Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley.
Aside from the raw and emotional vocal performances by Ward, I've always been a huge fan of the ambient minor-key guitar work of Terry Balsamo (who later joined Evanescence) and Kelly Hayes.
Cold is currently touring the US, playing Year of the Spider front to back to celebrate the release anniversary, and I was lucky enough to catch the show on May 3rd in Anaheim. While I've seen them perform several times over the years, this show finally presented the opportunity to hear some deep cuts in person. I love that they've rarely or never performed live.
We're Open on Saturdays
The Upscale Audio store at 2058 Wright Avenue in La Verne is open on Saturdays from 9 to 5. We will be running with a smaller crew, and there are a couple of important things to note:
1) As with all other days, you'll need to call ahead and set up an appointment for a specific demo. If you decide to drop by, you won't be turned away, but your auditions will be limited to our headphone station and—only if the rooms are free—whatever systems we already have set up.
2) The warehouse will be closed, so if you need to pick up something, please call ahead, and we'll ensure we bring it over by Friday. If you buy something while you're here, it might be cheaper to ship it! After all, shipping is free above $49, and you'll save a little on La Verne city tax. Unless you live in La Verne...
Please call 909.931.9686 to make a demo appointment.