The making of "Dr Chesky's Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show!"

I worked side-by-side with David Chesky on dozens of Chesky Records sessions in the 1990s to the early 2000s, so I know firsthand how obsessed he is about making great sounding recordings. Great sound is, like most things in audio, purely subjective, so before we go any further I'll try to define Chesky's approach. Simply put, he wants to faithfully record the true sound of vocalists and instruments.

That type of sound is rarely heard on commercially released rock or jazz cassettes, 8-tracks, LPs, CDs, SACDs, DVD-As, or high-resolution downloads. Most albums are equalized, dynamically compressed, processed, overdubbed, multitracked and close-miked. There's nothing wrong with any of that, and lots of great music has been recorded that way, but those recordings can't sound truly realistic. They were designed to sound "good," or commercial, or whatever the producers or artists wanted them to sound like. Realistic is the least likely objective.

Take, for example, any commercial recording with a singer and a band. In real life and 100% unplugged -- there's no way you'd ever hear the singer -- he or she would be drowned out by the band. It would be just as hard to get a balance with acoustic guitars and drums, unless all of the guitars were boosted and compressed in the mix. Everything gets recorded to separate tracks in acoustically dead studios, and reverberation is added in the mix, usually from digital reverb units to create a sense of space. Thanks to the skills of the engineers and producers we accept the illusion of the whole band playing together, but some of the musicians may have never met each other, or even played or sang in tune. Their music was pitch-corrected, processed, edited, assembled and manufactured, and while the end result might be great it probably bears little relationship to the true sound of the band. There's not a lot of there there. David Chesky was never interested in making those kinds of recordings; there's already plenty to choose from.

So starting in 1988 David and his brother Norman Chesky set out to make recordings that preserved as much of the live-in-the studio sound (with no overdubbing) of the original event as possible. By the mid 1990s they had stopped recording in studios, and favored churches for their livelier acoustics. They knew a lot of the best musicians in New York, and many played on Chesky sessions.

Starting last year David Chesky, engineer Nicholas Prout and assistant engineer Alex Sterling took the sound to the next level, with binaural recording techniques. No matter how large or small the band all of the instruments and singers are recorded "live" with just one pair of mikes mounted in the ears of a "dummy" head (a Bruel & Kjaer 4100D), which was connected to a MSB Technology 384-kHz/32-bit analog-to-digital converter and a hard drive recorder. I went to most of the binaural sessions and monitored the sound with a variety of headphones, including UE Reference Monitors and Jerry Harvey JH-3A IEMs; and Hifiman HE-500, Audeze LCD-2 (revised), LCD-3, and Audio Technica ATH-M50 full-size headphones. The Dr. Chesky recordings can sound great over speakers, but you get more of the full-blown, you-are-there realism with headphones. You hear exactly what the B & K binaural mikes heard. That's so cool!

The first "Dr. Chesky's Sensational, Fantastic, and Simply Amazing Binaural Sound Show!" sessions were recorded at the Hirsch Center (the former St. Elias Church) in Greenpoint, Brooklyn in February of this year. The 130 year old building is run down, but the High Victorian Gothic cathedral's plastered walls and ornate wood trimmings yielded ravishing acoustics. Chesky brought in a parade of musicians: everything from high-energy electric grooves to New Orleans jazz, acoustic folk, and chamber groups. The musicians all took to recording to the B & K head with ease, and didn't miss playing directly to an individual mike. They came to see the head as a stand-in for the audiophiles who would eventually hear these recordings.


The Moller organ pipes at the Church of St Paul the Apostle in Manhattan.

The next series of recordings were held at The Chesky crew recorded Bach's "Toccata and Fugue" on the Church's world-class organ (built in 1965 by the M.P. Moller Company, and restored in 2000).

Inspired by 4th & 5th century early Christian basilicas in Ravenna, Italy, the Church is 284 feet long, 121 feet wide, and 114 feet to the highest point of the towers, which are 38 feet square. The acoustics of this 127 year old building are amazing, and have even longer reverberation tails than the Hirsch Center's. The crew recorded a choir singing Mozart's "Ave verum," and you can really hear the voices filling that huge space.

13mh13's picture

I have most of the Chesky Test CDs from yesterday -- and even given their age, WOW. They STILL blow away much of what I hear today (and I'm talkin' audiophile recordings). So if this new release is on the same level, it'll be worth having.

Willakan's picture

I've got some of their recordings, including that binaural percussion piece they offered at a discount to Head-Fiers (I fear I'm no longer eligible for any future sales of that sort :D), and they really do sound rather nice.

They are, however, as the article notes, excessively quiet: in the case of that percussion album, really quiet. I understand that they might win marketing points for saying the album went through no processing at all, but surely a volume boost wouldn't hurt anything?

That, and the extravagant harmfulness of 24/192 audio files, but OT...these are exceptionally realistic recordings.

Dr.Phil's picture

Its a shame real music isn't recorded this way..

dalethorn's picture

I bought the album in FLAC format, and two of the music tracks (Bach, Mozart) were 4-channel, my first ever of those from HDTracks. I discovered that Foobar2000 apparently won't convert those to MP3, but they do convert to WAV and remain 4-channel as before. Even if nobody were concerned about converting to MP3, I wonder what can be expected from the common media players when playing these into stereo headphones? Mix the rear channels into the front, drop the rear channels, hit or miss?

zobel's picture

Tyll, did you ever make a binaural recording using your dummy head?

Do you remember who came out with those stereo microphones mounted on glasses frames? They reportedly produced some nice binaural-like recordings when used with portable digital recorders.

Do you have any plans for reviewing portable digital recorders?

AGB's picture

Why are you standing on your head? Binaural sounds better that way?

I'll try it. I just nailed my listening chair upside down to the ceiling.

Hi Dave Chesky, nice to see you again.

BTDT's picture

I've heard some other binaural recordings but the mic test (both left and right) are downright spooky.

The sense of space/distance and the clarity of the recording was so real that with my Senn HD650s I took them off both times (on the mic test) to be sure my speakers weren't on as well.

It would incredible if some of the better new recordings/artists used binaural technology at least to some degree. I'm sure it would fair better than SACD or DVD-A has.

jasonsmith's picture

I want to experience this Binaural sound show. Especially conducted by the great Dr Chesky. The video was amazing and sensational. At first I was little bit distorted then I was used to it. What to call this? A Musical innovation.


Danny Divio's picture

Well, this is unique for me and took several minutes to understand why a robotic figure is seated before the performers. However, the page explains this profusely and I was awestruck learning the facts. I have learnt from ESSAY that such things are possible, but now I am witnessing a great synthesis in music which hopefully can lead to great things in the future.