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Craig Dory and the magic of audiophile sound

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Craig Dory and the magic of audiophile sound

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

I got a call one day nearly a decade ago from a guy who had been reading my magazine articles about high-quality sound. "I'd like you to listen to a tape I've made," he said. He told me how, in his spare time, he had lugged his tape recorder around to make recordings of musicians in his hometown.

He was an amateur recording engineer by the name of Craig Dory. By day, he was a mathematician at Bell Labs in New Jersey, but in his off-duty hours he continually returned to his passion for audio. His dream was to start his own recording company, if his work was good enough.

It was a challenge I could hardly resist, and a claim I discounted immediately. I had been recording my own master tapes for years, and had even run a mail-order business in the '60s selling audiophile cassettes—recordings for the purist, the hi-fi buff who wants the best possible sound. I knew what made the difference between a good recording and a great one, and I knew what made a recording just plain bad. I also had heard scores of tapes sent to me by garage bands and basement engineers; without exception, each time I listened to one of those amateur tapes I was reminded of cheap cassette recorders and Radio Shack microphones.

But Dory seemed to know what he was talking about, and I told him to send along some of his tapes.

Our conversation carried on well into the afternoon. It was only the first of many discussions, but it was the beginning of both a friendship and a career. And, in one of those strange intertwinings of fate, it was to connect us in another way, one that stretched back to my childhood.

I was used to calls from strangers. The story of aspiring entrepreneurs who never make it in the music business is a tale of broken hearts and failed expectations. It's an easy business to break into, but it's hard to get anywhere. Calling reviewers and writers to ask for a favorable review is a common way to launch a reputation, small as it may be. But Craig Dory didn't ask for that kind of favor. He wanted an opinion.

"Tell me what you think," he said.

It was not that easy. When I heard Dory's first tapes, my listening room was awash in the fidgeting of audiences and the uneasiness of apprentice musicians. In one performance, a baby wailed from the back of the hall, refusing to stop crying for what seemed like a minute or more. The soloist slowed down and wavered, uncertain whether to go on, and then tried gamely to find the orchestra's beat. In another performance, violins and trumpets fought each other over which section of the orchestra was keeping the right meter.

But these were live recordings, not the neatly tied packages of sound that come from studio tapings. And they were real.

That was what I began to hear after I listened past the baby's cries and the hesitating musicians. Unlike any other amateur recording I had ever heard—and, more to the point, unlike nearly every professional recording in my collection—Dory's undoctored tapings sounded astonishingly real. They breathed the music, they inhaled the space around the performers, and they filled my afternoons with a joy I had not expected. I played those first tapes again and again, sometimes only to remind myself of the persuasiveness of a simple, clean recording technique, and sometimes just to hear that baby wail. The cries came not from my loudspeakers, but from behind me, in the back of the room—the back of MY room, utterly real and unnervingly accurate.

I told Craig what I'd heard and what I thought. He sent more tapes, and they, too, were superb.

Up to that time, I had created my own master recordings both on regular tape recorders—the kinds with big reels of tape, called "open-reel" recorders—and on a digital device that used the same technology that was later to be used to encode the digital sound on compact discs. I also used a very high quality cassette deck, a limited-production Japanese model. Dory had a companion deck from the same company, so he made my cassette copies on that recorder.

Although they sounded better than any cassette tapes I had made myself, they were still copies, duplicated in the standard way. I wanted to hear the real thing—Dory's masters.

And that could only be done in two ways. I could camp for a week in Dory's living room, auditioning his tapes one by one, or I could ask him to make direct digital copies of some of his masters and send them to me. Because the digital process uses a numerical code to represent sound, properly made copies of a digital tape are identical to the original.

So I bought the same model digital mastering recorder that Dory was using and asked Dory for the direct copies. I count the day they arrived as the demarcation point in the lifeline of digital audio. Before Craig Dory sent me his digital tapes, the best I had heard from digital masters—from my own recordings on an early recorder, from extraordinarily expensive digital machines at one of the world's most respected audio manufacturers, from hundreds of demonstrations at trade shows—was a glassy, almost metallic hardness on the edges of all the sounds in the recording. Dory's master tapes proved that digital sound did not need to suffer from this handicap.

Those tapes were, and still are, the best-sounding recordings I have ever listened to. The fact that they were made by a mathematician who was not a professional audio engineer at the time he recorded them is amazing enough on its own, but it is utterly astonishing when you consider that one man with nothing more than good recording equipment and consummate musical taste was able to set a standard for recorded sound that the world's biggest recording companies have not yet matched.

I wrote about Dory's tapes in this newspaper and in Fanfare Magazine, the world authority for record and tape collectors. But Dory was ahead of me: He was already breaking free from Bell Labs, and by the time I spoke to him again he had launched his own recording company. With his friend Brian Levine, a Canadian music specialist, Dory founded Dorian Recordings. From the start, Dory and Levine aimed their new company down a path others had not traveled.

First, Dory decided to make all his master tapes not on the professional studio digital recorders most other companies were using but on digital audio cassette tape machines—DAT recorders, which use very small cassettes to capture digital signals of a higher fidelity than even compact discs can play back. CDs made from these DAT masters sounded cleaner, with less distortion and noise, than CDs made from studio digital recorders.

Second, Dory and Levine looked for a special location for their recordings. They didn't want a studio, since tapings made in studios sound just like tapings made in studios—usually, dull and lifeless. Only the real thing, an auditorium made for live musical performances, would do. They wanted a good old-fashioned music hall.

And that's just what they got. In a small blue-collar town far from metropolitan New Jersey and equally far from Levine's home in Toronto, Dorian Recordings discovered the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Musicians and experts in acoustics have called the Music Hall the finest medium-size auditorium in the world, yet for more than a century it had remained curiously hidden from the major recording companies—afraid, perhaps, that a performance taped in an unknown hall would never sell.

Even the good citizens of Albany, at New York's modernized capital across the Hudson River from Troy, ignored the Music Hall except for rare concerts. The name itself seemed to work against it; was it the anteroom of a bank lobby? (In truth, the magnificent Music Hall was born as the bank's tribute to Troy, at a time when the little city was a boom town that thrived on the shirt-and-collar business. It was in Troy that the removable collar was invented, a device that allowed men to change their collars without changing their shirts. It made the manufacturer, Cluett & Peabody, the dominant force in the shirt market for a century, and it turned Troy into the Collar City.)

Dory and Levine moved their offices to Troy, in a restored 19th century townhouse down the hill from where I went to school. When I drove over to Troy to visit Dorian's headquarters, I stopped at the edge of a field overlooking the city, three miles from the farmhouse where my father had grown up. The city had hardly changed in the four decades since I had last stood in that same spot, playing Revolutionary soldiers with my boyhood friends.

At Dorian's suite, Craig gave me a tour and offered me a few of his first CDs—so new that they were still awaiting a shipment of labels. They were beguiling recordings, as solid and spacious as the Music Hall itself.

Years later, long after Dorian had risen to the top rank as the darling of audiophiles, I was about to set out for Troy again when I mentioned my trip to a colleague from the West Coast, a man who knew very little about New York.

"Troy?" he said. "Isn't that the home of Dorian and the Music Hall?"

It was time for Troy to earn a new nickname. If the Cluetts and the Peabodys could only be around to play one of the dozens of Dorian CDs recorded in their beloved Music Hall, I'm sure they wouldn't mind.

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