Hot Tracks #02

Michael Ruff: Speaking in Melodies
(Sheffield Lab, 1992)

Artist: Michael Ruff
Album: Speaking in Melodies
Published: 1992
Label: Sheffield Lab.
Recorded and Mixed (live) by: George Massenburg
Mastered by: Doug Sax
Produced by: Clair Marlo
Recorded live to two-track at: Oceanway Studios (Los Angeles, CA)

Michael Ruff: lead vocals, piano, organ B-3
Dean Parks: acoustic guitar (trk 3-4, 9-10), guitar (trk 2)
Henrik Janson: cello (trk 9), electric guitar (trk 1-4, 6, 8-11)
Abraham Laboriel: bass (trk 4)
Leland Sklar: bass (trk 10)
Lars “Danmark” Danielsson: bass (trk 1-3, 6-8, 11)
John Robinson: drums (trk 10)
Per Lindvall: drums (trk 1-3, 6-8, 11)
Jerry Petersen: sax (trk 7, 11), soprano sax (10)
Nils Landgren: trombone (trk 3, 6, 8, 11)
Greg Mathieson: organ B-3 (trk 3, 7, 8), synth (trk 4)
Pat Coil: synth (trk 2), organ B-3 (trk6)
Alex Acuña: percussion (trk 4)
Lenny Castro: percussion (trk 4)
Luis Conte: percussion (trk 1, 2, 4, 6, 8)
Michael Fisher: percussion (trk 4)
Mike Shapiro: percussion (trk 1, 6, 7)
Leslie Smith: backing vocals (trk 1-4, 7, 8, 10, 11)
Mark Lennon: backing vocals (trk 1, 2 4, 6, 8, 11)
Nadia Ruff: lead vocals (trk 9), backing vocals (trk 1-4, 6, 8, 10, 11)
Lincoln Mayorga: executive producer
Doug Sax: executive producer

ready for a roundtrip into sonic myth?
it isn’t just a buzzword of hyperbolic audio marketing, used in this context – as an album mixed live by George Massenburg, and mastered by Doug Sax, there’s just no other way to describe the project behind Speaking in Melodies.

the George Massenburg name rings many bells especially to readers with more seasons in their rearview mirror, instrumental as he’s been to the hundreds of albums of superb sound quality that he engineered or produced for a plethora of equally more famous and less famous artists, like dear Michael Ruff here – all of them sounding at least “beyond great” and often right into “fantastic” sound territory.

the label Sheffield Lab plays a relevant part in the same roundtrip to sonic myth, too, specialised as it was since its inception, with a unique sound vision that founders Doug Sax, Lincoln Mayorga and Sherwood Sax perfected in Los Angeles since the early days of 33-1/3 RPM Long Playing vinyl records – which they mastered live, direct-to-disk-lathe, without a tape recorder in between; true to their audiophile ethics, when CD came of age, Sheffield migrated their technique to mixing to digital master, still live, and still without a multitrack recording in between.

Doug Sax’s influence reaches way past the catalogue of Sheffield Lab as a publishing label, as his mastering expertise served hundreds of prestigious clients whose works were published by countless other labels, though none more “audiophile-driven” as his Sheffield Lab… he passed away in 2015 at 78, only a few months after the release of Bob Dylan’s 36th studio album, Shadows In The Night, that was Sax’s last mastering project (among a total of 1.890 albums mastered by himself, if Discogs’ to credit as reliable source – and it sure is!).

Speaking in Melodies came to life as a project conceived for the utmost sonic wow-factor right from the start, i.e. from the choice of musicians that played it – live, as per Sheffield Lab’s recipe. it’s almost the epitome of LA’s studio finest, a who’s who of most renowned recording sessionists of the ’90s – despite a substantial portion of them being actually Sweden’s finest export.

it may compete for the most crowded credit list ever, Speaking in Melodies, and surely the task of performing live to a disc-cutting lathe requires to narrow the selection of musician from “the very best” to “the very few among them best” who can master a supreme sense of ensemble in the band, too – and the mission’s been clearly accomplished, here!

dynamics control is paramount in the exercise, obviously, being how an intermediate tape recording medium isn’t there as a safety net in Sheffield Lab’s sound recipe – and George Massenburg, beside his engineering chore, has again a pivotal role in the exercise, with the superb outboard processors that he developed (and built, and marketed) under the GML moniker, short for George Massenburg Labs (some of which are now being offered in “virtual realm” as MDW, Massenburg Design Works plug-ins).

there’s not much room left for being original, or innovative, or avant-garde, among the audiophile ranks of discography… Speaking in Melodies is no exception – and still it perfectly delivers what it says on the box: melodies in song-form, off a most “classic” tonal palette shaped by Hammond, guitar, piano, horns, drums and percussion, all to the highest detail of tonal warmth, with huge dynamics and focus…

you can even hear some 60Hz hum from the guitar amp in the intro of a track, as shutting if off with a noise-gate would probably have spoiled the party (as even a GML noise-gate deserves to be used only where it provides the best sonic solution to the problem – or none).

it shows its age, Speaking in Melodies, under a most positive light, as there’s no attempt to squeeze the last bit of resolution at any sample (and in between) to fight the (next) “loudness war”: peaks are peaks, and here at their highest indeed – hence dotting a modest medium output level, to realise the (huge) dynamic range it delivers through each of its tracks.

a word of advice to the listener is due, here: be careful when you try to set what listening level you’re going to play it at, and be forewarned: because of such an “old style” dynamic range (and huge, indeed), you may easily blow your speakers!

listen to it on Tidal · on Qobuz · on Apple Music

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