So you've saved up your pennies and now you're ready to add to your mic collection. Or maybe you've had your eye on some preamp recommended by that one guy at the local music retailer. Maybe you're even out in the middle of nowhere, and all you have access to is the Internet, with no chance to really see the gear of your dreams and test it out before dropping all that cash on it. Sure, most places give you a money back guarantee for a certain period of time, but wouldn't it be nice to actually hear that mic or that preamp in action before you get it in your studio and realize it's not what you were looking for?

That's exactly the service Dan Richards hopes The Listening Sessions will provide (but don't forget Lynn Fuston's series of comparison CDs at www.3daudioinc.com). TLS grew out of Dan's work as a reviewer for DigitalProSound.com, and his relationship with South Carolina's Sea Note Recording, and involves taking a single sound source and putting it through as comprehensive a selection as possible of a certain type of gear (which so far has included small and large diaphragm condenser mics and high end and low end mic pres). He posts the results on the Listening Sessions web site (www.thelisteningsessions.com), has started to release CD versions of TLS and even plans to begin putting them out on DVD-A for greater clarity and detail. We talked for a few hours about TLS, project studios, web forums and the art of listening.

First of all, how would you describe TLS? Who is it intended for and what is the process?

Well, so far The Listening Sessions allows people to listen to audio clips of mics and mic pres. We have free MP3s available on the web and are soon releasing CDs and DVD-As. The audience is anyone who is in my position, in that they're not near any major gear store or don't have a chance to try out all of the gear available. Even when I lived in New York City and could audition a lot of gear in the studio, it still didn't even scratch the surface. I do agree, ultimately, with the people who say that you have to try the gear in your studio for your applications — there's no substitute for doing that. But the fact of the matter is there is a majority of the audio gear-buying market that simply can't do that. Sure, you can order a couple of pieces from some of the retailers, try them out and return the one you don't want, but even before you do that you have to figure out which ones you want to audition. Who can round up a collection of over 30 budget large condenser mics or over 40 pairs of small condenser mics or 50 mic preamps, and listen to all of them? TLS is not any kind of final word. It's intended for someone who just wants to get a general idea of the particular sonic character gear might have, and it's for the person actively looking to make a purchase. Jeff Costa and I have been handling the engineering and Brian McKenzie has been there for most of the sessions — either playing, cheerleading or just listening. Working on TLS is a completely different beast than regular music recording sessions. Setting up 30+ mics or a bunch of preamps, and tracking a 30 or 40-second "piece" has more involved with it than you'd think. We learn as we go, and we're now quite a few sessions into TLS. I think we're up to about 15 sessions so far.

How did the idea for TLS come about?

It wasn't really an idea, more of an extension of a need. I started out as a contributing editor at Digital Pro Sound, reviewing gear and writing articles. I ran into a new local studio, Sea Note Recording, and asked owner Rob Gainer if he'd be up for trying out some new gear. A bunch of people showed up: engineers, other studio owners, singers, musicians — and what happened got recorded and burned to CD. I ripped the tracks to MP3 and posted them at an undeveloped web site. Two weeks after that page had been up I checked the stats and there were over 20,000 hits. So, I came up with the name for The Listening Sessions, and started the TLS web site in late December of 2002.

Twenty-thousand hits in the first two weeks is an awful lot of traffic for a brand new site.

I'm fairly active on a lot of the online-recording forums, posting as "Dot". After I put up the first MP3 page I just went around to some of the forums and posted a topic about it with a link. Things took off from there, so I decided to make a dedicated web site. Everybody is downloading from the curious novice to the pros.

What would you say are your skills as an engineer/producer, and how do they relate to TLS?

I think the producer in me is getting more of a workout than the engineer, in that I'm working with players and singers who have to do sometimes over 50 takes of the same 30-second piece. I need to coach the talent and make sure they're "up for it" and are delivering good performances. And I don't care how good of a player you are, trying to nail 50 takes with a consistent performance each time is taxing. I'm also dealing with lots of scheduling and windows of opportunity that open and close. The Small Condenser Mic CD 1, which was recorded a few weeks ago, literally had a three-day...

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