Chris Muth of Dangerous Music knows his stuff. Formerly a mastering gear designer at Sterling Sound in New York City, Muth now co-owns Dangerous Music with partner Bob Muller, a unique combination recording studio/boutique gear manufacturer. The Dangerous studio has recorded artists ranging from the Rolling Stones and Rosanne Cash to free-jazz monster Charles Gayle, whereas Dangerous the gear-maker provides a line of über-high-end analog summing, metering, mixing, and monitoring boxes. Tape Op spoke with Muth about his design philosophy, as well as the nuts and bolts of attaining perfection in audio.
What was the impetus behind the Dangerous product line?
I built the first box, what was to become the 2-Bus, for a friend of mine. Once he switched from analog and got a DAW system, he didn't like his mixes as much. He came over to Dangerous and we started trying to get a handle on the situation. When we ran a few tracks at a time, say four or eight faders into a stereo pair in his computer, grouped them, and ran them out into the Neve console, it sounded a lot better than it did going 32 or 48 channels to two inside the computer. He looked at me and said, "Why don't you just build me something that's a simple stereo pairs mixer?" So I built him a prototype, and it turned out that he really liked it. I started to think, "What's the problem? Why does the digital system sound better with analog summing device?" What I found — in a not-so-scientific way, but more or less just using the gear and poking through with my test equipment and ears — is that it's because the faders in the computer could be run a lot hotter, giving you better digital resolution. The summing box, on the other hand, knocked off some gain on its input channels, and it knocked off more gain on a level control at the output section. In other words, specific areas of gain loss in analog were better than the loss necessary for a bunch of channels to go down to two in digital. This was back in the day of 16-bit systems, at a time when the digital stuff just didn't sound good. So that's why we started making the 2-Bus. But the other thing we noticed at the time was that nobody was building a decent monitoring section, or a good cue system with talkback, all the stuff you lost when you got rid of the console.
Describe your R&D process.
It's usually the same for just about any product. We try to figure out the things people need that aren't being made, or that exist but aren't addressing a problem properly. We have a group of about a dozen recording engineers and artists, and other people that we generally deal with on a regular basis. We ask them what they think about particular possible projects, or what they may need. Once we decide a project is worth investigating further, we'll build a couple prototypes, hand them around, and try to achieve a consensus about whether it's something we want to do. If it is, then I'll refine the system, build a dozen working units and run them through the mill. If those work, then we'll release it as a product. On the other hand, if we decide it's too much of a pain in the ass to do, or it's not going to be worth it in time and effort, then we'll pull the plug.
What's the Dangerous design philosophy?
I'll sit down and figure how I'm going to build a box so it's just a monster, it's the shit — it's what I want. And then I say, "Okay, I'll build this monster box; it's gonna cost this much, and it's gonna be this amount of a pain to build," etc. What I don't do is sit down and say, "Okay, I have to build this box for under $200 or we're going to lose our shirt." Which I think is the opposite of how most larger companies work. They'll come up with new products that cost less than $70 a piece to build, then they'll build 10,000 of them and saturate the market, selling the stuff for $300 a piece in some chain store. Whereas we design a box to perform a particular function. And once we build it, then we know how much each unit is going to cost us, how much it's going to cost the store, and finally how much the user is going to have to pay. We ask around and see if it's viable; if the answer is, "No," then...