Peter McGrath, Recording Engineer

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Peter McGrath, Recording Engineer

Where did the high-end journey begin for you?
It began in Panama in the late 1950s. An importer in South America was the distributor for Quad mono electronics and Tannoy loudspeakers. He also had a furniture shop in which he had built this custom enclosure. During the course of a bridge game that my father won, the importer gave him this system as his winnings. As the years went by we got a Magnavox stereo console, but it never really impressed me as much the Quad/Tannoy mono setup. As a result I learned at a young age that things sound very different.

When did you grasp the difference between hi-fi and high-end audio?
The real epiphany, when the potential of the medium became crystal clear to me, was at an event at a store called The Audiophile in Chicago in the early 70s. There was this sound coming from an adjoining room—a cello suite. It turned out to be a pair of Quad 57 loudspeakers. It was the most unbelievable experience, and the first time I sensed that a machine could really make you believe that it was a musical instrument. That really hooked me.

You’re a recording engineer and producer. How did that come about?
The person most responsible is Mark Levinson. When I became a Levinson dealer in the mid-Seventies he made the point that in order for you to become a master in the art of music reproduction you have to approach it the same way you approach the art of photography—to not only know what the picture looks like, but also to know the process by which the photograph is made. You have to know what goes into the recording before you are in the position to evaluate what it sounds like coming out of a hi-fi system. That sounded incredibly logical to me. It wasn’t until Mark began inviting me to his recording sessions that I got a sense of what was possible. I then began recording locally in Miami and met a lot of musicians coming into the high-end store I was running there. A dear friend, well connected, suggested I start recording some of his friends, serious pianists like Ivan Davis, Earl Wild, David Lanz, Leonard Shure. This was in 1977-78. By then I had a full recording system that Levinson had designed and built. I established a record label, Audiophile Records, and built a nice reputation making piano recordings, all of course in analog. That led to working with Harmonia Mundi. Today I’m still very active engineering but not making many records, mostly doing location work which is what I really enjoy.

You’re a big surround sound advocate. What’s holding it back in the high end?
It’s always been equated with 5.1, which is really only significant for video. When it comes to music reproduction, if you can create true dimensionality with two channels in front, then why do you need a center channel? For audiophiles who have a big investment in a two-channel system that center channel becomes more of an impediment. Therefore my view of surround sound is really 4.0. Even in stores most surround is presented in the context of a home-theater system. The second problem is that the magazines don’t promote surround. The other impediment is a lot of surround was misused in the beginning. But properly done, orchestral presentation and ensembles can engulf you in the sense of actually being in the venue, and that to me is what surround is all about.

Are you partial to analog or digital?
I was always a big analog fanatic and at the end of the day most of what you’re hearing is still analog. What we’re really debating is what is the storage medium of choice. It starts perhaps in digital but as soon as you convert that digital data to the highest-quality analog, it’s analog all the way through. I’m not a big fan of digital processing per se—I feel you’re better off getting things out of the digital domain as fast as possible into the analog, and then deriving the benefits from there.

You have thoughts on formats like double-DSD and DXD?
Indeed I have, and you can hear differences in all of them, but if the engineer used good microphones and minimum processing even standard CDs can sound very much like music. What sounds horrible are bad microphones, bad processing, too much compression, too much manipulation of the data.

What challenges lie ahead for the high end?
I think finding an audience—finding the younger people who can have the same epiphany in their twenties that I had in mine.

What still inspires you?
I want to do as many recordings as I’m physically capable of doing. Combine that with the art of making photographs. I’m looking forward to publishing a book of my photographs.

Is there a particular piece that remains a life long dream to record?
Every time my dear friend William De Rosa, a wonderful cellist, and I meet we talk about how we’re going to nail down the Bach Suites. I know that there are hundreds of good recordings of them but Billy has possibly the most extraordinary sounding cello on the planet, and I want to record them with him. 

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