Made In The Shade At Mapleshade
by Les Turoczi
There is always a bit of mystique, fun,
and excitement associated with being behind the scenes at
a recording studio, observing activities that are of high
priority to music lovers and audiophiles.
Having been fortunate to visit studios of several different
styles, I was not ready for the unique and fascinating situation
that exists under the name of Mapleshade Studios in
Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Chief engineer and owner Pierre Sprey has established a marvelous
setting in this rural Washington, DC location, where musicians
can find the time and space to be at peak creativity and comfort.
The studio itself is an old and stately mansion that is part
of a former tobacco plantation. The quaint and rustic nature
of the overall set-up exudes a novel approach to capturing
sound on analog tape, which while not specifically "high
tech" is, indeed, far from primitive.
Mr. Sprey carries unusual credentials,
not the least of which is his previous career as a principal
member of the aircraft design team that created the F-16 and
A-10 jet-fighter bombers. Coming out of an engineering background,
with advanced training in statistics, he established himself
as a Pentagon consultant for this complex work. His love of
music, especially jazz, also inspired him to be an amateur
recordist years ago, and even though his Pentagon duties cried
out "high tech" he preferred to do things in a simpler, more
direct and uncomplicated fashion for both the aircraft designing
and subsequent recording adventures. A firm belief in the
principle of Occam's Razor - the simpler the solution, the
better the result - has been a guiding philosophy that has,
in my opinion, paid off handsomely for Pierre and his various
efforts. "Less is more " is the truly prime force at work
During my visit I had the
opportunity to tour the facilities, carry out a wide-ranging
and stimulating interview, and to savor a most enjoyable meal,
crafted by chef Sprey with adept and careful attention. We also
listened to his playback reference system, auditioning some
new recordings that should be of interest to music lovers everywhere.
The distillation of that visit follows.
What Makes Mapleshade Different
To start, Sprey is incredibly sensitive
to the needs and moods of the musicians he is recording. In
fact, as the word has spread to various jazz artists, new
and old alike, he is being sought out by them primarily because
of the manner in which he allows them the space and time to
relax and find that magical moment when creative juices are
at peak flow. He does this by inviting the artists to stay
at his studio/mansion for as long as it takes them to get
into the groove; his culinary talents also seem to facilitate
the process in a strong way. As Pierre puts it, "When
they feel their best, they perform their best, and that's
the time I want to capture their sound on a recording."
Knowing how the "time is
money" proverb usually operates (ever so harshly in most other
recording operations), the circumstances at Mapleshade are polar
opposites to those constraints and it shows in the outcome.
Notable musicians such as Shirley Horn, Clifford Jordan,
Randy Weston, Walter Davis, Jr. and many others have been
captured on recordings by Pierre Sprey.
By the way, the idea of
doing things in the simplest, most efficacious fashion apparently
got Pierre into various debates with his Pentagon bosses. You
see, he wanted to make the F-16 the fastest, cleanest, simplest,
and most uncluttered fighter around. As others wanted to keep
adding fancier- and weightier- instrumentation, along with gadgets
such as heavy air-conditioning compressors, Sprey realized that
the speed and maneuverability of the plane would be compromised.
Sometimes he won the debate, other times he lost. Through it
all he nonetheless kept to the adage that Simpler is Better/Less
is More. Now he has full say in the application of that philosophical
perspective, and it is employed at every turn in the operation
and design of Mapleshade recordings.
Having heard several of
his recordings on my home system, I can confirm that he does
indeed know how to capture music at its fullest.
The insistence on using
high speed analog tape recording for the mastering process is
the first sign of Sprey's commitment to simple but effective
His approach to equipment
is to customize it, and his hand crafted arsenal includes Crown
PZM and Josephson condenser microphones, short cable runs, a
Sony open reel tape deck, battery powered electronics (wherever
possible), lead weights for damping applications, and amplifiers
and preamps of his own design. His comprehensive work on the
microphones alone would be truly enlightening to many engineers,
were he willing to reveal those secrets. Interestingly, no EQ,
compression, or noise reduction is employed, nor is anything
like the common mixing board seen. Tell me how much simpler
you can get! It should be noted that Sprey goes to the extreme
of physically carting his highly modified Sony TC-880 tape machine
and tape recordings to Bob Katz in New York City in order to
carry out the digital transfer process using a very special
A to D custom machine at Bob's facility.
I should note that Pierre's
playback system is a tweaked melange: Martin-Logan CLS IIa electrostatic
panels (operating full range), coupled to a pair of enormous
Rohrer columnar/tubular, slot-loaded subwoofers, and augmented
with a pair of small ribbon supertweets, powered directly from
a hybrid tube/solid state amplifier made in Virginia and known
to a select few as the "Magic" Amp (which he helps to distribute
through word-of-mouth), all strung together with his custom
"Omega Mikro" solid-core wires and interconnects. No preamp
of any kind is used, and Pierre sets his playback volume passively
using discrete resistors.
He doesn't believe in or
use balanced configurations, since the degradations associated
with the necessary transformers get in the way of sound accuracy
and naturalness. CD or vinyl sources vary over time at the studio.
By the way, I was able to hear a few master tapes at the studio
on this system, and they sounded extremely clean, detailed,
well balanced, fast, alive, and natural. The tapes were not
played at timid levels, either; in fact, I've never heard electrostats
really crank like this. (Pierre, by the way, attributes the
clean high levels to the excellence of the single stereo "Magic"
amp he prefers.)
Getting back to features
that make Mapleshade different from other studios, allow me
to quote/paraphrase liberally from Pierre:
"An excellent studio must provide
an environment where musicians will want to play as well
as they have ever played."
"An excellent recording must create
for the listener the excitement of hearing live music."
"We record only in live spaces where
musicians can hear themselves and each other; the studio
sound has a warm 'chamber' sound, not the dead acoustic
of outer space."
"Drum or vocal booths are never
used, because they destroy the creative cohesion of any
music group and kill the feeling of a natural acoustic
"The minimum feasible number of
microphones and tracks are used....Every extra microphone
kills a little more of the natural space and depth around
each instrument, the purity and breathiness of the singer's
voice, and the percussive impact of sticks, hammers or
"All of the recording electronics
in use are selected by ear, not by measuring numerical
specs. The equipment, which is measured after selection,
shows wider frequency response, higher dynamic peaks,
and much quicker transient response than standard studio
equipment; the tape recorder has almost an extra octave
of treble over first-rate professional machines; the planar
pressure zone microphones, with proprietary modifications
to both mechanical and electronic elements, are used in
acoustic arrays of custom design."
Sprey's dedication to his
recording and playback equipment also extends to the resident
piano in the studio. It is a superbly restored 1911 Steinway
Model O, usually positioned so that its soundboard sits in the
middle of the 15x20x10' studio. This instrument's sound is truly
wonderful, and is one of the many reasons that Shirley Horn
has become enamored of the Mapleshade operation. It is clear
that Sprey loves this piano - as well he should- and it has
given him the repeated opportunities to experimentally develop
his own approaches to recording techniques by using this Steinway
as his reference test instrument, just one room away from his
One of the several interesting
audio issues we touched upon related to the sad state of recording
quality, which most of us discover all-too-often as we try new
discs on our own. Too many audiophiles are fed up with buying
a disc only later to find that one or two tracks out of the
whole bunch are recorded acceptably enough to put up with, or,
more likely, that the complete disc is a sonic flop. When I
asked Pierre what we as consumers might do to improve this situation,
he responded that he had found that going right to the recording
engineer was probably as good a way to have an influence as
He has, for instance, discovered
that by demonstrating the impact of changing interconnects,
or other wires such as those used by instrumentalists between
their guitars and amps (which are usually taken for granted
by most engineers), typically astounds these folks. From then
on, they are sensitized to why audiophiles go to the extremes
we are noted for, and they work harder at getting things right,
or at least better. (Now if each of us knows one recording engineer,
and can follow through in this fashion successfully, by the
year 2001 we might have much less to piss and moan about sonically!)
The Proof Is In The Pudding
Well, I could go on about more of the
novel and pioneering aspects of Mapleshade Studio and its
fascinating owner/chief engineer Sprey, but I really think
much of this magic and fun is available directly to you on
most of the discs released so far. Don't miss Live at Ethell's
by the Clifford Jordan Quartet (Mapleshade CD 56292)
or In Walked Thelonius by Walter Davis, Jr.
(56312). On Love Locked Out (56922) I've been captivated
by the piano work of Chris Anderson, who is noted for
being "the legendary teacher of Herbie Hancock"; Anderson's
voice on three of the tracks might be an acquired taste to
some, but for me it is heart-touching and authentically tender.
There are many other titles
to seek out, each worthy in its own right, so don't hesitate
to call them for their list at (301) 627-9774. If you're lucky,
you might even get to talk to Pierre, and share in some of his
enthusiastic and enjoyable conversation on music and sound.
This is the type of operation and philosophy we music lovers
and audiophiles need to support strongly. Check it out!