Sunday, May 9, 2010
Walter Sear, an Audio Engineer With a Passion for Analog, Dies at 80
Walter Sear, an audio engineer whose steadfast devotion to pre-digital recording technology led him to maintain a studio with vintage, analog equipment, a risk that paid off in recent years as musicians like Norah Jones, Wilco and Wynton Marsalis flocked there for its rich natural sound, died on April 29 in Manhattan. He was 80 and lived on the Upper West Side.
The cause was complications of a subdural hematoma, or bleeding from the brain, after he injured himself in a fall, said his daughter Julia.
At various times Mr. Sear was a professional tuba player; a designer, importer and dealer of specialty tubas; a composer of film soundtracks; and an electronic music enthusiast who advised Robert Moog on the design of his Moog synthesizer, the instrument that revolutionized popular music beginning in the 1960s.
But to more recent generations of musicians, Mr. Sear was best known as the owner of Sear Sound, a studio on West 48th Street in Manhattan that, guided by Mr. Sear’s intransigent ear, has for decades resisted the conversion to digital recording equipment.
The studio is renowned for its lovingly maintained gear, including a console built by Mr. Sear and an extensive collection of microphones powered with vacuum tubes — the glowing glass bulbs that contribute to the often-cited “warm” sound of analog audio — instead of solid-state transistors.
Among the musicians who have recorded at Sear are Ms. Jones, Mr. Marsalis, Steely Dan, Wilco, Lou Reed, Joanna Newsom and Bjork. Bono and the Edge of U2 were recently there working on music for their long-delayed Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” according to the studio manager, Roberta Findlay.
Analog equipment, like cassette tape decks, records and reproduces sound as continuous wave forms. Digital equipment converts audio information into sequences of numbers that approximate those waves, but to analog advocates like Mr. Sear, those digital approximations can sound crude and cold by comparison.
“There has been a serious deterioration in the quality of recorded sound since the 1960s, which continues to get worse to this day,” Mr. Sear wrote in the late 1990s in a wide-ranging six-part critique of the music industry, “What Have They Done to My Art?,” which is posted on Sear Sound’s Web site, searsound.com.
Walter Edmond Sear was born in New Orleans on April 27, 1930, and moved to Jackson Heights, Queens, with his family when he was a year old. His father studied mechanical engineering but could not find a job in that field because he was Jewish, so he and his wife worked as clothing dealers to South American department stores, Mr. Sear’s daughter Julia said. She survives him, along with his wife, Edith; another daughter, Shana Sear Gaskill; and three grandchildren.
Mr. Sear, trained as a tubist, graduated in 1951 from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and began playing in orchestras and music halls. But he also studied mechanical and electrical engineering, and he was an inveterate tinkerer. He invented a new form of valve for the tuba and had a Belgian factory manufacture the new tubas for him to sell.
In the late 1950s he struck up a friendship with Moog after writing to him to order parts for a theremin, the whistling, no-hands instrument best known from science-fiction film soundtracks. Moog’s first synthesizers were bulky and impractical, but according to Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco’s book “Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer,” Mr. Sear was one of a handful of colleagues in the mid-1960s who persuaded Moog to make the device more musician-friendly by adding a keyboard. Mr. Sear became Moog’s synthesizer dealer in New York. Moog died in 2005.
Sear Sound opened in 1970 in the Paramount Hotel on West 46th Street and in 1990 moved to its current location on 48th Street, a space that had once been used by another famous studio, the Hit Factory. Mr. Sear built much of the studio himself, and over the decades acquired a trove of analog gear, including decommissioned tape machines from Abbey Road Studios in London that had once been used by the Beatles. Mr. Sear maintained all the equipment and was a regular sight at the studio until March, when he fell on his way home from work.
Digital technology began appearing in recording studios in the late 1970s, and by the time Sonic Youth went to Sear Sound to record its album “Sister,” in 1987, analog equipment had fallen out of favor. Lee Ranaldo, one of the band’s guitarists, said in an interview on Tuesday that the studio had some of the cheapest rates in town. But the band was still captivated by the quality of the sound recorded there, and by the passionate and cantankerous character Mr. Sear.
“In the ’80s and early ’90s he was a lone voice in the wilderness, saying you’re going down the wrong path — recordings are sounding worse and worse,” Mr. Ranaldo said. “And he stuck to his guns. It took a long time for him to come around to allowing digital recording gear into his studios, and when he finally did bring it in, he still kind of kept it in a corner.”
Nowadays, vintage equipment and analog audio — including vinyl albums — have come back into vogue, and Sear Studio is in high demand, with scant availability and rates to match.
Sonic Youth most recently mixed its 2006 album “Rather Ripped” there, but Mr. Ranaldo said it has gotten harder and harder to book at Sear Sound. “We’re priced out of the place,” he said.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 8:30 PM