Surround Sound at Sono Luminus
by Jennifer Lee
Sitting in Daniel Shores’ office chair and listening to a recording made at Sono Luminus studio in Boyce is like seeing a 3-D movie for the first time. Seven precisely placed speakers articulate a depth and clarity of sound that transforms the listener to a cathedral filled with the enveloping sonic experience of a dizzying array of instruments and voices.
Shores, the managing director of Sono Luminus, explains that the nearly 100-year-old stone building where they are based in Boyce, formerly the Episcopal Emmanuel Chapel, offers a unique and compatible environment for the recordings they do. “The size, materials, ceiling height of the building—all play a role in creating the naturally resonant, acoustic sound we’re going for,” he says. Indeed, Sono Luminus records only acoustic music and vocals, specializing in classical and early music artists as well as jazz and contemporary takes on old tunes.
Consider, for example, the Grammy-nominated Modern Mandolin Quartet, a group that plays classical arrangements from Mozart to Dvorak as well as bluegrass and Italian folk songs—all on mandolins. Or DuoW, comprised of two Juilliard graduates on violin and cello, beautifully and fiercely performing songs like Yankee Doodle and Stars and Stripes Forever. Or El Mundo, a chamber group that performs Italian, Spanish, Latin, and American music from the 16th to 19th centuries. They, along with nearly 200 other artists, have all found a recording home at Sono Luminus, where each instrument and vocalization is placed around a minimal microphone array, each microphone corresponding to a single speaker, resulting in the 7.1 surround sound experience.
This type of recording gives the music a fullness and quality, “an extreme dynamic range,” as Shores describes it, that cannot be achieved with fewer channels and compression used by many recording studios. This quality conveys to the home listener, with all new Sono Luminus recordings available as a Pure Audio Blu-ray disc with a high-resolution stereo version, a 5.1, and 7.1 surround mix.
“We have developed a reputation for delivering stellar sound quality with a minimalistic approach,” said Shores. “Our biggest challenge is the work on the front end, capturing the sound from the beginning, getting the precision and quality, capturing the true performance and sound quality of the instrument.”
There is very little involved in post-production beyond editing. Once the first pass of editing is completed by Shores, the recording is sent to the artist for feedback. A second pass of editing is often required, “but that’s usually the last,” said Shores. He credits Sono Luminus’s producer Dan Merceruio for having a brilliant ear and sense of collaboration with artists. “If Dan says we have it, we have it,” Shores says, referring to the cut that is desired by the artist and is of the highest quality they can produce. “The producer is, in many ways, the captain of the ship. And the process requires copious notes and concentration.”
Shores and Merceruio are both graduates of Shenandoah University who began their careers at Sono Luminus as interns, in 1999 and 2006, respectively. Their collaboration has resulted in 19 Grammy nominations for artists on the Sono Luminus label in the last six years. In 2012, Merceruio was nominated for the Classical Producer of the Year GRAMMY. Shores was nominated for Best Engineered Classical Album and Best Surround Sound Production. The Sono Luminus label was awarded the GRAMMY for Best Engineered Classical Album in 2010 for “Quincy Porter: The Complete Viola Works” and the Latin GRAMMY for Best Classical Album in 2012.
“We are so humbled and honored for our peers to view us in that way. We don’t do albums for awards, we do them for the love of music, but these awards do help bolster public recognition of the quality of our recordings,” said Shores.
In 2005, Sono Luminus purchased the Dorian catalog, acquiring 400 titles of superb and unusual classical music from Baroque to Bach to Celtic, launching the studio as its own label. Sono Luminus has re-mastered the collection and re-released them as box sets. Steinway & Sons, the premier piano manufacturer, has recently contracted the studio to do many of its recordings.
So how did this award-winning studio with its exceptional tools, artistry, and catalog of performers find itself in Boyce? Sandy Lerner. In 1995, Lerner and Len Bosack, who together founded the Internet networking company Cisco Systems, turned their expertise in digital processing and affinity for music into an entrepreneurial mission to deliver a new level of recording fidelity, for both artists and listeners. Sono Luminus translates as “sound of light,” referring to their first recordings of glass instruments in the Bay area of California.
Lerner moved to Upperville, Va., over 15 years ago, and has since created and supported an array of enterprises dedicated to animal welfare, land preservation, and organic and humanely raised livestock. Ayrshire Farm has served as her home base, as it did for Sono Luminus for several years before Sono moving to Boyce in 2011. The old stone church, which had long been vacant and on the market, provided the space, acoustics, and environment conducive to producing first-class recordings.
Now, instead of a local congregation gathering on Sundays, the sprawling building located at the corner of Route 340 and West Main Street welcomes musicians and vocalists from around the United States and Europe, Turkey, Russia, and beyond. The chapel has been converted into a spare but meticulously outfitted recording studio, with the necessary acoustic screens, the highest quality microphones, a pre-amp, a separate room for the sound engineer and computer equipment, and a Steinway grand piano. There are no pews or pulpit, but there is an atmosphere of serenity and reverence here, perhaps due in part to the huge pipe organ that still stands above the front door.
The basement has been converted to office space to accommodate the staff of five. The main hall in the center of the building houses Shores’ office and editing room in its former balcony. Otherwise, the building has remained open. “We did keep one bowling alley lane clear,” assures Shores, referring to the bowling alley that at some point had been installed in the church’s basement. The building is still undergoing renovation—the roof was being repaired and interior ceiling was being caulked on this day.
“It’s been a great experience moving into this community,” said Shores. Despite an incredibly demanding recording and editing schedule, he said they have tried to be good neighbors to the businesses and residences in Boyce while maintaining the quiet and privacy required for the recordings. “One of our biggest challenges is external noise—the train, a car with its stereo cranked, a big truck rolling down 340,” he explained. But those challenges seem small compared to the resonance and elegant austerity they are able to capture in their recordings.
Shores says they would like to open the doors for a public tour in the near future, but there is still a lot of interior and exterior work to be completed before that can happen. Meanwhile, he and his staff have a busy recording schedule. In the next several weeks, they will be working with a piano and viola duo; a violin duo; a chamber orchestra; a solo piano virtuoso; orchestra with chorus; and string quartets. In the spring they will be working with GRAMMY-nominated ensemble Ars Lyrica, featuring Jamie Barton, an American mezzo-soprano opera singer who was recently awarded the Cardiff Singer of the World prize.
“The doors are always open for local, acoustic performers who are interested in recording,” said Shores. The time it takes from recording to CD varies, but typically takes four to six months to allow for scheduling, recording, editing, and mastering. “We have completed the process with four songs in one day, though,” he adds. “The fun yet sometimes frustrating thing is that there is no pinpointing, because there are so many variables involved.”
Since Shores started with Sono Luminus in 1999, he says the technology has gotten better and faster. “The quality of digital converters is better, the resolution is much higher. And we always use the highest quality tools in our production,” he said.
In summing up what Sono Luminus is all about, Shores enthused, “We strive to deliver to the home listener the best, most realistic musical experience. True performance fidelity, the unity of science and art.”
For more information on Sono Luminus, visit www.sonoluminus.com.