Acoustic Sounds
Rainer Maillard at EBS Studios
By: Tracking Angle

August 27th, 2023


Editor's Choice

EBS's Rainer Maillard Responds To Michael Johnson's Gilels Brahms "The Piano Concertos" Record Review

regarding tracking difficulty and sonic "breakup"

(Photo of Rainer Maillard at Emile Berliner Studios, 2019 by Michael Fremer)

Tracking Angle invited DGG "Original Source" Series producer/mixer Rainer Maillard and cutting engineer Sidney C. Meyer to respond to Michael Johnson's review of the "second batch" of titles, specifically with the tracking issues he encountered on the Brahms The Piano Concertos disc.

Mr. Maillard responded:

With each cut we had to make decisions and thereby were forced to make trade-offs.  We are absolutely convinced about the way we did it.

If the level becomes too high, the danger of audible playback distortions increases. If the average level (loudness) becomes too low, the danger of disturbing surface noises increase. The higher the dynamic, the lower the safety margin to both ends. Setting the best compromise is one of the challenges of disc cutting.

 The Original Source Series releases have one huge advantage: We have had plenty of time to prepare the cuts before the release and there were no restrictions in doing recuts as a special collaboration with Optimal Media. Before cutting, we always make test cuts on lacquer and listen back with two different systems. A lacquer behaves differently than a vinyl record, so after we received the first test pressing, we listened to those again with two different systems. We always digitized two copies of test pressings to sort out individuals errors. Whenever we found any issue, we did a recut and the process started anew. Throughout the project, we always had a great collaboration with Thorsten Megow (QC Optimal media) who always gave us detailed feedback. In one case, we even did five rounds of cutting and TPs, which is unusual nowadays as time and cost efficiency are often the top priorities.

 Playback distortions

Distortions, which are created by the playback system are summarized in the term playback distortions. They are produced by the pickup system while playing the disk and are not part of the modulation stored in the groove. We have to distinguish between different situations where these tracking difficulties come into attention. The most prominent are:

 First:  THD (Total Harmonic Distortion). A pickup system is an electro-mechanical system that adds by principle overtones to the signal. With increasing velocity, the amount of these harmonic distortions can be enhanced dramatically. Unlike with microphones, amplifiers or loudspeakers, no manufacturer of cartridges name these THD in their specifications. As a deciding factor is the velocity, this type of distortion is independent of the program diameter.

 Second: The general difference in shape between a cutting stylus and a pickup stylus add to harmonic and disharmonic distortions the closer the dimensions of the pickup stylus comes to the wavelengths on the disc. This kind of playback distortion increases by principle the smaller the program diameter becomes. In theory, you could calculate with mathematic models these errors. It is a very complex situation and depends on many factors, which are subject to constant change depending on the program. To evaluate these errors, which are a principle component of every vinyl record, we have to consider that our ears do not notice them most of the time because the program itself could mask them.

Third: Each playback system has to be dampened to reduce distortions. Most playback systems could handle horizontal excursions much better than vertical ones. Since the side signal is encoded in the vertical plane, the stereo effect has an influence on possible audible playback distortions as well. A mono recording will be subject to less tracking issues compared to a conventional stereo recording using omnidirectional microphones as an AB main setup.

Fourth: We know from playing back lacquers, nickel mothers as well as the final products that each one sounds different although the groove is absolutely the same. The reason will be found in the hardness of the material of the medium itself. Regardless of the shape of the groove and the velocity of the stylus, there are certain effects caused by the tracking ability on a specific material. Therefore, any change in the formula of the PVC or lacquers has an influence on playback distortions.

In reality, it is usually a combination of all of these types of distortion since we are looking at a complex interaction of devices and materials.

There is also to take into consideration, that the 50 years old recording already contains a certain amount of tape saturation. Even if we skip one tape generation by using the originals, the saturation is already existent and still might be audible with a good cut.

We are very glad that out of this case a discussion could start. More feedback on how playback distortions, surface noises and other effects which set apart vinyl records from any digital medium affect the joy of listening will help us to make it even better. We encourage all listener to come back with comments about the sound and how they perceived these effects.

This discussion is not new. I found documents from the 1940s and 1970s with exactly the same dispute. The only difference is that in the meantime cutter heads and cartridges have constantly improved. As long as no one tells me that we have reached the limits of development for playback systems, I am keeping my hopes up that a new generation of pickups will succeed even better here with the challenging grooves of Brahms. We have to be aware that the playback distortions are a weak link in the chain and format inherent.

Used space on the Disc

There are specifications for the start and end diameters of vinyl records. Between these marks is the space that can be used for the program, counting from 0% (lead-in end) to 100% (maximum program diameter). For the longest side of the Brahms set (playing time 27:13) the program ends at 97% of the available space. Michael Johnson mentioned that he never saw an LP cut this far towards the label in his collection. I want to reveal some statics from our cutting room: The average percentage of used space out of our last 300 cuts is 76.2%. We have had 10 cuts (3%) that used more than 95% of disc space with an average playing time of 26:05 minutes.

We all know that the playback quality decreases with a decreasing program diameter. We’ve had to live with this characteristic for more than 125 years now. Anyone who would like to avoid this effect is free to switch over to digital formats. In the analogue world, trade-offs have to be made all the time, as we can only make copies (as close to the original as possible) but not clones as is possible in the digital domain. Making trade-offs means making decisions. And each decision has a cost or consequence. Few examples:

·       Spreading the program across twice as many sides: yield 100% more space, costs: price of the product will be at least 20$ higher per copy.

·       Reducing the overall level by say 3dB: Save about 12% of space, costs: 3dB lower signal to noise ratio, therefore more surface noises

·       Cutting bass: Save some space, costs: unsatisfactory sound

·       Reducing the stereo image below 300 Hz: Save some space, cost: unsatisfactory sound

·       Mix everything down to mono: Save about 40%, cost ……

I could imagine that all manufacturers of cartridges are forced to make similar decisions as well, to find their best solution for balancing all the potential issues that could occur. Let’s look at it this way: With this Brahms set you could test any pickup system and see how the manufacturer chose to balance it in terms of tracking ability.

One general comment about the bass response

Both Mark Ward and Michael Johnson as well as some listeners are leaving comments about the question, whether there is a certain “DG sound” in terms of lacking bass. This discussion surprised me, I have been working for this label for 38 years now. I’d say I know a little bit about the techniques and I can guarantee that there is nothing that suggests that (apart from individual reasons) the low end was reduced or kept low in general.

Still, I have to agree that many DG recordings were done at Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin. This church was discovered as a recording venue just after World War II, when most other concert halls had been destroyed. It quickly became clear that this place was very good for recording even with less microphones (at this time they used between one and three microphones only, even for large opera recordings) and musicians and conductors reported, that in this place they could hear each other very well, which is of course beneficial for the performance. To figure out why this church seems to be such a good recording space, acousticians measured the reverb time and quickly found out, that the reverb has a special characteristic, with differs from other great halls like the Musikverein in Vienna, the Symphony Hall in Boston or the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. In these rooms (to take only 3) the reverberation time is longest below 200 Hz and decreases as the frequency rises. However, in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche the reverberation time is longest around 1100 Hz and decreases on both sides. As the reverberation time is shorter in the low end, there is more clarity, which the artists loved.

Recordings from the Jesus-Christus-Kirche seem to sound brighter in general. From the recording perspective this only means that the direct sound is just as even as in other rooms and the length of bass reverb is shorter, but not that it has been actively reduced. If anybody notices a difference between the recordings from JCK and other rooms they are absolutely right, because this is the characteristic of this great venue. DG did many recordings in this hall, if anyone should conclude that there is a lack of bass with this label, please check if you do not hear a lack of reverberation time.

I’m not an expert at comparing recordings issued by different labels from the same venue. If anybody still feels that DG recordings from other venues have a lack of bass too, please keep in mind: it is a part of each engineer’s freedom and taste to boost low frequencies just by turning an EQ-knob. EBS philosophy is to keep it as pure and honest as possible.

Thorsten Megow, Quality Manager, Optimal Media Responds

Original Source Brahms Piano ConcertoMy plan was to post the following as a comment under Johannes Gleim's article but I quickly ran out of space. Therefore I decided to post my personal experience with the truly exciting Original Source Series as an article:

I'm thankful that I was allowed to be part of that project on the manufacturing side. Of course there was a lot of planning and talks upfront to find out how this can be done and thus I knew that something special was going to come my way.

But when Sidney and Rainer eventually showed up to deliver the very first cuts of this series and we looked through one of our micrsocopes to get an idea of the cutting quality it was nothing else but stunning. I realised merely from looking at the grooves that the records will sound exceptional. The modulation looked spectacular. It dawned to me that all the needles that were going to play these records would be due to a roller coaster ride.

But things got even better: After our team had processed the lacquer discs I scrutinised the metalwork in order to identify possible issues with out-of-spec grooves that might cause play-ability trouble. (Rainer and Sidney had announced that they would be maxing out the technology to achieve the absolut best possible sound. And boy they did!)

Grooves look best on metalwork where both, contrast and light reflection are high. The multi-faceted excursions of the high-frequency modulation look so shiny and bright on the nickel mothers resembling diamonds spread out on black velvet. I took photos and sent them to Rainer and Sidney to share my excitement, even knowing that those pictures look pale compared to the live microscopic sight.

My listening exerience fully justified the expectations. Despite the wild looking modulation there was no distortion noticable. The tespressings played like a charm confirming that Sidney and Rainer had done a phantastic job. I've never heard any classical record sounding nearly as good as these do. It's really as simple as that.

Although it is certainly too early to claim that these records are a milestone I'm sure they will become one. Time will tell.

I'm glad for Sidney, Rainer and the team at Deutsche Grammophon that all their efforts turn out to be so successful. Thank you all!

Sample Sonic "Snippets"

 Here are files of short 30 second "snippets" (all we could post and not get caught up in copyright disputes). There are four from side one and three from side three labeled as to source.

You will hear "snippets" produced by mastering engineer Sidney Claire Meyer, production described below, and by Michael Fremer using a Lyra Atlas SL Lambda on an SAT CF1-12 arm mounted on the OMA K3 prototype and a Shure V15VMxR mounted on a Schröder OMA K3 tonearm. Below the Soundcloud embeds is an additional microscope photo provided by Thorsten Megow of Optimal Media.

From Sidney Claire Meyer:

"Thorsten Megow from Optimal will kindly be taking the time to take a picture of the grooves at the very end of the A-side. You are going to be able to see that this will put any pickup system to the test. Going to the limit of what the record can do as a medium, we implicitly accept that some systems will be able to track this better than others. Unfortunately there is no right or wrong answer here, since no specs exist for the velocity and in the end we have to submit to what the market offers. It seems our range of pickup systems does not appropriately cover what our audiophile audience have at home. We will be taking this as grounds for expanding the options we have available here at EBS so that our QC may cover a wider range of systems. This might result in overall lower disc levels and therefore lower SNR.

Since the velocity is significantly responsible for playback distortion, I applied the RIAA recording equalization to the stereo mixdown of the digitized 4-track tapes of all 4 sides. Based on the peaks of the resulting files, the passages where the velocity is particularly high are easy to locate. These are not necessarily the passages with the highest level btw. I have just digitized 7 passages of the TP (A, C & D two each and the ending of the B side) with our EMT948/Ortofon VM Red. In all passages with moderate or low velocity, we can assume that there is no playback distortion at all, even with simpler playback systems. I checked this with our entry-level turntable Pro-Ject/Ortofon 2M red (we bought it especially for cases like this).

Admittedly, I can hear some playback distortion at the very end of the A and C sides, where the program diameter is already very small and the program is very loud. However, I still have to respectfully disagree with the statement "considerable distortion in extended passages". Otherwise the product would neither have passed the QC at Optimal nor at EBS.

Another image from Mr. Megow: This one shows the seriously difficult to track grooves within a red box

Brahms "Original Source" grooves


  • 2023-08-28 04:37:42 AM

    Tim wrote:

    Great read!

    I do appreciate these deeper dives into the technical aspects of cutting and playback. Especially the comparisons of multiple cartridges and audio clips.

    Interested to hear also that the Atlas SL had a particularly difficult time on that passage (at least as it sounded through my headphones). I wonder if a tangential arm would allow for better tracking at this segment of the record.. Or perhaps the modulations are simply maxing out the cartridges suspension/tracking abilities rather it being fixable by alignment.

  • 2023-08-28 07:54:55 AM

    Gary Saluti wrote:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Tim. Thank you for such an enlightening article.

  • 2023-08-28 12:25:05 PM

    Silk Dome Mid wrote:

    Thanks to Mr. Maillard for the thorough explanation. As he says, "Admittedly, I can hear some playback distortion at the very end of the A and C sides, where the program diameter is already very small and the program is very loud. However, I still have to respectfully disagree with the statement "considerable distortion in extended passages". Otherwise the product would neither have passed the QC at Optimal nor at EBS." We're all familiar with the problems posed by loud, dynamic passages near the center of an LP. It seems the admitted distortion in this case might be a minor distraction to most listeners, but more noticeable to others. In short, the reaction of any particular listener is essentially subjective, as with any type of distortion found in recorded music.

  • 2023-08-28 01:44:13 PM

    Daniele Mastrangelo wrote:

    All the contributions that you (Ward, Johnson) have created around the DG-Original Source series are extremely interesting. These last deep dive is a pleasure to read: it reminds that acoustic music (especially orchestral music) is always a challenge: for the composer, the interpreters, the listeners. All this is especially true for the Brahms’ Concertos. I just listened this Gilels/Jochum BP rendition of the First in D min.: here’s the fury and delicacy of the young Brahms. He is finding new paths regarding the s.c.’sonata form’, the agogic inside a single movement, timbre, modulations and so on ... These really sparse distortions ... they fit well, they are the sign of nobility of this soul, they claim for engineers, mixer, producer that push the limits. (Anyway through my sistem -Gyro Michell+Rega Exact these distortion were irrelevant. At the same time I really appreciate the independence of judgement by M.Johnson: bravo! so a reviewer should be. If the criticism are thoughtful then they can produce pleasant reflections).

  • 2023-08-28 02:06:04 PM

    VQR wrote:

    We're witnessing the birth of a new, audiophile, torture test LP. I'm very curious how this will sound on a lower-end cart with a microline or other advanced stylus shape.

  • 2023-08-28 04:41:11 PM

    Diogo wrote:

    We're truly lucky to have such a transparent website with honest journalism. And I'm glad to see that the experience and expertise of the mastering engineers of the Original Source series matches the high standards required for these reissues.

    But at the end of the day what matters is whether or not these records are playable. We're not talking about Victrola players or portable Philips turntables of the 60's here, most readers of this magazine have serious hifi equipment. And not even our host can track those end of sides cleanly.

    Please just reduce gain by 1dB or 2dB. I can't talk about the quality of the materials involved in these pressings, but they should be silent enough to allow for a quieter cut. Original DG pressings are much, much quieter, and for the most part they play flawlessly.

    Or sum the bass up to mono under 100Hz or so, like everyone else. There's a reason why everyone does it, it's because the human ear can't distinguish the location of frequencies under 100Hz.

    It really makes a difference whether the grand finale is cut before or after the last centimeters before the label.

    PS: original DG pressings had bass, except for the more modulated passages, where it was common practice at DG to cut off the bass to make it easier to play in most systems. I don't know when that practice ended, but it's easily audible throughout the 60's and early 70's.

    • 2023-08-28 05:31:47 PM

      Come on wrote:

      I agree. Records which are even gradually not playable with even most modern equipment shouldn’t be pressed like that.

    • 2023-08-28 06:52:02 PM

      Anton wrote:

      Those unplayable records simply have a Kirmuss deficiency.

    • 2023-09-02 03:37:30 PM

      JACK L wrote:


      " original DG pressings had bass, except for the more modulated passages, where it was common practice at DG to cut off the bass to make it easier to play in most systems." qtd Diogo "Records which are even gradually not playable with even most modern equipment" qtd Come on

      First off, I don't have the Brahms' whatever Concertos LP. So I can't comment on its bass lacking or not.


      • 2023-09-02 05:25:52 PM

        JACK L wrote:


        But I own DGG LPs that rock my 700sqft basement audio den with chest-punching bass notes thru my humble audio system - no sweat !!!

        Just one example: "The Planets", digitally mastered LP (DGG# 2532019), performed by Berliner Philharmoniker, conducted by Herbert Karajan 1981. The bass effect of 'Uranus', a middle track on its flip sound could blow your socks away !!!!! I play it only with a low-cost MM cartridge (made-in-Japan) on my vintage Thorens TD-125II TT to produce such gorgeous sonic effect !!!

        So ???

        JACK L

        So where come the problem of lacking bass in DGG LPs at all ?? All my DGG LPs sound superb even with

        • 2023-09-02 08:28:17 PM

          JACK L wrote:


          So where come the problem of lacking bass in DGG LPs at all ? I never experience such issue with my many many DGG collection.

          FYI, the reference record for piano music is also DGG: "Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 1", a on-the-podium live recording of the pianist; Arturo Michelangeli, with Wein Philharmoniker, conducted by Carlo Giulini.

          The keyboard sounds sooo crispy yet see-thru transparent that I am yet to find LPs of other labels can match it. The best crystalline transparent keyboard hit is only 1/4" from the end track. So how come the end tracks sound worse than rim tracks ???????? Not my experience.

          Listening is believing

          JACK L

  • 2023-08-28 06:56:18 PM

    Silk Dome Mid wrote:

    Micheal, here's a question for you or any other expert: In cases such as the Brahms Concerto we are discussing, why not press the LP to play from the center to the edge? It would really help with many recordings, such as the Mahler Deus Irae, the 1912 Overture, or even Sargeant Peppers, to have the loudest part of the recording near the edge instead of squashed in the center. Of course, there would need to be clear labeling in such cases. Is there an immutable law of nature stating that LPs must play starting from the outside?

    • 2023-08-28 09:51:47 PM

      It’s a trap wrote:

      I was thinking the same darn thing. Also, could this be solved by cutting it at 45 and leaving a good amount of dead wax? I dunno

    • 2023-08-29 09:21:26 AM

      Silk Dome Mid wrote:

      OK, I wrote Mahler instead of Verdi and misspelled "Michael". And needle drop and raise would of course need to be manual. So many works start quiet and end loud. Any reason this would not work?

    • 2023-09-05 11:31:28 PM

      JACK L wrote:


      "1912 Overture" "starting the groove on the inside and tracking outward? Is this just crazy" qtd Silk Dome Mid

      First off, there is no such music titled "1912 Overture". It is always Tchaikovsky "1812 Overture". Yes, you are "just crazy" enough to misquote such iconic classical music title.

      Yes, you are "just crazy' enough to blame the DGG record groove cutting instead of your TT/tonearm/cartridge tracking problem ????

      FYI, I own a LP of "1812 Overture", performed by Philadelphia Symphony conducted by Riccardo Muti, an EMI digitally mastered recording 1981. The whole Overture was cut on only one side of the record. So you can imagine how 'crowded' are those wide wide grooves cut on only one side of the LP, yet still delivering thunderous climaxes of the performance virtually like the real battle in Russia back then. Very loud up to momentarily 98dB(C) SPL I measured, yet no audible overload distortion ! The battlefield cannons were virtually seen firing toward me, over & beyond my head !!! WoW !

      I play the LP with my same MM cartridge/Thorens TT (DYNAMICALLY balanced by me) to yield such breathtaking performance. So why I don't use my much much more expensive MC+factory matched headamp+12" SME 3009R black curved arm+direct-drive TT (all made-in-Japan, except the SME) ?

      It only serves me as backup as I prefer the much more musically natural sound of the MM cartridge.

      So, please do not blame the vinyl groove cutting as I don't encounter such problem so far with my 1,000+ LPs (DGG, etc etc).

      Listening is believing

      JACK L

  • 2023-08-28 09:55:25 PM

    It’s a trap wrote:

    It’s actually not too bad. I mean yeah, it’s there, annoying? Sure, but somehow I’ll live and this is a great work and great performance, and my first copy of the work. seems my Koetsu rosewood signature on a Kuzma 11” 4point does ‘well enough’ here. It’s not like it’s flying like that Telarc torture test

    • 2023-08-29 09:41:41 AM

      Tim wrote:

      Hey, I also use a 4point and Koetsu Rose Sig (amongst other carts).

      Do you find that the 4point has enough mass? I experimented with heavier screws and found the sound change dramatically.. Somewhat for the better.

  • 2023-08-29 12:31:44 PM

    Michael Fremer wrote:

    I can live with minor imperfections and momentary tracking issues too if most of what's presented sounds really great, which is the case here for music and sound but of course presenting everyone's informed opinion is key! And I'm glad readers and the record producers and others appreciate our candor.

    • 2023-08-29 11:04:35 PM

      Silk Dome Mid wrote:

      So, how about the idea I mentioned of starting the groove on the inside and tracking outward? Is this just crazy, and why?

    • 2023-09-13 07:51:57 PM

      NLak wrote:

      Ok, so I finally had some quiet time and played my copy for the First Brahms Piano Concerto. For starters, dead quiet, this is my second Original Source I have played and the first one was also dead quiet. No need to turn on my Sugarcube. Secondly, my 57 year old ears did not hear any distortion - zilch. Now, admittedly I have yet to hear the Second Concerto so things might change but so far very pleased with the first record.

  • 2023-09-15 07:55:41 PM

    NLak wrote:

    Ok, heard the second concerto and no mistracking, not as discussed here. A slight one second crackle at the end of the first side and that’s it. Nothing on second side. The only issue I have is the compression going on in the the first movement, in particular with the louder orchestral passages. Apart from that gripe this is a terrific reissue.

  • 2023-10-29 05:38:49 PM

    J. Gordon Arkenberg wrote:

    Thanks to Rainer Maillard for his responses!

    I wanted to share my own experiences with the Brahm's Concerto releases. I was also surprised at how close the groove was cut, and disappointed with the inner groove distortion. This past week I decided to replace the stylus in my Grado cartridge because I couldn't recall when I last did so. (I have an old ZF3, which I love for the sound and convenience of swapping the stylus.) I was rather shocked today to discover the distortion dropped away except for a moment or two on some particularly dramatic hits. I played the new Ma Vlast with a similar close cut to the label and the quality held up well right to the end. I've enjoyed the Original Source series so much except for those sides with the cut close to the groove. Now I've completely changed my mind.

    I also appreciated Mr. Maillard's information about the acoustics of the Jesus-Christus-Kirche. These brighter recordings never bothered me because this felt like the sound of the hall. I noticed that Michael Johnson's review of the Verdi Requiem spoke of the 'anemic timpani.' However, just a year ago I heard the Requiem performed in a church in Lucca, Italy. The timpani in that venue also lacked bass punch due to the environment and reminded me of this exact Karajan recording. I often wonder if we are being careful to judge these recordings in their proper context rather than allowing our own preferences to color the experience.

    (For the gearheads: I am using a Dual CS-5000 with Grado ZF3 cartridge. Transcendent Sound Cascode Phono Pre-amp and the Transcendent Grounded Grid Pre-amp. Power amp is a modified Dynaco ST-70 into Dynaco A40XL speakers.)

  • 2023-12-01 07:56:24 PM

    Zeotrope wrote:

    Bottom line: DG should have included a 3rd disc with certain albums (e.g., Smetana, Brahms). He says it would increase the cost by ~$20. Great. Everyone who is paying what they are charging would spend another $20 to get no distortion. I have an all Nagra system and there is some distortion in the aforementioned places. It’s not terrible, but a shame for an otherwise reference set of albums! It’s hard to believe the bean counters at DG won this battle!