Were Thomas Barefoot's Speakers Used to Record the Music You're Listening To?

July 2017

A couple of years ago, I was working on a story about Roon and its use as a database tool for recording studios. As I talked with one engineer, he mentioned that studio monitor speakers -- especially those made by Barefoot Sound -- had achieved such a high level of quality that musicians and engineers could now hear the functional equivalent of a straight wire with gain from recording studio to control room. Pro-audio magazines and websites were passing along a lot of similar buzz about Barefoot monitors, especially from musicians, many of whom requested -- even demanded -- having Barefoot monitors in the control rooms of the studios they worked in. Over the last decade, Barefoot’s monitors grew in reputation until one model, the MicroMain27 Gen2 ($10,495/pair), became the recording industry’s de facto standard.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that Barefoot speakers are made in my own hometown of Portland, Oregon.

Thomas BarefootThomas Barefoot

I did a little delving into what was getting everyone so excited. But what about that name? Turns out it’s not some West Coast, hippy surfer thing, but the name of the guy who founded the company. In 2004, while an engineer at Intel, Thomas Barefoot took some pretty strong ideas into an arena that had shown intractable resistance to evolution: the world of music production. Historically, engineers have used three different types of monitor speakers: for recording (aka tracking), they usually depend on small speakers like Genelecs or Yamaha NS-10s, because space is at a premium; for mixing, something midsize, like a soffit-mounted speaker in the control room; and for mastering, at which point they need a truly full-range speaker, they will select a monster like a tweaked Duntech Sovereign.

With more people all the time making music at home or in small studios, Barefoot -- a DIY guy down to his toenails -- wondered why they couldn’t use a single pair of speakers for all three stages of recording and postproduction. Why couldn’t a recording engineer use a speaker that had deep bass and could play loud? Why couldn’t a mastering engineer use speakers that imaged like small two-ways? Musicians and producers and engineers are present for the magic. We listeners at home want to be there too -- no veils, no glass, no nada. It was only a matter of time before Barefoot asked the question that, you’ll be very happy to know, he’s now answering in the affirmative: “Can we hear what they hear?”

When you buy a pair of the best pro monitors -- from ATC, Barefoot, Dynaudio, Focal, Genelec, or PMC, to alphabetically list a few -- what do you get? Whatever it is, the first time I heard it was in 1997, from a pair of ATC SCM100As. When I did, everything changed. It had to do with explosive transients, but that’s a poor description, because sometimes transients explode delicately. Unfortunately, there isn’t a good antonym for compression, and that’s the word I need here.

For you to be able to hear deep into a recording’s mix, that recording must have already preserved each instrument’s transient attacks. Based on lots of research and using active electronics, the speaker companies listed above have figured out how to reproduce those sounds from the recordings that contain them. Musicians and producers love Thomas Barefoot’s speakers because they speak the truth without compressing the details, and the details are where musicianship lives. The Barefoot publicists call it minimal compression. I still don’t like the term from a writer’s standpoint, but from a listener’s standpoint, there’s something about Barefoot’s 4” aluminum-cone midrange that provides a snap that’s similar to ATC’s vaunted dome midrange. Plus, given that the Barefoot midrange can cover the bottom blat of a Heckelphone all the way to the top squirt of a piccolo trumpet, it almost qualifies as a one-way driver.

Barefoot

High frequencies are handled by Barefoot’s 1” dual ring-radiating tweeter. The way Barefoot describes it (correctly, in my opinion), the higher in frequency a tweeter goes, the more it acts like a flashlight beam of increasingly narrow focus, illuminating a smaller and smaller area and not much of anything else. The dual ring widens that area. This is always an issue for anyone who likes to move around while listening to music, or who likes to listen to music with others.

Barefoot

Barefoot asked another big question: How do you get serious bass out of any speaker cabinet smaller than a Sub-Zero Pro 48 refrigerator? His approach is to attach two 8” paper-cone woofers butt to butt, their cones firing through the speaker’s side panels. Think about it: a speaker’s side panels are usually otherwise wasted. Their only use is structural stability, and if Barefoot does his engineering right, the woofers’ baskets can substitute for that. In the meantime, he picked up an enormous amount of pistonic power by deciding to use one of Bruno Putzeys’s not-inexpensive Hypex power amps to pump 500 very clean watts into those opposed woofers.

Barefoot ended up with one hell of a speaker -- or speakers. The three-way Footprint01 ($3495/pair) is relatively small at 14”H x 9.5”W x 13”D and 35 pounds. These speakers are powered -- all you need is an analog connection, preferably balanced, to a source component. The Footprint01’s frequency response is 36Hz-45kHz, ±3dB, and it has a sealed box with a rolloff of 18dB/octave. Positioned correctly, these speakers might outperform some smaller subwoofers. This combination of high-quality sound with built-in power amp, for $3495/pair, is quite a bargain.

Barefoot

Honest reviewers should bare their biases, and for many years now I’ve let readers know that I love ATC speakers. No matter what comes through my listening area, I somehow always come back to ATC’s midrange magic. My longtime reference was their SCM50ASL Pro ($16,995/pair), a model widely used in recording studios around the world. I love having a driver devoted to the midrange, and I’ve found only a few other speakers that have made me willing to part with my ATCs.

The closest is a one-way speaker, the Eclipse TD508MK3 ($1490/pair), which I reviewed in October 2015, and which produces little bass, won’t play loud, and requires that I keep my head fixed in place -- but it rewards me with stunningly coherent sound, amazing transient attacks, and an unrivaled ability to let me hear all the way to the back row of the soundstage. It requires really good amplification, so let’s use the Hypex-based NAD Masters Series M22 ($3000), and a subwoofer, like a PSB SubSeries 450 ($1500). Add some Shunyata Research Venom cables (ca. $595), and the total comes to $6585.

As much as I loved the ATC SCM19 V2s ($4299/pair), which I reviewed in October 2016, they really need their own ATC P1 dual-mono power amplifier ($4200). Add some Cardas Clear Sky cables (ca. $647), and that brings the total to $9146. But the SCM19 is a two-way. ATC makes wonderful two-way speakers, some of the very best, but they suffer from the same problem that all two-way speakers do: a crossover that hits right smack dab in the midrange, the area we listen to most acutely. My guess is that if I were in the market for another pair of ATC speakers, I’d go for SCM25As ($9995/pair), which are three-way and active. I haven’t had the chance to review them -- just a few listens here and there -- but they sound great.

To give you an idea of why it’s worth your time to try a pair of Barefoots, let’s see what we’d have to spend in the consumer-electronics world for a system with great imaging, deep bass, and the ability to play loud. Again, start with a stereo NAD based on a Putzeys Hypex amp ($3000). A pair of Nordost White Lightning speaker cables ($389) is a good midrange choice. For speakers, I’d consider a potential rival, perhaps GoldenEar Technology’s Triton Five ($1999.98/pair). These speakers have sounded great every time I’ve heard them, but I’ve never reviewed them. I’ve heard them only at shows and in shops, so I can’t guarantee that they have the requisite quality to put them in this group. Anyway, that would make a $5389 investment -- $1894 more than Barefoot Footprint01s -- and I’d much rather spend the difference on wine, women, and song. Plus, I’ve spent enough time reviewing the Footprint01s in my own home to know that I love them.

Barefoot

Here’s the category killer: I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Thomas Barefoot has ended my quarter-century of au courant, informed ATC zealotry. I was really wowed by the Footprint01s, and I’m not alone. A lot of really important people agree -- musicians, producers, and engineers have gone crazy over Barefoot speakers. I asked Barefoot’s artist conduit, Shevy Shovlin, to send me statements from some of these artists.

Butch VigButch Vig

Butch Vig plays drums in a band called Garbage, and is also a producer of albums by Sonic Youth, Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, Freedy Johnston, Against Me!, Muse, Foo Fighters, and a little band called Nirvana and their album Nevermind. He so loves his Barefoot MicroMain27s that he carries them around the country with him -- no small feat, given that a packed stereo pair weighs 160 pounds. Evidently, Vig thinks the schlep is worth it: “I’ve used them on the Foo Fighters album [Sonic Highways], in which we recorded in eight different studios around the country. It was good to have them, because every room we went into sounded completely different. Some of the control rooms weren’t even control rooms, they weren’t even studios. So, it was invaluable to have those speakers there as a reference every time we listen[ed] to something.”

Tony ViscontiTony Visconti

Tony Visconti’s résumé would fill a book. A bass player, he’s produced records for half a century, beginning with T. Rex in 1968. His next big star was David Bowie, with whom he worked, on and off, from Space Oddity (1969) until Bowie’s recent death, including many of Bowie’s best albums -- Young Americans, Low, Heroes, Scary Monsters, and last year’s Blackstar. He produced early albums by artists and bands that were among my constant favorites: Strawbs, Mary Hopkins, Magna Carta, Gentle Giant, Osibisa, Ralph McTell, Sparks, Caravan, Iggy Pop, Thin Lizzy, Prefab Sprout, Morrissey, Alejandro Escovedo, and Esperanza Spalding. “The first time I heard a pair of Barefoots was during the Sonic Highways sessions at the Magic Shop in New York City, when Butch Vig brought his own pair,” Visconti said. “They were on the board, and at first I thought it was the in-wall monitor speakers, but it was the Barefoots sitting on top of the console that I was listening to. Then I finally got it. These are great speakers and I’ve got to have them.”

Zac BrownZac Brown

A few of the awards won by Zac Brown and his band in the last eight years: Academy of Country Music (ACM), Best New Band of the Year (2009). Country Music Association, New Artist of the Year (2010). The Recording Academy, Grammy, Best New Artist (2010). ACM, Vocal Group of the Year (2012). Grammy, Best Country Album (2013). iHeartRadio Music Awards, Rock Song of the Year (2016). “I should give props to Butch Vig,” Brown said. “Butch was recording at my studio in Nashville, doing the Foo Fighters record there for Sonic Highways. He carries a pair of Barefoots with him everywhere he goes. To be flying around and carrying your own around with you . . . and just knowing that was the deal . . . Then I kind of started listening, and reached out, and here we are.”

Sean CombsSean Combs

I love Sean “P Diddy” Combs’s description of what makes the Barefoots different: “I learned about the Barefoot sound from my engineer. He said he came across these speakers. He knows the sound that I like, that I look for. He knows that I walk into a studio, if the monitors and any speakers aren’t right, the room’s not right, I’ll just walk right out. Everybody knows how particular I am. [The Barefoots] speak to somebody like me that’s into detail and feeling.”

Eddie KramerEddie Kramer

The guy standing on a MicroMain27 Gen2 is Eddie Kramer. He engineered the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” as well as: all of Led Zeppelin’s albums except the first, the four albums Jimi Hendrix released before he died, Frampton Comes Alive, the Woodstock soundtrack, the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet. “I’ve used Barefoots before in studios. It’s a very cool-sounding speaker. I try to find something that will translate top and bottom and midrange equally, without me having to go, ‘Damn, did I put enough bass or was it too much bass?’ That’s what I’m looking for.”

Other big names use Barefoot speakers: Skrillex, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Alex Da Kid, Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind, and many more. Like all of those far more famous folks, I like these speakers a lot. “Chevrolet,” from the Derek Trucks Band’s Songlines, is one of “5 Songs That Are Brilliantly Mixed and Mastered,” according to the staff of iZotope, a maker of professional recording equipment. Matt Hines, iZotope’s product manager and an audio multimedia producer, described this recording as “live-tracked in the same acoustic space, with only a couple of solo overdubs.” Through the Footprint01s, it sounds as if it’s coming from a space completely unbounded by the Barefoots’ cabinets.

It’s nice to have someone confirm what you hear, but really, listening through the Barefoots is all the confirmation you’d ever need. What I hear through the Barefoots is a rock-solid soundstage with a freaky level of three-dimensionality. Suddenly, I’m in the room with Derek Trucks and his funky fiberglass Supro Folkstar Resonator guitar. Along the back wall, a couple of jazzy percussion players wake up and start playing slowly, then singer Mike Mattison’s gravelly voice enters at dead center. What a beautiful recording -- and what a crystal-clear way to hear what the Barefoots can do.

The best jazz drummer I’ve heard this year -- maybe the best I’ve heard in this young century -- was Mark Colenburg, playing with the Robert Glasper Experiment. Drummers are like offensive linemen: If they do everything perfectly, you don’t notice them. If they screw up, you want to throw them off the stage. Colenburg was so good that the only thing that got bigger applause was when Glasper held some joints in the air and applauded the West Coast for having legalized pot. Colenburg’s playing is a little showy, but he never got in the way of whoever was soloing, or overpowered the band. He inserted the tastiest fills -- things so superb that just a bar or two would win him huge applause. I’ve seen really great jazz drummers -- Buddy Rich, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, Paul Motian, Philly Joe Jones -- not get anywhere near the love Colenburg got that evening. The quartet of keyboardist Glasper, sax player and singer Casey Benjamin, bassist Derrick Hodge, and Colenburg is Golden Era jazz happening today. Don’t miss them.

Classical fans might try Rumon Gamba and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales’s recording of Sir Granville Bantock’s The Witch of Atlas (16-bit/44.1kHz FLAC, Chandos), for its delicate scoring, great sense of a room, and the engineers’ occasional careful gain riding to keep the punters from complaining about that “extreme dynamic range” so many people carp about on Amazon. Chandos altering gain? Horrors! Usually they don’t, but the Barefoots revealed these little attempts to narrow the dynamic range. For those who’d rather avoid such honesty, Best Buy has lots of speakers. (I imagine Jack Nicholson yelling at Tom Cruise here.) But I want to hear what the musicians and producers and engineers heard, so I want studio monitors -- ideally, the studio monitors used in making the recording.

Anything I didn’t like about the Barefoots? Not unless I want to nitpick. One thing is a waste of space for anyone who doesn’t own a recording studio, though it’s a major development for Barefoot. Their Multi Emphasis Monitor Emulation (MEME) technology uses DSP modeling to make the speaker sound like other speakers. This can be very useful in recording studios, which can often have several different types of monitors. Studios usually have a Yamaha NS10, an Auratone Cube, some “hifi” speaker, and then a real honest monitor. The NS10 has little bass or treble, but its midrange is very forward, which helps engineers hear what’s going on in that range. The Auratone is a little one-way model similar to car-radio speakers of the mono era. Hi-fi speakers represent what the pro community thinks regular folks want -- often, a scooped-out midrange, popped-up highs, and a bump at 100Hz. MEME has settings of Hi-Fi, Old School (i.e., the NS10M), Cube (as in Auratone), and the default setting, Flat (the only one I listened to).

I may not be as famous as the guys quoted above, but I feel just as strongly as they do about Barefoot speakers. The Footprint01s produce enough bass information that I can live without a subwoofer and lose only the bottommost half octave, they play loud enough for anyone, and their imaging is among the handful of top brands.

Have I bought a pair? No -- but only because there’s a long waiting list. Ahead of me are all those musicians and engineers and producers who want a pair of affordable Barefoots -- Thomas B. must first take care of his core constituency. Currently, Barefoots are sold only in pro audio shops. One of those, Vintage King, in L.A. and Nashville, offers a 30-day trial, which of course lengthens the wait. But when my name comes up, I’ll buy a pair of Footprint01s. I’m sold.

MicroMain26

For those of you who want to spend more money, Barefoot offers models seen in more and more studios, the MicroMain27 Gen2 ($10,495/pair) and MicroMain26 ($12,495/pair) -- as well as their top model, the MasterStack12 ($47,525/pair). But to be able to come out with such a great speaker as the Footprint01 at a price as low as $3495/pair is amazing. Thomas Barefoot’s attempt to meet the needs of home/project studios and touring musicians must be judged a monumental success.

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com

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