A true pioneer of audio and recording, passionate and enterprising like few others, Livio Argentini is one of the leading Italian experts in analog design. His research and studies have made it possible to create outstanding consoles, equalizers and preamplifiers that have withstood the elements of time. His machines have been used in very important studios (including those of RAI and of RCA) and have been featured in various industry magazines. In over fifty years of his career, he has collaborated with AKG and professionals such as Russ Miller, Luis Conte, Matt Bissonette, Pete Doell, Maurizio Metalli, Brad Haehnel, Yamandu Costa, Antonio Coggio, Romano Musumarra and Luca Pretolesi.

Machines don't work miracles.

Livio Argentini

Let’s go back to your beginning; What propelled you into the world of electroacoustics?

I started a little for fun, a little out of necessity. You know, the postwar period was not an easy time; entertainment had to be invented. So, together with my brother, I built toys that became scale models. I approached electronics later, working in a shop near my school. I dabbled, but this became the foundation for what came next. The passion for music was born thanks to small recordings made for friends, which I eventually cultivated to give life to a serious company, one which still exists today.

What was it like being part of a reality like RCA? How would you describe it for those who will never really know such an experience?

In the early 1960s, I had already built three consoles. Then the RCA commissioned me to build others, allowing me to work closely with their technicians and make my contribution in the field of audio recordings. The RCA is a huge studio, built with no expense spared, to become the breeding ground of incredible artists (from Rino Gaetano to De Gregori, from Renato Zero to Venditti) who would soon gain the attention of massive audiences. We are talking about the golden age. The RCA has written many of the most important pages of Italian musical history.

You are considered an audio pioneer. It must be nice to enjoy such esteem…

My luck was my early intuition. I understood in advance how to build machinery capable of obtaining what – in technical jargon – is defined as a “wide bandwidth”, that is a range of frequencies far greater than usual. Flanked by technicians, I carried out countless tests in the studio, recording string quartets, orchestras … It was a considerable research project. When I analyzed the data, I realized that the real acoustic band was much larger than previously thought, that it was possible to go up to 80, 90 kHz, whereas back then it was believed that only reproductions within 20 kHz were useful. So I started making new models, different from the norm, with frequency response up to 100 kHz (and beyond). It’s important to clarify one point: although the human ear does not receive frequencies above 20 kHz, our body perceives – indirectly – even considerably higher frequencies. That is why it is necessary to capture and reproduce them.

Modular Analog Console LA-200
LA-200, Modular Analog Console

There is much debate regarding the “battle” between analog and digital. What can you tell us?

It’s not necessary to be an industry pro to come to a conclusion. Anyone with a good ear, chewing on a little music, will confirm that there’s no match: analogue has no rivals. I spent half a century studying the subject and I know perfectly well that recording with tape machines is a completely different story. I don’t want to go into the field of harmonics and sonic purity – it would be too long – but we are considering two very different ways of listening (and understanding) music. Digital often represents a trick, a more practical and cheaper solution for dealing with audio, which allows you to edit and send tracks in real time, anywhere and in any format. Sadly, however, that in the end everything is reduced to mp3, with the consequent, inevitable and massive loss of audio quality (quality that only analog can guarantee). I believe that the battle between analog and digital will go on for a long time, although there seems to be a certain will to “go back to basics”. I am referring to, for example, the new generations who are rediscovering vinyl and shelling out big money to secure valid audio systems.

Today everything is “packaged”. To the ears of the most attentive, the sounds that circulate between radios and televisions are too similar. Do you think this conformity depends on the type of equipment or the way in which it’s being used?

How it’s being used; there is no doubt. Normally, when I am in the lab, I love to listen to classical music, but I remember a time – several years ago – I turned on the radio and I had the feeling that a process of “sound homologation” was already underway. All they do is ride on the wave of the audience, the paying masses, and marketability. The result is a constantly distorted listening experience, with consequences that many ignore or pretend not to hear. How many sound engineers, producers and studio owners will be investing each year in equipment to record flawlessly only to end up getting simple mp3s? Machines don’t work miracles. I always say: “Record the best and then screw it up later” (laughs).

Your products are defined as “custom”. How are they different – even in terms of components – from the most “noble” machines available on the market?

I worked a lot on components, even at very high levels (like when I was producing for AKG). Personally, I hunt for the best components for both consoles and machines. I could call myself a “small industry”. I aim for excellence and pay great attention to detail. All in all, there are currently few products on the market designed to provide reliability and last over time. This speaks volumes as to why vintage machinery is so in demand. It’s true: sometimes they are bought just to be able to “show off” or attract customers, but the fact is that my consoles, even the first ones, are still in use and fully functional.

Cetec Gauss 2400, Tape Duplicator, 1979
Cetec Gauss 2400, Tape Duplicator, 1979
RCA, Control Room, 1977
RCA, Control Room, 1977

Money aside, what would I need if I wanted to open a recording studio?

That’s an evaluation that depends on the target audience and the type of productions you have in mind. If you want an out-of-the-ordinary recording studio, the simplest and cheapest solution is to buy good microphones, an analog adder, and a digital console (Pro Tools is intended only as a recording tool). With less than ten thousand euros, some smarts, and the courage to use unconventional machines, it’s possible to set up a studio capable of sounding much better than some of the more notable ones.

What would you recommend to those who dream of becoming the new Livio Argentini?

To be born sixty years ago (laughs). Beyond the jokes, you need experience and taste in doing things. Ours is an industry where education alone makes little progress. There is no problem in entrusting the calculations to engineers, but ideas and intuition cannot be delegated. These, in my opinion, are the fundamental ingredients, together with the awareness of one’s own defects and limitations.

What’s your biggest regret? Your most cherished life lesson?

I answer curtly, without delay: I regret the flood that destroyed my laboratory when I still dreamed of switching to industrial production; the life lesson, on the other hand, is very simple but complex to put into practice: “Think with your head and never lose faith in yourself”.

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