Reissue roundup. (The Music).
Karrin Allyson hasn't become as well known (yet) as Norah Jones or Diana Krall, but in this reviewer's estimation, she offers vocal enthusiasts a respite from that Kenny G-like music these two contemporaries are passing off as jazz. To date, Karrin has recorded eight albums for Concord, her newest, In Blue (CCD-2106), making its way into stores this past August; Ballads has been her most popular to date.
As the title suggests, Karrin's album on CD offers vocal renditions of the eight songs appearing on John Coltrane's Ballads LP in exactly the same order, and then adds three more Coltrane classics at the end. The LP reissue adds a bonus track by including "Nature Boy" from another Allyson album. Ballads received two Grammy nominations in 2001 for Best Jazz Vocal, and Best Engineered Non-Classical Album. Josiah Gluck recorded and mixed the album for the Concord CD using the JVC K2 process (similar to XRCD). The sound and music we hear from the CD justify its Grammy nominations, and I recommend it to music lovers of all kinds. For the most part, this album is "soft jazz" that even non-jazz lovers can enjoy, but Karrin shows empathy for the music that is rare among female jazz vocalists these days. If you are, however, one who still owns a quality LP playback system, then my recommendation is for you to read on. I'll give you two good reasons why you'll need to forget about the CD.
There is a lot of talk about high the SACD format has been growing in popularity a bit more quickly than DVD Audio has, audiophiles are paying them both the attention they deserve. Still, there are many who doubt any advantage these new formats offer, often quoting all sorts of scientific data to disprove what many of us claim to hear with our own ears. Even a higher bit rate conventional CD recording appears to have a slight edge over standard CDs, but then, much (most) of this information is lost in the down-conversion to a format that your CD player can read and play back. Apparently there has been considerable thought on how to restore those extra bits that get packed into your red book format, but the extant solutions--external up-sampling digital converters for one example--haven't been completely successful at interpolating that data precisely. What we need is an alternative digital audio playback system that needn't pack those extra bits into a 16-bit system, and that's why DVD-Audio and SACD are gaining in popularity among audiophiles, their multi-channel options notwithstanding. (If you are asking yourself at this point why you aren't reading a discussion of the vinyl version of Ballads, thanks for your patience. I'm getting there now.)
Dennis Cassidy, Pure Audiophile's CEO, provided me with a little information on Ballads' recording history. It turns out that although the album was originally recorded in analog, Gluck's mix-down to K2 CD digital for Concord is all that remains. It was from this master that Cassidy and his crew made the vinyl version; Paul Stubblebine prepared the cutting master, Start Ricker cut the half-speed lacquer masters and RTI did the plating and pressing, Sparing no expense, the twelve songs are pressed on two 180 gram clear blue vinyl LPs, not one as you might expect. Given the luxury of only three songs per LP side, the album drenches you in dynamic range you'd never know was there if all you had ever heard was the CD. There's reason number one why you should immediately pass Go, collect $200.00 and not fool with the Concord CD.
But wait, why would anyone want to spend $50 on something I said sounded good on a $17 CD? The answer to that question brings us to reason number two: the notion of high-resolution digital audio I mentioned just two paragraphs above comes into the picture. Since the vinyl version retains the 24-bit 96 kHz integrity of the original Gluck mix-down, but the CD was packed into 16 bits, it appears as if what we have when using an analog turntable is a means of playing back high-resolution digital audio without having to resort to over-priced digital up-samplers or the DSP in a mass market receiver. This is something that, I admit, I had completely discounted in the past--and still do to some extent--but Cassidy and company have demonstrated that it can be done. My remaining reluctance is simply that a recording made using 16 bit technology instead of something higher could not possibly sound any different if a conversion to the analog vinyl format were made--all other things being equal, of course.
I can hear those doubters now: "Well, those guys that made the record version tinkered with the sound. They equalized the lows and highs so that you guys with your high-priced turntables would think you're hearing something better, but you're really not. Let's do a blind ABX." Okay, let's do it. It's true that the CD and the LP "sound largely the same," but what separates one from the other distinguishes the reality of the on the CD. The CD sounds as good as it should. The record just sounds better. It has more inner detail; its micro-dynamics aren't masked either--indicating that the CD really is greatly compressed. You can hear much more texture in Karrin's voice; cymbals shimmer in the air surrounding their location within the sound stage to a more appreciable degree. Everything sounds more alive. Most importantly, that digital edge that many audiophiles identify as the single most negative characteristic of the CD is all but gone completely.
In rereading that paragraph, I come to a realization that requires a concession to the disbelievers: the recordings aren't exactly the same. There is no evidence of too much compression on the LP as there is on the CD. There didn't have to be. Since Concord is looking for radio airplay for their CD, their engineers made certain that it conformed to standard practices for the industry. Stubblebine and Ricker didn't have those restraints. So, yes, there are aspects of the vinyl version that make it a slightly different recording. That's another whole kettle of fish, though. Compression has nearly always been with modern recording techniques for one reason or another, and in this instance has nothing to do with the tonal qualities of either version of the recording.
And just to be fair, I pulled my 18-year-old Technics SL-10 mid-fi turntable out of the closet so that I could hear the vinyl on something sounding more in keeping with typical home music systems. Actually, friends of mine and I auditioned the record on three different turntables at three distinct price points, and I played the CD on five different digital systems. The five CD players ranged in retail price from $170.00 to $3500.00, and all were capable of delivering satisfactory sound. Even with such variety it was obvious that the record was doing things with the music that the CD didn't.
To put it succinctly, the record sounds like one of the best CDs you ever heard, only better. Since this is a digital recording converted to analog without the 16/44.1 limitation, the LP gives us an inexpensive means of hearing what differences we might expect to hear if DVD-Audio becomes a marketplace success. As good as this recording is, I share with Dennis Cassidy the opinion that it would have sounded even better had the analog master tapes still existed. This is an excellent product from this new audiophile record company. It merges the best of what PCM digital can be with the proven technology of the past.
Mr. Cassidy tells me that their next Concord reissue is in the works, and should be released soon. It will be The Ray Brown Trio recording, Soular Energy, and will be accorded the same luxurious-two-LP treatment that the present one received. Since the analog tapes for this recording still exist he will be in the enviable position of releasing the album at a level of quality it has never received before. I can't wait.
As always, I invite your questions or comments on my contributions. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.