Scoping Software: Some Interesting CD Transcriptions.
James Boyk is an unusual individual, in that he not only plays the piano well but also records well what he plays. This particular attempt displays two salient characteristics: a very clean piano sound and background hiss.
Hiss is a badge of honor among some high-end circles, because it signifies that a fair amount of analog hardware was used during the recording process, with some of that hardware possibly employing tubes. In this case, we have a Blumlein arrangement, with ribbon mikes, and an all-tube analog array of gear, right up to the digital coder. (The LP version, which I did not review, is analog from stem to stern). Obviously, there was no need to add dither to this recording, because the analog electronics took care of that requirement automatically.
In addition, no mixing was done (after all, only two microphones were used), and the SPARS code on the disc simply says "AD." No fooling around, here. Boyk also suggests experimenting with switching the polarity of both speakers to see whether that improves the sound. Maybe it will, although there is not much in the way of documentation by other researchers to show that this would be the case. I have never been able to notice such things.
Esoterica notwithstanding, this is a terrific-sounding recording, in spite of the subtle hiss. The piano, as I noted is very clean sounding, and has a very welcome, solid, non-phasy, and non-diffuse characteristic that I find to be rare in solo-piano recordings. The ambience simulates a small room effectively, which lends intimacy to the music, and there are even audience noises to add that final touch of realism, although because they come from up front they do not really simulate a true live-performance experience, which would have people noises all around.
Dolby Pro Logic decoding shrinks the apparent piano size, and therefore moves us back somewhat further into the room. I did not particularly like this effect, but if you are sitting off-axis there is less of a shift in the soundstage and the ambience delivered by the surround speakers works to good effect, in any case. I believe that most serious listeners will prefer the phantom-center mode. The "enhanced" version of Dolby Surround available from my DSP-A3090, which adds two additional surround speakers and some synthesized reverb, worked better than standard Dolby Pro Logic.
Interestingly, assorted DSP concert-hall simulations done by the same processor worked fairly well. I ordinarily would expect some bloating with a solo instrument recorded this way, but that was not the case here, and the result was a piano sounding properly sized in a regular concert hall. However, the hiss became more intrusive, and tended to come from everywhere, like some massive, all-encompassing, low-level steam leak. Probably, most listeners will be better off employing straight stereo reproduction.
Brahms, Johannes: Violin-Piano Sonata, Number 1; Amy Beach: Violin-Piano Sonata. Arturo Delmoni, violin; Yuri, Funahashi, piano. Recorded in 1990, at the Church of the Holy Trinity, New York City. Engineer: David Hancock. 58+ minutes. John Marks Records JMR-2.
This recording is aimed at high-end audiophiles, as well as serious music lovers, as a quick look at the enclosed booklet will prove: analog master, done on a Studer A80 at 30 inches per second, Cambridge ribbon mikes, with Stax headphones and an SRM-TIS headphone amp used during monitoring. I am never much interested most in such esoterica, but in this case, the attention to high-end detail has given us a musical transcription of exceptional merit. I will also note that the violin was a 1780 Guadagnini.
In terms of what it delivers, this is a recording of small-scale works, and so I first listened to it on a smaller system, temporarily installed in my smaller listening room. The significant playback hardware consisted of a pair of Atlantic Technology 271 LR satellite speakers, in combination with the Atlantic Technology 272 PBM subwoofer, both of which I am in the process of reviewing. The results were terrific, in part due to the remarkable abilities of those satellites, and in part also due to the equally remarkable abilities of this recording, which exhibited excellent detail and remarkably vivid soundstaging.
Later on, I switched subs, substituting my Velodyne FSR-12, and with that unit in operation, I did detect a bit of very-low bass rumble that was not as clearly revealed by the AT sub, due to the latter having a bit of a THX-style rolloff below about 35 Hz. The FSR-12, although not capable of playing as loud as the 272 PBM, is flatter into the sub-35-Hz range. (While it is not THX-certified, as are some of their bigger subs, Atlantic Technology has designed this particular unit so that its low end mimics the THX curve, and my review of it, the AT satellites, and the rest of an AT "System 270" hometheater package, will be showing up in a future issue.)
On my larger system (Allison IC-20 main speakers, Velodyne F1800 subwoofer), the results were just as gratifying, with the excellent soundstage still apparent, the center focus very realistic, and the sense of space nicely approximating a good, mid-hall listening position. I was particularly appreciative of a piano sound that was not diffuse and endowed with too much of a "stereo" effect. The small amount of very-low-level rumble was still apparent, and it was almost certainly the result of either outside traffic noise occasionally intruding (common with recordings made in churches), or a heater/airconditioner motor, or perhaps both. To some listeners, the effect will heighten the sense of "being-there" realism.
I tried Dolby Pro Logic decoding with both the large and small systems, and with the larger one the results were quite good. With the smaller one the left and right satellites were a bit too low in relation to the TV mounted Atlantic Technology 273 C center speaker for a properly flat soundstage to form up. (You can get away with this kind of high-mounted center speaker and rather low left-right speaker arrangement with home theater, but not with musical playback if you want to use the center for that kind of thing.) The center speaker in my main system is nearly the same height as my left and right mains, and sits on a short stand underneath a pull-down screen that I use with my front-projection TV monitor.
With DPL decoding, there was some frontal narrowing, which simulated moving back in the hall somewhat, but the extracted ambience worked to good effect, and made for an even more realistic feel. DSP decoding was also good, and even the standard-sized hall simulations did not overly enlarge the performers.
Encore. Live recordings made at the Santa Fe, New Mexico Chamber Orchestra Festival, featuring works by Mendelssohn and Brahms. Recorded in 1997, at St. Francis Auditorium, Santa Fe. Engineers: John Atkinson and Wes Phillips. 73+ minutes. Stereophile 011.
If you look through the booklet that accompanies this release, you will discover that a fairly impressive array of hardware was employed to do the work. Even the cables are audiophile jobs. The microphone technique is straightforward, however: an ORTF array, flanked by a pair of omni capsules that allow the engineer to adjust the resulting mix for proper spaciousness and depth. However, due to the situational contingencies, it was not possible to get a sufficient amount of reverb by means of natural causes, and so during the mixdown process a small amount of synthesized reverb had to be added to enhance the sense of hall space. As this was a live recording, a certain amount of audience noise is apparent, and even the applause is there in its full glory.
Overall, the sound here is exemplary. The soundstage is realistic, the synthesized reverb is employed to good effect, and the imaging and blend between the instruments is just about all you could ask for in a two-channel recording. Dolby Pro Logic decoding (here I only tried it with my larger system) did compress the stage width considerably, and it would only be a good function to employ if the listener was sitting far enough off axis for the soundstage to be dangerously skewing towards the nearer main speaker. The DPL center steering works nicely to counter that artifact. DSP hall synthesis, courtesy of my Yamaha processor, was at its best with a smaller room simulation, such as the small, "Cellar Club" mode it offers. Simulated large-hall reverb tended to put a small ensemble into too expansive a room. Incidentally, while this may be a relatively unknown New Mexico performing ensemble, I thought the performances were excellent.
Kern, Jerome: Can't Help Singing: a New Look at the Jerome Kern Classics. Voices of Ascension, directed by Dennis Keene. Recorded in 1997, at the Church of the Ascension, New York City. Engineer: Jeff Mee. 54+ minutes. Delos 3224.
From the sound of this transcription, this group should seriously consider recording some Christmas carols. The blend was terrific, and the spatiality, imaging, and depth was extremely well handled. The recorded ambience was very complementary to the music, and the degree of clarity was not compromised by the reverb.
Dolby Pro Logic decoding moves us quite some distance back from the group, but the overall effect was much more workable than I at first thought it would be. Most of the time, we want a chorus to be spread out in front of us, and want to sit close to experience that spread. However, in this case, the DPL decoding combined a more distant perspective with a nice injection of hall ambience from the surround speakers, and the result was surprisingly good. My Yamaha processor has an "enhanced" version of DPL (which employs Dolby steering up front but adds two more surround speakers and reverberates the extracted surround somewhat), and it worked even better than straight Dolby decoding in terms of simulating a large-hall environment.
DSP processing was also very good, but only if a moderate-sized hall simulation was chosen. My processor also has a Concert-Video mode, and it was excellent. Both it and DPL offered the benefit of a derived and steered center channel, which firmed up the soundstage when listening away from the preferred central sweet spot.
Music For A Glass-Bead Game. (Works by J.S. Bach, Kodaly, Martin, and Handel.) Arturo Delmoni, violin; Nethaniel Rosen, cello. Recorded in 1997, at the Conservatory of Music Recital Hall, Purchase College, Purchase, New York. Engineer: Jerry Bruck. 62+ minutes. John Marks Records JMR-15.
Here we have another John Marks recording that is going to excite both music lovers and high-end enthusiasts, because the list of production components includes Canare cables, which means nothing to me but will no doubt thrill those in the know. Fortunately, the microphone techniques involved (and the choice of excellent Schoeps microphones, most likely closely positioned) has resulted in an overall sound that is absolutely terrific.
On my smaller system (Allison LC-120 main speakers, NHT VS-1.2 center speaker, Velodyne FSR-12 subwoofer, and Yamaha DSP-A1000 processor/amp), the recording distributed excellent focus, well-defined soundstage imaging, and vivid detail. Indeed, I could sometimes clearly hear breathing and even occasional sniffing sounds, as the cellist worked away. (No groans such as Casals emitted in his later years, however.) On my larger system (Allison IC-20 mains, custom-center speaker, Velodyne F1800 main sub, Hsu TN1220 center sub, and Yamaha DSP-A3090), the results were also emphatically clear, clean, and well imaged, with excellent hall perspective and a sense of spaciousness that simulated a nice mid-hall listening position. This is clearly one of the best recordings of this kind I have heard to date.
In each system, DPL decoding moves us away from the soundstage a bit too far for my taste, and I advise any of you who care to employ it to fill out the room with a bit of extracted hall ambience to employ the phantom-center mode, unless you have to sit so far off-axis that the soundstage collapses into the nearer main-channel speaker. DSP manipulations were excellent, but were at their best when a smaller-hall simulation was chosen. On the larger system, the smaller "Cellar-Club" simulation available from my processor worked best of all. (Note that the rather arbitrary names given the assorted DSP modes on this and other surround processors does not indicate that they are only effective with certain kinds of music.)
Mussorgsky, Modest: Pictures at an Exhibition. James Boyk, piano. Recorded ca. 1990; location not listed. Engineers: James Boyk, Shelly Herman, and Peter Sutheim. 62+ minutes. Performance Recordings PR-7-CD.
This is an interesting disc, because there are two performances of the same work on it. Or rather, there are two recordings of the same performance. One was done with a Panasonic DAT recorder and the other was done with a Magnesaurus analog unit (no, I did not make the name up), a device that makes major use of tube electronics. However, all inputs to both recorders were via tube electronics, and so there is audible hiss even on the DAT-mastered version, although it is not as loud as the analog-recording.
During my initial listening session, I was somewhat shocked to note that the analog transcription sounded more impressive than the digital version: more presence, more impact, and more detail. However, after the initial consternation dissipated, I did some careful measuring, and here is what I discovered.
First, the analog version was roughly half a decibel louder in terms of the average peak levels on many sections. Second, the analog version was often 2-3 dB louder over the 400-500 Hz range on some passages, and third, the analog version was always at least half a decibel louder on the quiet passages in those same sections.
So, on the whole, the analog version was just enough louder overall to give the impression that it was, you guessed it, more forward, clearer sounding, and blessed with greater impact. While one might claim that this is proof that a good analog recorder has more subjective dynamic headroom than a digital recorder, I think we can assume that if a good DAT deck is adjusted so that the peaks do not exceed 0 dB on the recording meters, no headroom problems will be encountered. So I have to assume that the analog-mastered version was configured on purpose to sound a tad louder than the digitally mastered version, possibly because the engineers were worried about overdriving the DAT unit on peaks.
Interestingly, with a bit of deft control of the volume knob on my preamp, I could make the digital section sound just as good as the analog version by advancing the gain accordingly. Well, I actually could make it sound a bit better, because the fewer number of tube circuits involved kept its background-hiss level a bit lower.
In any case, the overall sound of both versions is very similar to the two other Boyk performances in this series of reviews. The same Blumlein microphone arrangement was used, and the results display the same tight focus, freedom from phasy qualities, and solidity to the soundstage. However, these characteristics are certainly not attributable to either the digital or analog recording techniques employed.
Mr. Boyk is clearly more interested in the fine points of recording than typical performers, and from what I gather after reading the booklet that came with this recording, he has more faith in analog hardware than in the digital versions. For most recording engineers, this little controversy is already an open-and-shut case -- in favor of digital -- but Mr. Boyk is so enamored of analog technology that in his commentary he even asks his readers if they think the LP record is better than the compact disc. He also asks them to consider which format best preserves the "emotional impact" of the music. Given that a high-fidelity recording medium is supposedly designed to merely dispassionately reproduce sound, I found this to be a rather curious question.
Most recording engineers would almost certainly openly favor the digital medium (the more digital, the better), due to the lower distortion, lower noise, and particularly in a situation like this one, where you are recording piano, better speed regulation. However, there is no doubt that with this recording, the analog devices used to make their contribution did an exemplary job. Nevertheless, if all solid-state had been utilized instead, the digital section would have had less background hiss. Indeed, the hiss probably would have been close to non-existent.
Music For Violin and Guitar (works by Mauro Giuliani, David Leisner, Maurice Ravel, and others). Arturo Delmoni, violin and David Burgess, guitar. Recorded in 1991, in Summers Auditorium, Concordia College, Bronxville, NY. Engineer: Bob Katz. 62+ minutes. Athena 10006.
Bob Katz mostly records for Chesky, but he did this item for Athena a few years back and employed the usual technical amendments that Chesky also offers: 128x oversampling, exotic wire, custom microphones (actually, refurbished, vintage '60s AKGs, from what I gather), etc. The latter were arranged in a Blumlein arrangement, for the best focus, imaging, and soundstaging possible.
These people were dead serious about technology; the tweaking went well beyond the what was applied to the audio part of the recording equation. For example, even the violin strings were cryogenically processed. No, that is not a typo: they were deep frozen and then thawed. This was probably done to humor someone, and it is likely that it had no effect on string quality -- negative or positive.
Technical gambits notwithstanding, this is still a fine transcription in terms of sound quality, but only when listened to on systems with speaker systems that do not have too much space between them, That is the case with my larger system, which has the speakers 12 feet apart, and with the listening position 14 feet from the front wall. The imaging with this release is hard left and hard right, and with the players that isolated from each other, widespaced speaker systems can possibly put too much distance between them.
However, with a smaller speaker angle, such as what my smaller system displays (here the speakers are 5 feet apart, and I sit back 8 feet), this material comes to life. What's more, it remains very lifelike even when sitting well off axis, because there really is no center image to collapse into the nearer speaker, and the more distant of the stereo pair continues to lock the player being reproduced by it firmly in place.
This is soundstaging with a vengeance and this recording should image well no matter how many people are crammed into the listening room to experience it. (What we have here is a hi-fi show and dealer showroom, imaging-demo disc if ever there was one.) The tonality and detail of the recording is also first rate, although the violin seems a bit wiry sounding at times (this is more a result of the microphones than the cryogenically processed strings, let's hope), and the degree of hall ambience surrounding the players is also very much in line with the material and the instrumentation.
Pro Logic decoding had a weird effect. The violin on the left was shifted toward the center but the guitar player on the right only moved to the left slightly. I have no explanation for this artifact, but the ultra-wide stage spread clearly was giving the center steering circuitry of my processors fits. Even off-axis listening was effected similarly and the steering benefited that kind of listening in no way at all.
DSP hall synthesis was also no good at all, because the large-scale players, combined with their wide spacing, resulted in a cavernous, larger-than-life effect. The smaller jazz-club simulation was pretty decent, however. My DSP-A3090 processor's Classical-Opera function (combining a steered center with hall DSP) was not bad, and neither was the similar function in the DSP-A1000 I use with my smaller system. Indeed it was better than any of the other simulation programs; the players were less skewed and there was a better, large-room, you-are-there feel to the sound that those uncomfortable with straight-stereo intimacy might prefer. Nevertheless, this release was clearly designed for conventional, two-channel stereo playback.
Rachmaninoff, Sergei: Suites For Two Pianos (Op. 5 and 17); Six Duets (op. 11); Prelude in C-sharp minor (Transcribed by Rachmaninoff). Cynthia Raim and David Allen Wehr. Recorded in 1996, at the Music Hall, Tarrytown, NY. Engineer: Patricia Duciaume. 79+ minutes. Connoisseur Society 4214.
In the old days, if an LP record was filled up to its near-theoretical limit, the average level and dynamic range had to be compressed so much that the overall sound suffered dramatically. It is to the credit of the digital medium that a recording such as this one can be near the maximum time limit of the compact disc and still come up with outstanding sound quality.
The nifty thing about this release is that it allows a stereo program to deal with piano sound in a much more impressive way than is normally possible with a single piano. Indeed, here, we have a wide-spread piano sound for a good reason: there are two pianos. The perspective is close up, the way the instruments would sound at a front-hall seat at a live performance, and the clarity, detail, and dynamics (this recording will show you what dynamics and bass punch are all about) are absolutely first rate. Indeed, this is one of the best and most realistic-sounding musical releases I have ever heard.
Interestingly, I still detected some subtle microphone hiss, and there was also a very little bit of room rumble and hall-ambience noise in the background, which may annoy some listeners who want to concentrate strictly on the piano sound, but which may actually please others who crave all the warts and blemishes, the way they might come across at a typical, live performance.
Switching to Dolby Pro Logic decoding resulted in a nice blend, but the "one-big-piano" sounding result simulated a fairly close spacing of the instruments on the stage, or at least a fairly distant seat, which I felt detracted from one of the main purposes of this kind of transcription and musical presentation. However, if your main speakers are fairly wide apart to begin with (which is the case with my main system), the spread maintains itself fairly well, and the additional ambience extracted and sent to the surround speakers heightens the sense of real-hall acoustics. DSP processing worked OK, too, but only if I selected one of the smaller-room, jazz-club simulations available from my Yamaha processor.
Interestingly, the commentary that came with this disc mentions the transparent highs, bass "slam," and the "analog-like sound," but what I heard was solid realism, made possible by digital technology, and intelligent microphone usage. This was not analog-like sound.
Reverie: Romantic Music For Quiet Times. (Music by Satie, Faure, Ravel, Elgar, and others.) Nethaniel Rosen, cello; Doris Stevenson, piano. Recorded in 1996, at Recital Hall, Purchase College, SUNY. Engineer: Jerry Bruck. 68+ minutes. John Marks Records JMR-10.
As has been the case with the other John Marks recordings I have reviewed, the booklet that comes with this release has the usual list of elitist hardware, including the wonderful Schoeps microphones and those Canare cables, which supposedly carry electricity better than most other brands. The monitoring speakers utilized were Aerial Acoustics Model 7s, but interestingly, in the booklet the writer recommends that excellent sound will also be obtained if listening is done on Shahinian loudspeakers. Perhaps in the future I can round up a pair of those and give this material another review ...
In any case, as has also been the situation with the other John Marks recordings I have reviewed, this release exhibited outstanding sound. In my smaller listening room, with the Atlantic Technology 271 LR satellites and the AT 272 PBM subwoofer employed, the detail was amazing. I could not only hear every nuance of the music, I could also detect assorted fingering noises and stage creaks and squeaks. This is front-row sound at its best.
On my larger system, the soundstage receded somewhat, and the performers were far enough away for the artifacts I heard when sitting close to the speakers in my smaller system to not be quite so evident. The bigger system is more revealing of soundstaging qualities and focus, and here it was apparent that this is an exceptional recording in that respect, too. As with the other JMR recordings I have heard, I again heard a bit of background rumble, most likely a bit of external noise feeding into the hall, plus possibly some heater or air-conditioner fan noise way off in the background.
On the larger system, Dolby Pro Logic decoding moved us back, as is the norm with this kind of decoding, but the overall effect was not unpleasant, particularly if the listener prefers seats away from the front of the hall.
I will again note that for any kind of center-steered decoding to be used, it is important that the center speaker be a good one and not be placed so that it is radically higher or lower than the left and right mains. You can get away with height differences with home theater, but with musical playback, it is important that the soundstage not be too much like a mountain or valley. DSP decoding was as good as with the other JMR releases, with the smaller-room simulations working somewhat better than those which mimic more standard-sized concert halls.
Serenade. A live recording of the Santa Fe, New Mexico Chamber Music Festival, featuring works by Mozart, Brahms, and Dvorak. Recorded in 1995 and 1996, at St. Francis Auditorium, Santa Fe. Engineer: John Atkinson. 70+ minutes. Stereophile 009.
This is my third review of a recording produced by Stereophile magazine. The second was Encore (011), reviewed above, and the first was Rhapsody (010), reviewed in Issue 72. As with those releases, a number of exotic, high-end components were involved in the production process, including the requisite cables. In contrast to the Encore recording, no synthesized reverb was added, because the arrangement of the ensemble allowed for better pickup of the natural reverb. The microphone technique employed was pretty much identical to what was used with the other recording, with the same ORTF array for the main pickup and with spaced omnis added out to the sides for some additional "bloom."
Unlike most mainstream recordings, this release is designed to appeal to audio buffs, and so the booklet that comes with it is chock full of technical data. In addition to listing the assorted exotic components utilized, the text uses a great deal of print to describe the way the recording was made and even employs diagrams to make things clearer. While this may seem like overkill for music lovers, I rather liked the material, and enjoyed reading it.
The overall sound here is very similar to the Encore release, with an excellent soundstage, a moderately wide spread, and notable detail. The piano that is employed on some sections blends very nicely with the ensemble, with no bloating or oversizing. This was a live concert, and the usual audience noises intrude at times, but the feeling of realism is quite good, possibly because of this, although the noises were coming from up front, rather than from all around.
Dolby Pro Logic decoding was not all that good, unless you like sitting at the back of a concert hall, but if you must sit off-axis when listening to this material, the center speaker, assuming it would be a good one and is not mounted significantly higher or lower than the left and right mains, tends to better solidify the soundstage and reduce the degree of collapse toward the nearer speaker. DSP ambience synthesis, as applied by my DSP-A3090, was OK with standard-sized hall simulations, but better with something smaller, like the Cellar Club setting.
Twentieth Century Masters (works by Prokofiev, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Ravel). James Boyk, piano. Recorded in 1991; location not listed. Engineers: James Boyk and James Fraser. 55+ minutes. Performance Recordings PR-8-CD. (This release, like the PR recording reviewed above, is also available as an LP.)
Although this transcription was recorded using technology that was pretty much identical to what the Performance Recordings Beethoven recording (PR-9-CD) reviewed above employed, I felt that the hiss level was not quite so pronounced. The overall sound was very similar, with the same clarity and lack of phasiness, and with the same nice sense of small-room space. The DPL and DSP emendations also had a similar impact.
When I was reviewing this disc, as well as the Beethoven and Mussorgsky transcriptions, I was in the midst of also reviewing the Dunlavy SC-II speakers, and I made it a point to see how those units, with their pinpoint imaging, handled the pinpoint, well-defined focus of all three recordings. I will note that the results were very satisfactory. The Dunlavy speakers were a bit less diffuse than my Allison IC-20 main systems, and the overall sound was something that tight-imaging freaks would have to applaud. It would be easy to become spoiled by that kind of combination. -- HF
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|Article Type:||Sound Recording Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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