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Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Test Tracks 4 
Three Reference Recordings 
Part four of a series.
Mike Garson The Bowie Variations for Piano
Reinaldo Brahn Brasileiro Soul 
Jazz Kaleidoscope
Review By A. Colin Flood

 

  If you are an audiophile tweaking the last little bit of sonic truth out of your system, there are essentially two types of tracks for objectively gauging its sonic qualities. This series covers both types:

The first kind of test track is a dryly-clinical measurement with test tones for analytical comparisons. Clinical tests are especially useful at finding room modes that suck out bass and sharpen treble to ruin imaging and details. In this series of reviews, the Stereophile magazine recordings include both this first type and the second type also* (See Enjoy the Music.com articles at the bottom of this review).

The second kind of test tracks is the highest possible quality music recordings that squeeze the very last drop of realism, accuracy and musicality out of the performance, venue, equipment and engineers. These subjective evaluation tools are useful for most of Enjoy the Music.com's reviewing parameters: Tonality, Sub-bass (10 to 60 Hz), Mid-bass (60 to 200 Hz), Midrange (200 Hz to 3 kHz), High-frequencies (3 kHz on up), Attack, Decay, Inner Resolution, Soundscape (front, depth, extension) and Imaging. In this series, the Digital Music Products and Reference Recordings are the second type*.

These days, you can get test tracks as either compact discs (CDs), downloadable tracks or applications. The driving force behind Reference Recordings (RR) is Keith de Osma Johnson (KOJ). He makes some of the very highest-quality music recordings you can find. On the Enjoy the Music.com scale, they rank three and four Blue Notes for Very Good and for Excellent Performance. They really do offer "The Best Seat In The House."

Three of Johnson's latest releases now join my reference stack. That stack morphed over the years to a hard disk, now a USB flash drive. Soon I will simply point my phone at a player and pull the tracks from the internet cloud.

In any form, my list still includes RR's Dick Hyman's From the Age of Swing. This bopping disc is still one of RR's all-time bestsellers and for good reason. The quality and upbeat tempo of this disc along with alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, trombone, trumpets, string bass and piano samplings (but no vocals) make it excellent test tracks [RR-59, $16.98].

I love testing home musical reproduction systems with full orchestral music because the performances have not only wide and full frequency response (see our chart at "How We Review"*), but also enormous dynamic range. As I found out at AXPONA*, it is very hard for most systems to do both equally well at the same time; orchestral crescendos easily reveal all sorts of system shortcomings.

Therefore, also on my list of highest possible quality test tracks is RR's TUTTI! An Orchestral Sampler.Tutti, Italian for 'all together now,' has 16 classical orchestral releases. These include Rimsky-Korsakov, Stravinsky, Mozart, Vivaldi, Strauss, Mussorgsky.  It does not however, have many solo instrument movements,Tutti has violins, horns, piano, wind instruments, deep tympani rumblings. [RR-906 HDCD, $9.98]

 

Professor Johnson
Renowned for his more than 50 pioneering years of recording and equipment design, KOJ has always been at the forefront of high-resolution audio. Johnson is Spanish on his Mother's side. The "de Osma" refers to a small region of the country. It means a person 'of or from Osma.' Perhaps it should be "de Recording." KOJ received eight Grammy nominations. Seven nominations were for Best Engineered Album, Classical and one nomination was for Best Surround Sound Album. In 2010, he shared the Grammy for Best Surround Sound Album for "Britten's Orchestra," (Michael Stern conducting the Kansas City Symphony). KOJ is an Audio Engineering Society Fellow and recipient of their Silver Lifetime Achievement award. He studied computer science, biology and music at UCLA, and did his graduate studies in electronics at Stanford University. Most people in high-end audio know KOJ as the honorific "Prof" Johnson.

What KOJ does for Reference Recordings (RR) bears no resemblance to the simple recording and playing back of concerts known as the "field recordings." This also refers to simple monaural or stereo recordings taken of musicians in familiar and casual surroundings, such as the ethnomusicology recordings pioneered by John Lomax, Nonesuch Records and Vanguard Records. One of the reasons a home audio equipment vendor at an audio show like AXPONA* might want to make a field recording in the same room as their demonstration equipment is so all listeners hear the same original sound. Then listeners can pass personal judgment on how well the demonstration equipment replays the sound back. Personally, I think an audiophile club such as mine (Meet up.com), would find it educational to witness a basic recording made and then listen back to it on a variety of systems. It helps train your ears.

KOJ designed and patented many innovative products in the professional and consumer fields. The RR sound comes from his singular methods and equipment, hand-built or extensively modified by him. His microphone techniques range from single-point Blumlein mics to spaced omnidirectional microphones to complex studio mixes, depending on the musical forces and the performing space involved. Their goal is to recreate the sound of real musicians making music in real space.

KOJ's investigation of electronic behavior and acoustic perception led most recently to his development (with digital engineer Michael Pflaumer) of the revolutionary High Definition Compatible Digital (HDCD) encoding process, produced and marketed by Pacific Microsonics (acquired by Microsoft in 2000'). HDCD is widely considered one of the most accurate recording processes ever invented.

 

HDCD
HDCD encodes the equivalent of 20-bits worth of data in a 16-bit digital audio signal by using custom dithering, audio filters, and some reversible amplitude and gain encoding; Peak Extend, which is a reversible soft limiter and Low Level Range Extend, which is a reversible gain on low-level signals. Thus, there is a benefit at the expense of a minor increase in noise. Popular artists with released albums in HDCD format include: John Mellencamp, The Beach Boys, Beck, The Grateful Dead, Jerry Garcia, Madonna, Mark Knopfler, King Crimson, Van Halen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Mannheim Steamroller, Kenny Chesney, Dixie Chicks, The B-52's, Natalie Merchant, Lucinda Williams, and Mike Oldfield.

Since Windows Media Player 9, PCs (not Apple) are capable of decoding and playing HDCDs on personal computers with a 24-bit sound card installed. Media Player 9 indicates the presence of an HDCD by flashing the logo in the control bar at the bottom of the application window. This was changed in versions 10 and 11. If an HDCD is inserted into a PC drive with WMP 10/11 running, the HDCD logo appears only if the HDCD feature is disabled, thus, signaling that it should be enabled for proper decoding. My Oppo had no problems with any of the RR discs (see Reviewer's Bio* for their reference equipment and listening rooms).

RR has vinyl discs available too. Three of their new CDs are now in my Reference stack...

 

Mike Garson The Bowie Variations
Beginning in 1972, super-versatile pianist Mike Garson performed, toured internationally and recorded with one of the most creative figures in popular music, David Bowie. Garson writes, "When I met David, I sensed that he was an immense artist and a songwriter with a flair for great melodies and unique harmonies. The Ziggy Stardust tour changed the course of my life in many ways and began a working relationship and a special friendship that has spanned four decades."

Having played the Bowie songbook in concert countless times, Garson always had the ambition to record his own original variations on these well-known themes.

Using a Yamaha Disklavier piano, Garson was able to create several exciting sonic overlays, without abandoning RR's audiophile approach to recording. Using floppy disks as a recording medium, the Disklavier piano plays a high-quality acoustic piano during playback, ensuring that tonal irregularities, noise and distortion typically found in audio recordings of a piano, are completely avoided. The result is "true" piano sound from a high-quality acoustic piano, instead of a recording of one. "It is like having six hands!" Garson said.

Recorded in the Oxnard, California, Center for the Performing Arts (venue of several previous RR successes), this program has realistic spatial characteristics not possible with standard studio techniques. [RR-123HDCD, $16.98]

 

Reinaldo Brahn Brasileiro Soul
Brasileiro Soul is a collection of fourteen original songs penned by Brazilian guitarist and singer Reinaldo Brahn. He grew up listening to the jazzy samba music of his native Brazil, and in 2006, brought his music to the United States. Brahn's experiences and collaboration with other musicians created his signature style, which blends in familiar sounding Samba, Bossa Nova, Funk and Smooth Jazz rhythms.

Notable on the album is the foot-tapping percussion of Jim Brock. Within a forty-five year career in music, Brock has appeared on literally hundreds of recordings with artists such as Joe Walsh, Joan Baez, Kathy Mattea, Joe Cocker, Janis Ian, River Phoenix and James McMurtry. He has five solo recordings himself.

This disc was recorded at Reflection Sound Studios in Charlotte, NC, the site of previous RR discs. [RR-124 HDCD, $16.98]

 

Jazz Kaleidoscope
I saved the best for last. Oddly, my favorite RR discs are the lower cost ones. The two-year-old Kaleidoscope is one. Dick Hyman, Mike Garson and Jim Brock, along with others, return on this jazz sampler with new tracks. The CD lineup includes a variety of jazz styles from the 20s, swing and 50s. Though Kaleidoscope has little of the Michael Franks, Diana Krall and Norah Jones smooth jazz style I review, its horns and deep notes really show off my Big Ole Horns! More so than most instruments, the piano is tricky to replicate accurately; its deep and wide range, attack and dynamics are difficult to get right. Hyman's plinkings here provide a purist pleasure for subjective comparisons. [RR-910 HDCD, $9.98]

 

*See Enjoy the Music.com article.

 

Enjoyment:

Sound Quality:

 

Links
Test CD 1

Test CD 2

Test CD 3

 

Company Information
Reference Recordings
P.O. Box 77225
San Francisco, CA 94107

Voice: (800) 336-8866
Fax: (650) 355-1949
Website: www.ReferenceRecordings.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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