Welcome to May's meeting of the Society for Insatiable Tweaks; the true beginning of Spring for most of you out there. Here, it's the beginning of that distinctly New Hampshire time called MUD Season, when the frost leaves the ground and the stored up ground water from the winter snows mixes with the soil to become the equivalent of brown quicksand. I've actually almost lost two cars and a tractor in the stuff, but that's a story for another time. While the rest of you can begin your yard work and gardening and get away from your tweaking, I'll be inhabiting my Media Room for another three weeks. That'll give me time to store up interesting stuff for future articles but will certainly cut my Spring planting time down. Of course, Mud Season here is quickly followed by Black Fly Season, another convenient excuse for leaving the yard work till June, or maybe Fall, and working further on my stereo system.
That said, I'd like to devote this column to software, and I don't mean the Mud, or what I'm using to write the column, but the media we use for music reproduction.
Believe it or not, I've owned just about every type of playback medium that's ever been available. Way back in the 50's my family still had some of the Edison Diamond Discs, but unhappily no method of playback as my Grandfather had trashed the player several years before my birth, but still kept the discs for remembrance purposes. I even went on a buying binge 20 years ago and bought a box of them from an old gentleman in my town, most of which I've never played as they require a 78 rpm turntable with mono cartridge and the grooves have horizontal rather than vertical modulation. They were the original direct to disc recordings with the singer or orchestra bellowing directly into a horn to which was attached a diaphragm with needle which cut the groove. Except for the distortions caused by the poor horns that were used at the time, these recordings with their scratches from poor playback and storage removed can still sound very immediate and thrilling.
Then came the Berliner flat shellac discs, followed by the electronic era with the development of the vacuum tube and amplified music. While the immediacy was gone, the recording system was much simpler using microphones that lost the horn distortions but replaced them with electronic noise. But more copies could be made of each master and secondary masters of the original thus decreasing the cost per disc. For that we did receive convenience and decreased cost, but at what price?
We also had several 78's with a record player with steel needles, and I can still remember listening to two favorite discs; Vaughn Munroe with Riders in the Night, and Tennessee Ernie Ford's rendition of 16 Tons. Some of those 78's, as reproduced by Clark Johnsen years ago at his Listening Studio, which had a tweaked up Thorens turntable and a modded RCA mono 78 cartridge, had the best bass I've ever heard from any reproduction system playing 78, Direct to Disc vinyl or wax masters. Nothing, including any digital storage I've heard comes close to the "you are there" bass of some of these recordings.
Direct to disc, wax or vinyl was replaced in the 50's by metal wire, and then 1/2 or 1 inch magnetic tape for recording purposes with either 1/4 inch tape or vinyl as the reproduction medium. While having the ability to record and playback two to four tracks and then multi-tracks of sound and therefore allow playback for up to about 30 minutes of time per vinyl side or 10-inch reel, there was something lost in the immediacy and bass of the playback. Also with multi-track, one could place microphones all over the place, thus allowing pickup of more information, but at the loss of contiguity and wholeness of the sound field. For that we did receive convenience and decreased cost, but at what price?
There were a few Luddites who complained but they were drowned out by the unwashed masses. Who could complain when one could get a complete performance of the Beethoven Ninth plus a filler on two discs at $8.95 versus ten discs at the same price each? And later in stereo to boot, although some of the earlier two-channel recording sounded more like a Ping-Pong or tennis match than a live concert experience. Soon media-produced home tape, which was more accurate than vinyl also soon bit the dust due to price and convenience, but is still looked upon today with lust by collectors. For that we did receive convenience and decreased cost, but at what price?
I had a collection years ago of over 200 second and third generation master tapes from a group of New York engineers who worked for the various music companies and shared their works among themselves. Most were made in the golden years by top-notch technicians with music and engineering degrees who really knew how to place the least number but most appropriate microphones for the optimal pickup of information. Think second and third generation masters of some of the best Columbia's, RCA's. Mercury's and London's done by the same engineers who recorded them in the first place, made up for themselves and other engineers they were trying to impress. Unhappily they were a pain to play back on my Ampex 351 tape deck, and I sold them to a lucky fellow in New Jersey who still has them. They were transcribed to 16-bit/48kHz DAT but not to the 24-bit/96kHz standards available today. When multi-mic'ing and multi-track recording at different times and places came into existence, the recorded sound went further away from a completely live event.
Back in the late sixties and early seventies, four track recordings became available on vinyl, using cartridges with very narrow needles that could pick up the very high frequency modulations of the surround channels that were recorded above 40kHz on the stereo vinyl grooves, and some were actually very good. Unhappily after only a few years the interest in the public for these died out, as there were several different incompatible systems pushed by the different record companies, they were more expensive than two track vinyl, and the information of the surround channels became easily lost or distorted due to damage after only a few playbacks due to inappropriate cartridge usage, again by the unwashed masses. For that we did receive convenience and decreased cost, but at what price?
Then came 16-bit/44kHz digital, which at the start was probably 12 to 14 bit actual reproduction through machines that produced all sorts of enharmonic distortions but was labeled as "Perfect Sound Forever." But the masses latched on to them for their convenience sake and, thank G-d, high enders began to push for improvement of the recording and playback chain which after many years has ameliorated some of the digital nasties. For that we did receive convenience and decreased cost, but at what price?
Now we are into the dual era of both high bit 24-bit/96kHz or 1-bit SACD recording for the audiophile, with low bit and very lossy sampling rate configurations for the masses. IPODS carry hundreds if not thousands of songs in pocket sized boxes that unhappily produce sound bordering on what was available from small transistor radios of the 50's. Massive quantity and cheap price replacing quality, with most recording engineers going for the loudest sound produced by the least talented groups with the best "abs" or boob jobs pushed by the pencil pushers for maximum gain. No wonder that "record" sales are off. Gone is the Golden Era when a recording, either popular or classical was a work of art to be displayed and played for maximum enjoyment.
The newest iteration will be HD-DVD and Blue-Ray, which are incompatible with each other. Interestingly, it appears that neither will support playback of either SACD or DVD-Audio, with the only high definition audio playback being Dolby True HD and DTS-HD, with both being only two track in the first machines. Guess you'll have to keep that universal DVD player after all, and who knows how long the companies will support the DVD-Audio and SACD standards.
We have received the convenience and decreased costs compared to our music reproduction past, but, except for possibly SACD and the new high bit audio coming down the road with high definition video DVD's, the artistic price, in my estimation, has been excessive.
So why the previous rant? Because in the past month there has been an abundance of very good to great SACD reproduction of recordings from the Golden Age that have hit the market, all easily beating the previous digital CD attempts at matching the original vinyl. All are at significantly lower cost than could have been bought for when they first came out in the 50's and 60's. They are the same recordings most of us have had either in our vinyl or CD collections and some are of the greatest recordings from the Golden Era of Recording. In some ways each beats the previous iterations, but none are perfect.
One group, for the first time has actually surpassed the originals by mostly being 3 channel reproductions of the original 3 track tapes. I am, of course, referring to the set 4 of the RCA Living Stereo.
SACD's of the great recordings from their library. Soundmirror of Boston, Ma, has transferred these to SACD digital in either two or three track depending on how the master tape was recorded. Like the previous four sets, there is no pseudo-surround or fake center channel employed, with minimal gimmicking for tape noise performed, and they are somewhat superior in sound to the previous three sets. Soundmirror must be listening to their constituency, we audiophiles. I have several of them on either shaded dogs, or Red Seals, and Classical Records reproductions and in most respects, even on my Walker Proscenium turntable with Kondo-IO cartridge, for the first time, I actually prefer the SACD's to my vinyl.
Included in the set are the following:
1. Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique/Munch/BSO
At $12 each, they are a steal compared to the $18 to 30 prices for recordings by less than stellar artists these days, and at $100 for the set at amusicdirect, its robbery if you like all of them. From my perspective, you could skip the Lanza, whose singing is not to my taste, and the Pops Caviar and Vienna for their short running time, but the rest are packed with two records full of the best recordings ever produced. Unlike some of the earlier releases in this series, all have excellent sonics with minimal digital hijinks. Highly recommended.
Likewise Artemis Records, a company centered in New York and primarily interested in Headbanger type music, bought the entire Vanguard Classics catalog of tapes from Omega and has been slowly releasing them in SACD sound in two and 4 track surround depending on the original tapes. Unhappily the Vanguard site looks like it hasn't been updated since 2004, and the 5 discs I bought at the ridiculously low price of $9 from Music Direct, each seem to be sell-outs of the catalog, having been pressed in 2004.
The five discs are:
1. Moussorgsky/ Pictures at an Exhibition/Mackerras/ New Philharmonia Orchestra
All were originally recorded by Seymour Hirsch in four track surround and engineered for SACD by David Baker & Tracy Martinson.
First, the pluses. All recordings were performed by excellent groups, with the L'Histoire being one of the jewels of the Golden Era. One of my original two track tapes was of the musician's part of the performance, to which was added the vocal play afterward for the final release. It was superb with some of the best playing and sonics of any day. Unhappily, when they mixed on the voices, they were done somewhat loudly, which masks some of the nuance of the playing. Otherwise this SACD is superb with excellent balance between the front and surround channels. All of the SACD's have very good sonics, with the percussion on the Moussorsky being some of the most natural I've heard, and actually scary in a few places. In two track playback, they come very close to the RCA's for that "you are there feel."
Now the big minus. They were recorded at the time when Ping-Pong stereo went surround. Instead of using the surround channels for ambience and hall sound, one is placed in the middle of the orchestra, with percussion coming from the right rear speaker and some brass from the rear left. This would not be a problem for an old French Horn player like me, who was used to playing with these instruments in those locations, but the violins are on the left and the cellos on the right, which would be perfect if I were sitting dead center in Row B of the auditorium. Thus it was somewhat disconcerting having the orchestra surrounding me but in inappropriate positions. You may like the immediacy of this but I prefer the hall approach to surround recordings and couldn't become comfortable with it.
Interestingly, MusicDirect also had a previous SACD edition of the Moussorgsky produced by the Omega label, and it had exactly the same positioning of the orchestra. I am unsure whether it was the same SACD mastering or not, but I couldn't tell the difference between the two recordings. Anyway, for $8.95 a piece, if you are not bothered by the surround effect or will listen in two channel, they are another steal.
Finally, I wanted to clarify my technique for improving the digital discs before playback. No longer used is the AudioDesk System lathe, which does true up the discs, but runs the risk of removing too much material from the edge. I lost the last two minutes of one performance, and I'm still not sure that taking the seal off of the outer edge won't allow deterioration of the disc over time. Also, the Bedini Ultraclarifier has been removed as the Reality Check Fluids seem to do any equal job of demagnetizing the discs.
First, all discs, including laser discs which I still will listen to for their performances and LPCM 16-bit/44kHz reproduction rather than DVD's DD, are cleaned with Reality Check Real Disc and Clear Bit solutions which remove any surface substances put on the discs in their production. Then micro-scratches are filled in by using the Intron Nanotech 8500CD fluid, and finally running each disc through the NESPA machine, which supposedly improves the edges of the pits in the disc. Both of these can be purchased through Sounds Of Silence.
All of these operations probably work by making it easier for the laser to keep the proper timing of the changes from reflective to non-reflective areas that make up the code for digital playback. I know that with present players, one is supposed to not hear any difference because of the ability of the machines to extrapolate lost or mangled code, but they all do and in different ways.
By the way, use Charmin Ultra Toilet Paper as the cleaning rag for each of the steps. While it does leave some micro-fibers on the discs which need to be airblown off at times, it works much better than Viva paper towels or shammie cloth, especially with the Nanotech fluid, which must be washed off quickly, otherwise it leaves an opaque residue on the discs. Trust me on this one. Plus it has the advantage of being wonderfully soft on the po-po with the poo-poo. Try it, you'll like it.
For CD's, I am still making duplicate copies using the Reality Check CD Duplicator, but am buying the ProDisc CD-R black discs from Shop4tech, http://www.shop4tech.com/item204 , for $0.30 each in pack of 100. They are basically the same as the ones sold by Reality Check for a significantly lower price. Both the original and the copy are first treated with the above solutions and then the copy is processed through the NESPA. There is skuttlebutt on the web that the CoolCopy duplicator does a better job, and for only $189, but haven't had a chance to try it yet.
Hope that clears up my technique at present. Do get out and enjoy the Spring, if you have one where you live.