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Looking for the Ultimate Source: Part Two

March 2011

Last month I began my search for the ultimate in high-fidelity recordings online, and examined several companies that offer downloads of truly spectacular quality. This month, my search continues . . .

iTrax: www.itrax.com

itrax.comThe motto at iTrax is "We don’t have millions of low-fidelity tracks but we do have the best-sounding ones." They also have something you won’t see elsewhere: You can choose from as many as 17 different formats, ranging from two-channel 192kbps stereo MP3s to 24-bit/96kHz PCM audio in 5.1-channel sound with a choice of an audience perspective or the illusion of sitting right on stage among the musicians.

Because iTrax believes that analog recordings are inferior, they carry only performances that are digitally recorded at or above 24-bit/88.2kHz. They work with a number of labels, but the main one is AIX Records, most of whose releases are recorded in the hall at The Colburn School, in Los Angeles.

I had a lively discussion about all things musical with Dominic Robelotto, AIX’s senior audio engineer and associate producer. As some of you may know, AIX’s philosophy is pretty specific: "The way that we record and produce music is a very pure process," Robelotto said. "We choose amazingly high-quality microphones, preamplifiers, A/D converters, and the music is captured at 24-bits/96kHz. From there it stays in the digital domain until it reaches the end user’s DAC. This gives us pure, transparent sound."

Why not 24/192 or 32/384?

"192kHz is something that has never really caught on," Robelotto explained. "Most of the digital equipment for music production is limited to 96kHz, and because of this we have not done much work at 192kHz. There will always be room for improvement as far as audio reproduction [is concerned], but for now 96kHz is an amazing format, and it gives us the ability to reproduce what is happening at our live recordings."

iTrax also sells music from the Norwegian label 2L. Their recording producer and balance engineer, Morten Lindberg, is a fan of surround sound and a sonic perfectionist. "I follow the production from initial planning through recording, editing, mastering, and out into the end-customer market," he told me. "The transparency and body of the recording is all in the placement of the microphones. Five centimeters up, down, forward, or backward makes all the difference in the world. It’s a matter of balance between direct and reflected sound, the nonlinear frequency absorption in the air, and how the color radiates from an instrument."

Lindberg claims that 2L’s recording technology is part of the secret of their good sound. "We make our recordings in DXD (24-bits/352.8kHz), and some domestic systems are already able to play back the full glory of that sound," he said. "But the mass market right now, in terms of downloads, is buying FLAC 24/96. For true high fidelity, I think you need at least 24/192, which is soon to match the sales of 96kHz, especially in Japan."

2L’s recordings do sound wonderfully transparent, and a perfect example is the Trondheimsolistene’s In Folk Style (2L-068-SABD), offered in 7.1, 5.1, or 2 channels. The principal work is Grieg’s Holberg Suite, which the Trondheim Soloists play with passion and tenderness. Try track 4, Air, which spends a leisurely two minutes building a moving crescendo. You can hear sound striking the 12th-century church walls at the recording site in Selbu, Norway.

HDtracks: www.hdtracks.com

HDtracks.comHDtracks.com, part of the Chesky Records empire, offers the widest selection of major labels of any company specializing in high-definition downloads: A&M, BIS, Chandos, Chesky, Concord Jazz, Deutsche Grammophon, ECM, Fantasy, Geffen, Naxos, Prestige, Riverside, Rounder, Stax, Sun, Telarc, and Verve comprise just a small percentage of what’s available. Looking for John Coltrane? He’s here, along with Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Stan Getz, and Scott Hamilton -- and that’s just jazz. Rock lovers will find Steely Dan, Tom Petty, Paul McCartney, and Jerry Garcia. Getting the picture? There’s some serious music muscle here.

HDtracks has everything from 320kbps MP3 up to 24/96 two-channel files. Some of the latter recordings are nothing less than revelatory. Audiophiles should jump at the chance to try Bags Meets Wes ($17.98, 24/96). Track 1, "S.K.J.," features a vamp by Milt Jackson and Wes Montgomery in which the pop of Jackson’s vibes mallets and Montgomery’s thumb on his guitar’s three low strings will make you happy you’ve spent so much money on your stereo system.

Coltrane fans rave about A Love Supreme ($17.98, 24/96), and this is probably as close to the master tape as we’ll ever hear. Call me a sentimental, but I vastly prefer Coltrane’s softer side, especially as revealed on his Ballads ($17.98, 24/96). The man had a huge heart. Just listen to the opening of "Say It (Over and Over Again)." About 90 seconds into the song, where a vocalist would be singing . . .

When you say I love you, the same old I love you
They whisper in stories and plays,
You can change I love you, the same old I love you,

To oh such a heavenly phrase.

. . . you can hear Coltrane begging, using every trick he can think of to seduce her with his tenor sax. It’s sheer magic.

HDtracks also offers my pick for the single most underrated act of the last 15 years. Imagine lyrics to make Cole Porter jealous, melodies so natural they sound timeless, and singing and playing of the highest caliber. Put it all together and you have Dave’s True Story. Songwriter-guitarist David Cantor and singer Kelly Flint are smart, jazzy, risqué, and, most of all, fun. Here’s a sample from "I’ll Never Read Trollope Again," from their Sex Without Bodies ($17.98, 24/96):

I’ll read Kafka’s tale about that lonely vermin
I’ll read every Jonathan Edwards sermon
Hell, I’ll read Emmanuel Kant in German
But I’ll never read Trollope again

From one extreme of fame to the other, Paul McCartney and Wings’ Band on the Run ($19.98, 24/96) is amazing. As you might guess, McCartney’s muscular bass has been brought to the fore, and it has a wonderfully plummy sound. But it’s the daintier sounds that really shock. Concentrate on the percussion in "Bluebird," the acoustic guitar in "Mamunia." Who knew that someone actually took some care with this album, which has always sounded muddy and indistinct? Not now.

It appears that the majority of their non-Chesky high-def albums come from the old SACD mixes, which limits them somewhat, but it’s hard to understand why they are doing such a drastic job cherry picking the labels they work with. For instance, they have Coltrane’s Ballads, but not his duo album with Johnny Hartman, surely one of the pinnacles of the Impulse label’s art.

The Chesky brothers started HDtracks out of a concern that crappy MP3s were taking over the world and, even though some might consider the fight Quixotic, they are still fighting the good fight. The quality of what they have produced is stellar.

Other companies

Two other, smaller websites caught my attention. High Definition Tape Transfers (www.highdeftapetransfers.com) offers older recordings that are now out of copyright, mostly from commercially released 1/4" reel-to-reel tapes. It’s a labor of love for Bob Witrak, a 30-year audiophile who does all the mastering himself. He proudly lists his mastering equipment on the website, and I can vouch for the fact that he’s doing something special. Some 80% of his customers choose 24/96 or 24/192 downloads.

For a good idea of what Witrak offers, give a listen to his mastering of de Falla’s El Sombrero de Tres Picos, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos ($18, 24/192). The bleating trumpets, crackling percussion, and pounding timpani at the opening sound entirely real, with zero compression and a wide-open soundstage. This is as good an orchestral recording as I heard during all of my testing.

For lovers of choral music, the place to go is www.gimell.com, the website of Gimell Records. Gimell is the home of the Tallis Scholars, widely accepted as one of -- if not the -- preeminent group performing Renaissance choral music anywhere in the world. Even if Renaissance choral music is not your thing, these lovely performances can’t help but bring joy to your inner audiophile. My choice for their best recording is Josquin’s Missa Sine nomine ($23.99, 24/88.1). This mathematically complex composition based on canons proves that a great composer can create something that appeals to both head and heart. May I make a personal plea to the folks at Gimell? Could you please lend your gorgeous sonorities to Josquin’s sublime little piece, Tu solus qui facis mirabilia? In the meantime, for something simply gorgeous, try Allegri’s Miserere and Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, also available in Studio Master Pro 5.1 for $29.99.

To understand the future, look at the past

For many years, Karl Miller taught audio preservation and restoration at the University of Texas at Austin, where he founded, and served as Curator of the Historical Music Recordings Collection. Now retired, Dr. Miller is the engineer and an owner of the well-reviewed Pierian Recording Society. His knowledge of techniques of preserving recordings goes far beyond what most of us will ever dream of. He gave me links to several articles on the problems of preserving sound. After a dizzying couple of hours sorting through tortured terminology and educationese, I came away understanding that there is significant concern that we face a dramatic shortage of people who have the skills to preserve an accurate audio signal.

Of course, whenever such attempts at preservation occur, the best we can hope for is that those making the recordings will use whatever the state of the art is at the time. Unfortunately, there’s always some disagreement about what that is. "When I started doing that work, I was using Pro Tools at 16/44, which was the best we could do at that time," Miller says. "As for the work I do personally and for Pierian, I still use the same, because my Cedar boxes will only handle 16/44." The majority of Pierian’s releases are historic, so 16/44 works quite nicely. "I believe the Library of Congress is saving things at 24/96. Most of the recordings I deal with predate ‘hi-fi,’ and the top end rolls off at about 10kHz or lower, so the slower rate seems good enough for me," Miller told me. In fact, the Pierian Recording Society has won awards and kudos for its high quality of preservation, so it seems to be good enough for a lot of people.

Simon Drake, general manager of Naim’s recording division, says that most consumers still don’t understand what 24/96 means. In fact, as he explained to me in the last installment of this series, "awareness of the capabilities of 24/96 is not widespread enough even in the music industry, let alone amongst the listeners! Even worse, quality-concerned artists are also becoming rarer! If the artist doesn’t have a passion for pure sound, then their music is unlikely to be given the same level of attention in sonic production. You would be surprised how many studios are still recording in 16-bit around the world! The sad thing is the artist (and the record companies!) do not know any better."

Thankfully, we did find a few places that still care. As these labels and online distributors prove, there’s plenty of great music that can stretch your playback system’s muscles while bringing pleasure to your soul.

A challenge

Recently, the Audio Engineering Society published a paper stating that there’s no audible difference between a properly done MP3 and a 24-bit/192kHz high-definition file. I beg to differ, but what do you think?

One of the side benefits of most of these sites is that they offer both MP3 and HD files. I encourage you to pick a tune you like and see for yourself. Do you hear a difference? If so, does it justify the difference in price?

All of us who care about music are ultimately going to have to choose which formats we collect. The days of keeping a pile of records or a stack of CDs are rapidly dying. The future is in digital files, and we have to choose: 320kbps MP3? 16/44.1 FLAC? Or the highest possible word size and sample rate? It’s your choice.

. . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com

Karl Miller’s Take on Music Storage

Karl Miller offered more information, regarding the life span of recordings, that is peripherally pertinent to this story but very important to music collectors. As the Curator for Historical Music Recordings at the University of Texas, he has spent the better part of a lifetime trying to figure out how to best capture a piece of music and then make that recording last forever. Here are his musings on the subject. (By the way, Dr. Miller personally uses MAM gold CD-Rs. "They should last until I die," he said.)

"Optical storage, as in a CD-R, is problematic for a variety of reasons. It will self-destruct over time. It has to do with the dyes that are used. Phthalocyanine dye in the gold CD-Rs will last a long time and is relatively stable. It is rated to last about 75 years. Of course, there is the question as to whether or not we will have CD players that long. There is a company that sells a CD machine which will prepare a glass master for pressing (etched) and coat it with silver, which should last longer. No doubt you know that the typical CD-R is expected to last about 15 years. Commercially produced CDs should last at least 30 years, but the reflective surface will, in time, be subject to oxidation, and the error correction will eventually be unable to cope with the pinpoint holes produced by the oxidation. It is possible to recoat that surface, and there are machines for sale that will do this, but once it is recoated, it needs to be copied.

"As for electromagnetic storage, the major problem is heat. Heat will realign the magnetic field of any hard-drive disk. Audio- and videotape are both subject to shedding. Good tape, both reel-to-reel and cassette, can have a very long lifespan, but they are not used with much frequency these days. And, of course, there is also the problem with the mechanics of hard drives. As they say, it isn’t a question of if, but when, your drive will crash.

"There are, of course other major problems for long-term storage. Jonas Palm, an archivist, did a superb study, and it has become a warning to many. So the solutions these days are to use a redundant array of independent discs. This requires refreshing of the data.

"In short, the only long-term storage device we know of is the shellac disc . . . of course, the sound is lousy.

"The magnitude of these problems is quite substantial. For example, many film companies cannot afford to maintain their products which were produced digitally.

"In the audio field, while there is interest in preservation, there is very little funding and very little action. As with nitrate film, lacquer discs are unstable and a great many recordings have been lost. Acetate audiotape will become brittle and break, or develop vinegar syndrome and become unplayable. We have been able to find solutions for some of the tapes afflicted with sticky-shed syndrome, but some have been lost.

"For me, the lack of interest in audio preservation is something of a metaphor for how we view music and sound. It is clearly considered a consumable and nothing more.

"There are, of course substantive questions as to what will happen to all of our digital information, business records, etc. As you probably know, there are many companies which place their computer storage devices underground in an attempt to withstand any chance of a major magnetic flare from space.

"As I used to tell my students, the only thing that will really last a long time are diamonds and Styrofoam."

 . . . Wes Marshall
wesm@soundstagenetwork.com