Jazz on DVD Audio, Binaural and more…
Hearing The Master Tapes
I have three versions of a 1957 Red Rodney recording, almost certainly one of the first ventures into stereo mixing for Rudy Van Gelder, or for that matter, any other recording engineer. One can only speculate on what equipment he used, but it was probably an Ampex 300 series recorder. At the time, Mercury was using 35mm film magnetic recorders, while RCA used their own 2 and 3 channel recorders. This was a time when stereo was so new that some recorders used “staggered heads”, that is, half-track mono heads next to each other; such recordings couldn’t be played on machines with stereo heads, because of the difference of a few milliseconds between the channels.
Getting back to Red and Rudy, the LP version of the recording was called The Red Arrow (Onyx 204) after one of the tunes, but when it was reissued on CD a year or more ago by Classic Records, it was titled Red Rodney: 1957 (CD PR 5) . It’s now been released again by Classic as a DVD audio disc (DAD 1003).
I guess you’d immediately wonder why they would bother to re-release an early stereo recording probably made on primitive equipment, but all you need to do is listen for a few seconds to the first track Star Eyes. Whether it was Van Gelder’s first or 50th stereo recording, it has a freshness and immediacy that are truly captured only on the DVD. The CD is good, but the LP kills it, and if listening to the LP is like really listening to the music, listening to the DVD is like hearing the master tape. Classic’s claim and slogan, “Master Tape Sound” is dead right, or, more appropriately, live right. Listening to this DVD is like being there in the studio with the guys, Red Rodney, trumpet, Ira Sullivan, tenor and trumpet, Oscar Pettiford, bass, and the unrelated Elvin and Philly Joe Jones, drums.
And what an experience it is! These guys can play, and though I’ve been a Rodney/Sullivan fan for years, this recording still lays me back in the aisles. And, of course, Rudy Van Gelder is my idol: this guy has done more for the accurate preservation of indigenous American music than anyone except, perhaps, Verve founder Norman Granz and Folkways’ founder Moses Asch. He also made consistently excellent jazz recordings, something that couldn’t always be said for even the major labels like RCA and Columbia. And he did it for many smaller jazz labels like Blue Note, Moodsville, and Prestige. He worked with Miles, Coltrane, Coleman, Cannonball, and many other jazz giants, making recordings that are still of such reference quality that they have been reissued by JVC, Analogue Productions, and Classic on LP and CD…and now on DVD Audio.
The first three side 1 tunes (LP), Star Eyes, You Better Go Now, and Stella By Starlight are all standards, while the others that follow are originals, Red Arrow and Box 2000 by Rodney, and UBAS by bassist Oscar Pettiford. Elvin Jones was drummer on the November 24th sessions for the latter three tunes. No explanation is given in the notes for the title, UBAS.
Doesn’t matter, because all six tunes are played with lively enthusiasm, with great solos by all, especially Pettiford, who must have been an influence on Chuck Israels; I’ll have to ask him. The only criticism I could make of the sound is that trumpet and sax are a little too hard left and the drums too far right. If you have a DVD player that can handle 96 kHz discs, and you love jazz, you have to own this disc.
The soundstage is a little more natural and refined in another Van Gelder recording from about 1961 that showcases a Hank Mobley-led band that features Freddy Hubbard, trumpet, Wynton Kelley, piano, Paul Chambers, bass, and the incredible Art Blakey on drums. Mobley may be the leader on tenor, but Blakey is definitely the driver here, his drumkit spread across between the speakers. Here the trumpet is at right and Mobley’s tenor at left with piano centred (actually, the two horns swap sides on some tracks, rather like Cannonball and Coltrane in Kind Of Blue).
If I’d heard this DVD before I did the Israels recording (The Bellingham Sessions), I could have used it as a model, since what we got was very similar except our piano is at left. Van Gelder got a great sound on the drums, and Blakey, being a very explosive drummer, is heard to full effect here: his solo near the end of the title tune, Roll Call, is extraordinary. Again, this DVD offers a real master tape experience (Classic DAD 1016).
Like Roll Call, all the tunes but The More I See You are Mobley originals: My Groove Your Move, Take Your Pick, A Baptist Beat, and The Breakdown. Robert Levin in the notes talks about Mobley’s style as being very relaxed, and that comes through in the playing, which is very much so, but never sloppy, with good ensemble parts provided by Mobley as composer/arranger.Levin quotes Freddie Hubbard about him: “He sure plays relaxed. Hank’s my favourite tenor player.” Well, Hubbard is one of my favourite trumpet players, and I’m a big Wyn Kelly fan, too, so this album is becoming a regular listening experience.
On The More I See You Hubbard plays with a mute, and responding to a comment that he sounds like Miles, he noted, “I wish I could sound as good as Miles, but I don’t want to sound like him.” He may be relaxed, but he’s not that relaxed.
Enough said. These two Classic jazz reissues live up to the classic and master tape designation, and it’s great to hear them at their best.
Great Gershwin And Not So Great Rachmaninoff Revealed
Among the other Classic audio DVDs are a 2-disc set of the complete Gershwin works for piano and orchestra (DAD 1018), and the Symphonic Dances and Vocalise by Rachmaninoff on a single DVD (DAD 1004). The latter disc is a recording from 1967 made “using four special ribbon microphones, designed by Charles P. Fisher of Cambridge, Massachusets”, according to the notes. It was made at 30 IPS with a special tape equalization curve, apparently, so I guess the Classic folks thought it was an audiophile recording.
Well, I beg to differ. I find the sound thin and etched, the hall quite unpleasant in its ambient signature, and the playing of little merit. This is not the Dallas Symphony that was subsequently transformed into a very fine orchestra by the late Eduardo Mata. Conductor here is Donald Johanos. Not one of Turnabout’s more distinguished productions, this disc offers nothing to my ears.
The Gershwin set, however, is a real treasure. Featuring the St. Louis Symphony under their exceptional conductor, Leonard Slatkin, it contains fine peformances in superb sound, captured by the Elite Recordings team of Marc Aubort and Joanna Nickrenz. They also did a great many good recordings for Nonesuch, as well as for Turnabout, the label where these originated. Pianist is Jeffrey Siegel, whose weakness here seems to be just a little too much reverence, and not enough jazz in the Concerto In F. He is also not flattered by a piano pickup that stretches almost from speaker to speaker. In the first and second Rhapsodies the piano is better kept in perspective; in the concerto they must have put a close-up stereo pair of mikes on the piano, because it wanders laterally around the soundstage depending on the notes played.
Of course, the definitive recordings of the Rhapsodies and other orchestra-and-piano works are probably those of Earl Wild with Fiedler and the Boston Pops, (Concerto In F, Cuban Overture, “I Got Rhythm Variations, RCA Living Stereo LSC- 2586; An American In Paris, Milhaud: A Frenchman In New York, RCA Dynagroove LSC-2702), though I’m very fond of the composer’s own piano roll accompanied in the original orchestration by a small New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas (Columbia XM 34205). However, the Rhapsody In Blue performance in this set by Siegel is the strongest of them all, with just the right combination of rubato and jazz inflection, flavoured by very nicely accented and beautifully played orchestral parts. The brass and woodwinds are outstanding, and Slatkin’s control of all this more than deft.
I don’t think many other recordings, LP, CD, Dolby tape, whatever, beat these sonically, and they are all very fine performances. But it’s the sound that sells it to me. The Elite team has scored big time here, with a huge, deep soundstage, great clarity and weight, and utterly natural timbres. I have no idea what or how many microphones they used in these 1974 recordings, but a clue might lie in the fact that they were recording in QS surround. Certainly the miking on the piano is a little close overall, making for a quite large instrument, but the orchestral picture is very natural, suggesting another spaced pair, and ambient mikes for the rear channels. I suspect also that they recorded direct to 2-track through the QS encoder in order to get such a clean sound. On other of their recordings, credits note the use of Dolby A noise reduction, so we can assume it here; the recording is very quiet and detailed, with much higher resolution than most CDs, or for that matter, digital recordings in general. The soundstage is one you could live in, it’s so realistic.
In addition to the Concerto in F, the discs contain both Rhapsodies, An American In Paris, The Catfish Row Suite from Porgy & Bess, Promenade, Cuban Overture, the I Got Rhythm Variations For Piano and Orchestra, and Lullaby.
I had some trouble playing the first disc on my portable DVD machine, with some spitty dropouts followed by a descent of the sound into digital hash on track 3, 4 or 5; the player seemed to lose its lock on the digital signal over a period of several minutes during the final movement of the Concerto in F or later. This did not occur when playing the disc on the Pioneer DVL-90 in the home theatre room, so I made myself a 16/96 kHz DAT copy on my Pioneer D-9601, which sounded great.
Now, in making this copy from a 20-bit/96-kHz DVD player onto a 16-bit/96-kHz recorder, I was lopping a full 8 bits of resolution off the digital signal. Why was there no audible degradation of the sound quality? Well, this only further underlined something I’ve been talking about in recent issues, that it is sampling rate which most defines the absolute sound quality of a digital system rather than the number of bits. While it may be true that, as in analog systems, resolution below the noise floor is audible to as much as 10 dB down (after all, noise is broadband and uncorrelated while music is pitch specific and organized sound; thanks to Clive Allen for reminding me of that once again), the actual noise floor of a recording venue is seldom within even 20 dB of the 96-dB 16-bit threshold. And if the recording is made using mostly the upper range of the 16 bits, resolution should not be affected. Of course, with these excellent analog recordings to 2-track Dolby A processed tapes we are looking at an S/N ratio of 80 to 85 dB at most, so that leaves a good 10 or 11 dB below their noise floor to maintain what’s audible under it in 16-bit digital. However, in editing systems where levels are adjusted up and down, and the digital signal is possibly processed in other ways, 24-bit resolution may not be enough in the system, even working with 16- or 20-bit sources. The Meridian 518 operates in 72-bit architecture for this very reason, to have extra processing power for the level setting and noise shaping.
That technical digression out of the way, let me focus on several superb new original 24/96 recordings from Chesky. The first is both Chesky the label and Chesky the composer, specifically David Chesky’s Three Psalms for String Orchestra. (CHDVD181) They are performed by the Deutsches Filmorchester Babelsberg under Stephen Somary in a recording made in Berlin in August of 1997. In a departure from normal practice, Chesky provides technical credits, noting that dCS converters and Nagra D recorders were used, with monitoring on PMC LB1 monitors driven by Bryston amplifiers. Sounds like a pretty good setup to me.
Annotator Roger Dettmer employs some pithy phrases to create a context for Chesky’s Psalms, describing much of the music composed during the early part of the second half of this century as “robotic [and] arguably anarchic”, but now replaced by the new minimalism: “Abstractions have been plowed under to fertilize a new era of musical composition within the parameters of harmonic hegemony and coherent structure.” “Harmonic hegemony?” I like that.
He mentions Gorecki and Part, as well as Schoenberg and Samuel Barber, as influences on these works. The Three Psalms explore themes of death, reflection on life after death, and resurrection, respectively, and though sombre early on, are very beautiful, with solos for violin and cello that are very poignant in the first two. The third opens in the same brooding fashion, with low strings (basses and celli) joined by violas and violins in a rising motif that becomes progressively more passionate. Anyone fond of Part or Gorecki’s music will probably find these Psalms very moving. I certainly did, especially in such a good recording, with clarity, warmth, and exceptional bass reproduction.
Another Chesky original 24/96 recording of very different music is Remembrances featuring the playing of trumpeter Jon Faddis (CHDVD176) with a big band led by Argentinian Carlos Franzetti that features some unusual instruments, including oboe, French Horns, bassoons, and bass clarinets. These give the band a sonority reminiscent of the work of Gil Evans, with whom Faddis has worked. They are both self-taught arranger/composers. Sketches Of Spain and Miles Ahead come immediately to mind as I listen to Remembrances.
The tunes are mostly standards like Laura, Sophisticated Lady, and Gordon Jenkins’ Goodbye, with one Faddis original, Johnny Bug. Franzetti’s arrangements are sumptuous, and full of colours and harmonies that you don’t normally expect to hear from a jazz band. Recorded with a single pair of microphones, it has a timbral unity and rightness that comes through perfectly in 24/96 sound. This could well be the best jazz recording of 1999. It’s not just jamming, but music making in the truest sense.
Both my wife and a male audiophile friend refuse to use headphones under any circumstances. On the other hand, I'’ve routinely monitored both live recordings and CD sessions for years on my various headphones, using sealed phones for live work and open-air types for other monitoring. I generally have a pair of each type with me for any recording situation. It may be a kind of aural claustrophobia that keeps some people away from headphones, or maybe they just don’t want to mess up their hair; hey, headphone hair isn’t nearly as bad as golf hat hair!
John Sunier of the binaural source (www.binaural.com) sent me a cross-section of CDs that he sells, these ranging from pulp fiction to jungle sounds, with organ, Dixieland, and guitar in between. You don’t have to listen to these on phones, and some are more speaker compatible than others. All are made with a special microphone system that emulates the human head, a device called an Aachen Head one of the most popular. Sennheiser and Neumann also have binaural systems. We reviewed and bought yet another one, the Sonic Studios DSM-6S microphone system, which can be clipped to glasses frames, used with an accessory headband, or put on some kind of artificial head: it was profiled with our own approach to kunstkopf, a leather portable-CD-player case stuffed with the perfect substitute for human brains, old T-shirts, the whole thing covered by a hairy Rykote wind/rain filter, and called “the recording beaver” in our Winter 99 issue). I’ve been making binaural recordings for years, mostly outdoors, and at least one CD is in the works. Examples can be found on our Test & Reference CD (track 28, Loon’s Tunes), and on the Sounds Of Canada cassette. Both of these are out of print after selling thousands of copies. T&R 2 is in the works, and will come out later this year.
There are lots of choices from the binaural source, and our listening started with a dramatized Stephen King novel, The Mist, recorded with a kunstkopf (dummy head for those who don’t understand German). Billed on the cover as “The Compact Disc Nightmare Edition”, The Mist was pretty much a fog for me. The surround effects were quite realistic, but the acting was more hammy than misty, and unseen horrors don’t quite make it. I found the whole thing very artificial when it wasn’t boring, and not very scary. Remember Count Floyd on SCTV?
The Mist (Simon & Schuster Audioworks 87475-6) is also available on cassette, and is joined in the binaural source catalog by two Meatball Fulton titles, The Maltese Goddess, and O Boy O Boy, both described as post-modern detective novels, Aura by Carlos Fuentes, another chiller, & The Bleeding Man, a NPR broadcast on CD about a prehistoric cult.
If you want to sample binaural sound, a good sampler is a CD called Virtual Audio (Heyday HEY-028-2). Here the effects and spoken voices around you are more convincing than the music, and the outdoor recordings are more realistic than those indoor. A notable exception is the sound of a digeridoo, which is very interesting. This giant Australian aboriginal wind instrument plays melodies over a deep-pitched drone note; it’s kind of a giant flute, about 8 feet long, with a unique sound. This is quite an interesting CD for one listen otherwise, and is marred by some occasional sloppy production and buzzy binaural mikes, this more evident on better headphones like our Grado SR125s.
One musical instrument that takes to binaural recording very well is the pipe organ, the bigger the better. Two CDs illustrate this well, both featuring the same organist, Joyce Jones, organist in residence at Baylor University. In both, an Aachen Head is supplemented by a pair of Schoeps MK-5 omni microphones. In one she plays her home organ, as it were, the Letourneau organ in Markham Organ Studio at Baylor, which she partially designed, deciding on the combination of stops for its installation in 1993. These include 16-foot subbass pedals.
The recording, Joyce Jones at the Letourneau Organ at Baylor University (Rosenhaus RRCD-014) was made by Wade Bray of Virtual Visit Recordings of Waco Texas, as was Joyce Jones at the Ruffatti Organ in Spivey Hall (Rosenhaus RR-CD-013). The Letourneau organ is a smaller chamber organ on which Ms. Jones teaches, its largest pipes 16-footers, while the big Ruffatti, installed in 1992 at Clayton State College in Georgia, has 32-foot ranks, one of these called “contre bombarde”. It is, as you can see, a beautiful organ, attesting to the visual, as well as musical creativity of organ builder, Fratello Ruffatti.
Both CDs contain works that show off the power and coloristic capabilities of each organ as well as being good and sometimes unusual music. Obviously, the biggest sound comes from the Ruffatti disc, with plenty of rumbling subwoofer pedal notes. There are plenty of biggies here, but also such chamber organ curiosities as Haydn’s Two Pieces for Clock Organ. One piece with lots of oomph is Jean Langlais’ Fete, which moves a lot of air, and shows how good a recording this is. On one sub-25-Hz note the closed door to the laundry room at the back of my 32-foot listening room rattled; I guess you’d call this a compound 32-foot/16-Hz resonance.
The Letourneau organ is no slouch for bass, either, starting off with a 16-foot (32Hz) pedal ground bass in Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV 540. My 1/3d octave analyzer shows this organ to have subharmonic capability, solid bass strong at its lowest reading, 25 Hz. It just doesn’t have the power and hall presence of the Ruffatti, and is accordingly recorded more intimately, but very well. Interestingly, this disc contains two movements from the Widor 5th Symphony, including the mighty Toccata. I’d love to hear these on the Spivey organ.
Both of these recordings are entirely speaker compatible, and sounded fabulous on my ambisonic system in all surround modes. I thoroughly enjoyed them, and would rank them among the best organ recordings I’ve heard. Wade Bray certainly knows what the hell he’s doing, and Joyce Jones is a very fine and interesting player. As an aside, Ian Sadler and I are planning another organ recording, this time on an instrument with quieter blowers than the Knox organ. We’ll probably do it this fall in our Natural Matrix system (which is both speaker and binaural compatible) on my new 96 kHz DAT recorder.
Waterless Waves & Virtual Jungle
Though I’ve never even touched a surfboard, my first thought on hearing Ebb And Flow (Miramar Earth Sounds 243019-2) was “Surf’s up!” And then, the Joni Mitchell line, “breaking like the waves at Malibuuuu…” floated through my head, wobbly vibrato and all. If you could listen to the waves forever, this is the disc for you.
After Ocean Beach comes Sand Dune with a great buzzing fly that will have you waving your hand around your head at the beginning, followed by the gurglings of Tide Pool. Then we’re back to the more gentle lappings of Rocky Cove, with the finale more crashing surf on the Sandspit.
If you like this kind of stuff, you’ll love Ebb And Flow. It was recorded by Gordon Hempton using a dummy head he calls “Fritz”, and is marginally speaker compatible, the sound much wetter on headphones.
If you love a Cockatoo in your ear and Toucans (not the Linn ones) above as they “seem to discuss their day from their perch” (liner notes), you might like Living Air (Natural Rhythms NRCD2003), recorded in Peru’s Upper Amazon Basin by Peter Acker using kunstkopfs he calls “Fritz” and “Max” (hey, I’m starting to get this: I think one is a Neumann and the other an Aachen). Track 10 is a very realistic jungle thunderstorm that is long on the rain and short on thunder.
Maybe the jungle makes me feel uncomfortable, but I couldn’t listen to much of this stuff, and didn’t find it very relaxing, but you might. We each have our own primal needs. The sound is so realistic on headphones that I kept waiting for the low growl of a cheetah over my shoulder. I think I’d rather be surrounded by music.
Dixie & Espanol
A CD called Moods of Old New Orleans (Naxos Jazz 9506) takes me back to one of my first stereo LPs, bought for me by my parents for Christmas, I think in 1958. It was a disc by The Dukes of Dixieland, but I was into bop, not schmaltzy old trad jazz. Still am, so this disc by the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble has little real appeal to me. However, its sound is superlative, with a big space even on speakers, excellent focus and imaging and very clean sound. There’s rasp on the trombone, depth on the trumpet at the back, and good reedy clarity on the clarinet. Full of standards like the Sugarfoot Stomp and Just A Closer Walk With Thee, Moods is definitely the real thing. And speaking of big, as well as space, there’s bass, with a big drum that’s literally in the room. Dixieland lovers unite! Unfortunately, there is not a single technical note; I’d like to know how this recording was made and with what. In fact, it isn’t even identified as binaural, though it’s obvious to the ears in cans.
How about Pasion Espanola from Cologne, Germany? This disc (QDE ABCD 93206), featuring German guitarist Thomas Karstens was recorded in Cologne in 1995 using a Pioneer D-07 96 kHz DAT machine fed by a Neumann KU-100 kunstkopf (see the photo above) followed by STAX MA-2 microphone preamps. It seems like a perfect mating of German and Japanese technologies.
Karstens is a very good guitarist, and the music is not your foot-stomping hand-clapping flamenco, but passion German-style, pieces, by Falla, Sor, Ponce, and lesser known Spanish composers. It’s a very fine recording with superb performances naturally well captured. There’s no 7-foot-wide guitar here, but a centred instrument with space around it that plays as well on speakers as on phones.
All of these CDs are available from the binaural source, via their web site www.binaural.com, their toll-free number 800-934-0442, or by snail mail: P.O. Box 1727, Ross, CA 94957. I’ve known John Sunier, who runs this service, for years, and was interviewed a couple of times about our recordings for his binaural radio show, which, unfortunately no longer exists, a casualty of the narrowing of programming on public radio and declining sponsorship. I hope this companion enterprise is more successful in bringing music and other aural experiences into many, many heads.