ONLINE - ISSUE 18
SACD is Dying... Or Not?
Ardent Studios' Andrew Curry operating a 24-track Sonoma DSD recorder/editor on John Hiatt's new SACD recording project. Others pictured are John Hiatt and engineer John Hampton.
Audiophile Audition has been championing the hi-res SACD format ever since its introduction, and has been reviewing more SACD discs than any other publication web or print. 3500 SACDs have been released worldwide so far. So it pains us to see some other audio publications and forums—both online and in print—report that SACD is dead or dying. (See our DualDisc Reviews in this issue for our take on the latest from the DVD-Audio camp.) For example, this month's SOUND & VISION—the largest-circulation print AV magazine—reports: "With new releases having come almost completely to a halt..." (Where are they getting this misinformation?) We asked some of the leading producers and recording engineers involved in SACD and DSD for their feedback on this rumor. Here are just a few of their comments.
Everett Porter of Polyhymnia International—who record projects for such labels as Pentatone, Telarc, Caro Mitus, and Avie:
SACD dying off is news to me, and the record companies we work for! We now do far more SACD recordings than CD recordings, and are having little trouble convincing our customers to make and release SACDs.
A few of this year's (2005!) projects that come to mind are: Several new recordings for Caro Mitus (new Russian label—a team's in Moscow now), two new recordings for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra plus editing for several more, editing of a couple SACDs for Philips Classics (Brendel and Uchida), analog transfers for DoMusic, a bunch for PentaTone (both new recordings and RQR's), including a new recording with Julia Fischer, a recording for Telarc, a mastering for Avie, last week a SACD mastering and press presentation for Epica. In addition to this, we've authored disks for several others.
The rest of the year looks pretty good as well—more Concertgebouw recordings, more for Universal Classics, more PentaTone's, more for Caro Mitus, and some I can't mention yet...
The technology for recording, editing, and mastering SACDs also continues to improve, and prices for replication are falling rapidly, so that producing SACDs is no longer as costly as it was in the beginning. We routinely produce new SACDs for less than it cost to do a top-quality CD just a few years ago. Extra time is still required for making the 3 versions needed for a fully loaded SACD, and for the SACD authoring, but much less so than just a year or so ago. On the savings side, we now record everything directly to hard disk, and have all material constantly online during production—no more winding tapes and loading them into the editing system.
We do demos here for consumers a couple of times a year, and the interest level is very high and growing. People who haven't heard good surround often come with the idea that surround is only for films, but leave convinced that it's the best way to listen to music as well.
I'm also very encouraged by the increased coverage of SACD and surround in some of the audio magazines. What gives me the most confidence in the eventual success of high resolution surround is the reactions of musicians and music-lovers when they hear it. They LOVE it—and then stop talking about the sound. They instead talk about the music and the interpretation. The recording and playback system is much less of a barrier than with a stereo recording. Instead of listening to a performance through a window into the hall (stereo), you're in the same acoustic space with the musicians.
When changing from stereo to surround you go from two dimensions (left & right) to 3 dimensions (left right and depth), comparable to the difference between mono (one dimension) and stereo (two dimensions). Going from mono to stereo doesn't just give you the possibility to position sounds between the speakers, it also creates a feeling of space and a much more accurate impression of the timbre of various instruments. The same is true again when going from stereo to surround—colors are richer and better defined, the low end much fuller and realistic (even from small speakers), and sound sources have much more body. With a good recording, the sweet spot is also much bigger. All in all not an evolutionary change (like from LP to CD), but a revolutionary change—like from mono to stereo. As with the mono to stereo change, it will take more time, because the consequences are greater (you have to change more than one component). The added resolution of DSD gives it that much more...
All in all I'm confident about the future of high-resolution surround. Right now SACD is the foremost carrier. More and more players are agnostic, and accept just about any disk you put into them. Let's hope this trend continues. Is by far the best for us all!
Next is Jared Sacks of Amsterdam's distinguished classical label Channel Classics:
It is certainly not moving at record speeds into every household but it is doing very well in holding it's own and more. I see a good number of new record labels starting to work with DSD and as you implied the number of releases is well over 3500. Having just spoken with David Walstra from Sony who had the following to say:
"Sony is not dropping SACD. Our new SACD player line up to be introduced in a few months (and also for 2006) has more SACD functions in it than ever. I recognize the problem with parts for players, as some HiFi manufacturers need only small volume of parts were as Sony OEM is set for high volume. I am investigating this now and there is good hope for improvement. Re market for SACD titles: jazz and classical are going stronger as ever, I checked with several labels as well as shops in the UK such as HMV and Virgin, the staff confirms sales are stable and even increasing. Warning: There will be a lot of press negative activity regarding SACD in the next few days due to the launch of DualDisc and the aggressive PR. behind it. Again: Sony is not dropping SACD!"
There are plenty of people interested in quality who are making the effort to find the labels who make the effort. At least for Channel, the added value to the recordings has greatly enhanced our image and that of our artists.
Michael Bishop of leading audiophile label Telarc submitted the following:
Just in March and April we're recording: (1) LAGQ studio project, (2) Cincinnati Pops projects, (1) Junior Brown "Live" in Austin project, (1) Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra project, (1) Tierney Sutton "Live" in NYC project, (1) Hiromi Uehara studio project, and (1) Atlanta Symphony Orchestra & Chorus project—ALL IN DSD SURROUND. Three of these projects are being recorded on the Sonoma 24-track DSD workstation. Additionally, (3) 50kHz Soundstream reissue projects are currently being mastered in DSD for stereo SACD release. Not one of these projects is done with a Sony Corp subsidy, of course. That'll give you some idea of where we're at with this issue currently.
I really hate the way our music consumers are being dumbed-down by some of the music review press (not Audiophile Audition). There seems to be a pervasive view that consumers couldn't possibly understand surround music, better recording/playback quality, or endure any music that isn't part of a video. I really hope they're not right. I'm very active in the N.A.R.A.S. Producer/Engineer Wing in promoting high-resolution and surround and I'm pushing for the Academy to take more of a stand on the quality of recorded music issues.
Next up, Bob Woods, who with Jack Renner founded the Telarc label:
You may be surprised at my take, but I don't think SACD has "died off"—basically because it never launched!
We've been making and marketing SACDs because the DSD recording platform is a phenomenal advancement in recording technology, and three-dimensional audio (as I like to call it since I don't think we are making "surround" recordings) is capable of allowing the emotional content of a performance to reach a listener more than you can in stereo. Such as the reproduction of the actual thumbprint of an acoustic, a truly accurate soundstage (front to back, left to right, center locked in place so it doesn't move when you do—provided you were smart enough to use the center channel!), and never having to hear performers/instrument/whatever layered behind another—each sound lives realistically in its own space. I know it has taken us a good six years to figure out how to do this successfully with 5 channels. The .1 is not really necessary if you truly have full range matched speakers on all five—but you know how we've been playing around with that.
In short, this technology serves the music—however or whatever you're recording—in a way that nothing else, so far anyway, can. There is also a truly devoted though still small group of consumers who have figured this out and are as hooked on it as we are. I swear that we would continue to record in multichannel DSD even if it doesn't "launch" for another ten years—we are that hooked!
In hindsight, every effort that Sony & Philips made from the marketing side was doomed. Why? Because DSD three-dimensional audio is experiential. You can talk about it all you want, come up with clever ads (there were none), but what was really missing are places to go to hear what it's really all about. The thought of those crappy demo displays in Best Buys and Circuit City was laughable. Also, since we really lack the wonderful "mom and pop" high end stores that were around during the late 70s (for our digital LPs—how we launched digital), and then for CDs in the early 80s, they don't exist except for a handful. Audio Concepts in Houston is the one singular place I know, perhaps there are a couple more, who really know music and have dedicated serious time effort and bucks to allowing their customers to experience SACD in all of its glory. After that, it has been up to the daring audiophiles who have figured this stuff out on their own and are spreading the word slowly and surely with those who will come and listen to the experience. And I suspect the larger majority of SACD consumers are still playing two-channel only, not multi—it's expensive (unless you're clever) and not easy to set up in most homes, but that will change over time.
I thought one novel way to demo SACD might have been to do a deal with a handful of key movie theaters in key markets, but while something like that might drive interest, if there's no good store to go visit to check it out further and have someone who can tailor a system to your wallet and needs, it wouldn't mean a lot. Thanks however to the home theater people—they have been good supporters because "surround sound" in the SACD-recommended setup is better than the old standard theater surround setup, and could be made more so at the movie-makers end of things as well. How about a place at Epcot Center in good old Disneyland that utilized a tired and retired space to show off this amazing technology? Seems a better use of money than what was spent that didn't work—though Sony certainly psyched themselves out by spending money and not having something happen.
So, launch? What launch? Heck, it took DVD video several years (was it seven or more?) to really catch on and DVD is to the videocassette what the CD was to the LP, but that took only about three years to catch fire. Why? Because computers didn't exist as they do now, and today more people are excited by high definition television, TiVos, digital cameras, satellite radio, better PCs and notebook computers, etc. Our time is limited—do you feel you have more leisure time now than you did twenty years ago? It takes wanting to sit down and experience music as a hobby, and that can still happen all over again for a new generation. I'm just not sure which one or when! Multichannel downloads, in all their lack of quality, could nonetheless give people the experience of multichannel audio; if that happened and a percentage of them could experience what DSD sounds like compared to MP3-quality files, there would undoubtedly be converts.
Whatever this launch turns out to be, it does look like a slow-paced grassroots effort that will take many more years probably. And while we're really not making any money, we're not losing it and we are having fun (very important!), and putting down some fantastic masters for anyone who is lucky enough to experience what this is all about. It's rather like fine art—don't expect to find it in your local Walmart or electronic discount store, at least not for some time. I'm OK with that; not everything needs to be dumbed down and priced down—quality isn't cheap, although at $19.95 list for a hybrid multichannel SACD, that's one of the most remarkable values I can think of in the world of music and audio. Some people may get out of it, but it's not going away—in my opinion!
Gus Skinas is Director of the new Super Audio Center in Colorado. He tells us:
The Super Audio Center based out of Boulder Colorado with an engineering group in San Francisco has recently released a 24 track DSD recorder and editor called Sonoma-24. It is our belief that the driving force behind the SA-CD format will be the artists, producers, and the buyers of music, so we are working to develop the core DSD tools needed to produce more records in the DSD domain. A viable multitrack recorder/editor has been the big missing piece preventing pop music production quality which exceeds that possible with the popular PCM workstations and recorders. It has been our experience that once a producer or artist records to DSD, they can't go back to PCM. Little by little, as DSD production equipment becomes more accessible, and more artists and producers are exposed, we believe demand by the artists for major labels to release their titles on SACD will increase. The music labels will benefit from customer appreciation.
What occurs with the artists and
producers will also happen with the buyers of music. As they
experience the quality of true DSD (or analog) productions, they
will be hooked too. When they find music they truly like on the
internet, they will be motivated to purchase the SACD. After
all, music is an emotional sell and DSD delivers more music
emotion. After several years working with DSD, I am certain of
this. It may be a subtle point, but it could mean substantial
profits to the sellers of music. This has been realized by the
smaller record labels, and they have been increasing their rate
of SACD production. The major labels trailed the smaller labels
like Telarc, and DMP in the adoption of the Compact Disc by at
least a year in the early 80s... Then they finally came around.
The larger labels have been side- tracked by the belief that
video has to be present for people to buy music, but hopefully
they will come around to embrace the core asset of their
business... the music.
Now we have James Boyk, who is very busy as a concert pianist, CEO of his own record company—Performance Recordings—and professor of recording technology:
As a concert pianist, I care as intensely about the sound quality of my recordings as about the original sound of my concert piano. (Just listen to the magnificent Boesendorfer "Imperial" concert-grand on my new SACD, "Tonalities of Emotion.")
My involvement in digital recording goes back to the Sheffield Lab's Firebird (Los Angeles Philharmonic/Leinsdorf) and their famous Kodo drummers CD; but I was tracking digital sound quality—comparing it to the live sound, the 'direct feed' via monitor speakers, and the analog-recorded sound, at sessions from '77 or '78, before the CD standard was defined, and long before the first CDs appeared. In my lab at California Institute of Technology, we carried out a double-blind test of digital audio in 1981. Since those days, I've continued to be involved as musician, recording engineer and researcher, in further listening comparisons and album-production; and I've never found the CD standard musically adequate; so I've welcomed the higher-resolution standards of DVD-A and SACD. Between these two media, I have not had a chance to do a careful listening comparison; so I can't say which is better; but they're clearly both better than regular CD.
That my own new album is SACD rather than DVD-A was determined not by my judgment of the sonic superiority of SACD, but by which format was being transferred at The Mastering Lab (Doug Sax's place) where I've done all my transfers since the days of LP. The equipment, the sound, and the professional work there are all exquisite.
The public has not embraced either of the high-resolution media the way it did CD, and this is a shame for there is no doubt in my mind that in ten years, we will look back on the years of CD dominance as Lost Years of Music Recording, at least so far as concerns music with any kind of sonic subtlety. Personally, I don't give up on higher-resolution media because of this lack of immediate success any more than I stop playing Bach and Beethoven because classical music sales aren't what I would wish them to be.
Lastly we hear from Phil Edwards, an independent recording engineer who is responsible for many of the sonically-acclaimed jazz recordings in the Concord Records catalog:
I guess I can speak with some authority on SACD, since Concord launched that ambitious release of 30 SACD projects a couple of years ago. I personally transferred and mixed 27 of those surround releases (details of the transfer process alone would fill a book.) Much to their credit, Concord producers determined from the outset that they wanted quality production with respect to the surround release. I spent between 12 and 14 hours a day, six days a week, for eight months turning these things out. It took enormous amounts of persistence to "stay the course". Surround mixing, I believe, is MUCH more demanding than stereo, and there wasn't a title that I didn't start without thinking I couldn't finish it (the absolute hardest part was just getting past the first tune!!)
We (Ted White and I) were using cutting-edge SACD technology, at the time. We used Pyramix to manage all of the computers that were necessary to completely produce the titles in DSD, sometimes five systems linked together. Sometimes software updates were arriving weekly, sometimes daily. From a technical standpoint, it was frequently misery (call Ted sometime at Media Hyperium in Torrance. He'll tell you.)
The upside of the time spent and headaches endured were some of the most incredible-sounding pieces I've ever had the pleasure to work on. The depth of detail on some of these things, compared to the original stereo mixes was just stunning! I remember spending hours later just listening, entranced with all that detail and definition. I haven't been that excited about an audio experience since listening to some Columbia discs produced in the late sixties, when I was a kid taking it all in.
And there you have it. Yes, SACD has been most active primarily in the classical and jazz areas, meaning it hasn't been a mass-market big-seller. Most of disc sales are online rather than in CD shops. The public awareness campaign for both SACD and DVD-A has been almost nonexistent - no wonder the average man-on-the-street has never heard of either!
The upcoming Hi-Def DVD formats will both have such large data capacities that perhaps SACD and DVD-A will both be superseded, but we feel there are many music lovers who have no interest in video—whether hi-def or not—and for whom SACD remains a perfect format for stereo or multichannel music reproduction in the home. John Sunier