JUNE 2001

1. Classical Recordings Being Killed By the Bean-Counters! - Editorial by Bernard Coutez, Chairman of Harmonia Mundi label

2. The Truth About SACD and DVD-Audio - Editorial by David Chesky of Chesky Records

BERNARD COUTAZ, founder and chairman of harmonia mundi, writes on globalization and the destruction of culture:

The whole world was up in arms when the Talibans blew up the statues of the giant Buddhas at the foot of a mountain in Afghanistan -- the world's heritage. It was a shameful and stupid act, the result of over-zealous religious fanaticism.

But when, at the same time, the power of money causes the insidious but inexorable disappearance of classical recordings, even though they, too, are part of the world's heritage, few people bat an eyelid and very few of those in the media denounce this massacre. You could say: 'This is market forces'. In other words, profit comes first.

To make a comparison between the giant buddhas, now in smithereens, and classical music recordings, condemned to disappear slowly, may seem drastic. But these two undertakings, similar in their final consequence, are the products of two similarly fanatical and blind attitudes.

Here we have a strange paradox: classical music can be heard in concert and its followers are growing in France:

The paradox is this: the other way of hearing classical music, i.e., by listening to recordings, is decreasing at an alarming rate. From 11% only 5 years ago sales of classical music recordings now only represent 6% of the overall sales of records in France. Does this mean that music lovers prefer going to concerts rather than listening to discs? Certainly not!

At the 'Folles Journées de Nantes', for the last three years, it is noticeable that the audience takes advantage of the intervals to buy large quantities of recordings. Why? Quite simply because people no longer have the opportunity to look at, touch and listen to recordings in record shops, many of which have closed down.

Why is this? Because the sale of classical recordings is no longer considered to be profitable enough for investors. And this is nothing new. But the dominance of the major record labels only exacerbates this phenomenon.

The publication of books, flourishing today, was and still is controlled by publishers who are more interested in the quality of their products than their appetite for profits.

Recordings, which are relatively recent, haven't been made so much by enthusiastic producers as by people who, ever since the days of LP, have looked at their development in terms of profit. Truly it wasn't their interest in music which guided them and that, from the launch of the LP, has resulted in prices which were based more on length than content; a disc of solo guitar music on a 30cm disc cost more than a concerto on a 25cm record (like saucepans!).

Today the investors, who find the turnover of classical recordings is too slow and that the sales figures are just too small, justify their decision by pretending that classical music recordings don't interest anyone. This is not true!

The problem is that the media, without really investigating, have perpetuated this myth by publishing articles announcing 'the death of the CD', often with headlines big enough for the blind to read!

Classical records, the importance of which cannot be overstated in nurturing the appreciation and knowledge of music, deserve more love and care from record companies and more interest from the powers-that-be.

I also can't stress enough the importance of début recordings -- the great majority of which are made by small, independent labels -- in helping to launch the career of a young, unknown artist.

To want to reduce to the minimum standing, and thus to bring about the disappearance of recorded classical music, is like wanting to shut museums with the excuse that they're not profitable and replacing them with a number of more profitable Disneylands.

It is imperative to reconsider the important role played by classical music in our culture generally, and in the education of children in particular.

It is imperative to reinstate its status and maintain its production, rather than shedding crocodile tears.

It is imperative that recorded classical music finds its José Bové* (white knight -- José Bové is the French trade unionist farmer who played a major role in disrupting the world trade negotiations in Seattle last year) to denounce the dangers of globalization and profit.

English translation by Celia Ballantyne and Serge RoussetCopyright © April 2001 Bernard Coutaz, Arles, France

David Chesky

While in the process of writing this article, I am afforded the luxury of simply walking into my studio and listening to high-resolution audio whenever I am struck by the whim. Whether I have chosen to use SACD or DVD-A software, I can listen to the digital output from my recording machines in my professional studio and have a sonic experience unavailable with any other playback device. What does this mean to me as a listener with an audiophile mentality? Basically, I am able to hear increased detail, air, depth and spatial cues that give a more accurate representation of the musical event that has been recorded. Why is it that in the current state of the audio world, you, the home music lover, are not even given the choice to hear what I hear?

You are limited purely because SACD and DVD-A players, the very output devices that could equip you with this luxury, do not provide a high resolution, digital output signal. What is the purpose of introducing these new formats if the players we use for playback have no digital outputs for use with high-quality, audiophile D/A converters? This is analogous to giving someone a Ferrari as a gift and then telling them they are prohibited from driving faster than twenty miles per hour. Have the hardware manufacturers put a governor on our audio engines? It may seem this way initially, but in actuality it is not the hardware companies, but rather the large record companies who have prohibited advances. The "majors" are afraid of piracy and have the irrational fear that people will use quality digital output technology to steal perfect copies of copyrighted material. Is this really a legitimate concern? I think that NAPSTER has already proven to the world that piracy is not predicated on sound quality. The world moves forward, and in a few years there will be a new standard in audio quality, and yes someone will find a way to steal that. I guess it is all part of the game, but why should we, the consumer, have to suffer and settle for an inferior system because of the fears of big-business record executives?

It is this mentality that has caused a lack of software in the SACD and DVD-A formats and has prevented us from hearing these formats at their best. This mentality is crippling the entire industry. Believe me, most people have never really heard what their hi-fi systems are capable of and we should all revolt against the factors that are keeping us from the ideal as in the movie Network, by simply saying we are not going to take this anymore. The fight between DVD-A and SACD is a minor squabble. The fact is both of these systems are far superior to the 44.1/16 CD's we have available now and while surround is nice, before we worry about surround, we need to get a good two-channel system working that will optimize our hi-fi systems.

Which brings me to the subject of surround, to which many people would say, "What's the point?" I can assure you that surround, setup correctly, is a tremendous listening experience. Think of two-channel as looking into the hall, while surround puts you in the hall. Basically, we only need mono to enjoy music in the abstract sense, but the art of recording is to recreate the event and surround brings us closer to that. But how did we get stuck with 5.1?5.1 was created for movies. That's great, but what a movie needs and what you need to recreate a concert hall acoustic are two different things. Why does the industry think that music lovers should take a back seat on the bus to home theater and give way to the corporate giants that dictate to the rest of the world how they should listen to music? Is not this a sort of corporate fascism? It is like your older brother going off to college and handing you his old coat and saying, "Make it fit." Well, I for one do not want to treat my customers like that. I want to deliver to them the best music system that is currently available, and finally, we now have the ability to deliver six full bandwidth channels with either DVD-A or SACD.


What is 6.0 and how do we do it?

To create a 6.0 listening environment, all we do is reassign the channels from a 5.1 system. The center channel becomes a 55-degree left side height speaker and the subwoofer channel becomes a 55-degree right side height speaker. Audiophiles have full range systems, and if you still want/need to use a subwoofer, you can simply run it off the stereo front as we have been doing for years. By doing this alteration, we free up two audio channels which are better used as the two 55-degree elevated side channels. Concert hall designers have long known that early and later lateral reflections from angles like 55-degrees and wider are very importantin enhancing a listener's sense of envelopment, and with these additional height speakers, you can experience imitated reflections in your listening room. Why in 5.1 surround is the element of height totally ignored? After all, we live in a three dimensional world where music exists in a three-dimensional space and if we are going to try to recreate it, we had better pay attention to height.

6.0 offers you, the listener, a better roller coaster ride by having the side speakers enhance your sense of being there. 5.1 cannot give you this.

Now, on the subject of the ITU Surround standards. For some reason, the world has adopted this standard as the Holy Grail and although in 6.0 we continue to use the ITU 60-degree fronts as we have always done for stereo, I have a big problem with having the speakers at 110 degrees in the rear. The problem is that in most of the world it's simply impossible to place speakers for DVD-A or SACD this way. Why? Because most people like to listen to their speakers from a distance of about 9 or 10 feet so as not to have the speakers on top of them or in the near field. This means you better have an 18-foot wide living room to set up 5.1 according to the ITU standards, and if you happen to live in New York or Tokyo it also means you better be really rich. I don't know anyone with rooms that large, not to mention that most rooms are rectangles. Now do not get me wrong, ITU can work with DVD Video because they the preamps are equipped with digital delays so you can adjust the time delays. However, to my knowledge, this capability is not included in most DVD-A or SACD players, so for surround, all of the speakers must be equidistant, and as a result, there goes the ITU standard except for those of you who are rich and living in Castles.

So, before we jump into all the format wars and controversy, perhaps we should think about what the final goal is. For me, the goal is to have a concert hall experience in my listening room. Give me my digital outputs for these new formats and 6.0 capability. Then I will stop complaining and we all will have the opportunity to hear our hi-fi systems at their optimal performance.

- David Chesky

Do you have comments about 6.0 Surround, DVD-A or SACD? Post your follow-ups on the Surround or SACD & DVD-A forums at www.chesky.com.

[J. Gordon Holt's comments on the self-defeating aspects of preventing six-channel digital outputs on both formats of players will also be found in this month's issue of THE ABSOLUTE SOUND.]

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