M•A is a small label which has carved out a unique place for itself – recording solo and small groups in a variety of music, much of it roughly in the world music genre, while employing the highest purist standards of micing and recording in stereo. The packaging is also extremely artistic and tasteful – I don’t believe I have a single M•A CD in a standard jewel box. CEO Todd Garfinkle divides his time between Japan and Southern California when he’s not traveling the world to record a Spanish singer in a cathedral in Barcelona or a pianist in Budapest. He normally uses hand-constructed mics (pictured on the front cover) powered by batteries in the case, going to a DCS 904 A/D converter 3 meters from the mics. It delivers an 88.2 kHz signal to a Fostex FR2 flash recorder which then transfers the data files to a hard disc. He uses handcrafted cables from Crystal Cable in The Netherlands.
The results on the many varied CDs in the M•A catalog have been constantly exemplary in exposing collectors to off-the-beaten-track music, beautifully performed, and recorded in state-of-the-art 44.1 digital quality. Garfinkle admits in the compilation notes that this disc does not make the fullest use of the highest-res DSD original recording approach, since his masters are 88.2 kHz PCM. But in spite of that the recordings benefit greatly from conversion to SACD vs. his normal CD-only pressings. (After all, many hi-res format surround discs have originated as only 48 kHz or even 44.1 kHz PCM masters.) Since there are no complex full-orchestra perorations in the examples, qualities such as dynamic range and frequency extension are not the main differences heard. Instead, one hears the low-noise, quiet background when only one or two instruments pause; the very natural timbre of all the instruments, the sense of the acoustics of the space in which they are playing, and some of the natural squeaks and squawks that normally accompany the music-making. The transparency of the recordings is clearly enhanced on the SACD tracks vs. the tracks on the standard CD layer.
While a few of the discs in the catalog (and on this sampler) are fairly straight classical or jazz albums featuring a pianist or guitarist, most of the recordings involve folk or ethnic sounds in a chamber ensemble or sometimes just solo or duo. The selections here lean toward the Mediterranean area and Eastern Europe, and there are even Arabic influences. Most of the music is fairly quiet and revels in subtle sounds. A few involve vocals in various languages and some fall into the early music category. Some of the tracks I especially liked – both musically and audio wise (all on the SACD layer):
2 – a jazz improvisation with piano and bass, having a hypnotic quality (heard in many of the selections); 4 – a wonderful tango featuring accordion and what sounds like recorders; 5 – early music for viola d’amore and lute; 6 – quite amazing variations on Carnival of Venice for guitar; 7 & 9 – Brazilian pianist Joao Paolo with soprano sax; 14 – duo of Spanish guitar and light percussion sounds; 16 – guitar & harmonica; 17 – Joao Paolo again, with saxist Peter Epstein, in one of most gorgeous tunes in the collection; 18 – pure solo sax heard in an extremely reverberant space. It reminded me of the recordings of solo performers playing in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral; 19 – Lovely solo piano – a Berceuse by Chopin.
The fact that M•A’s purist approach is strictly two-channel meant that these hi-res recordings furnished no surround experience. So I tried switching out of the “Source Direct” bypass option on my Sunfire preamp and engaged the Pro Logic II. I find that often a very clean and transparent unprocessed-sounding stereo source makes a convincing surround field when run thru Pro Logic II. Well, not in this case: It was quickly obvious that the most pure and ungimmicked two-channel path was the best way to preserve the subtle fidelity attributes of the original M•A recordings. The surround processing put a sonic veil over the almost holographic undoctored sources.
– John Sunier