“SACD Dying…Or Not?” – Producers & engineers check in

by | Apr 25, 2005 | Special Features | 0 comments

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 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:

SA-CD dying off is news to me, and the record companies we work
for! We now do far more SA-CD recordings than CD recordings, and are
having little trouble convincing our customers to make and
release SA-CD’s.

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 SA-CD’s also
continues to improve, and prices for replication are falling rapidly,
so that producing SA-CD’s is no longer as costly as it was in the
beginning. We routinely produce new SA-CD’s 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 SA-CD, and for the
SA-CD 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) 50 kHz 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

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 SA-CD 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 SA-CD.
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 SA-CD 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.
[For more information: www.superaudiocenter.com/ ]


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-aclaimed 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

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.

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 superceded, 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.
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