You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 44
july/august 2009


SACD Software - Taking Full Advantage of the Format
by Teresa Goodwin


Part 1: Full disclosure

I fully support releasing SACDs of any type as I firmly believe all recordings should be released as SACD/CD hybrids without regard to resolution. Indeed in my opinion single-layer CDs should be a thing of the distant past.

However I do believe in full disclosure, not only of the recording type but in the case of PCM the sampling rate and bit depth of the recording and any mixing. Not all companies that record PCM are straight forward with recording information and this is why I proposed a SPARS-type code for SACD in a previous article.

It has been revealed that several recording companies making SACDs are recording at only 44.1kHz 16 Bit PCM including many from Albany which they claim benefit from upsampling to SACD by employing Zarex HD's upsampling process. This process uses intelligent interpolation to fix 24 intermediate samples between every pair of samples in the original waveform, with contours chosen and adjusted by Dr Hohman in response to the unique musical attributes of each source program." ( I've heard these and while they are better than CDs they are not high resolution, I have since gotten rid of them all of them.  I feel many of the SACDs from undisclosed masters are in reality from 44.1kHz to 48kHz PCM masters, some of the companies say they release them on SACD because they are multichannel not because of high resolution. I am working on an article of 150 recommended SACDs and 150 not-recommended SACDs for two channel listeners in which I will be revealing those SACDs I believe are from low resolution PCM masters based solely on their perceived sound quality.

BIS switched from DSD to 44.1kHz 24 Bit PCM in 2005 due to the limited availability of DSD editing tools. Since that time the editing possibilities of DSD have greatly increased but Robert von Bahr has informed us that buying new DSD or even higher resolution PCM equipment is not viable in the current economic climate. Indeed BIS is only in a position to currently offer 24 Bit 44.1kHz PCM Surround Sound SACDs and 16 Bit Bit 44.1kHz PCM Stereo CDs. The early DSD recorded SACDs BIS released are generally excellent sounding and give a window into how great their engineering can sound at true high resolution.

Besides new low resolution PCM being released as SACDs, there are reissues of 44.1kHz 16 Bit PCM recordings from the 1980's from Cala, The Capriccio SACD Collection, Membran, and others. While I see nothing wrong with producing SACDs from low resolution masters, especially if Multichannel is also included, the bit rate and resolution should be given. For those of us who listen in 2 channel stereo it is not an ideal situation as we expect our SACDs to sound better than CDs, considerably better! Correct labeling will solve this problem as we will be free to choose SACDs from real high resolution masters if we so desire.

Part 2: Why recordings going forward should be DSD

Sony's Direct Stream Digital (DSD) system uses a 1-bit delta-sigma modulated word, sampled at 2.8224 MHz - that is 64 times 44.1 kHz.

What makes DSD shine sonically is that the pure 1-bit signal does not get decimated or changed in the process of recording or playback; there are no brick wall filters. This is a much simpler process and is really more analog like. The 1-bit DSD signal can be down converted to any of the current digital formats.

"To me DSD sounds, what I call, "ear friendly", you know the slight pain you get in the ear when listening to the harsh or glaring sound from some digital. With DSD you get none of this and can hear around the individual instruments, not just the front." Tom Jung, DMP (Digital Music Products)

To my ears DSD recording is ideally the most realistic and the most consistent with what I hear in the concert hall.

For me, DSD recording means more natural sounding recordings not only because of the higher resolution but also because the editing options are limited. I have always preferred a less hands on recording technique, more of a photographic style of recording. For example the Crystal Clear Direct to Disc recordings of major symphony orchestras sound so real and spontaneous with sound quality that they are among the very best. Since Direct-to-Disc cannot be edited or changed in any way, this proved to me most editing and adjusting the sound after recording is totally unnecessary. I have always preferred recording companies who took the natural approach.

If you like Jazz take a listen to DMP's Direct to DSD SACDs with NO editing within a track or song. If there is a mistake or other problem within a track the entire track is re-recorded. Tom Jung believes editing destroys the spontaneity of the music and that is why he never edits, his results prove he is right.

In the past decade I sold over 150 SACDs due to unsatisfactory sound quality compared to DSD recorded SACDs, LPs, or live music.  Most of those I sold were from masters of undisclosed resolution and I suspect they are low resolution PCM (44.1kHz and 48kHz)

The magic words for me are "Pure DSD" and "DSD recorded" I sometimes play DVD-Audio and high resolution downloads and to my ears no DVD-Audio, even at 192kHz, sounds anywhere near as good as a DSD recorded SACD. When I really want to sit down and deeply enjoy music I put on a DSD recorded SACD. I prefer Telarc the most, but other labels also make excellent sounding DSD recordings. Once one hears how really great DSD recorded SACDs are it is very hard to go back to any resolution of PCM. DSD is what makes the SACD format so special for me.

In selecting new music to buy, a disc having an SACD logo is just the first step, I would like to know how it is recorded before I buy it. There is a real pattern that has developed over the last 10 years, DSD recorded SACDs sound the best to me. For me it is far safer financially to purchase DSD recorded SACDs, as most of those stay in my collection. Over 90% of my SACD collection is DSD, there can be no greater compliment to DSD and SACD than that. My strategy is I look for a DSD recorded version first, resorting only to PCM if DSD or analog is not available. 

Even though editing in DSD is still somewhat limited compared to PCM, I recommend the entire recording industry move to DSD recording and make more natural recordings with emphasis on preproduction instead of postproduction. I was really hoping SACD and DSD would move the world back to honest recording where we at home can hear the artists as they really are. This is how DMP, Telarc, and others record in DSD, and besides the sound quality, the mostly "hands-off" requirement is the other thing that insures DSD recordings are usually also excellent performances as well.

Part 3: Early DSD recording

In the beginning DSD recording lacked EQ, and it did not have any of the tools necessary to do any type of signal manipulation. Most early DSD recordings did not use any signal processing whatsoever and those few that did chose to do so in the analog domain. Microphone choice and positioning was of the utmost importance as nothing could be fixed in the mix. Some of the companies that choose to go the natural way include AudioQuest Music, DMP, and Telarc. To this day some of my best sounding SACDs are from the "golden age" of Stereo SACD before DSD signal processing devices were invented.

Part 4: Modern DSD recording

In 2004 Sonoma offered many of the editing tools in the DSD domain for the first time. As of 2009 the most recent Sonoma Multitrack Recorder Editor features true DSD recording, editing, and level adjustments; real-time cross-fades (Plays 48 streams during edits); overdubs with gapless punch-out monitoring, real time waveform generation during recording, time code generation and synchronization, powerful music oriented editing and event-based editing, and real time level interpolation between edits.

There are other DSD recording options but the Sonoma / EMM labs combo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that those recording companies that do not record DSD because editing is not available in the DSD domain are not up on the latest recording and mastering equipment.

Part 5: Everett Porter of Polyhymnia explained postproduction possibilities of current DSD equipment

"We do LOTS of productions in DSD. Postproduction possibilities are somewhat more limited than with PCM, but the situation is constantly improving. It's now possible to do vastly more in post with DSD than it was a couple of years ago (I was editing and mixing 24 tracks of DSD today). Working in DSD takes more powerful hardware, the latest software, and sometimes more patience, but it certainly can be done. All the tools that you need are available in high quality, along with many you don't (mixing, dynamics processing, EQ, reverb, restoration plug-ins).

At the same time there are times where we're working with PCM -- always with hi-res (88.2 or 96k) if it's intended for SACD release. This is primarily in live situations, where we're providing live radio and/or TV mixes in addition to the recording, and where setup and breakdown times are often extremely limited. Working in PCM is vastly easier for live broadcasts (and more reliable—all current DSD mixers are PC based), and post is easier. Most importantly hi-res PCM sounds great when the right equipment is used.

Lots of great SACD's are being produced from all sorts of source material (also wonderful analogue tapes!). Different labels, producers, and engineers will choose different methods, as they always have, to attain what they're looking for. Some put more emphasis on the purest possible recording chain, others on having the most creative possibilities in post. Personally I think that hi-res recording is worth the extra effort—and I don't feel limited in any way by the technical restrictions imposed hi-res."

Part 6: Michael Bishop previously of Telarc, now part owner of Five/Four Productions on DSD editing

"There CAN be (almost) pure DSD editing on the Sonoma DSD workstation, as long as the source is DSD, and that one does not change volume level of the source, the DSD stays as DSD except at the edit points. Only for the duration of the edit crossfade (as short as 2ms) does the DSD signal go through the Sony E-Chip for editing processing. I try to keep all edit processing to an absolute minimum because of the inter-step needed for the edit. Unity gain is the rule on my projects!" Michael Bishop, Recording Engineer

Part 7: Why I love DSD recorded SACDs - Part 1 "Telarc"

Most of my very best sounding, most realistic, and most beautiful SACDs are from the superb engineers of Telarc. They have released 172 SACDs so far with very few duds, which is an amazing achievement for any recording company!

For thirty years Telarc was the largest independent record label, until Concord Music Group bought them out several years ago. Our worst fears were realized when Concord fired the Telarc recording team as it was more affordable to outsource recordings rather than doing them in house.

I had been very impressed with the recordings of Robert Woods and Jack Renner since their first Telarc 50kHz PCM Soundstream LPs from the late 1970's to mid 1980's. I was so depressed when CD premiered and it was only 44.1kHz PCM as that totally ruined my enjoyment of any new Telarc recording. They had to downsample their then current recordings from 50kHz to 44.1kHz with less than perfect results. But what could they do? Recording companies had no choice but to issue CDs or die, so they tried to make the best CDs they could. Like everyone else they switched to lower resolution 44.1kHz PCM recording to avoid the awkward conversion from 50kHz to 44.1kHz. In other words they had to make their master tapes worse so they would be compatible with 44.1kHz CD. Recording at 44.1kHz resolution is not only outdated today but it was outdated in 1978 when Soundstream 50kHz recorders appeared.

It was not until the debut of SACD and DSD recordings that I could enjoy Telarc's magnificent recordings once again. Besides their DSD recordings, some of their older 50kHz PCM Soundstream recordings were reissued on SACD, so for the first time we could hear their full resolution in digital form. Since then Michael Bishop had joined the Telarc team and was also responsible for many wonderful Telarc recordings. Also a lot of the great Telarc DSD recorded SACDs of European orchestras were done by the world renowned Polyhymnia recording team who also make the superb PentaTone DSD recorded SACDs.

It is important to note Telarc began recording DSD many years before SACD was invented. Why? Because to their ears it was the most transparent and sounded the closest to live microphone feed. Even downsampled to CD, DSD recordings using Super-bit Mapping direct brought CD to new level of performance. If SACD had never been invented Telarc would likely still be making DSD mastered CDs.

Now that SACD is ten years old, the very least we can expect of new recordings is that they be DSD recorded. Anything less is a serious compromise.

Telarc DSD recordings are the very reason I own an SACD player and in my humble opinion they have qualities that no PCM recording can approach no matter how high the resolution. From their immensely huge well defined soundstage with its precise imaging, to the warm smooth midrange, the realistic "in the bones" bass, the delicacy in the high frequencies, and the precise realistic attack of percussion instruments, I greatly prefer DSD recordings. But in my humble opinion Telarc is at the sonic pinnacle of DSD recordings, however other recording companies' DSD recordings often come very close. I love most DSD recordings including the early BIS and the current Channel Classics, PentaTone, Exton, Chandos, and many other recording companies determined to release SACDs from the highest resolution masters they can make. It will be a real crime if Concord Music Group does kill SACD as many feel that either they will release no more classical recordings on they release them only a DSD recorded CDs.

Robert Woods formed SonArc Music with his wife Elaine Martone, both formally of Telarc. I understand SACDs will be released under the SonArc Label name. I have not heard of any release announcements yet. It is my hope that if Concord does end SACD production that they allow SonArc Music to reissue the best ones on SACD, along with new DSD recordings they will be making.

The other part of Telarc included Michael Bishop, who engineered many Telarc SACDs, he has started Five/Four Productions and will continue to record DSD, he said many of his recordings will be issued by Telarc as well as other undisclosed record labels. Hopefully these DSD recordings will be released as SACDs.

Part 8: Why I love DSD recorded SACDs "Other record labels"

Channel Classics has been recording in pure DSD exclusively since its introduction in 2001. In 2003, they stopped releasing double inventory of separate CDs and SACDs and now only release SACD/CD hybrids. As of this date they have released 107 SACDs on the Channel Classics label and 8 SACDs on their new Channel of China label. I own many wonderful Channel Classics SACDs and the sound quality is always superb as are the performances!

PentaTone is a classical music label devoted to releasing only hybrid multichannel SACDs. With 163 SACD releases to date, PentaTone releases new DSD recordings as well as reissues of analog Quadraphonic Philips recordings from the 1970's. PentaTone is one of my other favorite record companies, they new DSD recordings are superb and among the best.

Plus I also love many DSD recordings from Audioquest Music, BIS, CCn'C, Chandos, Columbia, Decca Classics, DMP, Exton, Hyperion, Opus 3, Philips Classics, Rounder, and others.

Final thoughts

SACD is not about making recordings one can live with, it is about making the best sounding recordings possible! While nothing can be done about recordings already in the can, going forward all masters should be DSD, new masters under no circumstances should be lower resolution than the playback medium, if anything they should be even higher resolution as a form of future proofing.

For serious listening I want the highest resolution possible and for me that is DSD recorded SACDs. I only buy high resolution PCM recorded SACDs of music not available in DSD or analog recorded SACDs.