[SoundStage!]Surrounded!
Back Issue Article

October 2001

What's Next, and Then Some

I was sold at High End 2001 in Frankfurt Germany. Tacet Audio's DVD-A demonstration convinced me that I could really enjoy being enveloped by the music. Tacet's  Felix Mendelssohn DVD-A, Auryn Series Volume VII [TACET DVD 94], was chamber music as it ought to be -- the players of a small ensemble were recorded so the listener was embedded in the performance. It sounded as though the music was played in a large salon, as it would have been in a stately home, a vastly different approach to typical surround practice.

This was a performance that was planned as a surround experience from the get-go, not mixed into surround configuration as an afterthought to the two-channel CD. As such, it represents a fundamental difference in recording philosophy that can’t be overstated in its importance. It’s like planning a wonderful dish from what's available at the market rather than changing the recipe in midstream. Tacet's multichannel is cordon bleu. I have a lot more to say about it, but to make a long story short, the multichannel experience can be intensely involving when done right, with the right music and performers.

And who says there's just one way to record music for multichannel playback, anyway? The mind boggles at the possibilities for creative exploration. Can anyone say, Blue Man Group? Their DVD-A has been very popular.

200110_fullyloaded.jpg (10411 bytes)The next step in my conversion was a demonstration held by Sony and Polyhymnia International. This multichannel SACD spectacular astonished me with its ability to re-create an acoustic space the likes of which I had never heard before. Tom Jung’s Sacred Feast [DMP SACD 09] was spacious beyond what the room could contain. The recording was made in the Trinity College Chapel in Hartford, CT, and provides a truly stunning sense of the chapel's acoustic space. The playback system was not extravagant at all, using Sony speakers retailing in the $1500 per pair price range. This was another epiphany -- multichannel, using moderately priced components, was easily producing the sort of sound one would normally expect only of far pricier two-channel rigs -- and then some! Pulling off the illusion of space is a lot harder with only two speakers.

Suffice it to say that this demo was far better than any previous commercially available surround mix I had heard, owing its quality -- like the Tacet DVD-A demo -- to a combination that combined intentionally recording with multichannel playback in mind with high-fidelity playback gear and the expertise of some of the finest recording engineers on the planet.

"Surrounded!" defined

As the senior editor over at SoundStage!’s sister publication Home Theater & Sound, I have enjoyed for some time DTS CDs as well as DVD-Video concerts. We are at a time when there exists a blurry line between theater and music systems for your home. We’ve had the discussion amongst the staff concerning just where the line is drawn between the two. We finally settled on the definition that if it involves a video image, it will be covered over there, and if it doesn’t, it will be here in SoundStage!. The definitions and dividing lines matter little outside of an editorial staff deciding on where something will be published.

For the purposes of Surrounded!, "multichannel" will refer to any playback medium containing more than two channels. The configuration, format, and delivery systems can vary substantially, and the dominant format may change midstream, but regardless, it will be discussed here if it involves music playback in the home utilizing surround sound.

Who is this column for? Nearly everyone -- maybe even you, if you can keep an open mind that is! Whether you are a music lover thinking of entering into the world of multichannel music, a die-hard two-channel audiophile scoffing at the thought, a home-theater enthusiast who wants to use your rig for tunes, or a consumer who simply wants to learn more about what is available and what is coming, this column will have something for you. We'll offer a ton of information, ranging from a historical discussion of stereo, presented to establish where we have been, to a fresh outlook to help guide music lovers to the future.

"There are things known and things unknown and in between are The Doors." -- Jim Morrison

More recently, I had the pleasure of a visit by Peter McGrath of Wilson Audio Specialties. Peter has been recording multichannel music -- four channels to be exact -- for years. Although I will detail his recording techniques, and the results of his work, in a later "Surrounded!," I can tell you this is top-rung stuff -- better than anything I’ve ever heard, bar none. It is a somewhat unfair comparison with the above-mentioned demos, because the playback was optimally set up in my home by the recording engineer and included almost a quarter of a million dollars in components and recording equipment. But it did teach me what is possible in the home -- my home. And it's a whole new world, folks.

With "Surrounded!," SoundStage! is making a commitment to explore what’s coming, and all that we ask is that you keep a welcome sign on your imagination, because this is the real deal. I’m not swearing allegiance to any delivery system or format, -- at least, not yet -- because I happen to like both of the current frontrunners. Nothing else I’ve heard, in a consumer product, is the equal of either multichannel SACD or DVD-Audio.

So welcome to the initial installment of "Surrounded!," a monthly feature devoted to all aspects of multichannel music: recording, playback, the music, and its implications for our industry. We're attempting to explore, report on, and, yes, promote where applicable, this vast, progressively more complex and exciting issue.

Multichannel music is becoming more viable each and every day, representing not only an alternative to two-channel audio, but -- in my opinion -- a quantum leap forward, if done correctly.

Where we’re going

I'd like you to ponder a few questions until next time. Some reflection is needed to shift those long-held prejudices developed through years of listening, reading, and discussing music playback. I went through the transformation because it serves the music, but it wasn’t easy. Think about these for the next month: What if stereo had never supplanted mono? What if it was a compromise, rather than the single right way to record music in space? And what if many of the things you thought you knew about music playback proved to be incorrect?

Stay tuned. We’re going to be here for a while.

...Jeff Fritz
jeff@soundstage.com

 

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