EMI Remasters Its Classical Catalog for SACD Page 2

So what are the parameters for making these "improvements"? What are Gibson and his fellow engineers specifically looking to heighten or eliminate?

"We're listening to it with experienced ears and sort of thinking, Does it sound natural? If it's an orchestral recording, does it sound like a good orchestral recording should—does it sound balanced, high frequency, low frequency; are there particular frequencies that are a bit nasty, that are a bit harsh? Sometimes that's the case. It's those sorts of questions that you ask, and then decide to make some changes to the EQ, and that's when, yes, we might, as it were, master the sound a bit. In every case, it's not massive amounts. It's rare that we need to do an awful lot. You're talking about a few dB here and a few dB there. Our ultimate aim is to make sure that they sound as good as they've ever sounded. Because it's the best they will ever sound, really.

"Having said all that, I'm well aware that a lot of people, some collectors, would quite happily take the flat analog tape with nothing done to it. But from our experience, the reason we do intervene, to a certain extent, is because we believe that quite a lot of these tapes do have problems with them, and actually some of these problems would spill into the enjoyment of listening to [the] music if we did nothing to them. There are opinions both ways, but that's the way we do it."

For remastering, Abbey Road Studios uses the SADiE Series 5 PCM 8 Digital Audio Workstation with hardware controller (v.5.6.1), the SADiE DSD8+ Digital Audio Workstation (v.5.4.1), the SADiE Mastering Limiter, and the CEDAR Retouch plug-in tool (all 96kHz). Retouch is used every day and, according to Gibson, is a remarkable digital tool.

"It's extremely forensic and it's extremely sensitive. You can be very, very subtle with it, and sometimes you need to be because you can't afford to do something with it and find that it leaves an artifact that's just unacceptable. And we never do that. It's always down to the engineers' ears. It's not a one-button solution.

"And alongside that—and that's something which we use all the time—we've got a bigger box of tricks, which is a standalone, PC-based, 64-bit, high-resolution CEDAR Cambridge system, which has about a dozen different programs within it to deal with different types of noise in terms of general sort of crackle, broadband noise reduction, and all sorts of things as well, including harmonic buzz. We use that much more sparingly.

"I've read comments on the forums along the lines of, 'Aahh, well, they've used CEDAR on these and I can hear it. They've sucked all the life out of it.' Well, I'm sorry, but people don't know what they are talking about, because we don't do that.

"If there's a recording which has a particularly bad level of ambient hiss, for want of a better word, if that gets in the way of the music, then we would make a judgment to reduce that maybe a dB or two. But it's not across the entire frequency range. Because of the tools that we have, you take a fingerprint of the noise, and the computer will only affect the noise in whichever frequency change you choose to reduce it. It will not affect the underlying music. It's all down to our ears. We will make the judgment that we're going to reduce it enough so it's not the first thing that you hear."

But why SACDs now, when many audiophiles see the format as something that never caught on? Can the trained ears of Gibson and his Abbey Road colleagues hear the difference between DSD Super Audio Compact Disc and standard PCM ("Red Book") CDs?

"There's a whole debate there. If you make a new recording in the studio and you record it going straight to DSD, the SACD format, it just sounds fantastic. The bottom line, though, is if your engineer puts up your microphones and knows how to record something well, it doesn't really make a lot of difference as to which format it ends up in or which format it was recorded on, as long as the engineer is making a decent recording in the first place.

"You're frankly not going to hear that much difference between the two, because some of the recordings are pretty vintage. In that sense, the improvement we've got in these versions, as opposed to previous CD versions, is in making the initial analog-to-digital conversion. And we've chosen to do that in the PCM domain. We did it at 96kHz/24-bits, clearly because it's almost impossible for us to remaster and use our remastering processes in the DSD format. We can only work in the PCM format. So we produce a finished, remastered 96kHz/24-bit file, and then that gets transferred into DSD format to author the SACD. Some people will say that's pointless, that's not true SACD. Well, I'm not going to argue. It's the way we do it, and we do it for valid reasons."

Finally, there's the question of why no Signature Collection SACD contains a mix in 5.1-channel surround sound. Again, Gibson has been peeking at those rip-roaring, often insulting audio forums where flames seem to break out suddenly, with or without provocation.

"There are discussions on the forums out there about it," Gibson admits. "For a lot of fans of SACD, it's [all about] multichannel. It would be great to see some multichannel EMI recordings, etc., but the fact is that a lot of the core catalog material just has no multichannel version. It's purely and simply recorded and mixed in stereo, and that's it.

"There was a period, from the mid- to late '70s, where analog recording went up from two-track to four-track, and then eight-track. On the classical side there are plenty of recordings that were recorded and mixed to eight-track, and then that was mixed down to two-track. Generally speaking for this series, when we were mastering we used the LP stereo master tape. For some of these recordings we have actually gone back to the eight-track analog and we've remixed a new stereo master from that, but listening closely to the original LP stereo master for reference, making sure that it sounds exactly as it should.

"Now you could argue that if you've got something that's on eight-track, you could do something in surround. And yeah, you could, but that's a whole new ball game, because then you would be creating a new recording, a new mix, and it would need time and money in the studio to do something like that. And not every recording would be feasible. On paper, you think, 'Okay, we've got the tapes, we could do it,' but you're probably going to end up finding that there are issues with the tape. There's a couple channels missing from one of the [symphony] movements, which does happen. And then what are you gonna do? Some things get covered up in stereo, and when you listen to the eight channels you start to hear things, like, 'Crikey, what went on there?'

"For the Signature Collection, we don't set out to create a new recording. We have a chance to issue it in a format that enables us to make it sound better than it's ever sounded before!"

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COMMENTS
earwaxxer's picture

Hello - that format is damn near dead! Oh, thats right, its copy protected. That makes it worth doing.

wozwoz's picture

I've purchased about 10 SACDs from the new EMI re-release range, and I have found them extremely disappointing. Other companies such as Pentatone, Mercury and Sony Columbia have released older analog recordings to SACD ... simply doing a direct transfer from the master analog tapes direct to DSD ... and the results have been simply phenomenal, with warm, clean, beautiful analog sound, that is noticeably superior to the CD versions that preceded them. Even Universal / Deutsche Grammaphon have switched from using 24bit/96kHz to using direct analog to DSD for all their new re-releases (via Emil Berliner Studios) on SACD.

By contrast, the EMI discs I have tried sometimes have noticeably harsh distortion (e.g. the Brahms Double), have harsh digital sound, and peculiar sonics. Elgar's Sea Pictures with Dame Janet Baker sounds like it truly has had all the life sucked out of her ... I've never heard poor Dame Janet sound so utterly strangulated. Poor thing. The 1980s CD version is far superior, and that is a rather sad outcome, given the inherent advantages of SACD which have been wasted here.

 

Since other labels have success in their transfers, and EMI's results are in my view a fail, it would appear the blame lies entirely with the absurd process EMI use, described in the article. Instead of just going direct analog to DSD, they apparently do some convoluted set up with analog to 96/24, masses of processing, then back to analog, then to DSD. Bizarre. Defeats the whole purpose of using SACD/DSD. 

I would agree that the presentation is excellent, though the booklets are difficult to extract the discs from, and likely to scratch them in the process. The only recordings I have been pleased with are the pre-1955 Schubert Dieskau releases, and I have no idea why these are successful, and the post-1955 releases are not.

deckeda's picture

To state the obvious, EMI needs to go shopping.

******

I loved reading the detailed synopsis of why the various remastering methods were chosen. Customers DO care, because it tells them about the things that matter to the content creators.

What's curious is that when someone takes an original tape master and cuts a new LP or does a direct digital transfer sans digitally editing, the customer praise is nearly universally positive. EMI and others seem to have this vast wish list of perfecting things that they can't deny themselves of, with variable results ensuing. And then wonder why customers question them. Really?

Just think of all the time it took to create new masters. Golly, they must have been in terrible shape.

Mr. Gibson wants to say that simply threading the tape and doing a straight transfer would have resulted in lower overall quality, but of course that won't be proven here. The further notion that customers don't know what they're talking about is unfortunate. How can there be such a chasm between what we hear and what they hear?

Listening aside, I'm comfortable questioning the veracity of taking an analog format and transcoding it several times, something I hope Abbey Road would normally agree with.

kevon27's picture

Tape to SACD is like taking a homeless person who has not showered in about 10 years and putting them in a new Armani suit.

These recordings are not highres even if they are on SACD, or sampled to 24/96 flac for download.. Nice container (the Armani suit) but the BUM still stinks (Tape)

Mark Waldrep

http://twit.tv/show/home-theater-geeks/126

deckeda's picture

I'm afraid your reference links don't convince.

Mr. Waldrep makes very fine recordings but he unfortunately succombs to passing judgment on what good sound is by labeling various technologies as either "HD" or not "HD." He talks little about sound and more so about technical benchmarks and that's worrisome. I nevertheles of course respect his years of experience and results.

At best, "HD" (he uses that label frequently) is a marketing designator, like all acronyms a descriptive shorthand for various levels of technical acheivement digital accomplishes.

The underlying assumption is that something "HD" reaches higher than the norm, higher than the average, and oh my yes, professional analog has done that for many decades!

If anything, kevon27, you both actually have it backwards. I suggest listening more and kvetching about "analog's limitations" a little less.

volvic's picture

Also, the marketer in me finds the cd covers for the reissues a missed opportunity. Others have done a much better  job packaging reissues.  I always like to see the original album convers transferred to full CD jackets.  That's just me though, others might not care.

Nick  

Dr. AIX's picture

One of my customers pinged me this morning asking about this article and whether it's "snake oil". I read the article and then the comments...I'm surprised to see a couple of links to my site and a piece that Scott Wilkinson did a a while back.

Thanks kevon27 for bringing up the very real issues surrounding the whole remarketing of old, decidedly standard definition (if 50 dB of dynamic range does it for you deckeda...then fine) on any format...let alone going to DSD, which I regard as capable of doing CD resolution very well, but has very serious limitations. DSD was abandoned by Sony in 2007 for good reason.

My whole point is that "HD" should NOT be a "marketing designator", it should actually be associated with a certain level of quality as much as Ultra HD Video is. It should not be appropriated by anyone wanting to market old as new again. For example, what is HD-Radio (64-96 kbps...a good mp3 files is 128-256!), what is HD Windex, HD Skin, HD sunglasses...it goes on and on.

As I have written repeatedly (I do so daily at RealHD-Audio (dot) com), like what you like. It is the ultimate experience that matters most...including vinyl and analog tape. If analog tape works for you and you want to purchase $500 albums, then nobody can argue with you.

But "HD" is not a relative improvement, it means fidelity that eclipses the potential of those formats (CDs, vinyl LPs, analog tape) in terms of dynamics and frequency response and other important specfications. I have placed 12 examples (of various genres) of real HD-Audio that you can download and compare to analog tape at RealHD-Audio. If you don't ever heard real HD-Audio, you can't talk about it.

As for EMI's choice to issue SA-CDs of their catalog...it's wrong headed in so many ways. If they really want to take advantage of audiophile's seeking "perfect" physical versions of their catalog (because of the irreplaceable performances), they should follow Universals lead and adopt "High Fidelity Pure Audio Blu-ray" as their delivery format.

Private Celebrity's picture

I may be a late SACD adopter, and late catching up to these EMI reissues, but I just got my first: Carl Schuricht'a Bruckner 8 & 9 and it is fantastic - great performance, great sound, great packaging, great price at $19.99 - what's not to love? I'm hooked, I want more

Private Celebrity's picture

"...Schuricht's"

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