First Time Ever: Mahler Download in DSD
Just in time for the New Year, Cookie Marenco of Blue Coast Records has released the first-ever DSD (Direct-Stream-Digital) download of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's recording of Mahler's Symphony No.1. Recorded live in Davies Symphony Hall in September 2001, shortly after 9/11, and first released as a hybrid SACD in 2003, the recording is one of the only four Mahler symphonies in SFSO's complete Mahler cycle that were recorded directly to DSD.
The Mahler 1 files, available in four formats, are all derived directly from San Francisco Symphony's master, not from a copy of the SACD. The formats include two DSD formats: DFF and DSF. For those whose computer playback software or DACs are not equipped to play DSD files, 24/96 and 16/44.1 PCM files in WAV format are also available.
WAV files are larger than the usual FLAC format used for downloads. When, in 2008, Marenco conducted a blind listening test in which she first downloaded 320kbps MP3, FLAC, and WAV files of the same pieces music and then played them back, everyone present felt the WAV sounded cleaner in the low end of the sonic spectrum.
The good news, for DSD lovers, is that DSF files contain metadata and download as fast as 24/96 WAV files. In Marenco's opinion, they also compare sonically with 176.4 and 192kHz PCM. Then again, Marenco is one of the major champions of DSD, which she touts as superior to PCM. Her DSD information site offers both a complete discussion of DSD and why its proponents consider it superior, and a "most commonly asked questions" FAQ.
For those unfamiliar with Mahler's First Symphony, it is possible to audition the recording on the download site. Most alluring are its "Frère Jacques" movement and unmistakable Jewish folk themes, which conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, whose grandparents were the founders and pioneers of the American Yiddish Theater, has in his DNA. And, because it is Mahler, it abounds in those huge emotional swings and tremendous outpourings that make his music an audiophile favorite. You can get a taste of MTT discussing Mahler at the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's Keeping Score website, and hear the whole program on SFS's 2-disc Keeping Score DVD and Blu-ray devoted to Mahler.
In a phone interview, Marenco discussed how the DSD download project began. "At this year's California Audio Show, in July 2012, we shared a room with Sony. When I encountered San Francisco Symphony's recording engineer, Jack Vad, whom I've known for about 25 years, and told him about what we're doing with DSD, he was very excited. After Jack introduced me to the SFS administrative people, I started explaining what I was doing with our microstores and DSD. When I told them that these microstores are designed for labels other than Blue Coast Records who want to release their music in large size WAV or DSD format, they got very excited about opening up some new avenues of distribution."
Marenco is thrilled that Blue Coast Records got access to the DSD master, and was able to work with Jack and Gus Skinas, who had the original files before the SACD was produced, to verify that it was DSD-native. "It's very difficult to get the original DSD masters," she says. "I've been offered a lot of SACDs from major labels to use for DSD downloads, but when I ask them for the original DSD masters instead, I get a look of horror because, especially with legacy recordings, they can't always verify if the master is DSD-native."
She also has a personal attachment to the San Francisco Symphony recording of Mahler Symphony 1. When it was first released, she was on the NARAS surround-sound recording panel that listened to all the surround recordings of the year before nominating them for Grammy Awards, and it was her favorite surround mix. "It sounded spectacular, and the music I loved," she says.
A growing number of players and DACs play DSD, including models from Playback Designs, Mytek, Benchmark, dCS, Korg, Chord, and EMM Labs. (Others may be announced at CES 2013, January 811 in Las Vegas.) There are also a number of music servers that can play DSD files without converting them to PCM, Auraliti's L-1000 being one. As for computer software, both J River and AudioGate for the PC and Pure Music and Audirvana for the Mac can play DSD without converting it to PCM.
Many audiophiles who own SACD players assume that when a hybrid SACD is DSD-native, their player outputs DSD. Alas, this is not the case. According to another major proponent of DSD, Playback Design's Andreas Koch, "The sad story about SACD drives and players is that some of them read the DSD program and convert DSD to PCM before converting to analog. All Philips drives do that. The only drive that I know that doesn't do that is the one from TEAC (the one I use)."
There is also an issue with SACDs that pose as DSD-native when, in fact, the masters were recorded in PCM. Marenco not only refuses to label her music downloads as DSD unless they were originally recorded in DSD or on analog tape, but also asks to speak to the engineer who recorded the music, or those that attended the session, to verify its provenance.
She is currently developing a white paper for labels, distributors, audio engineers and schools that will explain what DSD is and set standards for receiving properly prepped DSD files for download. Among those standards is the importance of historical information about sessions.
Marenco is especially enthusiastic about the quality of the DSD masters that her site offers. "The difference between the DSD two-channel layer on an SACD and what we sell is that we sell the DSD mix prior to authoring for SACD. The SACDs we receive back from the plant never sound as good as the DSD masters that we've mixed. There's so much variation in the discs that come back to me that I suspect there are errors introduced on the disc itself. Our ability to offer a DSD file before it has been put on a disc makes a profound difference."