Reference Recordings: New Website, Downloads, Recordings
RR has come a long way in the downloads department since it first issued 24/176.4 master recordings on HRx DVD discs. "We know that properly transferred and downloaded files are identical to what's on the discs," said Marcia Martin, the fiercely articulate company Executive Director who is also Keith's wife. "But we offered HRx because, at the time, there were very few outlets when people could buy 176.4, 192 and above. It also took a very long time to download the files. Plus, some of the download providers felt there wasn't a market for recordings at that resolution. Hence, we made the discs, which come with brochures and cover art that could serve as a back-up to what audiophiles downloaded to their computers. Several manufacturersOppo certainlystill enable you to play HRx discs directly if you don't want to download them."
Currently, the site's downloads of most RR recordings are limited to two-channel PCM. (These downloads are also available from HDTracks and a few other outlets.) Physical media remains the sole source for RR multi-channel recordings at present. (Keith Johnson's Grammy was for engineering a Best Surround Recording of the Year.) Note that Keith only records in PCM, using the Pacific Microsonics Model 2 HDCD digital recorder that he co-designed with Michael "Pflash" Pflaumer.
But what about SACD? Audiophiles wishing to obtain RR SACDs, which are transcoded from PCM masters, can buy either physical media or download the master 2-channel PCM files from the site. Those wishing to obtain the native DSD recordings issued on Fresh! SACDs can either buy the discs from RR and other outlets or obtain DSD downloads from NativeDSD.com. At the risk of reiteration, the only way to obtain RR multi-channel recordings at present, in either DSD or PCM, is to buy the physical media.
"I'd prefer to not get into the DSD vs PCM debate," said Marcia. "There are so many strong opinions, and so little verifiable science. But do keep in mind that when editing is done to DSD, at points in the process it is converted to PCM and back again.
"We believe that the conversion from DSD to PCM is perfectly acceptable in every direction. I do hear differences between the final product on a SACD and our master recordings, because I think the proprietary process of making an SACD creates its own sonic character. But I don't hear a degradation; I hear a difference. Our original master tapes sound closer to the 176.4/24 two-channel downloads available from our site or HDTracks, and to our HRx discs. But I like the sound of SACD as well, and you get surround. Keith is very pleased to be working in surround, and loves the immersive experience."
RR, it should be noted, refuses to sell single tracks for download. To quote Marcia, "We sell album only because we feel, especially for classical music, it all goes together. Some people just buy one movement of a symphony, and that makes me crazy." Note as well that not every early analog recording in RR catalog has, as yet, been transferred to hi-rez digital, pending evaluation by the ever-busy Keith.
One "big thing" coming for the website is the RSVP Club. People who join this membership club will be notified of special offers, and will most likely be presented with special opportunities such as discounts. No final decisions have been made, including on cost (if any). In addition, the Audiophile Corner will soon include first-hand reports from Sean Martin on forthcoming recording projects, starting with next month's recording of Adam Schoenberg's Second Symphony, "Migration" for wind ensemble.
Most RR titles are available for streaming from Tidal and a few other sites. Interesting enough, streaming has not cut into sales of Reference Recordings' physical media and media. Quite the contrary: 2016 marked record sales in both physical and download categories. "Perhaps it's different for audiophiles," opined Marcia.
While the RR team is "watching" MQA, it has no plans to encode its titles with MQA at this time. What it does continue to do is record in HDCD, which can be decoded on products made by Berkeley Audio Designs, Oppo, and Spectral.
"We realize that HDCD is, in a way, a legacy format for CD, because on hi-rez HDCD does not function," Marcia said. "But even if it only functions at 16/44.1, there's still an advantage for encoding it. We're still very happy with our Pacific Microsonics Model 2 HDCD encoders which have superior filtering circuitry. We haven't found better."
RR is currently taking pre-orders for its next disc Fresh! disc, the equally exclaimed ¡Viva Segovia!. The disc features guitarist Roberto Moronn Pérez playing compositions dedicated to Segovia or commissioned by him from composers from eight different countries. Some of these are first recordings. ¡Viva Segovia! was set down in 24/96 PCM in a stone church in England by a "wonderful" English recording engineer, and mastered by Keith.
After that, you can expect the latest RR blues disc from Doug McLeod, Break the Chain, probably followed an all-John Williams disc from the Dallas Winds conducted by Jerry Junkin. The next Fresh! disc, coming in May, is a winning combo of Shostakovich Symphony 5 and Barber's Adagio from the Pittsburgh forces conducted by Manfred Honeck. Try to not to salivate too much when you learn that, this fall, you can expect a potentially spectacular Utah Symphony recording of Mahler's Eighth Symphony with the hot button Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
There's one more special event on the horizon for RR. In March, Keith Johnson (above) turns 79. Although he travels less, he still works full-time, runs, and does yoga. He's also found time to record projects for other labels with Sean, including, for Naxos, a new disc of Rachmaninov's All Night Vigil that is scheduled for release March 3.