Encore: the 1997 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD Page 2

Festival Artistic Director Heiichiro Ohyama had asked for the shell to be moved, having found the sound as heard from the hall too dull. Moving the shell closer did, in fact, make things brighter and better focused in the seats. This presented a dilemma for us, though, since none of the sonic improvements were audible to our microphones—only the ways in which the nearfield sound had been affected for the worse.

Moreover, it raised a philosophical question: Who had a right to the best sound—the audience on the night of the performance, or the thousands of people who would (we hoped) revisit the performances on our CD? JA and I found ourselves of two minds. With a lot of work already invested in the project, we desperately wanted something to come of it. But as avid concertgoers, we had both experienced performances compromised by the bright lights and distractions of television cameras. Ohyama, however, was adamant: We were free to record, but he would not consider moving the shell and changing the in-hall sound.

So we did the best we could, and found much to like in the recordings we made. For one thing, the Festival musicians had, as is their wont, conjured up some musical magic. We were entranced by the Mendelssohn, awed by the Brahms—these were interpretations that we really wanted people to hear.

And the sonic news was not all bad. True, we came up a bit short in the bloom department, but we succeeded in capturing a sense of immediacy that was compelling, if not seductive. Still, as good as we felt the 24-bit tapes to sound, they had a sense of foreshortened acuity not dissimilar to that of videotape when compared to film. They sounded "real" but flat, lacking that roundness and sense of depth that distinguish the best-sounding recordings. JA and Heiichiro assembled a 24-bit master using the Sonic Solutions digital audio workstation, but the project stalled for a while.

Then, while attending the Audio Engineering Society's convention in New York in September '97, JA was tempted by the devil. He stepped into Lexicon's booth, where they were demonstrating the latest generation of their DSP room-synthesis engines. The current state of the art in digital spatial processors is a far cry from the metallic reverberation plates of yore: these days you have incredible control of every parameter, and it's possible to use the effects with extreme subtlety. "Would selling my soul be a huge price to pay to make our 1997 Festival recordings usable?" JA mused, entranced by the knobs on a Lexicon PCM 90.

"Our souls?" I reminded him. "I guess it all depends. If we used it and didn't tell anyone, that would be wrong. But what if we presented it as a cautionary tale—a demonstration of what changes can be wrought through technology in the pursuit of `honest' sound?" (See "Echo" sidebar.)

JA brightened. "That could work. And on our next Test CD, we can offer untreated and treated excerpts highlighting the differences."

So there you have it. This project, like all our other recordings, was created with a purist philosophy, but for "natural sound" we've resorted to a technological approximation of an ideal room sound. The big advantage of DSP is that it is so easy to get consistent results. That's what can make it insidious—one gets addicted to the ease of relying on the "we'll fix it in the mix" mentality.

It's hard to use the purist approach. Sometimes, as we discovered, it's impossible. Does the end justify the means? In this case, we think so. We await hearing what you think.—Wes Phillips