Jared Sacks: DSD Present and Future

Some months back, SACD and DSD champion Jared Sacks, founder of Channel Classics, stopped by Casa Bellecci-Serinus in Oakland for an extended chat about the history of his label, recording in DSD, and his new NativeDSD.com download site. I started our conversation by asking Jared to share his history with music and the industry with Stereophile:

Jared Sacks: I'm an American who has been in Holland for over 37 years. At Channel Classics, I do most everything alone, and my wife does the booklet designing. With 2 1/2 people in the company, we keep it small.

I work differently than most others in charge of labels in that I want to be part of the process the moment that I'm not making the recording. Most labels just get a finished copy, but that's not why I'm doing this. I love making these recordings with wonderful artists; it's a real pity that I have to sell them.

Initially, I was a horn player. The summer of my second year at Oberlin College, I was asked to play in an orchestra in Switzerland. When they asked me to stay on, I did. I liked playing horn, but I knew it wasn't my ultimate goal at a time I was writing music and doing a lot of different things. I was working hard to play, and it was fine, but I knew I was never going to be good enough to play in the top orchestras. Nor would I be satisfied as a member of a B orchestra.

At Oberlin, I was director of the radio station and also worked an internship at WCRV in Boston. I knew I liked that stuff as well. After a year and a half in Switzerland, I discovered that the Swiss girls didn't want anything to do with me, perhaps because of my full beard that made me look more like a terrorist than anything else.

After I played a gig in Switzerland with the first horn at the Concertgebouw, he invited me to come study with him. I thought it was a good idea, so I left with my suitcase, my horn, and my bluegrass banjo. I got to Holland, and he got me into the Conservatory there to finish my studies. Then I started freelancing, and got a job as solo horn in an orchestra.

I bought a house on Kanaal Straat, which is now the home of Channel Classics. The top floor used to be an artists' studio of a man who restored paintings for the Rijks Museum in the beginning of the 1900s. It had wonderful high ceilings and Northern Lights, and I began rehearsing there. I loved chamber music, and was having all my ensembles there.

Around 1982 or 1983, I started organizing concerts there the last Sunday of the month, got a couple of microphones, and recorded analog. The Concertgebouw's building was selling their old chairs, and I bought 50 of them. I made a balcony, and everybody else started renting it.

I was still playing, but I had this recording equipment, and I realized I liked producing and recording concerts much more than playing in an orchestra. By 1987, there was so much going on that people were asking me to make demos, especially singers. I learned to hate singers as a kid because my mother was always playing Live at the Met on Saturday mornings with Milton Cross, and listening to sopranos was just too much for me.

Serinus: You don't have many recordings of singers in your catalog, do you?

Sacks: No. The first 100 releases, I had no singers. But in the years I was doing this, I was getting hundreds of singers who needed to make demos. Sopranos would ask me how their diction was, and I couldn't even tell what language they were singing. I remember a tenor in the chorus of the Dutch Opera who stopped singing altogether after he heard a recording of his voice. You can edit music so it's technically perfect, but it's dead, and I'd say that 9/10 of the recordings out there are the result of multiple takes.

Through the years, I've certainly learned to respect singers. I've recorded a lot more baroque, because I couldn't take all the portamento and vibrato, especially when I'd sit in the orchestra pit and hear it but not see it. I've done the complete Schreker, the complete Respighi, the complete Elgar, but in the first 100 discs I recorded, there was only countertenor Derek Lee Ragin. I've never had a desire to record opera, but I've recorded the Passions, of course.

Serinus: Let's go to SACD and DSD. Were you one of the first non-Sony/Phillips people to start recording SACD?

Sacks: Yes. They asked me to help them implement it by being a beta tester and doing promotion. They were in the next room doing software while I was editing. I lived 40 minutes away, and I was the only independent record label recording in SACD at the time. Pentatone came later. The Polyhymnia people were there helping as well, but I was the only independent label.

I brought out the first official hybrid SACD in February 2001, with Peter Wispelwey doing the Rococo Variations. Budapest did some trial recordings, and one was in the box when you bought the player.

The first official commercial SACD was on Channel Classics. During the recording session in Germany, Philips stuff was in one room and mine was in the other, so we did parallel recording. There wasn't really any software yet, so they worked with open PC boards. It took four months to get it out of the computer, and the computer kept crashing every five minutes.

People don't understand how difficult it was to try to get the software made and be able to do simple things. I worked with Merging Technologies on the software and Philips on the DSD side. They were used to doing pop compilations in 15 edits, and I needed 200 edits. The computer just couldn't handle it.

They also sent me around the world to promote the SACD format, and used my recordings to do that.

Serinus: You even went to South America, if I'm correct.

Sacks: I went to Bolivia, but that was for the three Bolivian Baroque recordings I did with Florilegium. But everywhere I went, I set up promotions to teach people what SACD is, what its advantages are, and how to listen. You don't need multi-channel—it's icing on the cake, and I'm certainly spoiled—but even SACD stereo is such an improvement.

As you know, in the last 10 years, how people listen has only gone backwards.

Serinus: I'm not sure it's all doom and gloom, given the upsurge in both vinyl sales and hi-res downloads, especially in DSD format.

Sacks: Yes, it's an incredible time in terms of recording equipment. It's real difficult to have bad recording equipment or make a bad recording. You really have to work hard if you're going to make a bad recording.

My problem is that I'm a musician first. I enjoy the challenge of striving to get the best quality in a recording, and also in playback. But I'm not an audiophile.

To me, an audiophile recording refers to certain labels where they put the microphone above the bridge or above the hammers of the piano so they can capture that sound. I'm not interested in that. You have to hear the overtones, you have to hear how it mixes together, and you need distance for that. Of course, it's all taste.

I would never say that Channel Classics is an audiophile label. I'm just happy to be using DSD technology, because then the technology is no longer in the way of listening to the music. That enables you to listen to the emotion, because it's all about the emotion.

Serinus: So the reason you went to DSD had to do with the emotion?

Sacks: Yes, absolutely.

Serinus: Had you been recording in PCM before?

Sacks: Oh yes, my first decade, from 1990 to 2001. But DSD is superior. How you're going to transport it doesn't interest me. It can be hybrid SACD, or it can be via download. But, upon hearing it, it was clear that DSD, with all its limitations, was a vast improvement on anything I had heard before.

It's still being improved upon. In 2010, I got a new converter from the Dutch company Grimm, and it's fantastic. Everybody on all audio sites asked what had happened, because it's such a step up from the dCS and Meitner I was using. It's a wonderful piece of equipment.

I was a rep for dCS from 1989 to 1996, in the PCM days, and I sold their D/A converters, which were the best at that time, to many record labels.


Supperconductor's picture

I have several Channel Classics titles in my collection as DSD downloads. I was initially interested in sampling the sound quality but was mightily impressed with the musicality. Everything I've bought has great performances and sounds great even on my non-DSD gear.

labjr's picture

Classical Radio New England is WCRB. Though due to a business deal in 2006, they've moved from 102.5 to 99.5 on the dial and transmit from different location further from Boston which didn't benefit listeners. Then in 2009, WCRB was purchased by WGBH which then removed classical programming from WGBH. So there's less classical programming than ever in the Boston market.

mark levinson's picture

I agree, an excellent interview. Hard to believe I didn't know about Jared and Channel Records until now. Thanks to Jason and Sterephile for introducing us.

There are a bizarre number of parallels here. He and I both are:  American musicians playing brass intruments (he horn, me flugelhorn) who started small music-based companies; moved to Europe; work with our mates; have a passion for making quality recordings of classical music and reproducing them; have a connection with Switzerland and the EU; are early adopters of DSD, made some of the first SACD's, and worked with Sony and Philips in that regard; and are not afraid to go off the beaten path. I intend to learn more about Jared and Channel Records starting right now.

The only drawback to DSD is that there are no DSD mastering tools, so engineers have to do one of three things:

1. record in DSD and do no mastering.

2. record in DSD, convert to high resolution PCM, use high resolution PCM mastering tools, and convert to DSD for making SACD's. 

3. record in DSD, convert to analog, master in analog, and convert to DSD.

Good results can be obtained with all the above, but real DSD tools would be great to have. Sadly, DSD does not lend itself to manipulation.

I recorded the SACD "Live Recordings at Red Rose Music" in 2000 with no processing at all, just pure DSD. When the musicians finished playing, that was it. This SACD was used to introduce SACD in the US. 

Just recently, my Swiss company Daniel Hertz introduced Master Class, audio software for Mac. Master Class is intended to make PCM sound and feel more like analog and DSD. I have been using this technology in my own mastering for some time, but it was not in a form that could be sold. Master Class is a commercially available version, easy for non-technical people to use. I have found that with Master Class, PCM recordings can be more or less like DSD.

It is great to see that DSD is alive and finally being developed and appreciated by dedicated people like Jared and his Channel Records, and that Jason and Sterephile are bringing this to the public's attention with such well written articles.