Recording of April 2018: Fairytales: Original Master Edition (MQA)

Radka Toneff & Steve Dobrogosz: Fairytales: Original Master Edition (MQA)
Odin LP03 (original LP, 1982); Odin CD9561 (24-bit/48kHz MQA-encoded FLAC file; Tidal Masters stream; hybrid MQA-CD; original sample rate 192kHz; 2017). Arild Andersen, prod. (1982, 2017); Andreas Risanger Meland, exec. prod. (2017); Tore Skille, Tom Sætre, original engs.; Svein Vatshaug, Rune Sund Nordmark, recorder restoration; Thomas Baårdsen, Geir Iversen, digital transfer of original tapes; Morten Lindberg, Peter Craven, Bob Stuart, digital restoration; Erik Gard Amundsen, technical advisor. DAA (original LP); DDD (MQA). Except: "My Funny Valentine," ADA (LP), ADD (MQA). TT: 40:11
Performance ******
Sonics ******

"See her how she flies . . ." When I first heard that lyric, from Jim Webb's "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," sung by a hauntingly fragile woman's voice and supported by a sparse yet lyrical piano accompaniment, at an audio show in 1983, I got chills. Who was this empathetic singer? Back in my cabaret-musician days, more than four decades ago, I backed so many singers with beautiful-sounding pipes but who didn't seem to comprehend the meaning of the words—yet this unknown woman directly communicated the song's emotion.

I grabbed the LP jacket and learned that the singer was Radka Toneff, a Norwegian of Bulgarian ancestry, and that the piano was played by Steve Dobrogosz, an American who had relocated to Sweden. The LP had been released in 1982 on Odin, a Norwegian label, and ended up selling more than 100,000 copies. By the time I'd bought my copy, Toneff, at the age of 30, had taken her own life.

Other than "My Funny Valentine," recorded in analog in 1979, the tracks on Fairytales were recorded in February 1982 on a two-track Telefunken/Mitsubishi MX-80, a 16-bit digital open-reel recorder running at a sample rate of 50.35kHz. The recordings were not mixed or processed in any way—the original LP was cut from the recorder's analog outputs. Subsequent CD releases were made from a copy on a Sony PCM-F1, again made from the Telefunken's analog outputs, meaning that these were corrupted both by the F1's single A/D converter, shared between channels, and the fact that the PCM-F1 operated at 44.056kHz rather than 44.1kHz. The master tape was subsequently lost, and the original Telefunken machine was converted to run at 48kHz.

In 2010, the original master tape was discovered in the archives of Norway's Ringve Music Museum—which also had the original MX-80 recorder. In 2015 there was an attempt to recover a version from the repaired machine, converting its analog output to 192kHz PCM. "To persuade the machine to lock, it was necessary to manually apply resistance to the rollers (slowing the tape speed below 15ips) while the digital electronics locked at a rate near to 48kHz," I was told by MQA Ltd.'s Bob Stuart. As reported by Norwegian journalist Jan Omdahl in December 2015, the 2015 restoration was flawed. In particular, while the recording's original pitch had been A=442Hz, the restoration was tuned to A=446Hz, and there was noticeable wow.

What to do? A team set to work: Bob Stuart of MQA, Peter Craven of Algol and MQA, Thomas Baårdsen of the Norwegian National Library, and Morten Lindberg of Norwegian record label 2L. A proprietary chirp signal was used to extract a high-precision estimate of the amplitude and phase frequency responses of the MX-80's ADC and DAC using the pass-through monitoring path (which cascades the ADC and DAC). Using a gentle method to establish lock at 48kHz, they could capture the library machine's analog output playing the 50.35kHz master at 192kHz for 8 of the 10 tracks. As the transfer was at the wrong pitch—about 4.7% too low—they did a lot of research to make sure that the original pitch was indeed A=442Hz before correction.

While the MX-80's DAC didn't show major bit errors, quantization distortion was apparent in the original master due to misadjustment of the MSB trim for the L/R A/D converters. Craven created tools that allowed the resultant bit misalignments to be corrected, reportedly reducing inharmonic converter distortion by around 40dB.

To maintain the highest transparency, the entire set of corrections was carried out using just two 24-bit operations. As described by Stuart, this comprised the following steps:

1) Stuart: Starting with slow stems, correct the ADC bit errors.

2) Lindberg: Top and Tail slow files; fix gross errors (original splices and big clicks); determine level adjust to make for each song; insert metadata.

3) Stuart: Process in one operation to: reverse out MX-80 ADC/DAC in the time domain; adjust track levels; correct the sample rate for pitch; LF phase correction; stabilize noise floor.

4) Andersen and Dobrogosz: Review results; decisions concerning minor track-level changes; repeat step 3.

5) Lindberg: Perform magic with very light "airbrush touch-ups" of very fine dynamics; cuts to length and assemble deliverables.

6) Stuart: Encode for download and for CD.

This workflow was used for tracks 2–4 and 6–10. For track 5, "My Funny Valentine," a generation-corrected transfer from the original 1979 analog tape was used to avoid the generation loss of the MX-80. For track 1, "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," the analog transfer from the MX-80 had unacceptable wow, either because the tape had been stretched or as a side effect of the manipulation and error interpolation during the transfer. However, according to Stuart, the "direct digital transfer was very high quality from the second musical line onward. Accordingly, track 1 was assembled from pitch- and level-corrected digital and analog stems using 'highly transparent' custom processing."

Although the restored recording has been available in Norway since late 2017 for download and for streaming via Tidal Masters, as well as an MQA CD prepared from a 24-bit/176.4kHz master, Fairytales would not be released in the US until March 2018. For this review, therefore, I played pre-release MQA in 24/48 FLAC files that I'd been sent with NAD's Masters Series M50.2 server feeding S/PDIF data to a Mytek HiFi Brooklyn DAC. (The NAD performed the first MQA "encapsulation unfold" to 96kHz data, the Mytek the further "type-L" unfold to 192kHz.) For reference, I'd made 24/192 needle drops from my well-worn 1982 LP. I cued up track 1 . . .

"See her how she flies . . ." When I heard that familiar lyric, I was transported back 35 years to the first time I heard it. The occasional trembling in Toneff's vulnerable voice, the subtle shadings of pitch she uses to point a phrase, the careful way she uses vibrato on held notes for emphasis—they were all there. What was old is new again. The key change after the brief piano solo tore me apart as it had done the very first time. The vast emptiness opened up by Dobrogosz's falling-fifths intro to "Nature Boy," which is answered by a rising fourth at the end of the song, sounded more vast than it did in the needle drop, even after I optimized the Brooklyn's reconstruction filter for straight PCM. The space of the recording venue, Bergen's Grieg Hall, was more coherently presented. The transients of the piano sound throughout the album came across as more believable, the individual notes within sustained chords more identifiable. Oh my!

"The moon can be so cold," wrote Jim Webb, "though she looks as warm as gold." This restoration of one of the 1980s' greatest albums has turned digital cold into musical gold.—John Atkinson

dalethorn's picture

I have the older version, and eagerly await the MQA version here in the U.S., but sources I read say the release is in mid-April, not March.

tonykaz's picture

I can recall Karen Sumner giving me this Album, back in the mid 1980s ( I was one of her Electrocompaniet Dealers ) and I can recall everyone at the Winter CES having this music 'wafting thru the Nevada Ether'.

I'm playing "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" as I write this note, I should probably Order this new Release and have Karen Autograph it while sending me some Transparent Interconnects ( for the price of a Car ).

Thanks for the Memory,

Tony in Michigan

ps. Doug MacLeod's "Unmarked Road" and everything of his I've so far listened to is Suberb..!

Priaptor's picture

Let's see how "MQA Masters" sounds.

pat mcginty's picture

We've been using The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to voice our designs since the early 90s. To us, it's indispensable for judging emotional connection. Can't wait to hear the MQA.

leedom's picture

Now we have no way to avoid MQA? I think I'll sit this one out.

cgh's picture

... that A=442 is about two-and-a-quarter cents away from the JND of the "right" tuning. Between the august ears of the average SP listener and the Schumann resonance everything should be alright!!!

All joking aside, and without touching the MQA kryptonite, the whole process seems pretty cool

ok's picture

..does this mean that the same care applies to any given MQA (re)issue?

dalethorn's picture

If anyone needs a shortlist for remastering, I'm ready with mine. I'll even pay the caterer.

tronds's picture

The new reissue available in Norway is actually a SACD, with both the DSD layer and a MQA-encoded CD layer. I would find it strange if the international release would differ from this disc layout.

dalethorn's picture

The SACD should be the same. I'm waiting on the MQA download.

leedom's picture

Hhmmm, now a DSD Digital Download would definitely be interesting ...

dalethorn's picture

Apple is selling this title ("Fairytales - Original Master Edition (MQA)") on iTunes in the U.S. now, exactly as shown in the album cover image above. They also sell the older edition. But the tracks are not MQA'd. Here is what I found so far.

1) These iTunes files (AAC, file extension '.M4A') have a much higher playback bitrate than any of the other iTunes files I have in my collection - several hundred of them. All previous iTunes files I know of are 256 kbps variable bit rate, and these "MQA" tracks go as high as 461 kbps variable bit rate.

2) I converted these .m4a tracks to FLAC, as I did with the older edition iTunes tracks, and the MQA-edition FLACs total size is 165.5 mb, compared to 123 mb for the older FLACs.

3) I played these .m4a tracks as well as the FLAC conversions I made on my Mac's music player using the Meridian Explorer-2 DAC, making sure to try all of the bitrates provided by the Mac's MIDI settings, and never could get a green light or blue light on the DAC as I get with the Steve Reich Pulse album.

4) These iTunes tracks are 16/44, as are the Reich/Pulse MQA tracks I ripped from the CD I purchased. Those Reich tracks do produce the correct light on my DAC, but these iTunes tracks do not.

dalethorn's picture

Lest I forget - the sound: The new version on iTunes is obviously better than the older version - the actual volume seems slightly higher (perhaps 1.5 to 2 db), although the overall dynamics seem very much the same, and this album has some serious dynamics. You can really hear the difference in the loud higher-register piano notes. The remastering of this involved a lot more than just MQA coding, so that probably accounts for most of the notably better sound, and raises the ongoing question: How much improvement do we hear due to MQA, and how much due to the other factors?