Recording of August 1986: Sheffield Lab's Orchestral Direct-to-Disc LP

886rotmjgh.1.jpgStravinsky: The Firebird (1910 Suite)
Debussy: Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Los Angeles Philharmonic, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf
Sheffield Lab Direct-to-Disc Lab 24 (LP). Lincoln Mayorga, prod.; Doug Sax, James Boyk, engs.

For some reason, Stereophile didn't receive an early pressing of Sheffield's latest orchestral recording, their first since the Wagner and Prokofiev discs back in 1977. So, guess where my review copy of this finally came from? From Harry Pearson, that's who. How did this come about? Well, I had seen a passing comment in The Absolute Sound to the effect that HP didn't like the recording, and since I was favorably impressed with what I'd heard of it at the last two Consumer Electronics Shows, I phoned HP to ask what he didn't like about it. "Dull high end, closed-in sound, not enough spaciousness" was the reply. Thank you, I said. Several days later, a copy of the disc arrived, postmarked Sea Cliff, NY.

Thank you Harry, but I must disagree with you about this recording.

This is one of the most incredible symphonic recordings I have heard! It's not as high-powered as Reference Recordings' Church Windows, but then Firebird isn't as high-powered music. Yes, it is very dramatic (in parts), but it is dynamic rather than massive. But all in all, I feel this Firebird is a more realistic recording.

It does not sound as if it was recorded in a vast concert hall with billowing reverb, because it wasn't. The venue was a very large recording studio at MGM, their Sound Stage One. The orchestra pickup was, according to the jacket notes, a "single-point" stereo microphone, and the perspective is a little more distant than on Sheffield's first two LA/Leinsdorf discs. In fact, the mikes do not sound coincident to me; they sound as if they may have been 9" or so apart, as there is more depth than I usually hear from coincident recordings.

In fact, this is the only symphonic recording I have heard recently that has, for me anyway, exactly the right amount of ambience. It does not call attention to itself, as do Telarc's and Reference Recordings' symphonic recordings (Hey, look how spacious I am!); it is just there. The perspective is moderately close, giving an impression of listening from perhaps 20' behind the conductor. (I would guess the mikes were about 10' behind him and 10' over his head.)

The high end on this LP is gorgeous—a fact directly attributable to the microphones used by engineers Doug Sax and James Boyk, which were not condensers but ribbons. The highs are soft, which happens to be characteristic of real instruments in the flesh, but may in fact be a little too soft on this recording. My present speaker system has a trifle too much top, and the fact that this disc sounds just right on it means that it is going to sound a little dull on a system which is "subjectively flat" at the top. (Note that I said "subjectively flat" rather than "having flat measured response.") Nonetheless, the ease with which sharply percussive instruments (like the xylophone in "King Kastchei's Infernal Dance") effortlessly cut through the whole orchestral fabric shows that there is no deficiency of transient response.

All in all, this disc gives me the most convincing illusion of listening to a real, live orchestra from an excellent seat of any recording I have heard. By comparison, Church Windows sounds rather veiled and—dare I say it?—a little contrived. (It seems almost too big and spacious to be believable.) But with the two of those recordings available now, there is no longer any excuse for CES exhibitors eschewing symphonic material as demo material "because none of it is good enough."

If I have any misgiving about Lab 24, it concerns its dynamic range, which sounds a little compressed. This music should range from pianissimo (pp) to triple forte (fff)—from a whisper to ear-shattering! It doesn't. Either someone was riding gain, or Mr. Leinsdorf was holding back his orchestra. I hope it was the former, and that the CD release will have the additional dynamic range that this lacks. Even as it is, much of this disc is already cut at about as low a level as one can get away with. That, plus less-than-typically quiet surfaces, makes for rather high background noise when listened to with the loudest parts at a volume level appropriate to the music and the apparent distance of the orchestra (ca 105dB).

The performance is at once atmospheric and vigorous, the tempi more balletic than dramatic. This is not the most exciting Firebird I have heard, but it's among the most satisfying. Its only competition, both sonically and interpretively, is Telarc's blockbuster with Shaw and the Atlanta symphony, which is more high-powered (with notably more dynamic range than the Sheffield) but less convincingly realistic in terms of perspectives, imaging, and musical timbres.

Finally, I must mention the "filler" item which opens side one of this disc. This is as magical and evocative a performance of Ravel's Afternoon of a Faun as I have heard on stereo, and the recording simply wipes away every previous recording.

I consider this to be an all-time great symphonic recording. (Sorry, HP.)—J. Gordon Holt

John Atkinson's picture

James Boyk, who co-engineered this recording, sent me the following comment:

"For what it's worth. and speaking as one involved in the engineering of Sheffield LAB 24, JGH guessed wrong about the miking. The ribbons were indeed coincident, not spaced. (And contrary to what he implies, such a "Blumlein pair" portrays depth superbly.) As for the dynamics, and assuming he was listening via speakers, I suspect the limiting factor was not the LP but his playback system. Very few systems can handle the dynamic range of that recording at any average level that listeners are likely to find appropriate." - James Boyk, Performance Recordings.