Reference Recordings: New Website, Downloads, Recordings

For the first time in a decade, Grammy Award-winning audiophile label Reference Recordings (RR) has updated its website. Filled with new features, including new blog posts and an "Audiophile Corner," the website offers physical media and hi-rez downloads of a host of Reference Recordings made by legendary, Grammy-feted recording engineer/digital pioneer Keith O. Johnson, along with Sean Royce Martin, and other recordings on the RR Fresh! label recorded by the SoundMirror team. Booklets for all digital recordings may be downloaded gratis.

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 manufacturers—Oppo certainly—still 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.

COMMENTS
Kal Rubinson's picture

Multichannel and stereo DSD downloads are currently listed as available from Native DSD in the form of DSD64, DSD128 or DSD256 files. Some in DXD (PCM) as well.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

The NativeDSD multi-channel downloads are of Fresh! DSD-sourced surround recordings. The copy will be changed to state that physical media remains the sole source of RR's PCM-sourced surround recordings. Thanks for the fact-check, Kal.

jason

Christopher Mankiewicz's picture

Kal,

Are you aware that the new SONY SA-10 SACD player making its debut this month, according to reviewer Andrew Quint, is 2-channel stereo ONLY! So it's a "non-starter" for all of us "multi-ch" users (including Andrew and as I remember) yourself. Why lop off the superior built-in capacity to enjoy the surround sound of SACD? - It seems idiotic. - Would you please comment? Thanks.

Chris

Kal Rubinson's picture

I think you are referring to the MARANTZ SA-10 and, nice as it looks, it is channel-deficient. My comment? What you think.

Christopher Mankiewicz's picture

Of course, you're right. I meant the new Marantz SA-10. - Sorry I can't get you to be less diplomatic for a comment. It's just that I am so angry at the disrespect Multi-Ch. SACDs receive today (as you may have noticed in my often published correspondence with Robert Harley in TAS) and communications of mine years ago in Stereophile where you were very supportive. Anyway, hope you are well and happy.
C.

Kal Rubinson's picture

This is kinda tangential to the thread topic. Hence, the restraint. I'd be happy to vent elsewhere.

volvic's picture

Lot of great RR recordings including the Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique and Ouye's Ein Heldenlebn but if there is just one that stands out it is the Tavener Ikon Of Eros, one of the greatest recordings.

pbarach's picture

These to me are exceptionally well played and recorded:
Copland Symphony 3 and Appalachian Spring (Oue, Minnesota)
Rachmaninov: Symphonic Dances (Oue/MN again)
All of the Honeck/Pgh recordings
John Bruce Yeh and a Chicago wind ensemble (can't recall the name of the disc)
Nojima plays Liszt (his Ravel disc isn't as good, IMO)

monetschemist's picture

In a discussion about proprietary vs. open formats awhile back in an article on this site, someone from Ayre mentioned that their latest digital playback device decodes HDCD as well.

I'm sorry I don't remember the name of the product nor the person who mentioned its existence.

HammerSandwich's picture

And Foobar2000 has a decoding component.

monetschemist's picture

I have this (perhaps incorrect) idea that the HDCD decoding in Foobar is based on that standalone HDCD code that has been floating around for awhile as a Windows or even DOS executable and that it may not deal correctly with all the various HDCD parameters.

Do you know if that's the case?

dalethorn's picture

"RR, it should be noted, refuses to sell single tracks for download."

It drives HIM crazy, he says. Sure, it makes *some* sense for symphonies etc., otherwise it's gouging, plain and simple. Downloads (no media, packaging, mailing, returns .....) are very economical to dispense, and when you have albums like (for example) Fleetwood Mac that are chock full of "album filler", then it's just one more price gouge with a botique product.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

HIM is a woman. And RR does not record Fleetwood Mac. Nonetheless, you do have a point when it comes to non-classical works, e.g. a blues recording, unless the artist specifically wishes that it be seen as a through-composed concept album.

monetschemist's picture

Jason, I have a ton of CDs that incorporate two or more works by two or more unrelated composers (well, I guess in the minds of the people who packaged them together on the same album they were related). I also have quite a few CDs that provide me with multiple copies of some work by Composer X that I acquired primarily to get other stuff on the album.

In sum I think the concept of "filler" is, or was anyway, alive and well in the classical end of things, though I haven't browsed RR's catalogue sufficiently to know if that's the case in their offerings.

Copeland's output is a good example - let's see we can package Fanfare with Appalachian Spring, or with Rodeo, or... or of course we can put them all together...

dalethorn's picture

OOPS! Well, she obviously is a very fine individual, who I hope would consider my suggestion, excepting all of those finicky artists of course.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

While forums are a great place to vent in public, the best way to make requests are via emails and calls to the parties in question. This is especially true in cases where the parties profiled purposely stay away from forums because they have no interest in engaging in potentially contentious public back and forths. RR's contact info may be found here: https://referencerecordings.com/contact/

dalethorn's picture

The best way to get action is usually through a group effort rather than an individual effort, and forums add the extra persons, in some cases at least. There are those companies whose customer service is so wonderful that they'll go to great lengths to satisfy individual customers, but those are the exception rather than the rule. And I have a pretty long list of the latter.

Axiom05's picture

I am disappointed to see that there doesn't seem to be any new downloads on the web site, i.e., everything here has been available from other sites for some time. I don't understand why many of the RR recordings are still only available as 16-bit files, for example I have been waiting forever for Copland's 3rd Symphony to be released in Hi-Res.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

that it was recorded in hi-rez, as opposed to 16/44.1 HDCD (which is a form of hi-rez)? It was never issued as an HRx hi-rez disc.

I did not include this in the article, but Marcia told me, during the course of our conversation, that RR does not issue upsampled files. Downloads never go higher than the native resolution.

RR will be adding more downloads and features to the site as time moves on.

Axiom05's picture

Hi Jason. I can only assume that the master is 24-bit as this is what is claimed on the CD booklet cover. Based on other recordings from the same period, it should be 24-bit/176.4 KHz.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

In that case, it is, presumably, simply a matter of time. I've certainly alerted the RR folks to your request. Here's hoping they can act on it. Hey, I'd sure love to carry that symphony's Fanfare movement from room-to-room at audio shows.

In the future, if there are specific RR hi-rez digital titles you're longing for, I suggest you write them directly. They're really great people.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

RR has not yet gotten to those recordings.

Axiom05's picture

OK, thanks for that info; appreciated. I will keep an eye out for it.

6500410's picture

In the can for RR are a Holst's Planets, and another recording containing Scriabin (Poem of Ecstacy) and a one-movement Sibelius symphony. The Holst should be released in about 12 months.

MilesFerg's picture

I haven't downloaded any HiRez files yet, but I may give it a try with RR. One of my equipment testing references is one of their HDCD disks. I'm sill using an Adcom CD/DAC which decodes HDCD. Surprisingly, streaming from Tidal preserves the HDCD info and provides even better quality. I love it when the HDCD light comes on!

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