Recording of September 1989: Denon Anechoic Orchestral Recordings

Denon Anechoic Orchestral Recordings
Music and Test Signals for Evaluation of Room Acoustics
Mashahiko Enkoji, Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra
Denon CD PG-6006 (CD only). Katsuhiro Tsubonou, Yoshiharu Kawaguchi, dirs.; Norio Okada, Katsuhiro Miura, engs. DDD. TT: 58:42

If this is supposed to be the age of communication, why aren't people communicating? If we can bounce a TV show off a satellite into the Soviet Union, or send an architectural plan along with the designer's signature from New York to London in 30 seconds by facsimile, why the hell haven't we been able to explain to the Great Unwashed what high-end audio is all about?

666denonnoise.jpgThe thing that triggered this rhetorical question was a recent newspaper column in which the writer, a supposedly knowledgeable classical music critic, peremptorily dismissed high-end audio with the flippant observation that, while audiophiles might think it nice to have an orchestra in their living room, he certainly wouldn't! He would probably be surprised to learn that high-end audiophiles agree with him. High fidelity in two channels is not and never has been endeavoring to bring the orchestra into the living room; it is trying to transport the listener into the concert hall.

There's a difference. The fact that the average living room isn't big enough for a full symphony orchestra would immediately preclude any pretense of realism, and an orchestral fortissimo within the confines of your own four walls would probably peak out at close to an ear-shattering 110dB! No, what high-end stereo is trying to do is to open up the end of the listening room so that it becomes, in effect, a very large window on the concert hall. While the space behind the listener is his listening room, the space before him is the performing space where the recording was made.

But have you ever paused to ponder what, in fact, an orchestra in your living room might sound like? Ponder no more; now you can hear it with your own ears, from this unique Denon CD.

The recording was made in a normally reverberant concert hall—Minoo Civic Hall, in Osaka, Japan, to be precise. But the orchestra was entirely surrounded by an acoustically absorptive enclosure, like a heavy closed-top stockade, specially constructed for this project, which absorbed most of the direct sounds of the instruments and suppressed any leftovers that might return from the hall to the mikes. Because the recording was intended to illustrate other things too, like the sound of different mike techniques including multimiking, all the selections were recorded on a 32-track Mitsubishi digital deck so that every version of the same musical selection would be of the same performance.

So, what does an anechoic orchestra sound like? To most Stereophile readers, it will sound like nothing they have ever heard before, and I'm willing to bet they'll hate it. The instruments sound raw, thin, and as cold as a cadaver's cuddle. To those who play professionally in a symphony orchestra, this will evoke memories of playing in one of those infamous halls which soak up everything, returning no sound to the players (footnote 1). But those of us who've been around long enough to remember the first electrical recordings will be most familiar with these anechoic cuts, because—except for the stereo, the very wide frequency and dynamic ranges, and the absence of hiss and crackles—early electricals are almost exactly what these sound like.

The musical fare on this CD ranges from Mozart through Beethoven to Bruckner and Debussy, and each selection is first presented anechoically, then with electronically synthesized reverb simulating three well-known performing (and recording) halls of various sizes and characters: the neutral but lively Musikvereinsaal in Vienna, the warmish but tidy-sounding Amsterdam Concertgebouw, and Boston's succulently lush Symphony Hall.

The producers of this disc recognize, and explain in the booklet notes, something that few record listeners have probably even thought about: The earlier the (instrumental) music, the drier the acoustic it needs. This is probably just because a good composer scores for the hall as much as for instrumental sonorities, and the later the music, the larger the orchestras and hence the bigger the performing spaces. (The exception was early choral music, which was usually performed in vast stone cathedrals with a 3-minute reverb time.) Only with Stravinsky did symphonic music once again start to benefit from a drier, rawer sound than was appropriate for the big, romantic symphonies and tone poems of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, and Dick Strauss.

Unfortunately, none of the halls represented here is that different in size from the others so as to give a real demonstration of inappropriate acoustics. Their reverberation times are not widely different, and Symphony Hall actually has a somewhat shorter RT-60 (footnote 2) than the other two, even though it doesn't sound that way. They all sound magnificent, as befits three halls with such reputations, but there is no question that the later, more romantic music sounds better in the larger halls. I could not judge the success of the Vienna hall's simulation, because I have heard few recordings made therein, but I have been listening to the recorded sounds of the Amsterdam and Boston halls since I was a teenager, and their simulations sound spookily like them. (Even in pre-stereo mono, each of these halls had its unique, unmistakable sound.)

What was surprising was how much these synthesized simulations sounded like the original halls. What was amazing was that the simulations were not done by recording and analyzing the actual soundfield in those halls, but by measuring the dimensions and absorption coefficients of the interior surfaces of those halls and plugging the data into a computer program. Essentially, they were done from what could have been an acoustical engineer's specifications for three hypothetical halls, the only difference being that, in this case, the halls actually exist. And if that doesn't have some profound implications, I don't know what would!

Programmatically, this is dull listening fare. Aside from some educational value, one can be forgiven for wondering what purpose a recording like this could possibly serve (footnote 3). Denon suggests that the anechoic recordings, presumably when reproduced by fallible audio equipment, would be useful for evaluating the suitability of auditoria as orchestral venues. And there are additional test signals—frequency sweeps, combination tones, pink noise, noise bursts—that might provide some further enlightenment to an acoustician. But a section on mike technique, while highly informative for those who have never done serious recording, strikes me as being of questionable relevance to the program as a whole. And a demonstration of how much easier it is to follow a musical score in the absence of reverb seems like nothing more than a promotional pitch for Denon's anechoic recording service, perhaps for the benefit of music schools. Certainly, it could hardly be considered training for concert-hall listening.

At 32 pages in English, the jacket notes are copious but embarrassingly inept. The Japlish is formidable and the English is riddled with misspellings and fractured syntax, but worse is the poor organization and the informational inaccuracies. For example: 1) illustrations and tables, all at the back of the booklet, aren't arranged in the order of the references to them; 2) the so-called A/B mike setup, which is supposed to use two widely spaced omnidirectional microphones, is described as a "single-point" technique. It isn't. 3) The ORTF setup, which is supposed to use an angled pair of cardioid mikes spaced about 6" apart, is also described as "single-point." It isn't either. This sort of thing is inexcusable.

How, I continue to wonder, can the Japanese, whose home-electronics design, manufacturing, and marketing skills are legend, be so blithely unconcerned about the impression conveyed to consumers by their documentation that they can't even be bothered having an American high-school kid proofread the stuff before it's printed? Maybe they've seen all those articles about how illiterate Americans are, and assume no one will notice how illiterate their instruction manuals are. I did. I am confident others will too.

For the audiophile and the recording engineer, Denon's Anechoic Orchestral Music Recording is interesting and informative, but hardly entertaining. For the symphonic-record producer, it may facilitate (and could certainly reduce the cost of) the discovery of new recording locations—something that is becoming increasingly critical as cities grow noisier and grand old concert halls and opera houses are being trashed to make room for more yuppie boutiques. But to me, the most important point made by this recording is that it is now possible for a computer program to predict what a proposed performing hall will sound like before they've even bought the real estate. If something like this had been around in the '60s, the sorry saga of Avery Fisher Hall might never have happened.

The second lesson to be learned from this recording—the one with "profound implications"—is that the acoustics of an orchestra hall may no longer be of great importance. It could be made to be completely anechoic, and the sound of any hall could be plugged in later (in "post-production"), as desired. The orchestra members would hate not being able to hear the hall talking back to them, but what do they matter? They just manufacture the raw materials that virtuoso producers sculpt into the glorious sound of music.

This disc, by the way, is billed as one of Denon's "Pure Gold Collection" CDs. Like Mobile Fidelity's Ultradiscs, this has a gold reflective layer rather than the usual aluminum one. But I continue to doubt that it's worth the extra cost ($49.95 for one disc). The CD system incorporates powerful error correction, which virtually ensures signal integrity except in the unlikely event of a complete surface breakdown. (Early video laserdiscs often succumbed to what became known as "laser rot," which Pioneer subsequently attributed to impurities in the glue used to attach the two disc sides together. But CDs are single-sided and use no glue, and while there are rumored cases of CD rot, I have never heard of a confirmed case, footnote 4). Several people who have actually made direct bit-by-bit comparisons of a CD playback and the original digital tape have told me that uncorrectable errors from the CD (requiring interpolation) are rare. Perhaps, 30 years from now, there will be more pristine gold CDs than aluminum ones, but since all music recordings will be on credit-card-sized solid-state chips 20 years from now anyway, who will care?—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: London's Royal Festival Hall is one such.—John Atkinson

Footnote 2: RT-60 is the number of seconds required for reverberation to decay to 60dB below the loudness of the sound that caused it.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 3: As a source of test material for evaluating ambience synthesizers (such as the Yamaha DSP-3000 reviewed by BS in this issue), this CD would appear to be both invaluable and unique.—John Atkinson

Footnote 4: Some years ago, David Ranada, of Stereo Review magazine, submitted to Sony Corporation a CD which looked and behaved as if it had succumbed to laser rot, and requested an explanation. No explanation was ever proffered.—J. Gordon Holt

Allen Fant's picture

As a collector, I really miss these classic Denon titles!