New Cantus CD recorded by Stereophile's John Atkinson

For Deep River, his third recording of Minnesotan male-voice choir Cantus, Stereophile editor John Atkinson traveled to Sioux Falls, SD, where the city has spent millions of dollars to transform the downtown high school into a gloriously warm-sounding, state-of-the-art performing arts center.

Cantus' previous two Atkinson-recorded CDs, Let Your Voice Be Heard and Against the Dying of the Light, are very different from one another. Voice is a lighthearted world-music romp, Light a moving progression through death, remembrance, salvation, and acceptance that pays homage to those killed in the 9/11 tragedy. In contrast to both, Deep River explores the repertoire of the African-American spiritual. In the words of the choir's artistic coordinator Erick Lichte: "Our first goal was to present the spiritual in a way that takes the listener on a journey through the history of the spiritual from a compositional perspective and in a way which mirrors the African-American experience in the US. The different compositional styles give insight into the roots of so much great American vocal and choral music. We also want to subtly trace the conditions encountered and endured by African-Americans, which spawned the jubilation, resignation, hardship, and hope present in these songs.

"The program of 17 songs is arranged into five suites, beginning with fast, upbeat songs to grab the listeners' attention. It moves to louder, angrier music, then to slower songs, and finally to faster, upbeat music for a joyous end.

"Cantus is performing this music as American choral music, perhaps the American choral music. Our thesis is that the spiritual fell out of traditional liturgical use, replaced by gospel music during the 19th century. The banner of the spiritual was then taken up by people like William Dawson, John W. Work III, Jester Hairston, and Harry T. Burleigh as arranged music for the classical singer, both in solo recital and for choral ensembles. These four men, whose arrangements are represented on Deep River, were classically trained musicians and composers. For most of these men, their purpose in arranging these songs was to, in their eyes, 'elevate' the spiritual by infusing this powerful folk music with more sophisticated compositional technique in a spirit inspired by or akin to the Harlem Renaissance ideals.

"Cantus enters into this recording project with all of this in mind. Singing the arranged spiritual requires understanding of its style, like any other music, and we approach this music as classical singers in a tradition handed down from generations of other classical singers and choral musicians. We believe that singing this music requires great vocal technique, complete emotional commitment, and educated understanding of the style of the arrangers and the songs they set. We believe that legitimate, honest interpretations and performances can come from any singer who takes the time to truly learn the spiritual."

Let Your Voice Be Heard and Against the Dying of the Light were recorded in relatively small halls, which were appropriate for the chamber-scaled nature of the works. But faced with the magnificent acoustic of Sioux Falls' 1500-seat Washington Pavilion of the Arts & Sciences, the question facing recordist Atkinson was how to present what are still fairly intimate works while taking advantage of that supportive acoustic. He therefore set up three pairs of mikes, all at differing distances from the singers, to give the maximum flexibility when mixing the songs back in his listening room.

Two DPA 4011 cardioid mikes, set up as a quasi-coincident ORTF pair, were placed 25' from the choir's center point, with the singers arranged in a shallow arc 22' wide. The cardioids would provide a basic well-defined stereo image. A widely spaced pair of wide-bandwidth Earthworks QTC-1 omnis were placed to the sides of the DPA cardioids; these would add "bloom" and a better feeling of the size of the hall. Finally, a second pair of omnis, high-voltage DPA 4003s, were mounted either side of a Jecklin Disc 6' behind the cardioids. These produced a sound that was a little too "wet" to be used alone, but when mixed in with the other pairs of mikes would allow the apparent distance of the singers to be adjusted.

As with all his other recent recordings, Atkinson captured the music with a sample rate of 88.2kHz and 24-bit word length. The Earthworks omnis and DPA cardioids were amplified with low-noise Millennia Media HV3B preamps and converted to digital with word-clock–linked dCS 904 ADCs. The two pairs of 24/88.2 two-channel data were stored on Nagra-D and Tascam DA-38 MDM recorders, the latter using a PrismSound MR-1024T "bit splitter."

The outputs of the DPA 4003 omnis were brought up to line-level with their power supply/preamp, then fed to two channels of an eight-channel Metric Halo MIO 2882. This is an immensely versatile, FireWire-controlled preamp-A/D converter. While it was hooked up to an Apple Titanium PowerBook G4, running Bias Peak 3.0, its AES/EBU digital output was fed to an RME Digi96/8 Pro soundcard mounted in a PC sourced from "hot-rod" computer company UniQpc running Cool Edit Pro and hooked up to a 120GB LaCie FireWire hard drive. (The PC used the tubed Pentium IV motherboard from A-One, which was used some of the time for monitoring.)

The MIO 2882 and one of the dCS converters were slaved to the other dCS converter so that all three pairs of microphone channels were converted to digital with the same word clock. This way, when the data were loaded into a digital audio workstation, they would be synchronous and could be edited and mixed without phasing problems. As with all Atkinson's recordings, the microphone pairs were slid back and forward in time in postproduction to give a stable, well-defined soundstage while preserving the characteristic benefits of each. The necessary 88.2kHz–44.1kHz downsampling was performed with a dCS 972 digital-digital converter, while the 24-bit master mixes were dithered to the 16 bits required by the CD medium with the excellent-sounding POW-R algorithm, this running on a Z-Systems rdp-1 digital equalizer/preamplifier.

Erick Lichte offers the final word on this project: "We believe that this recording will serve as the definitive recording of these male-voice spiritual arrangements. It is our hope that the person who buys Deep River because it seems like pleasant and familiar music should, after hearing it a couple of times, understand the narrative of the African-American experience in this country in a subconscious way or even, perhaps, consciously."

Deep River costs $16.95 plus S&H and can be ordered by clicking here.