Once Telarc, Now Five/Four

Three years ago, as the shift to downloadable media gathered momentum, Concord Music Group purchased Telarc International. The suspicion of those who then saw the handwriting on the wall were confirmed this past December, when a company-wide restructuring by CMG included the layoffs of 27 Telarc employees. Among those now on their own are the entire Telarc Production Department, as well as former classical publicist Amanda Sweet.

The good news for music lovers is that a major part of the famed Grammy-winning recording team responsible for the "Telarc Sound" over the last 20 years has created a new production company. The team of Michael Bishop, Robert Friedrich, Bill McKinney, and Thomas Moore is now up and running as Five/Four Productions Ltd. Headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, the men have already begun recording projects in multiple genres for the Cleveland Orchestra, Telarc, and other high-profile clients.

"What better time to offer the services of the best audio production team in the business?" asks former Telarc Chief Engineer Bishop in 5/4's initial press release. Chimes in Moore, "Why make a good recording when you can make a GREAT recording?"

In an exclusive phone interview, Bishop, 57, told Stereophile, "We have to make the best out of what we are being dealt here. This has been my full-time career since I was 18 years old. I certainly wasn't planning on starting a new production company or new career at this point, but we needed to find a way to do what we love doing and what we do best. The basis of our recording philosophy is very much the same as that of Telarc founder and former chief engineer Jack Renner: less is more, and be as transparent as possible."

Plans are for Telarc itself to continue with new projects (farmed out) in order to keep their catalog alive. The company's 2009 schedule includes 15 classical releases; 33 jazz, pop, and cabaret titles from both Telarc and subsidiary label Heads Up; and two blues discs. So far, only two multichannel SACDs are planned: Vivaldi's Four Seasons, from Martin Pearlman's Boston Baroque; and Bruckner's Symphony 5, from the Philharmonia Orchestra under Benjamin Zander, the latter to be released in late March.

Telarc's release schedule for 2010 is still to be determined. Given that classical recordings are usually planned two or three years in advance in order to nail down orchestra schedules, there is cause for concern. Telarc also plans to put their catalog online, although where, and at what resolution, are currently up in the air. According to Bishop, while releases on Blu-ray have been discussed, at this point they seem unlikely.

Regardless of the future, the Telarc team of the past 20 years is no longer intact. Along with almost everyone else, producers Bob Woods and Elaine Martone are on their own as of March 31. While the Telarc warehouse, which handles shipping for the entire Concord Music Group, will remain open, only Dave Love and the relatively small staff that runs Heads Up remain in their offices.

"We have a very cooperative relationship with the restructured Concord/Telarc music group to continue the excellence in production values," says Bishop. "We're also using Telarc's facilities, at least for the time being."

While the 5/4 team is relying on Telarc's already scheduled projects to give them a good running start, they had an unanticipated launch in January. Four months before they'd planned to get going on outside projects, the Cleveland Orchestra contracted 5/4 to record fabulous soprano Measha Brüggergosman and the orchestra in selections by Richard Wagner. The recording will join other Wagner tracks on a Cleveland Orchestra all-Wagner disc from DG scheduled for release in 2010. Audiophiles will then be able to compare the PCM sound on DG's recent Cleveland Orchestra recording of Beethoven's Symphony 9 with the sound in DSD of the same orchestra, as captured by 5/4.

Bishop has just finished recording a Heads Up project with the Stanley Clarke Trio that features Clarke, Lenny White, and Hiromi performing straight-ahead acoustic jazz. A solo-piano disc by Hiromi comes next month.

"We will continue to record in DSD and retain high-resolution masters," says Bishop. "We pay the same attention to detail. We have the capability of recording in any format a client wants, including analog tape. It depends on what picture you're trying to put together for the artist. It's not that one format is better than the other; they're just different in very subtle ways. You can do terrific DSD and terrific analog. The slightly different color may suit one emotional sense more than the other."

Bishop dismisses claims that DSD's ultrasonic noise limits its value. "A properly designed DSD encoder pushes the noise well beyond 50kHz," he says. "Noise has never been a problem on any application I've done with DSD since 1996. We've used it on up to 32-track mixed back to analog consoles with absolutely no difficulty whatsoever."

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Bishop if he thinks SACD is a dying format. "I think all physical formats are dying," he replied. "As bandwidth capabilities and download possibilities improve, physical product will go away."