Pure Audio Blu-ray
Blu-ray is the first domestic format in history that unites theatre movies and music sound in equally high quality. The musical advantage of Blu-ray is the high resolution for audio, and the convenience for the audience as one single player will handle music, films, their DVD-collection and their old library of traditional CD.
What we are seeing is a completely new conception of the musical experience. Recorded music is no longer a matter of a fixed two-dimensional setting, but rather a three-dimensional enveloping situation. Stereo can be described as a flat canvas, while surround sound is a sculpture that you can literally move around and relate to spatially; with surround you can move about in the aural space and choose angles, vantage points and positions.
By developing one common format the surround technology that we have been working with for years finally becomes accessible to the general public. Fairly soon almost all disc players will be Blu-ray devices, and already now a majority of the sound systems that come off the shelf are 5.1 surround systems. People buy the equipment for the sake of film entertainment, but with it they get access to the unique musical experience that we are offering. Stereo is still possible of course, but the fact is that the resistance towards surround is mostly based on ignorance. People just don’t know what they are missing out on.
A senior Norwegian HiFi journalist visited our studio recently. Prior to our listening session I explained to him how we recorded MOZART and DIVERTIMENTI with the orchestra in a circle, all musicians facing each other – surrounding the listener. He rose from his chair and wanted to leave. I begged him to listen - and he stayed for three hours; leaving us with the conclusion: “Now I need to go home and write an article apologising all my readers for the thirty years I have misguided them in stereo. Surround sound is the real thing.”
The musical and technical process of recording and editing are identical for SACD and Blu-ray. When I started as a recording engineer in 1990 there was no focus on surround sound in classical music. It was the introduction of SACD that made us aware of this magnificent perspective. Surround sound gave us the solution to the depth and spatial resolution we experienced live on stage in a concert house, but were not able to recreate in stereo.
We prefer to record in spacious acoustic venues; large concert halls, churches and cathedrals. This is actually where we can make the most intimate recordings. The qualities we seek in large rooms are not necessarily a big reverb, but openness due to the absence of close reflecting walls. Making an ambient and beautiful recording is the way of least resistance. Searching the fine edge between direct contact and openness; that’s the real challenge. A really good recording should be able to bodily move the listener. This core quality of audio production is made by choosing the right venue for the repertoire, and balancing the image in the placement of microphones and musicians relative to each other in that venue. Planning and discussions with the musicians create trust and a sense of occasion and excitement that translates onto the recordings. What we insist upon in the recording phase is time. We usually spend from four to six days of recording on a 60-minutes repertoire. In credit of the musicians I need to say that this is not in need of getting the score right, but in order to bring forward the right mood and dimensions. At most projects the entire first day is spent bringing the dimensions down from a 1500-people hall to the proximity encountered on a home-visit to your living room. The challenge of this process is to get the volume down, keeping the intensity and energy up, without being intrusive. There is no method available today to reproduce the exact perception of attending a live performance. That leaves us with the art of illusion when it comes to recording music. As recording engineers and producers we need to do exactly the same as any good musician; interpret the music and the composer's intentions and adapt to the media where we perform.
Digital reproduction of analogue sound
At venue recording sessions our analogue to digital converters can do both the one-bit DSD and the multi-bit PCM formats. We can also listen directly to the analogue output from the microphones. Digital eXtreme Definition is a professional audio format that brings “analogue” qualities in 24 bit at 352.8 kHz sampling rate. DXD preserves 8.4672 Mbit/s (3 times the data of DSD) per channel. This leaves headroom for editing and balancing before quantizing to DSD for SACD or PCM for Blu-Ray.
All audio formats on The Nordic Sound are sample rate converted from the same DXD master. Comparing them in our studio we find only subtle differences from DXD down to 192kHz and 96kHz. The obvious degeneration is from 96kHz down to 48kHz. We find DSD, as used in the SACD format, somewhat different in colour from PCM; in some mysterious way DSD is softer and more beautiful but slightly less detailed. In DXD we find the shimmering brilliance from the original analogue source as directly from the microphones. Linear PCM is offered in addition to DTS HD Master Audio on this Blu-ray with the purpose of convincing audiophiles of the true lossless qualities of commercial encoding. The stereo layer of the SACD and the LPCM 2.0-stream on the Blu-ray are both full resolution mix from the original microphones. Mostly we find that the microphone placements used for the surround make a fine stereo. Occasionally we put up extra microphones dedicated for the stereo stream.
I personally prefer extremely high resolution PCM over the DSD and I would claim that DSD is not transparent. But it all comes down to what the sound from your speakers can do to your body and mind. I find that the placement of microphones has an infinite more important role in the final experience of music, than the difference between HiRes PCM and DSD. Sometimes a lie can be more beautiful than the truth!
Stereo versus multi channel surround sound – The real quest of resolution
Double the investment in your stereo play-back system and you might experience a subjective increase in performance in the range from 10 to 20 %. Then spread the same investment over a 5.1 surround sound system and you get an objective 300 % increase of resolution and perspective! The fact that makes the above balance not materialize is that very few labels up to now have produced content that bring out the full potential of MCH. The approach of “rear for ambience only” is still feeding carbohydrates to the persistent claims of stereophiles.
When it comes to recording a solo instrument, a lot of conservative forces claim that surround sound can add nothing to a good stereo. This might be the case with a traditional dry "synthetic" multi-mono-sources studio recording. But to us it's not about the object itself; it's all about the landscape where the instruments perform. In real life a grand piano is not a point source; it's a three dimensional sculpture, and surround sound is our tool to bring forward that physical experience to the listener.
Morten Lindberg, recording producer and balance engineer, January 2009.