Maybe you’ve heard of the “long tail”? The term was coined Wired writer Chris Anderson in 2004 and refers to the notion of “selling less of more”. With the advent of digital distribution, why shouldn’t online operations like iTunes or Amazon be able to offer incredibly large catalogs and be able to make money by selling a limited number of them? It turns out there are customers looking for just about everything. You want buy a recording of Les Paul and Mary Ford from the late 50s…no problem. I’m sure there’s some niche website that will allow you to download an album or you can just do a search in YouTube and you’ll find everything you need.
This is basic idea behind a bunch of specialty audio providers. They acquire or license older “classic” recordings and make them available via digital downloads or even as collections of tracks shipped on portable hard drives. HDTT or High Definition Tape Transfers and Pristine Classical are two online services that cater to fans of older recordings. They have gone about acquiring older analog masters (sometimes vinyl LPs) and transferring them to standard or high-resolution PCM digital files (there are even some DSD transfers being done to feed the “premium” market for this format). Then they make these files available for downloading.
Besides my obvious quibble with “High Definition Tape Transfers” name (there’s nothing “HD” about a 50-60 year old analog tape), if there’s a particular performance by a particular ensemble led by a particular conductor, then by all means go out and download it. But be aware that the fidelity of many older masters is dreadful and no amount of mastering or specialized equipment is going to fundamentally bring back the elements of the sound that were lost in the production chain. The proprietors of these companies do an admirable job but there are limits.
However, I struggle with some of the processes that are being utilized on these older masters. I’m one of those that would rather watch a black and white movie in black and white than a colorized version. I’m also not a fan of converting a 2D movie to 3D either, although I do like 3D movies. As I’ve stated previously, I thoroughly enjoyed the “re-imagined” mash up surround rendition of the “Love” DVD-Audio disc of the Beatles catalog. It’s difficult to define what is and what isn’t restoration and what becomes a “reinterpretation” of an album or track.
For example, Pristine Classical uses a frequency dependent phase filtering scheme to extract an “ambient stereo XR” master from a track that was originally recorded and distributed in mono. They describe it as follows:
“With mono recordings, such as the vast majority to be found at Pristine Classical, it [Ambient Stereo XR] offers something quite new – and sonically very interesting indeed. Now we have the ability to extract from a mono recording that same room ambience [sic] and spread it into the stereo field – in a very natural and neutral way. The direct signal (i.e. the original mono sound of the musicians) is preserved and is tonally unchanged. What appears to the listener is a whole new sense of place, and a degree of “air” around the performers, which is entirely believeable [sic] and consistent with the recording.”
To their credit, you can purchase one of their productions with or without the “ambient stereo XR” process applied. But is adding artificial reverberation of “ambiance” to an old album something we want?
I downloaded a free selection from Pristine Classical. It was a 1962 performance of Musical Scenes from the opera “The Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia” of Rimsky-Korsakov performed by the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Evgeny Svetlanov. It was originally from the USSR label Melodiya, catalog number LP 33C-0382(a). It is a stereo recording. The digital file was made at CD specs or 44.1 kHz/16-bits.
I guess I’m spoiled by the sound of current symphonic recordings. The only reason I can think of to listen to these pieces would be out of historical interest or because they are the only recordings available of that repertoire. I listened on my B&W speakers and through two different sets of headphones. I found the sound distant, thin, harsh and overly brittle. There was no warmth or low end. You can download the tracks for yourself and come to your own conclusions (click here).
There is another approach at “restoration” that does measure up. I’ll share that tomorrow.