Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Reference Digital Music

My personal Audiophile Grail is to turn on my system and have it make me feel as if the performance is going on in my listening room; I hope that yours is much the same. Many reviewers use a reference list of music sources to consistently evaluate gear and you should too. As explained previously in my three part blog series on “How to Listen,” you can intimately hone your acoustic skills with those intimate sources. While critically listening to any system, keep in mind that what sounds “good” may in fact not sound “correct.” Be aware of the audiophile trap: finding a “WOW” addition to your system that indeed sounds spectacular but moves you away from its realism.

If you do not have a list of your own personal favorites, here is a list of my digital favorites and what strengths each piece reveals. I encourage you to use your ears and listen to everything as if for the first time. Enjoy!
Eva Cassidy: Live At Blues Alley (CD: Blix Street G2-10046)
Sometimes live recordings have singular attributes that make them useful in evaluating systems while also being sonically entertaining and Live At Blues Alley is just such an album. Although Eva's vocals are slightly veiled with an occasional touch of sibilance and an over-use of reverberation both added by the PA system, this minimalist instrumentation allows you to hear the soulful art that lurks within her intonations and hides in her interpretation. On my favorites list in order of preference is track 8 "Fields of Gold," track 9 “Autumn Leaves,” track 12 "What A Wonderful World," and track 5 "People Get Ready." This no-frills recording should sound good on modest systems and exemplify her breathtaking vocal mastery on more revealing systems. Eva’s slow, soothing voice is a fantastic source for testing the midrange smoothness and articulation accuracy of your rig. It is truly a tragedy that she can no longer be heard and seen performing live.

Cirque du Soleil Musique: Mystere Live a/in Las Vegas (CD: RCA Victor ‎– 09026-62596-2)
Another one of my favorite live albums is the drum performance on track 12, “Taiko,” from the 1996 Las Vegas show. Dozens of various-sized drums surround the stage each contributing in unison their personal touch on a tribute to transient response. Several members of the cast play a captivating rhythmic introduction that leads to the solo performance at the 2:26 mark. Adjust your volume level to the quietest portion of this solo passage (2:45) so that its level is comfortable enough for you to easily discern the nuances of the drum stick on the skin. Then replay the entire track at that level and be ready for a treat. While you may be tempted to listen louder, you may find the dynamic range more than what your system can sustain. On modest systems, the drums will sound muddy and indistinct and their positions in the sound stage grouped to one side. On refined systems you will hear the drum sticks tap the skins just before the full resonant note is heard and a clear distinct position within the sound stage including subtle hall reverberations.

Alex De Grassi: The Water Garden (Blue Coast Records DSD: Special Event 19)
A well-recorded solo acoustic guitar brings a richness and awe to any audio system regardless of its quality. But to appreciate the resonances of the guitar body, inner detailing of the strings, and near-sibilant sounds of fingers sliding along their length one must step up to a more refined system. It wasn’t until I replaced my tweeter’s crossover-network capacitors with Mundorf Supremes that I could fully appreciate the impact of these words. The clarity revealed in the fingering alone was worth the money and other unexpected side effects drew me into Alex’s fully-focused mind. In just over five minutes, your own mind is transformed from wherever you were into a relaxing, tranquil and near-meditative state that invites you to pause and pay attention. About 30 seconds into this piece Alex snaps the strings with his fingers adding an upper-octave boost to an otherwise purely midrange performance. Play this piece at a moderately high level and listen for the intricate high-frequency resonances this snap makes to the tonal balance of his guitar. Also notice that the room in which the recording is made is quite dead and these snaps reveal little as to the hint of its actual size.

Dire Straits: Brothers In Arms (Original CD: Vertigo ‎– 824 499-2)
When I first spun the vinyl version of this album way back in 1985, I instantly realized that Mark Knopfler and the gang had created something sonically special that would pass the test of time, despite its Red Book format. Very few studio-recorded albums have ever achieved this level of acoustic perfection and those that do make this list. There are so many favorite tracks that I really have a hard time telling you where to begin, but begin I must. If I were to choose just one track, it would have to be track 5 “Why Worry Now” because of its incredible timing and the synchronicity achieved between instruments. The real attention-grabber in this recording begins at about the 4:25 mark where a low-level background maraca that had been keeping time suddenly moves forward for one beat in the performance announcing a change to the music. Switching from a guitar-featured ensemble, Guy Clark on the keyboards takes the baton and transforms you to another acoustic level. At this transition point, listen to the character of the guitars fading slowly into the background on their sustained notes. Then at the 4:35 mark, Knopfler unimposingly adds a small low-level guitar rift that again dies into the silence. Playing this track at a very loud level you find yourself straining to listen deep into the noise floor of your system waiting for the note to completely fade from your ears. On a good system, these fading notes quickly pass and in a more refined system these notes linger far longer.

Eric Bibb: Diamond Days (Master CD: Telarc CD-83660)
When any musician not only has a mastery of an instrument’s abilities but also the ears to hear the nuances between their types, it catches my attention. Eric is one of these refined musicians. His style, while merging blues, Cajun, and Christian, consistently finds its way into my heart from the sincerity and emotion it invokes. From his Paris meeting with Mickey Baker, Eric learned to love blues guitar, tradition, and simplicity preferring to create memorable music with minimal instruments. Track 4, “So Glad,” he momentarily deviates from this tradition and invites a much bigger band to the party. Although this studio recording has other tracks much less noteworthy, this one accurately captures the sound of his guitar, drums, and the timbre of his unforgettable voice. The mix places Eric and his guitar above the others, as it should be, allowing you to hear his words instead of overpowering them with the production. Listen to how the band is masterfully mixed to enhance but not overpower his vocals just loud enough to appreciate them but quiet enough so as not to distract you from his words. Listen to the brush gently tapping on the snare drum. On a good system, you will clearly hear the sound of the drum but in a refined system you will hear individual wires tap at slightly different times creating a different initial sound to that of the decaying sound. There is a certain hollowness in the drum skin evident after the brush whisk lifts that is not apparent upon its first striking.

Norah Jones: Come Away With Me (DSD: )
When I discovered that Ravi Shankar (the accomplished East Indian musician) was the father of this talented pianist-vocalist, I admit I had to chuckle. It seemed so unlikely for someone raised in one tradition to fall in love with another but Norah did and ever since we have all benefited from her romance with blues and light jazz. Title track 5, “Come Away with Me,” starts with a soft-mallet striking cymbals building to a swell and then gradually decreasing in intensity. Listen to the unmistakable brass sound of this cymbal as it resonates from center to edge. On a good system, you will hear solid-metallic overtones that pleasantly soften over time. In a highly refined system, there is a fullness that swells even as the sounds fades. The full tremolo of the background organ also appears two-dimensional in good systems and very three-dimensional in highly refined systems.

Anna Netrebko: The Woman The Voice (DVD: Deutsche Grammophon B0003705-09)
While a DVD-video, this is opera’s answer to popular and rock music videos that also contains classic selections by the incredible Anna Netrebko. Her melodic voice transports you to that place where music makes you tingle, even when you are listening to a type of music that is not your absolute favorite style. It took me a while to warm up to opera but one day a friend said to me something that totally changed my mind, “Opera is the equivalent of movies for that era.” With a new perspective, I now enjoy everything about how amazing the human voice can be. Although the entire disc is my favorite, in track 2, La Boheme: Musetta Waltz, choreographer Vincent Patterson arranges Anna singing in a car but first a brief introduction of violins resounds in the far corners of the concert hall. Listen for the sound bouncing off of the walls creating a front-to-back depth to the soundstage that is well preserved in this recording. Extensions of her voice also reveal a similar presence creating a striking visual/audible contrast that may confuse your mind: how can an orchestra fit into the back seat of an automobile much less reverberation of this magnitude? Once you wrap yourself around this contradiction, sit back and enjoy her concise vocal control, especially in her effortless range of dynamics. The entire disc is a visual thrill (especially the stunning colors in track 5, Rusalka, which has moved me to tears) and gives you an insight into the mental fantasies of a few of the great operatic composers. Do yourself a favor and use the disc’s subtitle feature if you do not understand foreign languages. This disc reminds you why you enjoy going to a live performance.

There are many more tracks that I find interesting and revealing and one day will make it to this list. For now, these will get you started on your own list of favorites.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny 

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.


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