|Bucky Pizzarelli - Swing Live|
|Music Disc Reviews DVD-Audio|
|Written by Richard Elen|
|Tuesday, 19 February 2002|
Most of the major record companies have by now come down on one side or the other of the War of the High-Quality Audio Discs, with some opting to release Super Audio CD product (notably Sony) and others deciding on the competing DVD-A format (such as Warner Brothers). Still others have announced their intention to do one or the other but have not yet ruled out both.
Some smaller companies, such as Chesky Records, have decided to do both, and as a result we have an almost unique opportunity to compare the two formats directly. In this case, at least, the audio quality is excellent in both formats – in fact, it is quite astonishing – but there is more to it than that.
The DVD-Audio version is the more sophisticated of the two, as it includes no less than five different mixes of the material, which can be chosen according to circumstances. Chesky calls this multi-mix approach "2/4/6 multichannel."
The mix that automatically plays when you hit "play" on a DVD-A player is the "4.0" 24-bit, 96 kHz mix, which is designed for standard 5.1 systems. It’s only 4.0 because firstly, in common with quite a few engineers, Barry Wolifson, who recorded this album, does not like the "hard center front" approach. He prefers a virtual center instead (at least for this work) – so there is no Center Front information on this mix. Similarly, as readers of my articles will probably know already, both of the modern high density audio disc formats offer full bandwidth on all six channels, so there is no need for a "low frequency effects" channel. The "low frequency effects" channel was, after all, originally designed to replay movie effects like asteroid crashes, which do not appear in music anyway – these effects were allocated their own channel in the old analog days when there was a risk of intermodulation.
The second mix on the DVD-A section is an original 2.0 stereo 24/96 mix. Chesky doesn’t believe in 5 to 2 fold-downs, which is fine, because neither do I.
The third mix is the most interesting. On a DVD-A player, you can access this "6.0" mix and it is the most effective of the lot – if you’re prepared to do some work first, because it uses the CF and LFE channels to reproduce height information designed for a pair of side speakers elevated about 30 degrees from the horizontal and placed at 55 degrees left (CF) and right (LFE) of the center front.
I managed to set up a speaker array for this for a short time by borrowing a couple of additional speakers. The result is quite astonishing. You probably already know the immense difference in excitement between stereo and surround. Believe it or not, height almost doubles the dimensional effect.
Before we go on to look at how this superb recording was made, let’s quickly note that the DVD-Video listener will get the 24/96 PCM stereo mix (default), plus a Dolby Digital version of the 4.0 mix), and that’s it: five mixes on one disc. The Super Audio CD version, a hybrid multichannel disc, contains only the 4.0 and 2.0 high-definition mixes (plus a Red Book version of the stereo) – apparently because Sony (which mastered and pressed the disc) wouldn’t let them do anything that wasn’t strict 5.1 (!).
Of the two, the DVD-A version is obviously the favorite here because of that 6.0 mix, but apart from the choice of mixes, the sound is excellent on both versions. I find that on my replay gear (Sony SACD player and Kenwood DVD-A), SACDs tend to sound smoother and more analog-like, while 24/96 DVD-A recordings seem to be a little brighter. This is the case here – how much of this is due to the differences between the machines and how much because of the difference in systems, you really can’t tell. Only a universal player would enable you to do that.
The big thing you’ll notice about this disc is the level of realism. The album was recorded live in a New York jazz club, and the idea of the recording was to put you there, in the best seat in the house. Wolifson used a special surround microphone called the Soundfield Microphone, which captures the entire sound in an acoustic environment – including height. The mike behaves like a coincident pair in three dimensions, and in stereo produces the live, realistic sound that coincident pair techniques deliver (although this approach is more familiar to European than American audiences). In surround, the effect is many times more exciting. The microphone signals are decoded to drive the speakers in such a way that they work together to recreate the original soundfield that you would have heard had you been sitting in front of the band at a center table in the club.
This technique of course has its limitations. You rely on the live performance. There are no overdubs: it’s either right or not, just like when playing live – or recording in the old "direct to disk" or "direct to stereo" days. Actually, you can do overdubs and even multi-track mixing with this technology: Chesky and Wolifson have only just started to work with it and not all the gear exists yet. This is similar to the technology used by the late-lamented Nimbus Records, but while they were obliged to us a matrixing technique to squeeze the surround in to a stereo-compatible form (making the stereo a bit reverberant and distant), the availability of a high-definition, multi-channel discrete surround delivery system enables this technology to come into its own.
When you play this disc – whether you listen to the 4.0 or 6.0 with-height version – you will enjoy what I truly believe to be the most realistic recreation of an acoustic performance I have yet heard on a commercial release. You’ll find that the "sweet spot" – where the surround image seems to come together most clearly – is much larger than usual. When you move around the room, the image won’t move with you so much. You can even stand outside the speaker array and hear an almost solid image. You will find that instead of sounds all coming from the speakers, you will hear things all around you. You won’t even be very conscious of the speakers’ presence. It’s astonishing. The difference between this technique and conventional 5.1 mixing, which simply uses level between adjacent pairs of speakers to create the surround image, is quite remarkable. My advice would be to put on this disc at night, turn off the lights … and listen. With the lack of visual stimulus, the surround is even more impressive. Suddenly, you’re in Makor, a New York jazz club, listening to Bucky and the band playing before a live audience in February 2001.
What you’ll hear when you arrive is a spirited performance by some very accomplished jazz musicians. Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar. Peter Appleyard on vibes, Bernard Purdie on drums. Allen Vache on clarinet and Michael Moore on bass. Everyone is impressive on this recording. There are the inevitable occasional bum notes that you will get on a live recording (albeit very, very few) and the vagaries of live acoustic balance between a small group of musicians, but it matters not at all. It’s all so real! The repertoire is fairly up-tempo with the exception of "If I Had You," and consists primarily of well-known numbers such "Sweet Sue," "Dinah," "Perdido" and the closing number, "Lime House Blues" (which includes some of the best solos on the disc). There are seven tracks, averaging eight minutes each. They are all crackers, every one.
This album, in either format, is a "must-have" unless you simply hate jazz. For recording quality, it’s the best DVD-A or surround SACD I have heard to date. Chesky already has another dozen or so recordings utilizing this technology in the can, and they are building new gear to take even greater advantage of it. If the others are anything like "Swing Live," you won’t want to listen to anything else!