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SACD - On Display For All To Hear

Introduced and moderated by Sony’s David Kawakami, the ‘SACD - On Display For All To Hear’ session featured world-renowned producers and engineers presenting demonstrations of music they’ve put on SACD. Al Schmitt and Bill Schnee were the only ones billed on the program but Bruce Botnick showed up as a last minute surprise guest as did Elliot Scheiner, fresh from his win of the ‘2002 Surround Pioneer Award’ the previous night at the first annual Surround Music Awards. Having been labeled “The Godfather of 5.1 Mixing” at the SMA dinner, others on the panel kept teasing Scheiner about his age by always referring to him as the “Grandfather” of surround mixing.

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For the demonstrations, a ‘round robin’ was the order of the day, ensuring that each member of the panel got a turn or two. Al Schmitt was ‘volunteered’ by the others to go first, so he started off with a track from his Natalie Cole SACD. “This was an all-analog recording” said Schmitt, “except for Natalie’s vocals, which were done in ProTools.” Despite the mixed source formats (ProTools is an all-PCM system) Cole’s voice sounded smooth and detailed, as did the delicate brush sweeps on the drums. Ironically, it was difficult to fully appreciate the resolution of the recording because of a distracting buzz coming from the video projector that had been set up for an earlier seminar. After some complaints, the projector was disconnected since it wasn’t being used for this particular presentation. One thing that was easily audible was that Cole’s voice had been mixed primarily for a phantom center. When asked about this, Schmitt said “We started off with a quad mix and bled a little into the center, just to have something there.”

Bill Schnee played a cut from an as-yet unreleased 5.0-channel SACD featuring Bill Tyrell. “We recorded all the tracks in analog, mixed down to two inch analog tape and ‘Meitner-ed’ to DSD,” said Schnee. Once again, the mix featured a phantom center with only subtle amounts of bass and vocals. “There’s a real fear of hard center mixes” Schnee confessed.

The next demo, Elliot Scheiner’s SACD of Beck’s ‘Sea Change’, featured just a bit more in the center channel, though not enough for off-axis listeners to lock the vocals firmly between the front left and right speakers. A typical pop recording, if the sound quality was anything above and beyond what I’d heard on the CD counterpart, it certainly wasn’t obvious from this sample. It was yet another recording that had been analog at every stage, except for the delivery medium.

This brings up one of the problems with these type of demonstrations: without CD playback and/or master tapes for reference, it was difficult (if not impossible) to judge exactly what SACD was bringing to the table. Even the relatively tame surround mixes weren’t much different, let alone better, than the output of a good matrix decoder. As for the ultimate fidelity that SACD is capable of, the only demonstration of a direct-to-DSD recording was the one Bruce Botnick brought along. It was an orchestral performance with spoken word. The narration was written by Ray Bradbury and spoken by Anthony Hopkins; the music, by Jerry Goldsmith, sounded surprisingly close to his atonal score for the original ‘Planet of the Apes’ film. Wide dynamics were clearly present on this 5.0-channel SACD, especially during passages with heavy percussion. But again, as good as it sounded, without being able to do a comparison to this album’s CD counterpart it was impossible to clearly hear the benefits of SACD.

The rest of the demos featured more analog to DSD recordings. Schmitt played Diana Krall’s ‘The Look of Love’, from the SACD of the same name. “This is typical for me” Schmitt said “I record at 30ips and mix down to two inch analog, either at 30ips or sometimes at 15ips with Dolby SR.” Schnee followed with a cut from Barry Manilow’s Christmas album, which had been “recorded directly to ProTools at 48kHz.” More PCM. The mix featured refreshingly strong center vocals, obvious as everyone in the room turned to the center channel speaker the moment Manilow started singing.

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Finally, Scheiner played a portion of his multi-channel mix of the ‘Toto IV’ SACD, which had him moving uneasily in his chair. When asked about this, Scheiner confessed that he had been “less than satisfied” with the SACD: “I’m still a little uncomfortable with the whole experience because, even though I used the original tapes, none of the original people participated in the re-mix.” He added “So I tried to keep it kind of close to the original stereo mix, and not mess with it too much.”

In the question and answer session that followed, the SACD panel was asked about the fact that their recordings were almost completely analog (or PCM), with SACD serving only as a distribution medium. “That’ll probably take a while to change” answered Schnee, “we tend to stick to what works for us.” When asked about using the center channel more for vocals, Scheiner recounted his first surround mix, where he had placed the vocals exclusively in the center channel. The singer, whom he wouldn’t name but said was “your typically insecure diva”, found out from her manager that it was possible to turn down the other channels and hear just her vocals. Scheiner said he “caught hell” for his mix, adding “I’ll never do that again!” The other panel members agreed completely. They were also in agreement when questions about mixing techniques came up. All started their mixes as stereo; once that was locked, they “opened it up” to what they described as essentially a quad mix with subtle center fill. It was obvious what era of surround sound these men had got their mixing philosophy from. They always produced the two-channel mix first, then the multi-channel version, “It’s too depressing to go the other way!

Most were also unflinchingly honest about their recordings being played back in a home theatre environment. They weren’t very aware of nor concerned about home theatre speaker placement: in fact, some monitored their recordings using ITU placement while others used the old quad set-up with a center speaker. None of them mixed with bass management in mind. When asked about the .1 LFE channel, Botnick said that his mixes were all basically 5.0, but that he “always put something, anything, into the sub channel so that the light goes on and people don’t complain that it’s not really 5.1.” The others laughed in agreement, “Gotta light up all the lights!” The panel also had a good laugh when asked if recording artists were interested in the multi-channel capability and higher resolution of the newer music delivery formats. Citing his work with Steely Dan, Scheiner said bluntly “They couldn’t give a $*%* about 5.1.” (I’d use his exact words, but this is a family site.) “This high frequency crap. What’s above 20kHz?” Schmitt asked, adding “Do I have to bring my dog in to do the monitoring?

After the seminar I was able to talk to Scheiner for a brief period. Having read the ‘Toto IV’ multi-channel SACD review at High Fidelity Review, where it was mentioned that some sounds from the originally CD were missing in the SACD, I asked Scheiner if he had subdued or softened any parts of the original tracks when doing the re-mix. “On the contrary” he answered, “when I spoke to David Paich he said that he heard all sorts of stuff he’d done on this album that he’s never heard till now.” Sheiner also complained about all the questions regarding use of the center channel, “Why does everybody keep bringing that up?” I explained that it allowed listeners all over the room to point to the same location for the vocalist. For a moment, I saw a light bulb go on over his head as he finally seemed to “get it”, but just as quickly dim. “Yeah, it makes sense, but I couldn’t do that.” Which pretty much summed it all up.

The whole seminar was a tinge depressing and frustrating because these guys seemed to be stuck in the quad era, but if it’s any consolation, many of the younger bands and producers/engineers at the show proved that they aren’t locked into any particular philosophy when it comes to multi-channel; they simply create mixes (adventurous or subtle) that serve their material best. I may not like some of their songs, but the mixes are always a breath of fresh air! []

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Show report last updated: 2nd February 2003.


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