It’s Playback Time

New technology scans old LPs and comes up with new sound. Vaneisa Baksh is already digging out her old albums

  • Illustration by Wendell McShine
  • Illustration by Wendell McShine

My compact disc player had become something of a snob. It had suddenly stopped recognising certain CDs. I would put in a disc, and it would snootily inform me that there was none. And it was arbitrary: although it always recognised anything by Ella Fitzgerald, everything else seemed to depend on its mood. Thus, for months, I was forced to let the player determine what I should listen to.

But when it began to consistently say “NO DISC” to Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong, I decided I’d had enough. So I hauled it off to Sanch Electronix in Curepe, thinking it was a simple matter of maybe cleaning the laser, or making sure the track was aligned, or something.

It turned out to be quite an interesting morning. Halfway through my explanation of what I thought was wrong with the player, I was distracted by the sound of a woman’s voice. It was a track from a new CD by Carmen Lundy, Self Portrait. Not only was her voice amazing, but the sound itself was richer than any recording I’d ever heard. “Who’s that?” I asked Simeon Sandiford, the owner of Sanch, who was happy to run some more tracks, as he explained the new technology used to record the CD.

He’d just got in a new batch of jazz selections on XRCDs — Extended Resolution Compact Discs — a new recording process which, simply put, takes the analog signal directly from the mastering console and digitises it using, in this case, JVC’s 20-bit K2 super coding. The K2 is a 20-bit, 128 times over-sampling analog-to-digital converter which provides a wide, dynamic range and a substantial reduction of harmonic distortion for low-level signals. It also provides a bit down mode to convert 20 bits to 16 bits.

Technically, all of it meant little to me; what I could hear though was a distinct difference in the quality of the sound. And I was hooked. Outside, the rain came pelting down, trapping me. Inside, Sandiford was letting the music play as he warmed to a subject close to his scientist’s heart. By the end of the morning, I had learned that LPs, yes, vinyl albums, were enjoying a revival. It seems that new turntables and playback systems can extract from your old collections much more of the original sound than you have ever heard before.

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Now, LPs were a little before my time. I’ve never owned one, but several of my friends have boxes of records and they don’t know what to do with them, except maybe to show their children the symbols of the best years of their lives. They seem to just gather dust in various corners of their homes. They can’t throw them away because they represent so much of their lives. And I was happy to hear they don’t have to any more. All they have to do is to invest in the new systems; which, however, are not cheap. But it seems the cost has not been too high to deter music lovers. According to one review in Stereophile magazine, new recordings are being made on both LPs and CDs, and the LPs are selling twice as fast as the CDs, at almost twice the price.

That technology could move so far forward that it is now interested in moving back in time to recapture elements of the past is fascinating. I also discovered the concepts of “high-end audio”, music systems designed for playback quality as good as originals (the Rolls Royces of music); and another CD revolution, HDCD (High Definition Compatible Digital), the reality of which, Sandiford told me, I’d have to come to his house to hear. I finally left Sanch Electronix loaded with books, magazines and brochures describing in sometimes overwhelming technical detail all these innovations. All that was left now was the listening experience.

On the appointed day, I drove up to Sandiford’s homestead in the picturesque Maracas Valley. His house was designed to maximise aural pleasures. The listening room, surrounded by glass sliding doors, overlooks green hills so close you could see the trees swaying gracefully to the music wafting towards their outstretched branches. Centre stage was his high-end system from Classé Audio Inc. (a Canadian firm), hooked to the Pacific Microsonics HDCD Digital Processor. I settled into a chair, directly in front of the pair of Thiel loudspeakers and waited expectantly.

Sandiford started by educating me with “The Ultimate Demonstration Disc”, Chesky Records’ Guide to Critical Listening, which identified and explained components of listening such as transparency and depth, using various musical forms to demonstrate, like Sara K’s If I could Sing Your Blues. Thus edified, I was allowed to hear the direct-to-CD recording on HDCD of Dick Hyman plays Duke Ellington using the Bosendorfer 275 SE Reproducing Piano. This particular recording was unique in that it was recorded direct to the CD as the music was happening. The HDCD processor, according to Pacific Microsonics, “produces recordings that have excellent fidelity when played on standard compact disc players, and, with the addition of HDCD, recordings can provide a higher fidelity of audio reproduction than has previously been available.”

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Because the system has the capacity for the whole musical range of 24-bits, this was like listening to it “live”. Sandiford was obviously enjoying my delight. He took me through a range of music: John Patitucci’s One More Angel; pianist Carol Rosenberger’s Singing on the Water, through which a water motif trickled; the joyous choral rendition, Heavens Resound!; the powerful tones of Dennis Rowland, who spent years with the Count Basie Band, in Round Midnight; followed by a version from Carmen Lundy (that voice again!); the Stockholm Cathedral Choir, so clear you could hear them breathe; then the sobering ethereal sound of a choir doing John Rutter’s Lux Aeterna from Requiem.

By the time he got to España Rhapsody my head was singing. The full orchestral sound coming at me with such clarity reminded me of the impact of driving through the rain forested mountains from Blanchiseusse to Arima. Every scene then had been stunning in its direct, pristine beauty.

Then Sandiford came home too. To the Caribbean. Bob Marley, the Samaroo Jets Steel Orchestra and, finally, the pioneering recordings he’s been engineering: from Portraits in Steel, a reprise of Kitchener’s Guitar Pan, played by the Amoco Renegades, of course.

It was a morning of delightful discovery, leaving me loath to return to the small sound of my bookshelf CD system. But, as if my reluctance communicated itself to my sensitive player, I made one final discovery: it really had been a simple problem. The laser had gone bad, and would cost too much proportionately to fix. I didn’t have to go home to it after all.