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Surround Sound Music CDs - Article No. 3 - November, 1996

By John Sunier

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"The Classics in Surround"

Many new home theater owners are discovering that the surround sound function of a properly set up system is not just for movie soundtracks. Some dealers have told about introducing new customers to home theater, and, after the standard action movie scenes or "Wow" laserdisc, playing the type of music (without visuals) that the customer enjoys. For some people this is the first time they have ever sat down in the "sweet spot" to listen seriously to music, and they are completely blown away by the experience.

While a sizable library of specially-encoded Dolby Surround Sound music CDs now exists, there is an even larger library of CDs encoded with the Ambisonic/UHJ system. There are many other CDs that decode extremely well on ambience-recovery surround sound systems. Some are encoded with different systems from these two approaches, but most are not deliberately encoded at all. This time I'll survey a variety of classical releases of both surround-encoded and standard stereo types that sound great in surround sound systems.

DOLBY SURROUND

A knockout classical demo is the RCA Red Seal Dolby Surround CD, "Fortissimo! -- The World's LOUDEST Classical Music." This disc certainly delivers on its promise. The 16 tracks start out with the fanfare from Also Sprach Zarathustra and conclude with the rousing finale of the 1812 Overture. In between are noisy climaxes from Mussorgsky, Wagner, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and several especially effective choral-orchestral excerpts. The final scene from Puccini's Turandot and a portion of Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony are thrilling, with the additional depth of soundstage clearly setting the choruses apart from the symphony orchestra. The St. Louis Symphony and the Bamberg Symphony are heard on many of the tracks of this album, which should convince new collectors to go out to find the complete album from which some of their favorite tracks were excerpted.

Zarathustra A different Also Sprach Zarathustra is heard in Dolby Surround on another new RCA Red Seal CD: Lorin Maazel conducting the Bavarian Radio Symphony in that work plus two other Strauss works -- Don Juan and the Rosenkavalier Suite. These are excellent performances, and the complex Straussian orchestrations are clearly delineated with this crystal-clear sonic spectacular. Another quite different RCA Surround CD is "Oracle" [09026-68063-2]. Guitarist and producer Joe Taylor has recorded a seminary choir in meditative chants and polyphony and mixed in nature sounds, his guitar and synthesizer with various electronic effects. It may sound like a gimmick bouncing off the current chant craze, but this is a quieting, centering musical experience aided greatly by the surround soundfield.

VerdiA surround-sound version of Switched-On Bach honored the 25th anniversary of the original path-breaking classical synthesizer record. Wendy Carlos created new versions of some of the Bach selections on the original and others for the first time in "Bach 2000" [Telarc CD-80323]. The clean synth lines and the clear recorded quality of Telarc's "4D" digital sound result in great spatial fun. The Intersound/Fanfare label issues a portion of their CDs in Dolby Surround Sound, most of them using Shure Stereosurround (as used on the Telarc "Spies" album covered here last time). This process is based on the matrix portions of Dolby Surround, refined for consumer audio and for broadcast use. It is compatible with Dolby Surround, but Shure no longer manufactures the encoders or decoders. Intersound now has several different opera for orchestra albums. Among them are Bizet [CDS3670], Puccini [CDS 3671], Verdi [CDS3672] and Wagner [CDS3673]. In addition to a suite of instrumental highlights from "Carmen," the first includes music from Gounod's "Faust" and St.-Saens' "Sampson and Delilah." The Puccini album covers four of that composer's favorite operas: three each on the Verdi and Wagner collections. Paul Freeman conducts the National Opera Orchestra on all four albums. The 20-bit digital reproduction allows a distortion-free soundfield to be reassembled in the listening room, drawing one deeper into the opera house experience. And for those of us who are not heavy vocal music fans, these opera-for-orchestra arrangements are just the ticket.

The Delos record label has been issuing Dolby Surround CDs for some time due to the interest in multi-channel reproduction of its noted recording engineer John Eargle. Up to the present, the albums have been encoded from two-track originals through the use of mike techniques that randomize stereo pickup of ambient and reverberant sound cues in the venue where recordings are made. Direct in-phase program material is steered to the center channel (phantom or actual), while random-phase ambient material goes to the surround channel. However, Delos began a couple of years ago taping all their masters with an eight-track digital format using multiple channels so that even more specific surround information will be available in the future, with DVD and Dolby Digital in mind.

"In a Quiet Cathedral" [Delos DE 3145] is a wonderful double-disc pipe organ recital of quieter music by many different composers. It would be a fine first organ album for many new listeners. Even some lovely jazz improvisations by Shearing and Strayhorn are included. The surround processing successfully captures the reverberant acoustic of the large cathedral and the varied registrations of the Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ played by Todd Wilson. Close your eyes and you could be in one of the pews yourself -- but surely your "sweet spot" seating is a great improvement on that! While we're on liturgical music, it should be pointed out again that one of the most exciting spatial experiences in music is hearing a large chorus -- whether live or on recordings. The addition of surround sound can increase the enjoyment of recorded choruses even further. "Voices of Ascension -- From Chant to Renaissance" [3174] presents the choral group of that name conducted by Dennis Keene in music of Hildegard of Bingen, Dufay, Desprez, Isaac, Tallis, Palestrina, Byrd and others.

Hovhaness Another choral work in Dolby surround is the Magnificat of Alan Hovhaness. It is joined by nine other Hovhaness liturgical works on Delos DE 3176. Donald Pearson conducts the choirs and orchestra of St. John's Cathedral in Denver. The tonal, exotically modal melodies and harmonies of Hovhaness have a sizable audience of music lovers today, though this contemporary American composer was ignored for much of his long life. Again, some of the choral passages are clearer in surround, and the support of the pipe organ in climaxes is more palpable and separated in space. At first blush it doesn't seem there would be much advantage to presenting a string quartet in surround sound. But for an album devoted entirely to Hovhaness works for this chamber music staple, engineer Eargle felt that the ambience of the hall in which the four string players performed contributed to the rather spacey feeling of much of Hovhaness' music. He suggested that it might not be appropriate for Mozart quartets but was perfect for this composer's work. And when the balance of front-to-surround speakers is properly achieved, there is in fact a good sense of the hall acoustics with the quartet seated up front. The pieces include "The Ancient Tree," "Reflections on my Childhood," "Gamelan," "Hymn" and others.

Pro-Arte is another label under the InterSound aegis, and they have a series of Shure Stereosurround CDs featuring primarily American symphony orchestras. Two standouts are Falla's "Three-Cornered Hat" [CDS 581] and Rachmaninoff's "Isle of the Dead" [CDS 3450]. The first has Eduard Mata conducting the Dallas Symphony and is coupled with the Iberia Suite by Albeniz. The Rachmaninoff collection also includes five of the composer's Etudes Tableaux, the Capriccio on Gypsy Themes and the gloriously melodic Vocalise for Orchestra. Yoav Talmi is the conductor here, with the San Diego Symphony. The contributions of the surround are more subtle in these albums, and proper balance of the front and back channels is vital to a realistic soundfield all around. Music surround CDs such as these can also point up the value of having speakers of similar timbre throughout the system so that the surround channels will blend smoothly into the front channels without the feeling of giant gaps on both sides of the listening area. It is usually better to have four or five modest identical (or nearly so) speakers than a pair (or trio) of more expensive speakers from one manufacturer at the front and a pair from a different manufacturer for the surrounds.

OTHER SURROUND APPROACHES

There are a number of competing processes that have been developed in an effort to achieve a surround-like effect using only a pair of stereo loudspeakers for playback. Spatializer, from Desper Products, is one of these. If used during the mixing of the CD, no decoding equipment is required; the listener need only sit midway between the two speakers and equidistant from them. While designed for normal two-speaker playback, the increased L-R and R-L information processed into the recording will decode extremely well on any Pro Logic Dolby surround processor with multiple speakers. "Wagner for Orchestra" [Telarc CD-80379] uses Spatializer instead of Dolby Surround. Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducts the Cincinnati Symphony in six Wagner preludes and overtures. With only two speakers the orchestra does occupy a wider soundstage than with a normal CD, extending to the left of the left speaker and to the right of the right speaker. There is also plenty of ambient information to feed to the surround channels, even with a passive non-Pro Logic decoder.

Another two-speaker-surround process is Sensaura, developed by EMI Thorn Laboratories and being used on some Angel, EMI Classics and United releases. It begins with a sophisticated Aachen Head Acoustics binaural mike system used at the original recording sessions. Its two-channel digital signals are then processed using complex algorythms to attempt to replicate the experience of listening to the recording on stereo headphones rather than loudspeakers. In other words, the signal from the right speaker not intended for your left ear is electronically canceled out, and vice versa for the left speaker signal. Again, it is absolutely vital to sit equidistant from the two speakers and equally between them in a triangular formation. Two examples of Sensaura are a set of three Beethoven piano sonatas played by Stephen Kovacevich [EMI 724355 52262] and liturgical works of Herbert Howells and Frank Martin [United 88033]. The first seems a rather peculiar choice to show off the new process (using just a solo piano), but there is a somewhat stronger feeling of the Royal Festival Hall where the recording was made than one might have with a standard stereo CD. The choral album brings us some lovely and affecting contemporary music in fine performances. Jeremy Backhouse directs the vocal ensemble Vasari. Howells' Requiem was written in 1932 after the death of the composer's son. It is a tonal, radiant work that varies between meditative passages and emotional outbursts. Martin's Mass of l926 is also more tonal than his later works. The frontal soundstage seems to cover almost the entire 180 degrees with only the pair of speakers; I have a four-frontal-speakers setup and with the "outside" speakers switched off one could swear sounds were still coming from their vicinity. There is also a greater depth and even a vertical component to the soundfield. The speakers seem to disappear. Unfortunately, in addition to the "sweet spot" situation, the processing that Sensaura requires destroys the original binaural effect when heard on headphones and reduces the ambient information available for feeding to the surround channels.

AMBISONICS

Though little publicized, there are many more CDs available processed with Ambisonics/UHJ surround sound than there are Dolby Surround CDs. Just about everything on the Nimbus label has been recorded this way from the founding of the label, and many CDs on Conifer, Unicorn-Kanchana and others are Ambisonic. [A complete list is available online at
http://www.omg.unb.ca/~mleese/ambison.html]. This process grew out of a British audio engineer's dissatisfaction with the various quadraphonic processes in the early 70's. In the multi-channel B-format version it can encode an entirely spherical soundfield of 360 degrees. The UHJ version works only with two channels and horizontal information. The only consumer decoder of Ambisonics easily available right now is one incorporated into Meridian's top-of-the-line 565 surround processor. However, almost any surround processor will latch onto the sizeable amount of ambient information in the Ambisonics signal and use it to recreate a surround soundfield that, while perhaps not duplicating exactly what the original recording engineer had in mind, nevertheless provides an enveloping surround effect to my ears. (By the way, if your processor allows turning off the Pro Logic function, do so for most music playback.) Another advantage of Ambisonics is the improved playback on headphones -- the clustering of the music at your left and right ears is mollified and the intervening space is filled in. Old SQ and QS quadraphonic LPs have the same quality, but mixed in with surface noise that can become bothersome on headphones.

A few Ambisonics titles that will decode well on surround systems: Haydn: Symphonies 9, 12, 13 & 40. Adam Fischer conducting the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra [Nimbus NI 5321]. This is part of a series Fischer has recorded in the same hall where Haydn originally conducted some of his symphonies. Other reviewers have sometimes commented on the overly "wet" acoustics of most Nimbus recordings, and one specifically pointed out how inappropriate the rather distant, reverberant recording quality was for this precise, classically "neat" music. Their comments are due entirely to the fact that they only auditioned the CDs on a pair of speakers. If even just a single speaker is hooked passively to the + terminals of the amplifier to access the L-R or R-L information, and then placed in the rear of the listening room, a convincing hall surround field is re-created, the orchestra sounds nearer and clearer, and the acoustics no longer sound overly "wet!" Jean Langlais: Works for Organ [Nimbus NI 5408] presents Kevin Bowyer at the Carthy Organ in a program of virtuoso pipe organ pieces by one of the major composers of the French "organ symphony" school. The rich and reverberant sounds of the massive organ are thrillingly conveyed in this Ambisonic/UHJ CD when fed to the surround channels using the "ambience" or "enhanced stereo"-type of function settings.

An interesting program of works for string orchestra inspired by the folk music of various countries is "Folk Into Classic" [Ondine ODE 766-2] with Juha Kangas conducting the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra. Finnish composer Nordgren used fiddle tunes from his country in his Portraits of Country Fiddlers, Grieg used two folk songs in his Two Nordic Melodies, and Georgian composer Tsintsadze based his Six Quartet Miniatures on folk songs of his native state. This Ambisonic CD gives the strings a wide soundstage and preserves a feeling of the hall in which they perform.

BINAURAL

Another format for recording that is brimming over with L-R and R-L information that can be decoded by your surround processor is binaural. While designed especially for listening on stereo headphones for the full "you are there" effect, today's binaural recordings are compatible for playback on standard stereo loudspeakers. However, you lose the 360-degree sound location and feeling of being where the recording was originally made. But playing binaural solely through two front speakers simply folds all the ambient information into these two channels. Pluck out that information and send it to your surround speakers and you will have a spacious and enveloping soundfield in the rest of your listening room!

One of the best demos of this is one of the few full symphony recordings in true binaural -- Also Sprach Zarathustra again, plus the St. Saens Organ Symphony [Newport Classics AUracle NCAU 10001]. The Pasadena Symphony is conducted by Jorge Mester. This premium-priced gold CD is smashing either on headphones or surround sound. Another good binaural CD is "Concerto" [Audio 2700039] The Gerd Zapf Trumpet Ensemble with Stefan Klinda, pipe organ. The three trumpet players are right in front of you, and the organ accompaniment reverberates around them and the listening room.

Two binaural CDs by the Polish chamber orchestra Concerto Avenna, also provide excellent rear-channel information: "Baroque Concerto Avenna" [Audio Electronics AXCD 90201] with two sprightly concerti grossi by Handel, one by Corelli, and a quartet by Allessandro Scarlatti. "Polish Baroque: Warsaw Baroque Soloists (Concerto Avenna)" [Midas CD 5088] with tuneful works by three composers we've never heard of but it doesn't matter. The special spatial attributes of a choir are again demonstrated on "Folksongs and Motets" [Audio Electronics AXCD 90209] as the Youth Choir of Wernigerode sings 25 short works ranging from early polyphony to several by Brahms.

ORDINARY STEREO CDs

Finally, nearly all stereo recordings carry some ambient information in their two channels, which can be decoded and fed to your surround speakers. About the only ones which will produce very little sound or a distorted signal at your surrounds are aggressively multi-miked, multi-tracked or overly-processed recordings. This occurs more frequently in the pop realm than with classics. However, though we're talking about classical this time around, I can't pass up the tip that if you want an astonishing demonstration of what's hidden in those stereo channels just try any stereo Beatles CD. They only had four tracks to work with in the studio and with George Martin's help they used them creatively. The results - with a simple passive surround decoder - will often have you swearing you are listening to a discrete four-channel recording!

Minimal-miked recordings often work the best for ambience-hunting. Productions made for radio are usually miked this way due to time and money constraints. Therefore some of the classical radio live symphony series have lots of ambient information in the signal. You must be receiving a really clean transmission without multipath though; otherwise your processor will be dealing with noise and distortion on the surround channels. Another source is some of the CDs produced by the BBC, such as those that were supplied with BBC Music Magazine. A recent BBC Philharmonic CD of Bruckner's Symphony No. 9, featuring a conductor nobody's heard of (Bernard Klee) turns out to have smashing surround sound that puts the listener right in the middle of the concert hall.

The British contemporary piano ensemble Piano Circus has several CDs on the Argo label. On Argo 433 522-2 they play minimalist but fun works by Nyman, Fitkin, Seddon and Rackham. The last composer's 30-minute-long work "Whichever way your nose bends" proves spatial to the max on a surround system. You'll feel like you are in a piano factory, with pianos all over your listening room! One of the recent unexpected classical hits as part of the chants craze was "Officium," with the four vocalists of the Hilliard Ensemble plus jazz saxophonist Jan Garbarek [ECM New Series 1525]. The unlikely combination of very early, very pure, four-part polyphony and modern jazz saxophone improvisation is one of the most creative recording projects in recent memory. Producer Manfred Eicher has always had the highest technical standards in addition to musical ones, and the clarity and abundant ambience of these recordings decodes for an almost spiritual experience of surround sound.

John Sunier


Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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