Octave Records Expands The Art of Hi-Fi Series with Volume 02: Soundstage (And an Interview With Paul McGowan)

Octave Records Expands <em>The Art of Hi-Fi Series</em> with <em>Volume 02: Soundstage</em> (And an Interview With Paul McGowan)

Written by Frank Doris

Octave Records has released The Art of Hi-Fi Volume 02: Soundstage, the second in its series of reference-quality recordings that showcase a different aspect of high-fidelity audio reproduction. The Art of Hi-Fi Volume 02: Soundstage offers a series of tracks that enable listeners to tell if their loudspeakers and system are set up optimally, to achieve a soundstage that can provide a three-dimensional sound field that has depth, width, and height, and extends beyond the boundaries of the speakers and even the room walls.

The Art of Hi-Fi Volume 02: Soundstage was recorded live at multiple venues as well as at Octave Studios, in order to present a range of sonic environments from up close and personal to expansive.

Volume 02: Soundstage literally begins and ends with a bang as flamenco dancer Salli Gutierrez, accompanied by Steve Mullins and a large band, dances on an old platform stage on “Sevillanas: A la Puerta de Toledo and Traditional Instrumental Melodies,” and “Alegrias (Excerpts).” “Diporti di Euterpe, Op. 7 No. 4: Lamento,” performed by Duo Azure, captures the exquisite piano playing of Dr. Jessica Nilles Kressin and the soaring purity of soprano Ekaterina Kotcherguina in the spaciousness of the First Congregational Church UCC in Boulder, Colorado, while Mozart’s String Quartet No. 4 in C Major, K 157 was recorded in Octave’s studio in a more intimate sonic space.

Trumpeter Gabriel Mervine plays “Aurora” with his group in a small jazz club, and you’ll feel like you’re having a night out, sitting at a table in front of the band. Jessica Carson’s heartfelt performance of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” demonstrates the ways in which spaciousness can be created in the recording studio, as Jessica sang seven different parts at varying distances from the microphone, with different degrees of reverb. Other tracks feature a bluegrass quartet, jazz combos, and more. 

Volume 02: Soundstage was recorded live and in the studio in pure DSD 256 on the Pyramix recording system. The microphones and placement were optimized for each track, to bring out the spaciousness, presence and dynamics of the original performances, 

All tracks were recorded, mixed and produced by Paul McGowan and Jessica Carson, and mastered by Gus Skinas. Volume 02: Soundstage features Octave’s premium gold disc formulation, and the disc is playable on any SACD, CD, DVD, or Blu-ray player. It also has a high-resolution DSD layer that is accessible by using any SACD player or a PS Audio SACD transport. In addition, the master DSD and PCM files are available for purchase and download, including DSD 256, DSD 128, DSD 64, and DSDDirect Mastered 352.8 kHz/24-bit, 176.2 kHz/24-bit, 88.2 kHz/24-bit, and 44.1 kHz/24-bit PCM. (SRP: $19 – $39, depending on format.)

I talked with Paul McGowan about the subject of soundstaging.

Frank Doris: Let’s start with the basics for those who might not be familiar with the concept. What is soundstaging, and why is it desirable in an audio system? What should people listen for? 

Paul McGowan: Thanks, Frank, that’s a great question. For 99 percent of reproduced music lovers, there is no such thing as a soundstage. It’s a totally foreign concept. Just picture listening on a pair of earbuds or to an Amazon Echo, or Sonos player. It’s just music coming out of a box or filling your head. Now, picture a real 2-channel high-end audio system. What happens? Those speakers disappear, and in their place, the three-dimensional image of musicians playing live forms behind the loudspeakers. That’s soundstage.

FD: What should people listen for regarding some of the specific tracks on this album? How can they use the album to help them achieve a better soundstage, or verify that their system is set up optimally?

PM: As mentioned above, we should expect the speakers to disappear and the music to form a palpable soundstage behind the loudspeakers. Take for example Track 6 (String Quartet No. 4 in C Major, K 157 by the Longmont Symphony Orchestra String Quartet), a lovely Mozart quartet performed in the studio. When we recorded this performance we made sure we balanced the microphones and mix so that you got a great sense of intimacy while not relying upon the closeness of microphones to achieve it. You hear this as a complete disconnect from the speakers – as if the musicians are in the room – yet not so distantly miked as to be far away. Intimate yet detached.

Secondly, the spatial aspects of Volume 02: Soundstage are optimized to create a playback room much bigger than your own. The first and last tracks on the album, recorded live, feature a good-sized group of musicians seated upon a wooden stage. We have singers, acoustic flamenco guitars, and foot-pounding dancers that all add up to an extraordinary experience.

FD: How should speakers generally be set up to achieve a proper soundstage? And is there such a thing as an exaggerated soundstage, either from speakers that are, say, maybe placed too far apart (I know you’d get a “hole in the middle” here), or from recordings that exaggerate the effect, maybe through artificial reverb or phase manipulation or something I’m not thinking about?

PM: My preferred setup is normal spacing of about 8 feet between speakers and the pair placed about one-third of the way into the room. That last bit, where the speakers have room to breathe behind them, is essential. When the speakers are too close to the front wall (the wall behind the loudspeakers) there are all sorts of problems created, not the least of which is that there’s no physical space to imagine the musicians playing on that imaginary stage. Very important.

FD: It seems to me that soundstaging is tied in with resolution and to perhaps a lesser extent, lack of distortion. In other words, if your system can’t resolve enough detail, you won’t get a sense of depth and spaciousness. Would you agree or disagree?

PM: Not sure I totally am on board with that. Much has to do with the recording – how it’s mixed, how close the performers were to the microphones that recorded them (the closer they are the more they will come from the speaker rather than the soundstage). That stated, once you have a great reference recording you can trust, like Soundstage, then it comes down to the setup of the system, and mostly the ability of your loudspeakers to reproduce that three-dimensional image accurately. Truth be told, most speakers struggle with this. It’s one of the reasons we went the route of designing and producing our own line of speakers: frustration with what’s commercially available that we could recommend to people. The PS Audio aspens image so effortlessly it’s a joy to recommend them.

Lastly, and to your point, once all that is in place and working at its best, electronic improvements can have a significant impact of soundstaging. Lower distortion, better slew rate, all that.

FD: There are other aural cues to give listeners a sense of relative depth of instruments and vocals, such as differences in volume (the louder something is on a recording, the closer it will seem to be) and tonal balance and amount of reverb. How important do you think these are compared to the ability of a system to resolve fine detail?

PM: I think they go hand in hand. As you correctly mention, levels of volume and tonal balance – all controlled in the mix – are important, but system setup and its resolving power are essential to get right or none of that will matter a whole lot. 

FD: Why did you choose the soundstage as the second volume in The Art of Hi-Fi (after Volume 1: Bass) instead of, say, dynamic range or tonal accuracy? I personally would love to see you do a volume on the latter – tonal balance is important to me and figuring out if a recording has an accurate tonal balance can be maddening.

PM: It’s a great question and the easiest answer is that I am fascinated and enamored with soundstaging in a system. It’s my first go-to, to get everything right. It’s how I tell whether a new design works or doesn’t work. It’s the single most important element in a system to me personally. Tonal balance is important but I am struggling to figure out how I might present that if not by a series of comparison tracks. And maybe that’s what we do, but for now, I am a little clueless how to create such an album and keep it worth listening to as an entire work that you can just put on and enjoy. Maybe you can’t?

FD: It seems to me that audiophiles got obsessed with the idea of soundstaging after Harry Pearson started talking about it in The Absolute Sound around the mid-1970s if I recall correctly. Is this what you remember? And I think many reviewers and audiophiles came to chase soundstaging at the expense of other attributes in an audio system.

PM: Well, you’re not wrong. In fact, it was Harry Pearson himself who got me so revved up about soundstaging. Stan Warren and I had already discovered it on our own using our Maggies (Magneplanar loudspeakers) and our electronics, but I had never really known what was possible – not until Harry dropped my jaw with the Infinity IRS III speakers. I remember listening to “The Look of Love” (from the Casino Royale original soundtrack album) and hearing for the first time ever, how Dusty Springfield was so obviously in an isolation booth. How did I hear that? Through soundstaging. The orchestra was clearly in a big room, but when Dusty started singing, I could tell the room size changed dramatically. It was a real revelation.

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