When I started planning this column, the task seemed simple: why not start with nominees for the 2019 Grammy for Best Immersive Audio Album? That would give us an overview of the current scene, and maybe we’d get a sense of the changes afoot.
Or maybe not. Best Immersive awards typically go to engineers, so the usual suspects were present and well accounted for: Morten Lindberg (who won it this year, for 2L’s Lux); Jim Anderson and Ulrike Schwarz, an accomplished engineer/producer team; and the legendary “Prof” Keith O. Johnson. Lindberg is an innovator and frequent spokesman for immersive sound; Anderson has won three Grammys, including one for Jane Ira Bloom’s delicious Early Americans (2017); Johnson has collected 13 nominations over the years and won Best Surround Sound in 2010 for Britten’s Orchestra. (You may recall that multichannel was known as “surround” before that term lost its marketing charm.) Slightly more interesting this year were two rogue nominees: Bob Clearmountain (The Savior), whose previous Grammy wins were for Best Latin Pop Album in 2010 and Best Traditional Folk Album in 2006; and Luke Argilla (Chain Tripping), with his first Grammy nomination in any category.
I decided to focus on Lindberg, Johnson, and Argilla—see below. (A good place to learn more about Clearmountain and other serious immersive-audio players is here.) I also began reaching out to music professionals and consumers to ask some Big Questions: If you’re an engineer or producer, what sort of mixing or mastering suites are you now using? Is immersive audio part of your game plan? If you’re a consumer, what kind of listening environment(s) have you chosen, and why?
These days, “reaching out” has its limits. I’ve discovered that some of those Big Questions will have to simmer awhile. In their place I’m offering a quick summary of multichannel (hereafter MC) history.
At the turn of the century, two new high-resolution audio formats were launched. It was VHS vs. Betamax all over again, except that fewer people noticed or cared. One format bit the dust in relatively short order, but the other has shown surprising tenacity, partly because it was embraced by the classical-music crowd. (Even Renée Fleming put out an SACD or two.)
Slow-forward to 2020: “major” labels (Sony/BMG, UMG, Warner) have long since abandoned MC playback product; if they release an occasional Blu-ray (= high-res) audio disc, it’s usually a celebrated mono or stereo reading from their vaults. Boutique labels have also been abandoning or severely limiting SACD output: this group includes Channel Classics (which polled customers and found that almost none of them listened to the high-res tracks anyway), Linn, Ondine, Harmonia Mundi, Chandos, Pentatone, Myrios, and others. (And yes, I realize I am lumping together entities whose mission statements and strategies often differ significantly.) BIS continues to release much of its output on hybrid SACDs while also making it available in quality download form. That leaves two other labels, 2L and Sono Luminus, still pushing the MC envelope: they now emphasize Blu-ray Pure Audio discs with height channels—Dolby Atmos, Auro-3D.
Indeed, Blu-ray is the physical medium most likely to succeed. Lots of people already have Blu-ray players, many hooked up to receiver/preamps and speakers. And Blu-ray’s the only game in town: since the demise of Oppo, no one makes a disc player putting out MC analog audio from “legacy formats.” No one! Sony’s best universal disc player, the UBP-X1000ES, will read MC data from SACDs and DVD-As, but only to send it via HDMI to a suitable preamp or receiver for decoding. (Why? Because those formats are copy-protected, and makers of disc players don’t want to invest in D-to-A licenses and circuitry unlikely to be used.)
Anyway, what matters is the sound. Regardless of whether you’re hearing high-res PCM or garden-variety DSD, your subjective response is likely to be hey, that sounds better than a CD. When it comes to MC formats, your subjective response may be less predictable. But I know mine: especially if the recording has been mixed and mastered by skilled people who love the format, I’ll think hey, that sounds better than stereo.
Do I still listen to a lot of stereo? Of course! But I don’t want to live in a stereo-only world, and (with apologies to Kal Rubinson) I’m too lazy to spend time ripping my SACDs to dsf files and/or paying more for DSD MC downloads, and/or fiddling endlessly with various (mostly expensive) DIY playback solutions. I’m hoping that Blu-ray audio will not only survive but flourish, although my fondest dream is that a visionary hardware maker will bring out a great MC SACD player—one with plenty of analog outputs.
In the meantime, here’s my rundown on the Grammy nominees:
(1) YACHT, Chain Tripping (dfa). Blu-ray video mastered in Dolby TrueHD 7.1 with Atmos. It’s EDM, so some of you may want to move on quickly. I admire this band’s sense of mission, although I couldn’t personally find an emotional or aesthetic path into their work. Each track offers video animation—some of it quite clever—in addition to simple synth-dominated, beat-heavy music. Young Americans Challenging High Technology consists of two artists and many collaborators; after deciding to experiment with A.I. on this album, they basically fed a computer every bit of their previous music and asked it to create ten new songs. It did. (Read more here.) The immersive engineering doesn’t seem especially imaginative, but that reflects its roots in club music. I rather liked track 7, “Sad Money”:
That’s not the video from the Blu-ray, incidentally. YACHT hasn’t released it to YouTube, although they posted a one-minute, visually attenuated clip on Facebook, here. (Beware: other Chain Tripping songs on YouTube also lack the Blu-ray’s distinctive visuals.) In any case, some of their earlier work seems a bit more human. Like this, which spotlights singer Claire L. Evans’ quirky charm.
(2) The Orchestral Organ. Jan Kraybill, organist (Reference Recordings). Hybrid SACD with HDCD. A selection of orchestral works transcribed for organ, played on the 102-rank Casavant in Helzberg Hall at Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Dr. Kraybill’s ambitious program includes four first recordings and a world premiere. Her performances of Sibelius’s Finlandia, Wagner’s “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried, and Verdi’s “Triumphal March” from Aïda are especially rewarding.
This is a huge, colorful instrument; “Prof” Johnson and his associate Royce Martin capture the range of its powers well. Even the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream doesn’t fare altogether badly, although the results are more instructive than pleasurable. Here is one of Kraybill’s “firsts,” the Tchaikovsky Coronation March:
(3) Lux. Works by Ståle Kleiberg (b. 1958) and Andrew Smith (b. 1970); Nidarosdomens jentekor, TrondheimSolistene, Anita Brevik cond. (2L). Producer Morten Lindberg usually finds distinctive repertoire that hasn’t been recorded to death already. This album is no exception. I could never have imagined that the sound of a girls’ choir performing contemporary sacred music would have moved me as much as it does here. In his Requiem, the centerpiece of this album, Andrew Smith has replaced some traditional texts with familiar Biblical references to children; in this manner he alludes not only to scriptural history but also to the victims of 22 July 2011 in Norway. The choir is accompanied by organ and an improvising saxophone, providing unique colors and gestures. Kleiberg’s Hymn to Love, a setting of Paul’s familiar words from First Corinthians, precedes the Requiem. The TrondheimSolistene make its evocative string writing a feast for our ears. Use the playlist icon in the YouTube window’s upper-right-hand corner to sample both works; a text booklet is available here.
Header image courtesy of Reference Recordings.