by Robert C. Bryant on December 1st, 2013

 

Female Vocalists: Part II

It’s been a while since my last review of some notable recordings of Female Vocalists – thanks for your inquiries about Part 2 and your patience! It’s been a busy and rewarding year at YFS.


Part 2 features several superb recordings that have been released on high quality vinyl. I mentioned in Part 1 how realistic reproduction of the human voice is a challenging undertaking but these recordings take it a step further with their excellent sound stage, separation, balance, and overall ‘listenability’.



1. Water Falls – Sara K (2002) (180gram Vinyl - 2LP)


This recording was Sara K’s first after ending a fairly lengthy run on the Chesky label. Already disillusioned with the business aspects of being a recording artist, Sara was seemingly taking a very simple and uncluttered direction in her music on this album – a simple acoustic trio/quartet with minimal production and straightforward songs. The songs are mostly ballads interspersed with some engaging grooves, characterized by her slightly gritty but pleasantly emotive voice, her trademark baritone-tuned 4 string guitar and some sparse and tasteful accompanists on everything from acoustic 6-string guitar, fretless bass, sitar, soprano sax, and even a bass clarinet.


I think it is the direct unadorned simplicity of this recording that I appreciate – the music is as much about the spaces as it is the sounds. This however, presents a challenge to the recording producer and engineer and playback system – the ‘noise floor’ (the background noise level) better be pretty quiet.  Fortunately, this meticulously produced German recording is up to the task – the 180 gram, 2 LP set is cut from a Direct Metal Master and is very very quiet. The sound stage is realistic, the mix is well balanced, only a tasteful amount of reverb has been used, and the recording levels are not too hot or sibilant - all of which result in a very pleasant and realistic listening experience.
This is not a challenging recording (either musically or dynamically) but it is very listenable and will give you further evidence of the qualities of your system – primarily in noise floor and vocal realism. (Be prepared, the first cut on the first side is a Russian street busker playing a short selection of the big band swing tune, Chattanooga Choo-choo on the accordion – don’t worry, its brief).
Sadly, Sara K retired from the music business about 4 years ago but she left a pretty good discography behind and I personally think Water Falls is among her best.


2. Café Blue – Patricia Barber (1994) (180gram Vinyl - 2LP)


Café Blue is a bit of an audiophile classic. Recorded in 1994 and previously released by Blue Note and later Mobile Fidelity, this Premonition label 180 gram, 2 LP set lives up to its reputation in every respect. Drop the needle on this recording, close your eyes and your listening area is transformed into a small jazz club for about an hour.


3. River - The Joni Letters - Herbie Hancock -Verve 2007 (180gram Vinyl - 2LP)


River is one artist’s subtle tribute to the artistry of another - Joni Mitchell, the poet and songwriter. This is not a simple collection of covers of some well-known JM tunes but rather a gentle and interpretative if somewhat meandering treatment of a range of material (including Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" and Duke Ellington's "Solitude") by Hancock and an impressive supporting cast of musicians and singers. While not a recording of female vocalists per se, Hancock recruits Norah Jones ("Court and Spark"), Tina Turner ("Edith and the Kingpin"), Corinne Bailey Rae ("River"), Luciana Souza ("Amelia") and Joni Mitchell herself ("Tea Leaf Prophecy") to provide a fine selection of vocal styles in addition to solid instrumental selections. The outlier on the recording is a spoken-word treatment of "The Jungle Line" by poet/songwriter Leonard Cohen.


As one might expect of a Verve/Hancock undertaking, the quality of the recording is excellent with a reliance upon sparse arrangements of (mostly) acoustic instruments. This is not easy listening, but for those willing to immerse themselves in the expressive treatments, it is well worth the time to listen.

Thanks for reading.

Until next time...


 -RCB


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by Robert C Bryant on April 28, 2012

Female Vocalists: Part I

As promised, I’d like to suggest a few superb recordings which feature female vocalists. In keeping with my earlier review of various recordings of Respighi’s Pines of Rome, the recordings suggested here are not only notable with respect the artistic content, but also with respect to the recording quality and their potential for exploiting the capabilities of a good-sounding audio system.

Why female vocalists? The rich variety of performers certainly gives plenty to choose from, but there is something essential about the human voice, and especially the female voice I would argue, which challenges even the best audio system to adequately reproduce it. It has been suggested that this is due to the fact that the human voice is so fundamental to human communication, that we have a heightened sense of discrimination to any anomalies in the sound of it. If that is so, a good audio system must provide a high degree of realism and presence of a well-recorded voice in order to be pleasing.

You will notice that all of my reference recordings listed here are intentionally limited to artists who are recorded without the compressed, pitch-transposed, layered, and over-produced techniques so often used with so many of today’s pop singers.

So here are some of the best I’ve heard – a partial list that I will add to in my next review. Thanks for reading and enjoy!

1. Light My Fire - Eliane Elias

Brazilian pianist/singer/composer/arranger Eliane Elias has made quite a name for herself in recent years having been nominated for multiple Grammys as well as seeing her recordings make their way near the top of Billboard, iTunes, and Amazon charts. She has a musical style that is distinctive but never strays too far from her Brazilian roots for too long. Her sometimes-sultry, sometimes-playful voice, along with her impressive compositional and piano skills, are very listenable and anything but predictable.

Light My Fire is her latest album and was released in 2011 on the Concord Picante label. The album is a great mix of more traditional Bossa-like tunes intermingled with some innovative covers of some surprising tunes such as Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, the title track, Jim Morrison and the Doors’ Light My Fire, and yes, you heard that right, a scat-over-muted-trumpet version of the Dave Brubeck/Paul Desmond classic, Take Five in its original 5/4 time signature.

The instrumentation throughout the recording is limited to upright bass, acoustic piano, drum kit, percussion (of course!), acoustic and electric guitars and trumpet. The recording is superb – clean, detailed, with good imaging, presence and dynamic range. The compositions are diverse enough to maintain interest and there are some surprises as well such as the title track that is hauntingly slow with edgy overtones of a distortion-laden electric guitar, or the male/female duet of Turn to Me.

2. The Well - Jennifer Warnes

Like many, the honest clarity of Jennifer Warnes’ voice is remarkable to me. She has made a number of fine recordings throughout her long career including her homage to poet Leonard Cohen, Famous Blue Raincoat, the nicely recorded if somewhat over-produced The Hunter, and the subject of this review The Well.

This 2001 recording released on the Sin-Drome label includes four tracks composed by Jennifer Warnes herself as well as several covers of others’ compositions including a beautiful rendition of Billy Joel’s And So It Goes. The recording quality of this album is exemplary – validated by the fact that it was reissued in a pricey 3-LP box set in vinyl last year. This is one of our favorite system auditioning recordings in the YFS listening room – it displays wonderful vocal presence and evokes tremendous imaging and rendition of the acoustic instruments.

3. Hymns Of The 49th Parallel – K.D. Lang Nonesuch 2004

At one time I had the impression that k.d.lang was a talented performer but had never listened to too much of her material. One night I heard her duet with Roy Orbison of his timeless song Crying and I decided I needed to explore her talents further. I just happened to purchase this recording, a collection of covers of songs all composed by fellow Canadians (such as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell) released on the Nonesuch label in 2004 - I was extremely pleased with what I heard.

Like the other recordings mentioned here, Hymns is largely an acoustic recording – it is a mellow yet emotional collection of songs that relies heavily upon well-recorded vocals and sparse arrangements of mostly acoustic instruments as opposed to heavily produced or catchy top-40 renditions of these familiar songs. Highly recommended for not only its artistic interpretation and performance but for its ability to challenge your audio system to recreate the nuance of a subtle and unadorned vocal performance.

More to come…

 -RCB

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by Robert C. Bryant, Mike O'Brien, and Kevin O'Brien on 04/07/2012


We decided to have a group YFS listening session right before Easter. We're not sure why it took us this long to do this but hey, we got our act together finally. The multiple issues and formats we have on hand of Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else were just eating at us. Why not compare them all? Good idea. So we did!

We'd like to note that both copies of our vinyl reissues were cleaned on our VPI HW 17 record cleaner and then treated with Gruv Glide before we played them back on our vinyl rig. Even brand new records should be cleaned BEFORE playback to get everything out of the grooves including mold and other contaminants that may not be visible.

We started with the Stereo 33 RPM Blue Note 1595 reissue of Somethin' Else on vinyl. This is the classic recording mastered by Rudy Van Gelder. Not too bad. It definitely gave us that signature vinyl sound but we were a little disappointed with what we were hearing. Surface noise wasn't too bad but nothing sounded alive or vibrant. Things were a little on the 'dead' side. The piano especially sounded bland. Don't get us wrong, it still sounded good. We guess it's all relative. We're just being picky here because we can. Why not?

We then moved on to the Stereo 45 RPM Vinyl Blue Note 1595 Reissue from Analogue Productions. VERY COOL. This is the must-have vinyl reissue of Somethin' Else!  WOW!  We were really impressed with the job Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray did with the remastering. This is the way this recording should be heard if you're a vinyl enthusiast. The music seemed to come alive compared to the 33 RPM version. No more 'dead' feeling. There was a type of presence that we couldn't get over. It just sounded right. We didn't notice much surface noise at all and the recording really brought out all the information and squeezed every last drop of musical performance out of the wax. Unfortunately this reissue will set you back $50 but we think it's well worth it for what you get. Vinyl fans should give it a shot. You really can't lose here.

Now let's move on to the stereo Red Book CD (16/44.1) version of the Blue Note 1595 title. This format gave us some interesting results. It definitely sounded better than the older 33 RPM vinyl reissue but could not compare with the 45 RPM vinyl. The mix portrayed the musicians slightly closer to the center of the room than either of the vinyl versions. Nothing major to note other than the slightly changed positions of the musicians. The recording definitely didn't sound 'dead' or veiled but it just lacked the sparkle and definition the Analog Productions 45 RPM vinyl gave us. The compact disc is obviously the cheapest price-wise of the reissues we tested so there's something to be said there. We don't really factor cost into the comparison but we're sure price factors in for plenty of folks.

The final format we tested was the 24/192 FLAC rip of the Classic Records HDAD. We used DVD-Audio Extractor to rip the files in 24/192 FLAC format onto our hard drive before we listened. The picture below shows the normal 24/96 DAD version but you get the point. We used the YFS HD Ref-2 music server as our source. We describe our latest iteration of our original YFS HD Ref-1 music server, the Ref-2, in a separate detailed article coming soon!!! We've been pretty busy testing the Ref-2 and we still have quite a bit of work left but we think we've got a real winner on our hands!  We implemented our playback suite of choice, Album Player and we used the ASIO option which gave us bit-perfect playback from our USB output.

We can definitely say the HDAD rip was our favorite format of this classic album. We experienced the same sound stage depth and placement as well as all the great attributes of the 45 RPM vinyl but with a more listenable sound. We would describe the FLAC files as having less fatigue. The sparkle was still there but presented in a more enjoyable way. The bass was more defined and tighter and the midrange was a little silkier/ smoother. The slight surface noise was obviously gone as well. A good way to describe what we heard was with a simple statement: we would play the 45 RPM vinyl if we planned on listening to only a track or two of the album but we would definitely play the 24/192 FLACs for an extended listening session. That's the main difference here.

We wanted to list the different reissues in our preferred order so here it is:

1) Stereo 24/192 FLAC from HDAD rip

2) Stereo 45 RPM Vinyl Reissue from Analogue Productions

3) Stereo Red Book CD

4) Stereo 33 RPM Vinyl Reissue

Take our comparison for what it's worth. It's just our opinion but we were all in unanimous agreement of the above statements. If you're a true vinyl fanatic, there's a terrific 45 RPM release that will blow you away! If you're a digital/ computer audio fanatic, there's a great 24/192 HDAD reissue for you as well. It looks like this album has gotten the royal treatment. Now we're patiently waiting for the rest of our favorite recordings to come out in 24/192 or 45 RPM vinyl. Are the labels listening in on this article or what? We hope so!

Thanks for reading and keep on listening!

 - YFS Design Team

 

Associated Equipment For This Review:

  • VPI Scoutmaster with VPI Zephyr cartridge
  • PS Audio P300 MWII+ as VPI Turntable Speed Controller
  • Eastern Electric Minimax Phono Stage (Tom Tutay Modified)
  • McCormack SST-1 Digital Drive CD Transport
  • YFS HD Reference-2 Computer Music Server Prototype
  • Eastern Electric Minimax DAC PLUS
  • Quicksilver 12AX7 Tube Preamp
  • McIntosh MC275 Tube Power Amp
  • Von Schweikert VR5 HSE Speakers
  • YFS Custom Litz Speaker Cables
  • YFS USB V3 Custom USB 2.0 Cable Prototype
  • YFS Custom Room Treatment
  • YFS Custom Interconnects
  • YFS Custom Power Cables
  • Herbies Audio Lab Dampening Products

 

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by Robert C. Bryant on March 19, 2012

I believe this series of reviews may be somewhat of a departure from other music reviews that you have undoubtedly read where the emphasis is put upon the performance and the sound quality of the recording. Those are certainly important attributes but it occurred to me that there is another way to evaluate specific recordings – that is how well they exploit the capabilities of a good-sounding music reproduction system.

I think It is safe to assume that if you have navigated your way to us at YFS and that you are reading this review, that you have a keener interest in audio than most and likely own (or are interested in owning) an audio system that provides you with a highly enjoyable listening experience. I think it is also safe to assume that you have noticed that some combinations of recordings and program sources (e.g. CD, Vinyl, DAC, etc.) sound rather unremarkable, some sound quite good, and others sound exceptionally pleasing on your system.

There is an element of interaction between the program source and reproduction system that is responsible for a degree of variability in the overall quality of the listening experience.  For example, you may find that your system does an exceptional job reproducing female vocals or acoustic jazz but is less than remarkable when it comes to hard rock or techno.

My intent is to offer some suggestions of specific recordings that I have found to exploit the capabilities my own audio system in different ways – these have become my ‘audition’ recordings and have provided me many hours of pleasure not only for the musical content itself but also for the way that they bring life to my own (in my case, stereo 2.1) audio system.

To that end, my first suggestion for a piece of music that will exercise your system’s capabilities and reveal aspects of its overall musicality is a very approachable piece of classical music entitled The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi.

The Pines of Rome is actually a “tone poem” – a piece of music which is intended to evoke a specific scene or event – in this case different locales around Rome. It was first performed in 1924 and has been recorded countless times including a remarkably good performance recorded for Disney’s animated movie Fantasia 2000 performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by James Levine.

Respighi’s orchestration for The Pines includes somewhat uncommon additions to the normal complement of orchestral instruments adding English horn, contrabassoon, buccine, tam-tam, ratchet, glockenspiel, piano, celesta, harp, double basses and importantly – a pipe organ.

The full range of sounds, pitches, timbres, and overall dynamic range are remarkable in this piece. Listen in the first of four sections, The Pines of the Villa Borghese, where the entire orchestra crescendos to a very high volume resulting in a highly complex waveform which is sure to challenge the tracking of any phono cartridge or IM distortion capabilities of your system.

Listen further to the second section entitled The Pines Near a Catacomb where initially, the orchestra is playing quietly enough for you to hear your own breathing over the music. Later in the same section, however, the organ and double bass are called upon to supply an infrequently-heard low D1 pitch in the musical scale - about 36 cycles per second - at fortissimo volume certain to give your woofers or sub a workout.

I own at least ten different recordings of this wonderful piece and as for the ‘best’ I would have to say that my favorite CD recording would be the 1993 Elektra version recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carlo Rizzi. Its hard to go wrong with the LPO and this is a particularly lush and well-paced rendition of The Pines which seems to capture the nuance and wide range of textures in the peice better than some others but I would also give high marks to the 2002 recording by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Louis Lane although faster paced and more bombastic in its treatment.

My favorite vinyl recording of this piece hands-down is the 1960 version by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Fritz Reiner on the RCA Victor Living Stereo Red Seal label (RCA LSC-2436) if you’re fortunate to find a good copy as I was.

Here is a link to a Hi-Res version, although not one of the recommended performances above, it still is however The Pines of Rome in HD.

For those of you who are interested in exploring classical music but are unsure of how to approach the broad range of composers, periods and styles, The Pines of Rome well may serve as an enjoyable entry point which will, in addition, reveal a lot about the musicality of your audio system.

Next time: Female Vocalists

 -RCB

 

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by Kevin O'Brien on 03/02/2012

I came across this Cannonball Adderley HDAD album looking for DVD-Audio and SACD titles at my local record store. Yes, record stores are still barely surviving but they are still around. That's an entirely different discussion! This is one of Classic Records' HDAD's. It is playable in DVD players/ compatible CD Transports but in HD resolution at 24/96 and 24/192. They are very similar to DVD-Audio discs but without digital copyright protection. A lot of these types of formats are going out of print these days. I wish record labels would continue to produce more hi-res discs but apparently there is not a huge demand. That really is unfortunate because I'd love to see way more titles out there.

'Somethin' Else' was a nice addition to my hi-res collection as I had a friend convert the disc to 24/192 FLAC files. You can give this DVD-Audio ripping software, DVD Audio Extractor, a shot but it will cost you just under $35. I think it's more than worth it but you can decide on that for yourself. I love when my music is in FLAC and WAV because it makes it especially convenient to play back. I use JRiver 17 for digital source files playback and it has been giving me great results. This digital HD album is no exception.

I'm sure most folks have heard the story behind the recording so I'll spare you the details but we all know this should have been Kind Of Blue Part II. The sound of the cymbals really gets me every time I listen. They actually sound like the real thing, which can be tough to do. Maybe I'm just dreaming here but wouldn't it be great to see Brubeck's Time Out and Miles' Kind Of Blue in 24/192 format? I'm just sayin'. Some day it would be nice to see. For now I'm just excited to hear some classic 1958 Miles in 24/192 so you can consider me happy.

If you're a jazz fan this is a must have. It seems like it could have been overlooked based on the actual title but don't let that sway you. Give it a listen and tell me I'm not crazy here. There is a definite audible difference between the 16/44 and the 24/192 releases. It sounds great in my system and I'm sure it will perform well in any system. Hear it for yourself.

Happy listening!

-KOB

   

Associated Equipment for this Review:

  • YFS/ SCH Custom Speakers
  • YFS Custom Room Treatment
  • YFS HD Ref-1 Computer Music Server
  • Musical Fidelity V-DAC
  • YFS Custom CA-60a Preamp and Custom 6L6 Tube Power Amp
  • YFS Custom Interconnects and Cables

                                     

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by Brad Easton on February 2012

I just bought the Talking Heads' Speaking In Tongues in 24bit/96kHz FLAC format from HDTracks.com. What an impressive recording. This album just sounds right. We have been testing these files with the MF V-DAC which has a ceiling of 16/44 via its USB input. These files still sound better than the Redbook files in our test scenario. Do yourself a favor and get online and check out HDTracks.com. If you can find a few titles you are already familiar with you will be in for a real treat. Compare them to your Redbook versions and be blown away like we have. We are hoping more and more audiophiles will be switching to digital sources such as computers and music streamers so hopefully the HDTracks catalog will grow more quickly. That is the main limitation with Hi-Res digital files. There just isn't that much material out there right now. There are plenty of classical titles but the rock and jazz are fewer and further between.  With a little luck and a general movement towards digital files as sources we should start seeing much more availability of titles.

One thing we've noticed that we do not get with the Redbook version of this album is P.R.A.T.. We just cannot get over how great this title sounds through our YFS HD Ref 1 prototype music server. WOW! If you have been waiting to make the leap into the computer transport scene, now is a great time to give it a shot. Don't wait any longer. If you are a Talking Heads fan, HDTracks has about 4 or 5 of their titles so you can start there with your digital files collection.

We have listened to some other Talking Heads titles and they sound great as well. 'Speaking In Tongues' is definitely their more widely known album with their most popular tracks. Get online and check it out. You'll be glad you did.

We hope to bring you more HD title reviews in the near future...

- BJE

Associated Equipment for this Review:

  • YFS/ SCH Custom Speakers
  • YFS Custom Room Treatment
  • YFS HD Ref-1 Computer Music Server
  • Musical Fidelity V-DAC
  • YFS Custom CA-60a Preamp and Custom 6L6 Tube Power Amp
  • YFS Custom Interconnects and Cables

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by Kevin O'Brien on 02/19/2012

Medeski Martin & Wood are not your typical jazz trio. They released an album back in 2004 that I can't stop playing. It sounds great! If you are expecting a standard jazz album, you are in for a surprise. I would classify their sound as "acid jazz" or something along those lines. Definitely not your average jazz album from the 50's. Either way, the sounds coming from this LP are wonderful.

MMW consists of John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood. These guys have been recording quality albums dating back to the early 90's and haven't stopped since. Most of their albums are pretty decent but a few are pretty "out there" as well so you've been warned. End Of The World Party is one of their works that strikes a perfect balance of funky sounds and classic jazz mixed together to make a hit album.

Thankfully you won't hear any of these tracks on your favorite top 40 radio show so not to worry. We'll leave that for Lady Gaga or someone else the kids are listening to these days. I often wondered if what I was hearing was universal among music fans so I figured I'd bring the disc along to some audio shows to see what other folks thought.

I ended up bringing the album to the 2010 and 2011 RMAF shows for auditioning purposes. I got plenty of, "Who is this? This sounds great!" remarks so I think I'm on to something here. Give it a spin, or a rip to your hard drive, and see what you think. If you can find it on vinyl, do not hesitate and buy it as it's well out of print at this point. I doubt you'll be disappointed especially if you keep an open mind.

ENJOY!!!

- KOB

Associated Equipment for this Review:

  • YFS/ SCH Custom Speakers
  • YFS Custom Room Treatment
  • YFS HD Ref-1 Computer Music Server
  • Musical Fidelity V-DAC
  • YFS Custom CA-60a Preamp and Custom 6L6 Tube Power Amp
  • YFS Custom Interconnects and Cables

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