By Bill Heck
John Puccio has already reviewed a number of performances on CDs from HDTT. But HDTT offers most of their transfers in multiple formats, ranging from CD resolution (PCM encoding, 16 bit / 44.1 KHz sampling rate) to PCM 24/352.8 and DSD 256. (For the uninitiated, with PCM files the first number, e.g. 16, refers to the number of digital bits per sample; the second, e.g., 44.1, refers to the number of thousands of samples per second. John does not have the equipment to play downloaded high-resolution files, i.e., greater than CD resolution, so he suggested that I try a few HDTT transfers in one of the high-res formats. My NAD C 658 can handle up to 24/192 resolution, so I went with that level.)
For those who have the capability to play high-res files, the process for HDTT files is quite simple. You order a recording, specifying the resolution that you would like; once you order, you receive a link via email that allows you to download the file. Note that high resolution files are large, and the higher the resolution, the larger the files; for example, the three 24/192 files that I downloaded each were around 1.7 GB. All this means that you need a decent internet connection so that the download doesn’t take forever, and you need plenty of disk space. Once you have downloaded the files, you can play them from your PC (if you connect the PC to your audio system), or copy them to a flash drive (to plug into the USB port of your DAC), or copy them to another drive (that you connect to your network where it can be read by your DAC). The main thing is that you need a DAC that can handle files of the resolution that you chose. If you have no idea what any of this means, you presumably don’t have a DAC/preamp to play high-resolution files.
Enter HDTT with the goal of providing better versions of a recorded performances from decades ago. On the surface, that sounds simple, but it must be a difficult business. To start with, you need to find early-generation tapes from which you can transfer and digitize the performances. You would think that “finding” would be simple, but alas, it may not be: in the worst case, the best tapes may have been destroyed; in other cases, the ravages of time may have damaged them even to the point of unplayability. In other cases, the desired tapes may be…well, somewhere, but not to be found among the thousands upon thousands of poorly inventoried reels. On the assumption that you indeed have access to an early generation tape, you need to have the equipment not just to play it any old way, but to play it in such a way as to recover its full musical potential. If you were starting with high resolution digital copies, that would be easy; with old analog tapes, it can be quite a chore.
All this means that the final product may indeed be the best possible, but may still involve compromises. On the other hand, with luck, the results can be amazingly good. Let’s review a couple of examples.
In his day, Andres Segovia was the acknowledged master of the classical guitar, perhaps single-handedly (or perhaps we should say two-handedly) making the guitar respectable as a classical concert instrument. A Spaniard himself, many of Segovia’s performances are of works by Spanish composers, and his style remained what we might think of as “Spanish” throughout his very long career. But Segovia was hardly a one-trick pony: for example, he transcribed works by a number of composers, most notably J S Bach. (By the way, if you have never heard transcriptions of any of Bach’s music for guitar, be aware the some pieces can be revelatory, uncovering aspects of the music that are more difficult to hear when the music is played on the instruments for which it was written originally.) Post-Segovia, a number of great classical guitarists have arisen, but Segovia’s work still is well worth hearing.
At least in the modern period, Segovia recorded for Decca. Decca was quite well-regarded in the early period of stereo recording for their “ffrr” (Full Frequency Range Recording) technique.[i] So how did this set turn out?
For this particular album, comparison to a commercially available CD is complicated by the fact that the CD version is no longer available; I could not find even a used copy in a quick search. Discogs does list four used copies of the LP for sale at prices from $5 – 10, but as I no longer have a turntable, that was a non-starter, and anyway this review is supposed to compare the file to a readily available CD. To make things more perplexing, the album in question is not to be confused with the two-CD set released by DG called “The Art of Andres Segovia.” Nor should you confuse it with the 8 (?) CD series previously issued on MCA, then on DG, then on IDIS called “The Legendary Andres Segovia”. So far as I can tell, Segovia’s many recordings have been chopped up and repackaged in various combinations for decades. Sadly, most of these recordings have fallen out of their respective catalogs. Moreover, there is the distinct possibility that some, many, or all of the Decca master tapes of Segovia’s recordings were destroyed in the Universal Studios fire of 2008.
So what did I use for a CD to compare with the HDTT version of this album? Absent this exact album, I searched my few Segovia disks and found that Volume 7 of the aforementioned “Legendary” series on MCA began with the Milan Pavanas (Pavanes), and that the series of six pavanas comprise tracks 6 and 7 on the HDTT file. From what I can tell, the same original recordings were sources in both cases, so I used them as my standard of comparison.
In the discussion above, I mentioned some potential compromises because of imperfect sources. That concern applies here: the very first thing that I noticed in listening to this file was the result of one of the vagaries of the process. I cued up Milan’s Pavana 1 on the HDTT file and immediately heard a tape issue: the first note’s on pitch, then a weird “wow” in which the pitch dips, as if the tape had been damaged – stretched? – then a return to normal. The episode lasts less than a second, but my goodness, what a sound to open the listening session!
Listening to the HDTT version immediately suggests that this is an old recording. First, there’s a slight resonance that lends an “aw” quality to the sound. I won’t make too much of this: while noticeable, the resonance is not too distracting – but it is there. In addition, lower notes from Segovia’s guitar sound considerably duller than the higher ones – but this is only partly, and perhaps not at all, an issue with the recording. One needs to remember that Segovia was a master instrumentalist and colorist: he is using this thumb to play those lower notes in counterpoint to the higher ones played with fingers and, in some cases, perhaps struck with fingernails, thus creating different voicings for different parts. (This is especially noticeable on tracks of music by Bach later on the album, as the music is more contrapuntal in nature.) One also needs to take account of the characteristics of Segovia’s instrument, the type of strings that he would have used, and his own technique. All in all, the more I listened, the more comfortable I felt that I was hearing tonal balance fairly close to what I would have heard in person, notwithstanding that resonance mentioned earlier.
The Decca recording engineers brought the microphones rather close; the tape technology available at the time probably made that advisable, if only to keep the signal to noise ratio high. The close mic placement leaves one wishing for a little more air around the sound, but the apparent size of the guitar remains natural. Decca’s approach is pretty consistent in the works throughout the album, even though the recordings may have been made at different times, so we don’t suddenly and jarringly jump from performance space to space. Meanwhile, the good news about the upfront presentation is that we can hear the subtle details of Segovia’s performance – and Segovia provides delectable details aplenty.
Turning to the Pavanas as they appear on the MCA disk, the most obvious point of contrast is that these reissues “civilize” the original recordings. Tonal balances are more tipped up, which at first sounds more natural, and there seems to be an attempt to put some distance between Segovia’s guitar and the listener. However, there are downsides to these changes. First, the MCA versions lean toward the dreaded “eight-feet-wide guitar” effect. Second, the de-emphasis of the bass end robs the lower registers of their power, thus obscuring the harmonic structure that should be present. Third, the enhanced treble emphasizes finger noises. All guitarists, classical and otherwise, produce finger noises – squeaks, if you will – as their fingers move on the strings of the instrument. In the HDTT transfers, these noises are audible but subdued, simply a natural part of the background. On the MCA disk, however, these same noises are far more obvious, to the point of being obnoxious. In fact, the finger noises were such as to suggest steel strings on the guitar. (I hope that no classical guitarists reading that last sentence fainted in horror….)
Overall, then, it is clear to me that the HDTT transfers provide a better listening experience. No, they are not perfect – but that brings us to the issue of availability. Simply finding this album – and many other Segovia recordings – is a challenge. If you are a classical guitar fan, and you want to hear the father of modern classical playing (as you should), and you don’t want to spend your time haunting second-hand record stores, just get the HDTT transfer and enjoy the closest thing to the original that we’re ever likely to have.
In keeping with my “easy job,” I do not have much to say about the Reiner/Chicago performance, not because the performance is unworthy of description, but because everything that I might write already has been written, and likely written multiple times. Suffice it to say that Bartok and Reiner were friends who surely communicated deeply about this music, and it showed in the performance. Moreover, the RCA recording team, with producer Richard Mohr and the legendary engineer Lewis Layton, was at the top of its game in this era, producing recordings that even today are considered masterpieces. That praise applies especially to the recordings of the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner, and this recording, made in 1958, is perhaps one of their best.
On to the second easy part of my easy job. As with other RCA classics, this performance has been released in a variety of formats and combinations in the CD era. I have a copy from the 1990’s in which the coupling is Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. That will serve as my standard of comparison for the HDTT transfer, but I also was able to stream the same performance from a few other albums (thank you Idagio and Qobuz); so far as I could tell in quick comparisons, these latter versions all were identical to the aforementioned CD.
We can go right to bottom line: the HDTT transfer wins. In this case, despite the age of the recording, there are no issues with obnoxious balance or weird tape noises. Granted, at what we might call a “sonic glance,” the HDTT version sounds rather like the CD: sonic qualities such as the overall tonal balance, the perspective on the orchestra, the noise level (very low), and so on initially sound similar. But even a short listen reveals that the HDTT version has more depth, with clearer placement of instruments, than the RCA CD. The result is a more natural, realistic sound.
I could drone on for a while, but to what end? The performance is a must-have for anyone interested in this music, and the HDTT transfer just sounds better than the easily available CD. To put this in perspective: the original RCA recording is so good that the “standard” CD does sound quite lovely when considered on its own. If I had never heard the HDTT transfer, I could have lived happily with the CD. But the fact is that I did hear the HDTT transfer and now I’m spoiled. The differences are, in the great scheme of thing, subtle, but differences there are, and to my ears the HDTT version just sounds better.
The question remains as to what is responsible for the superiority of the two HDTT transfers that I auditioned as compared to the major label CDs. Is it the transfer or the high resolution?
As mentioned earlier, John Puccio has noted the superior sound of several HDTT transfers at CD resolution as compared to major label CDs, thus suggesting that the careful transfers themselves have a significant effect even when playback is at the same resolution. Looking further afield, various sources in audioland sing the praises of high resolution, and the HDTT folks certainly feel that the higher resolution versions sound more like the analog originals. Then again, dissenting voices claim that it is very difficult in practice to hear differences between CD and higher resolutions.
But we’re really asking the wrong question: It’s not whether someone can hear the difference, it’s whether you can hear the difference – given the limitations of your audio system and of your hearing – and, if so, whether it’s worth paying extra for that difference. Fortunately, you can easily answer this question for yourself. Order the Bartok / Reiner / Chicago performance reviewed here in the highest resolution that your system will support, then spend a few extra bucks and buy the HDTT CD of the same performance. (You can even buy the budget CD with no box; you just need it for testing). Listen to them both: take your time, I’ll wait. Can you hear a difference, and does the difference justify the extra expense? Congratulations. You’ve just found the best sound available! No difference, or not enough to justify a higher price? Congratulations. You’ve just found great sound and saved some cash!
. I can’t resist this tidbit: a number of the British Invasion rock bands of the early to mid 60’s, including the Rolling Stones, were on the Decca label in Britain – London Records in the US – with their album covers proudly displaying the ffrr logo. Seeing a thumbnail promo on the paper record sleeve for, say, the Rolling Stones right next to one for Andres Segovia was, to say the least, interesting.
To listen to samples of these HDTT products, here are links to the HDTT Web site:Bartok: https://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/products/bartok-music-for-strings-percussion-and-celesta-hungarian-sketches-fritz-reiner-chicago-symphony-pure-dsd?_pos=12&_sid=07452629f&_ss=r