High Definition for the Holidays from HD Tracks & the State of High Resolution Audio in 2015

The gift of High Definition Music is one of Santa’s favorite gifts. First of all, he doesn’t have to slide down a dirty chimney, or deal with an attitude heavy doorman, so an easy download really makes Santa’s day. Plus, Santa is pretty danged tired of lame Muzak versions of holiday favorites, so high resolution, high sampling rate, wide bit-depth versions, comes as a serious relief to Santa and his elve's ears. We look at some of last year’s favorite releases from HD Tracks.

After a few years of work, last year saw the first serious attempt by the recording industry to create a certification and branding program for High Resolution or High Definition audio. It is a noble attempt to bring some order to the field, with specifications that applied to hardware, recording techniques, and content. As a result, there are newly Hi-Res Logo branded Headphones, amplifiers, music, and more. Sony designed the logo, but allowed others to use it, provided it is used with products that meet the specs, and is now appearing on products from a wide-range of vendors. To many in the audio industry, the Hi-Res certification program was a welcome initiative to allow consumers more confidence in their purchases.

However the issue of just where the actual content source material came from and subsequent production chain was still murky and not really addressed by the certification requirements, so that Hi-Res includes a wide-range of formats, sampling rates, and bit-depth ranging from 44.1 kHz on up. The Pono site for example offered what seemed to be standard CD format files, so the issue of source is still critical if the industry is going to attract and convince consumers to ante up serious bucks for music

The actual issue for me since the first CD releases has always been the far more complicated challenge of the source material used for the transfers, and the digital chain that follows to the consumer. In the early days of CD’s, the industry used the DDD, AAD, or ADD code to let a consumer know if the recording was originally analog or digital, how it was mixed, or mastered. It was a fundamentally flawed system, since in the case of remasters there was no indication of provenance where the tape came from. Was it a studio master, a flat master, a stereo mix tape, a mix made for radio, or whatever? And this continues to be a consistent and thorny problem. Studio’s themselves have made this worse for the industry by employing a random pattern of supplying mastering notes for new releases. Exemplary campaigns like the Beatles, Springsteen, Grateful Dead, Tom Petty, Errol Garner, Jethro Tull, and others provided detailed explanations of the process used to restore, remaster, and in some cases remix the titles. But many, if not most titles only had the barest of information, making an informed choice by consumers difficult. Distributors like HD Tracks are at the mercy of the labels, and we urge labels to provide documentation on any high-res files they supply, so that a consumer knows what one is actualy getting. We like the new Hi-Res program and logo, it will highlight the existence and bring awareness to Hi-Res in general which is a good thing. Still, it would be great to require documentation of the files provenance.

A master tape might sound better if remixed after transfer to a digital master, as exemplified by the remix and remaster of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung by Steve Wilson a few years ago, finally resulting in the sound the band had always hoped for but never achieved till now. Other high-profile campaigns were the Beatles 2009 remasters, which were done from the stereo and mono master final mixes, so the sound quality was significantly better, with obvious shades of improvement. Of course we can all find examples that defy that characterization. When a remaster blows you away, it is often due to finding an original source master, and remastering from that high quality tape was what really made the real difference. Higher sampling rates and a third generation source were no match for low sampling rates and an original source. And there are endless arguments about the ability to hear higher sampling rates with older analog sources. Nyquist theory, sampling rates, bit-depth, DSD vs. PCM vs. FLAC, are all arguments distinctly separate from the music itself, and with a vacumn of actual scientific surveys and tests, most boil down to one's personal and subjective experience and opinions. For a modern Hi-Res recording, where the entire process is Hi-Res, such as demonstrated by David Chesky's titles, the results are nothing short of astounding

The advent of high-resolution files from folks like HD Tracks allowed engineers, producers, archivists, and artists to demand access to original source tapes. The result has been an increase in audio quality and with the advent of the Plangent Process, mechanical issues that impacted the original analog and even digital recordings can be improved upon and corrected. The opening piano of “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen with the piano finally in tune and without waver, is proof of what a modern restoration can achieve. And 2015 brought Neil Young’s Pono ecosystem to the public for the first time, and faced almost immediate criticism and outright dismissal in the press, despite Neil Young’s efforts to not only advocate for the Pono system, but also for the importance in archival and historical terms the imperative to obtain the best quality transfers available for the future. When I heard him speak during CES 2015 to a small packed room of journalists, engineers, and others, his was a passionate voice, not only for the Pono project in general, but the absolute need to preserve our recorded history.

The HD Tracks Springsteen catalog, and the Grateful Dead releases are high on our list. The same goes for the Emmy nominated restoration of the classic Errol Garner “Concert by the Sea” featuring restoration by Steve Rosenthal of the Magic Shop, and Jamie Howarth of Plangent Processes, resulting in the best sounding version of that classic title we have ever heard. It’s far from high fidelity, but it’s a significant improvement over the flawed, somewhat surreptitiously recorded original. With sales of over a million dollars in less than two years after it’s initial 1956 release, Errol Garner’s “Concert by the Sea” was always a disappointing affair in terms of sonics. According to a story in the Wall Street Journal, “There was no plan to record the concert officially. The release came about because Garner's personal manager, Martha Glaser, spotted backstage that a tape recorder was running. The recording was being made by a recording engineer for the Armed Forces Radio Network, "a jazz fan and scholar named Will Thornbury, strictly for the enjoyment of himself and his fellow servicemen." The recording quality was poor, the instruments unbalanced so that the bass and drums are not only diminished, they are barely audible at times. But, it was considered Garner’s most important recording. An audio dream team of Steve Rosenthal of the Magic Shop in NY, combined with Jamie Howarth of the Plangent Process, created a restored, expanded, and complete new version. The sonics are significantly improved, but keep in mind this was a poor low-fi recording to begin with, so view the new version in that light. The HD Tracks version is a reintroduction of that classic title to an entirely new audience. And with the expanded set of tracks, even veteran Garner fans have a much richer understanding of the concert, and Garner's work.

David Bowie is another artist whose catalog has had numerous releases, remastering’s, and packaging’s over the years. From the first serious visitation of his catalog in the 90s by Rhino Records Sound+Vision campaigns, most of which still sound wonderful today, to numerous deluxe reissues of the past decade. But few of those titles have been issued consistently in high-res, and this year’s release of the first years of his work in one complete download is a highlight. David Bowie’s "Five Years (1969-1973)" is a virtual box set of some of his most important titles from "Aladdin Sane," to "Space Oddity," and "Ziggy Stardust." Ziggy was remastered several years ago, but other titles are being released in high-resolution for the first time. All across the board the titles feature a much more musical and solid bass signature, and the veil has been removed from the soundstage. Seriously cool!

One of my father’s favorite albums when I was growing up was Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights, as popular for its album cover as the music! Listening to the HD Tracks release, it’s as if 50 years had never gone by, so clear and musical is the sound. A testament to both the original performance as its fantastic recording quality. The HD Tracks release is like having a best friend visit, with a clean set of clothes, buffed and polished.

The audio quality on new recordings of David Chesky’s titles is in a word superb. Modern, high-resolution recordings of challenging material, brought to life with first-rate performances and painstaking attention to recording techniques are not only musically rich, but with Chesky’s affection for a diverse set of influences, they are compositions that are difficult to pin down and describe with any degree of accuracy or completeness. Chesky Records existed long before HD Tracks came into existence, and was held up as a standard for first-rate recordings by high-caliber artists, so it should come as no surprise that without exception that Chesky releases sound wonderful.

The move by Chesky toward Binaural recordings, which uses two microphones placed in the precise position of two human eardrums, requires an unforgiving choice of room, placement, and instruments, and the Chesky line of Binaural recordings sound amazing on a good set of earphones or earphones, but also sound great with speakers. I thought there would be a diminution of quality when I switched from headphones to loudspeakers but in fact there wasn’t. The audio experience was different when comparing a binaural recording on headphones vs. loudspeakers, with an extraordinary soundstage on headphones not easily achieved, and believably musical. The same content on loudspeakers revealed that the soundstage and placement of instruments changed in an actual room environment, emphasizing the impact that a room has on the actual mix.

With headphones, the audio experience is very controlled, and even switching headphones, DACs, etc., the changes were subtle, the hardware impacting the experience, whereas the same content through speakers, the room itself made a difference, with far more variables. It wasn’t unlike viewing a Dorothea Lange F.S.A. era photograph in a museum, a catalog, or used for free in a newspaper. While the source may be identical, the context of the experience hugely affects the outcome. If you have good headphones, then you owe it to yourself to take a serious listen to the Chesky Records Binaural releases. The Dr. Chesky releases are also fantastic tests of your system, requisite for any headphone fan.

Another wonderful set of releases was the Bob Dylan catalog, with titles that aficionados have been waiting for like “Desire.” It’s tough to tell if these are different mastering’s then the SACD releases a decade back, but even if they are the same, it’s nice not to have to rely on an optical drive to listen to the high-resolution content. The two “Official Bootleg” releases are low-fi in original quality for the most part but are still a revelation for Dylan fans.

The Best of The Cutting Edge 1965-1966: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 12” is a cornucopia of songs and outtakes from what are arguably three of Dylan’s greatest albums; “Bringing It All Back Home,” “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Blonde on Blonde” and “The Basement Tapes Raw: The Bootleg Series, Vol. 11” compiles a restoration of tapes scattered around in every possible shape, location, and condition, and brings them all together for the first time. For Dylan fans, those two titles are must haves. “Planet Waves” has never sounded so fresh and unpretentious. And the song “Hurricane” from “Desire” still packs its incendiary punch, just as relevant now as it was then, with the same continued pattern of injustice and civil rights issues plaguing our country, a potent reminder how little progress we have made at times. Having attended the “Before the Flood” concerts, it was great to hear them in high-resolution. HD Tracks has almost the entire Dylan catalog available for download, and from the titles I reviewed, all sounded great.

The Grateful Dead probably have the most exhaustive documentation of their musical life then any band on record. From fan recordings to the bands own near daily recordings of every gig they played, the one constant is the extraordinary range of quality, equipment, and formats employed, some great, and some definitely not so great. Enter Plangent Process and their ability to repair the transgressions caused by a slightly out-of-round capstan, a motor running at the wrong speed, tape stretch, bleed through, and every other possible slight to a piece of magnetic tape that you can imagine. To hear the newly restored and remastered Grateful Dead live compilation “30 Trips Around the Sun: The Definitive Story (1965-1995),” as well as the Greatest Hits compilation “The Best of the Grateful Dead” is to be transported to another time and era. When technology is at its best, it’s invisible, and these restorations not only rock technically, but they are musical, and sonically a joy. It also reinforced that more releases should be restored first by the Plangent Process.

Last year also saw the release of the final Led Zeppelin studio albums, all in high-resolution, and all supervised by Jimmy Page. I liked the new releases, and found them enhanced and musical, but a few seemed overly bright, almost brittle at times, but the improved bass response and warmth in the bottom registers and the bite of the guitar strings are worth the wait. It’s wonderful to hear these tracks in all their audio glory. I’m still a sucker for “Led Zeppelin IV” and the new version has a clarity not heard in most of the earlier digital releases.

An artist many don’t think of when they consider audiophile recordings is Lou Reed. However, before he died in 2013, he made a priority of remastering his entire catalog, and judging from the releases I sampled, the effort was worthwhile. There is a bit of debate that some titles lost some of their vague murky ambience in the process, such as “Berlin” but I enjoyed the new version, and newer titles like “Legendary Lovers” really showed off the bass and percussion signature with a musicality not heard in the original releases. "Walk on the Wild Side" sounds glorious, with the backing vocals as smooth as a nice bottle of Bordeaux. Lou Reed, as either a solo artist, or a member of The Velvet Underground, seemed to be emblematic of poor, good, and excellent producers, engineers, and recording studios. Thus, having all the titles brought into the same high-resolution domain, added continuity to the audio long lacking. There have been other serious attempts to remaster his catalog, from the groundbreaking 1992 box set “Between Thought and Expression: The Lou Reed Anthology”, which Reed took control of, but which also offered the best audio versions at the time. This time, care was taken to find the best original masters, at the legendary Masterdisk studios; we have Reed’s final personal statement on his career.

If there is one problem with HD Tracks, it’s that they are releasing too many titles! Every time I sat down to write this list, another batch of “must have” titles were released. James Taylor, a splendid new album, or Harry Nilsson’s “Nilsson Schmilsson”, sounding better that I have ever heard it, beautifully remastered by Sony/Legacy, is really amazing, putting many current recordings to shame.

Another major high-resolution campaign of importance are the first three solo albums by Paul Simon. His initial solo release, simply titled “Paul Simon” best known for the hit “Mother and Child Reunion” is quite possibly his strongest solo release. The follow-up, “Still Crazy After All These Years” was a chart favorite, while “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” forever endeared Simon to photographers around the world with the hit song “Kodachrome.” All three were predictors of his future musical path. On “Paul Simon,” we see the first inklings of his interested in what would later be termed “World Music,” recordings with the Dixie Hummingbirds, and others laid the path for his future musical meanderings. “Paul Simon” and “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon” are both essential recordings, and these high-res releases are welcome updates to his catalog. While listening to those titles, don’t bypass last year’s high-res releases of the entire Simon & Garfunkel catalog.

Tom Petty is one of most vibrant rock and rollers of the past 30 years, and this year saw the remastering of his entire catalog, with more to come. Carefully restored, with Petty’s blessing and encouragement, these remasters shine with energy, and all aspects of the recordings are dusted off, and the result is more energy, a solid bottom end, and the percussive punch that Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are known for. “Damn the Torpedoes,” “Full Moon Fever,” “Into the Great Wide Open,” and “Hard Promises” all shine here, although “Damn the Torpedoes” was originally remastered and released a few years back in 2010. All the 2015 recordings have been remastered without compression, and an effort was made to keep the dynamic range free from the loudness wars, and the best possible master tapes were sought out.

Another set of exemplary releases were from The Who. From the classic “Live at Leeds” to “The Who Sell Out” the new remastered versions just shine. “Who’s Next” the classic title that was an abridged version of Pete Townsend’s “Lighthouse” project, wasn't treated nicely by history. The original master multitrack tapes were tossed in dumpsters when Virgin purchased the studio the album was recorded in. Luckily a sharp eyed fan spotted and saved as many tapes as he could find, so most, but not all of the tracks were there for a true remastering. The new version sounds great, as does “Quadrophenia.” No matter if you are a Mod or a Rocker, the remastered Who titles are for you!

Any list like this is by its very design incomplete and I’m leaving out amazing Jazz and Classical titles, so I’ll address those in the near future. With a batch of exciting new releases in the wings as we go to press, you can count on us taking a careful look at them. There are relatively recent releases you should be paying attention to.

One truly landmark high-resolution jazz release in 2013 was Miles Davis’ classic jazz album “Kind of Blue” considered by many to be amongst the most important jazz albums ever recorded. I’ve owned it in a variety of format, LP, cassette, CD, Sony Gold CD, but none compare to the high-resolution version available from HD Tracks. It breathes with life, and the sonic quality will astound you. The rich, clear sound is a revelation if you consider how many versions, formats, and source tapes have been used over the years, almost all of them flawed. The new release corrects the audio flaws, and you can hear Miles Davis as you have never heard him before. Highly recommended!

James Taylor’s “Before this World” put the iconic singer/songwriter back in the spotlight, and rightly so. Like Mark Knopfler (we highly recommend “Sailing to Philadelphia” in high-res), James is understated, but rich in timbre and tone. This is a gentle, solid, gorgeously recorded title, and according to HD Tracks “This hi-res version of “Before This World” was mastered especially for audiophiles with less peak limiting for a much greater dynamic range than the CD version.” As much as I love reissues, the future is hoping that new releases are recorded and mixed in a similar spirit, as “Before This World” embraces.

With Joni Mitchell’s health in question over the past year, take some time with her remastered catalog. The titles are profoundly affecting, her musical journey is nothing short of amazing, and to hear Jaco Pastorius on bass, while Tom Scott and the L.A. Express move the music along, is a wonderful tribute to a great and influential artist. If a listen to "Blue" in high resolution doesn't move your soul, you need to adjust your medications.

So, don’t just look at the new releases, take some time looking at the increasingly eclectic and deep set of high-resolution titles in the HD Tracks catalog.

HD Tracks deserves a lot of credit for legitimizing and spearheading the market for high resolution downloads. Not only does this help the labels justify the expense to spend serious time and effort to search out the best quality masters, it’s also archiving our audio history in the best possible quality and format, so that our musical heritage stays with us into the future.

Harris Fogel, posted 12/20/15

For more information on these titles visit HD Tracks: www.hdtracks.com

For more information on the Plangent Processes visit: www.plangentprocesses.com