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Direct-to-disc CD: Best recording ever made?

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

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Direct-to-disc CD: Best recording ever made?

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

A small California company has introduced what may be the best-sounding recording ever released. It is a compact disc made directly from a performance, without an intervening tape recording.

The CD is "A Gershwin Fantasia," from Reference Recordings of San Francisco. The electrical signals from a set of microphones went directly into a compact-disc mastering machine, which produced the CD. CDs normally are recorded on tape, which is then edited onto a second tape before the resulting version is fed to the mastering machine.

Reference Recordings has created similar direct-cut CDs in the past, with mixed results. But its latest effort ranks at the top in both the natural quality of the sound and the CD's overall sonic range.

Pianist Mike Garson plays his own compositions based on themes from George Gershwin in this 14-minute recording, which is being sold as a CD "single." The length of the performance is the only drawback of this spectacular disc, which can be ordered direct from Reference Recordings or purchased at record outlets in the United States and Canada. (The recording number is RR-S4CD. The company can be reached at 800-336-8866.)

Compact discs normally cannot be recorded from a live source, because the disc must contain hidden information about the duration and location of tracks on the disc—and these can only be encoded on the disc after a tape recording has been analyzed.

But Reference Recordings got around this seemingly unsurmountable obstacle by having Garson play a Bosendorfer reproducing piano, which is able to record everything that is played on it. By listening to the piano's own playback and logging all the details of the performance beforehand, Reference Recordings was able to feed the appropriate information to the CD mastering machine when it captured the live sound of the piano.

Critics may complain that making a recording of what is, in essence, another recording—a CD of a piano that plays back what is held in its disk-based memory—is not the same as recording a live performance. But the Bosendorfer actually plays its own keys when reproducing a performance, and so the sound is as "live" as it was when the pianist sat down at the keyboard.

Even without considering the amazing recording ability of the Bosendorfer, it is an impressive instrument. This concert-grand-size piano is generally considered the finest-sounding piano now being built.

Garson is widely known on the West Coast for his improvisational skills. He was trained at New York's Juilliard School.

The Gershwin disc is being released in HDCD format. This stands for High Definition CD, a process that eliminates some of the distortion that is otherwise unavoidable in the creation of CDs. HDCDs can be played back with some benefits on normal CD players, but sound best on special HDCD machines. These are rare, but some manufacturers have said they will begin producing a variety of HDCD players soon.

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