Depending on the set up of a store's music racks, when I go shopping for new music I will periodically save some time and and -- quite literally -- look for the distinctive curved-edge packaging of an SACD buried amidst the standard CDs. Recently, I pulled out such a disc in the Philip Glass section of Streetlight Records to find a gem of a release by Lavinia Meijer, the spectacular Harp player from the Netherlands. Yes, you read that right: Philip Glass' music arranged and performed on the Harp in lovely 5.0 surround sound.
That 5.0 is not a typo. More on that later.
The first thing I felt when I put on this disc was a rush of immersion, that sense of being placed in a room, the space where Meijer was playing her Harp. The sound is full and lush, with genuine activity in the rear surrounds, not just a stereo sound stage with generic room ambiance thrown in the back speakers. There was imaging going on in the center and front left-right speakers as well. I closed my eyes and slowly turned myself around in the room while listening. It felt like I was really almost inside the Harp or at minimum really close to it.
Intrigued and excited, I wrote to the label that put this album out -- Channel Classics -- and was thrilled to get a prompt response from Jared Sacks, director, producer and recording engineer for the company. He offered many insights into the making of this recording which I will share with you. But in short, I will start with his summary that: "the surrounds indeed give the reflection of the surroundings in the perspective that the listener is sitting around the 4th row in front of the harp."
This is exciting.
While you can visit the Channel Classics website for detail on the gear they use here is more of Mr. Sacks' explanation as to what went into the making of this recording: With the recording of Lavinia, chosing the location is 80-percent of a good recording. This happens to be a church in Holland with wooden floors and a good deal of the walls.... I used a AB setup with a MS in the middle. I mix the AB and MS in the analogue mixer which goes straight to the bus. The center channel is taken from the 'M" of the MS.
"The surrounds are two microphones at about the same distance and height as a home multichannel setup. Forty-five degrees from the center. These two channels go directly to the AD converter and are then only used when setting up the multichannel master. (I don't use the subwoofer as this is really not needed for Classical music). This means really no postproduction at all.
"I did place the microphones a little further back than my other recordings with Lavinia because I felt this music would be better suited to have this distance. (especially for those who would want to play it to meditate!)"
So... how does it sound, you ask? Pretty amazing! This disc is easily going into my preferred stack of demos because of its simplicity, warmth and cloak-like immersion. The music is haunting, delivering a very modern sound -- due to Glass' composition style -- that is complemented by the glorious beauty of an instrument from times past played passionately in a highly sympathetic environment. It sounds immediately classic.
If you are a fan of Philip Glass' music, this is an important one to get, especially since the artist/composer worked with the performer on the arrangements/transcriptions. Almost more importantly, if you are NOT a fan of Philip Glass, you may want to check this out since it strips down his music to its essence. Sure there are repetitive phrases, but much of the trademark arpeggiating that drives some people a bit bonkers when listening to Philip Glass has been peeled away. This leaves beautiful spaces between the notes, room for the music and melodies -- and the listener's mind -- to breath. This is Philip Glass you could play for your grandmother and your hipster nephew and they both would find something engaging and enjoyable about it.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com