David Elias -"The Window" - An SACD review by Stuart M. Robinson
The first indie SACD production, David Elias' "The Window' has quickly entered audiophile folklore as a reference recording, one of those discs you pull out to demonstrate your new, insanely expensive system to friends or take around to a dealer when auditioning new hardware.
The problem with a reference recording on any format is that its technical merits often become more important than the music itself. Moreover, the material runs the risk of becoming stale, or worse still, played by people who don't really enjoy the genre and are only interested in using it as a convenient demo piece. If you've visited any type of audio show in the last couple of years you'll appreciate what I mean. If a manufacturer's representative cues up Enya's "Shepherd Moons' or the Diva Plavalaguna sequence from "The Fifth Element' one more time, I won't be held responsible for my actions.
"The Window" is currently treading a fine line, everything one reads concerning the disc gushes about the wondrous merits of DSD and in the process, sidelines the music and the recording -- and by that I mean the skills of the engineers and producers, not the type of buttons they pushed, together the work of the musicians involved. This is understandable to a point, the DSD hardware used to capture "˜The Window" was donated by Sony (as is the case for so many SACD recordings) and production assistance came from Gus Skinas, a close friend of Elias' who also encourages his work, Dr. Andrew Demery and Colin Cigarran, all of whom happen to be the SACD Project's figureheads, so a certain amount of payback is expected. However, at every available opportunity the recording is being used as a DSD poster-child, with the artist and his music taking a back seat.
Every great recording requires great music, and that's what this disc is all about.
Elias' first album, released in 1995, was entitled "Lost in the Green". "The Window" is the most recent, it was recorded in DSD, lest we forget, during late November 2002 at Immersive Studios, Boulder, Colorado. An accomplished performer and composer, Elias' songs are uncomplicated, beautifully so, and free from any undue frippery, every note and word appears considered and appropriate, which is largely what makes this disc such a magical experience. Some might describe the music as country or bluegrass, but neither would be entirely accurate, there is also a strong sense of American folk, albeit far removed from the duelling banjos variety. Acoustic guitars, harmonica, dobro and mandolin are skilfully played by the artists joining Elias, but keyboards, electric and bass guitars are also part of the mix and there's even a song entitled "Half an Hour Away" that has an olde English traditional feel.
The performers and their instruments are as follows: David Elias (acoustic guitar, vocals, harmonica), Sally Van Meter (dobro, weissenborn, lap steel), Matt Flinner (mandolin, bouzouki), Ross Martin (electric and baritone guitars), Eric Thorin (upright bass), Marc Dalio (drums and percussion) and John Magnie (accordion and keyboards).
A highly unusual aspect of the album was that over a period of three days, each song was recorded "live", an approach that demanded military-precision arrangements (decided upon during a brief rehearsal period) in order to not only capture all the musicians, but also the acoustic space in which they performed. How easy it would've been to let Animal thrashing away on his drums drown out poor Tinkerbell over in the corner playing her spider's web harp. Alright, neither Animal nor Tinkerbell actually perform on the album, but you get the idea!
It was also decided there would be no over-dubs so Jeff Shuey was given the unenviable task of live mixing in the analogue domain prior to any A/D conversion. All this means that the pieces one hears on the album are disconcertingly faithful to the original renditions and the acoustic space in which they were captured. The musicians were arranged in a semi-circle, two microphones were located centrally, while the pair used to capture the surround channels were mounted at the rear of the room, up high and spread apart a little. The vocals, mandolin and bouzouki, bass, dobro and weissenborn were further isolated on separate microphones, thereby soaking up all eight channels of the Sonoma DSD workstation used during recording.
The result can truly be considered a work of greatness. From the moment the disc begins, one is instantly grabbed by the intimate soundstage; Elias sings the majority of lines no louder than a whisper, almost as if all the songs are lullabies, but it sounds as if he's doing so while sitting on your lap, such is the feeling of a real, confined acoustic space and a close proximity to the performers. The experience is startling, even to a hardened listener such as myself.
"Summer Wind" is a particularly expressive song, gentle, restrained and yet thoroughly engrossing. "Go Down Easy", which just happens to immediately follow is more up beat, although not in any aggressive manner; both it and "Summer Wind" aptly summarise the philosophy of the performances as always considered, finely detailed and comfortable, just like your favourite pair of old carpet slippers. Spend some time with the intricacies of "Half an Hour Away"(especially the instrumental introduction) together with the dark and moody title track and one cannot help but come to the conclusion that this album really is something special.
The fidelity is not earth-shatteringly revealing, certainly no more so than many other high-resolution discs, rather it is the positioning and balancing of the vocalist and instrumentalists that elevates it above the norm. David Elias is certainly forward in the mix, but never alarmingly so, while the remainder of the band really do appear to be spread out around and behind him, listen in a darkened room and one can literally point to the location of each musician. There are many textured layers, from drums to guitars, all of which are clearly discernable as individual elements but never become detached from the whole and no one performer ever overpowers, which is quite a remarkable feat given the one-room one-take methodology of the album. There are only a couple of areas where one can level any justifiable criticism, namely during the title track and "Picture of Nothing", where the percussion is a tad clouded, especially in the highest frequencies. As someone who used to play the drums I also noticed an unnatural, hissing undertone, rather than a clean harmonic ringing to the cymbals, but this is a very small nit to pick.
Given how involved one becomes with the music and performances, it's surprising to learn when dissecting the mix how little contribution the surround channels make when one listens to them in isolation, there is nothing back there in the way of overly discrete content and they're at a remarkably low level, but it's just enough to develop and heighten the sense of being in a real acoustic space. Instruments are spread around to the sides of one's listening space, Sally Van Meter's lap steel guitar to the left and Matt Flinner's mandolin to the right to name but two examples, but the focus of the mix is undoubtedly the front three channels.
The centre is far more prominent than the surrounds; it carries the lead vocal and a number of acoustic guitar parts, although in the case of the former there is a deliberate phantom "bleed" across the front left/right. Of all the channels, the centre is the most active and as a result the importance of an accomplished loudspeaker in this position cannot be understated as far as this disc is concerned.
Soapbox statement: Those who believe that music in surround is a "gimmick" or unrealistic need to extract their heads from the sand and audition this disc on a competent multi-channel system. Anyone who still thinks that stereo is the pinnacle of musical reproduction thereafter needs a sharp slap upside the head.
But of course, this being an SACD, it does contain a mandatory stereo mix for two-speaker dinosaurs. On the SACD layer it demonstrates all the subtleties of the surround version (listen for the soft percussion during the opening of "Her Name is A." for example), but lacks the ultimate involvement of the surround mix, even via a system with revered soundstage imaging. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing inherently flawed about the two-channel track, just the opposite in fact, but the intimacy and presence of the surround presentation just isn't there. The same can be said for the 44.1kHz CD layer (this is a hybrid disc) but here the fidelity also takes a slight backward step as is expected. It's hard to put one's finger on exactly why, there's ample detail present and a rounded frequency response free from any hard edges, it's just that the liveness doesn't seem to be as obvious, there's a slight detachment from the players that isn't apparent via the higher-resolution alternative.
So to summarise, while it is true that the recording is "pure' DSD and a superb example of the art, that aspect alone is not what makes it great (arguably, and depending on your allegiance, 192kHz PCM or vinyl could've achieved an equal or higher level of fidelity) the real stars of this disc are, in no particular order, the wholly-realistic multi-channel presentation, the superb, intimate performance by David Elias and his band, the production and the music. To suggest that the magic of the disc stems predominantly from the DSD recording and delivery chain is both unfair and possibly misguided, it would've been an outstanding work and wholly recommended regardless of format. "The Window' is definitely one for your collection, even if all you have is a humble old Compact Disc player, the fact that it is also available in high-resolution is just the icing on an already scrumptious cake.