113th AES: Count Basie Orchestra in 5.1 DSD Surround

Prior to the start of the AES Convention in Los Angeles, the folks at Sennheiser announced a seminar on 5.1 surround recording techniques featuring Mike Pappas. Pappas is the Chief Engineer at KUVO 89.3 FM Radio in Denver and more recently became the president of American Digital Recordings.

At prior high end audio and recording industry events, there has been a lot of buzz about Pappas and his direct to DSD recordings of the Count Basie Orchestra. So I was very interested in getting a chance to hear them at AES. I’m pleased to report that the buzz is jusified, the Pappas DSD master tapes are indeed something to hear.

The Recording Philosophy Behind The Sessions
The seminar started out with Mike Pappas giving attendees an understanding of his recording goals and philosophy. He believes in using high quality microphones (from Sennheiser and Neumann), a high quality microphone preamp (Grace 801R), high quality audio and mic cables (from Cardas Audio) and a clean signal path to his recording chain (the Meitner DSD Converters and a Genex Research GX 8500 8 Channel DSD Hard Disk Recorder monitored with Avalon Audio speakers and powered by a Balanced Audio Technology 6 channel amp weighing some 189 pounds!).

For the recordings of the Count Basie Orchestra at the University of Michigan Power Center, Pappas used 3 Sennheiser MKH 800 microphones in the left, center and right positions on stage. The goal here was to accurately reproduce the left to right positions of the instruments – as well as the front to back depth of the players on stage.

When it comes to creating the “.1” subwoofer signal for a 5.1 recording, Pappas is not a fan of rolling off and filtering each channel at 80hz and then combining this output into the .1 channel. He contends that such an approach causes phase shift errors and tends to defeat the value of full range speakers in playback. Instead, he uses a Neumann M 150 tube microphone which is also placed on stage in the center position. Since this an omnidirectional microphone, it is able to pick up the low frequencies from all directions and these signals can then be utilized effectively for the subwoofer channel.

Pappas also has an interesting technique when it comes to the surround channels. His goal is to accurately capture room ambience and crowd applause – but not direct instruments. In discussing this plan with the folks at Neumann, they suggested that he try their KU 100 Dummy Head Mic which carries the nickname of “Fritz”. What Pappas does is he deploys Fritz at the back of the hall, hung at a height of 12 to 15 feet, pointed away from the stage so that the focus of this sound is the hall ambience and crowd. Pappas told the audience that he was skeptical about using what is in effect a binaural mic for rear channel sounds. But after trying “Fritz” on his early DSD recordings, he is a convert.

Listening to the Count Basie Orchestra in 5.1 DSD Surround
After describing the set up, it was time for some listening. The first track we heard was ‘In A Mellow Tone‘. The track featured a very lush sound and was very effective as Pappas suggested in allowing the listener to place instruments in both the left to right and front to back front stage sound image. I was also impressed by the realism and clarity of the hall ambience, audience sounds and applause – clearly the “Fritz” mic approach is an effective one.

Next up was a track recorded at the San Jose Jazz Festival by the San Jose Jazz Orchestra, which is a 20-piece big band, with featured guest vocalist Jamie Davis entitled ‘I Hear Thunder‘. On this cut, the Pappas recording was very crisp and demonstrated a very wide dynamic range. You could hear deep kick drums and bass on the track as well as a rich tone. In response to an audience question, Pappas said that part of the secret of the quality of this track is that all of the mics were run wide open with no pads being used.

The third cut featured the San Jose Jazz Orchestra performing a tune with a nice balance of instruments at the start followed by some dynamic and crisp solo performances on trumpet. As with the first two cuts, it was easy to pick out instruments across the front sound stage and the front to back depth and positioning of the orchestra.

To finish off the sound demo, Pappas played a track by the Count Basie Orchestra called ‘Drum Thing‘. Pappas suggested that we listen for the contrast between soft and loud passenges here, claiming that his uncompressed approach to recording would enable us to hear a full 40db of Dynamic Range on the track. While I can’t verify the actual db amount of dynamics, the hi hats and snare drums had a lot of crisp sound and bite and the drum solos did indeed jump out and grab you. Very nice.

What’s Ahead?
Chatting with Mike Pappas after the seminar and demo, I learned that the Count Basie Orchestra is not only pleased with the sound of these recordings, they’ve signed up Pappas to do more. The highlight of this future work will include recording a series of concerts the Count Basie Orchestra will be doing in Japan during 2003-04 as part of their 100th Anniversary celebration.

I’m sure this will lead to more impressive 5.1 surround recordings. Now all we need is a record label to release some of this material on Multichannel SACD so we can enjoy it without waiting for the next audio show!