In December, Crest National announced that its long awaited Hybrid SACD production line was up and operational. This was a significant event for several reasons.
Crest National is the first Hybrid SACD production facility in the United States and North America. The launch of Hybrid SACD production at this plant was also a welcome addition to record labels producing Hybrid SACDs since it provided a key new source of capacity. Shortly after the production line was launched, I was invited to take a tour of the plant.
After arriving in Los Angeles, I took a taxi ride to Crest National. Crest National is located in an industrial area in Hollywood. When you arrive at Crest National, you notice that the plant has several buildings at the site. After getting buzzed in by security, I went down some stairs and met my hosts for the day: Bob Freedman – Senior Vice President of Technical Operations/Optical Media at Crest National, Philip O’ Hanlon – Owner of On a Higher Note, the U.S. Distributor for Halcro Super Fidelity Amps and Michael Sabre – President of Eggleston Works Speakers.
An Orientation About Crest National & their Hybrid SACD Line
Bob Freedman ushered us into a conference room with a white board to tell us a bit about Crest National and how they came to be the first Hybrid SACD production line in the United States and North America.
According to a Crest National press release,
“Crest National is one of the world’s leading media facilities with over 40 years of experience providing motion picture film, video, audio, language and DVD/CD services to major film studios, record labels, software companies and industrial clients the world over.”
Crest National currently produces CDs and DVDs at this plant as well as Hybrid SACDs. In the past year, Crest produced over 25 Million optical discs at this production facility.
Freedman told us that the Crest National SACD production line is not only the first Hybrid SACD production line in the U.S. but it is also the first fully automated SACD facility in North America. The initial SACD line, which is now operational, will produce 15,000 Hybrid SACDs per day when it is up to full production. This line will be operational 24 hours per day, 7 days a week.
Crest National is already in the process of installing a second Hybrid SACD production line which will be operational in Spring 2003. Additional Hybrid SACD production lines will follow as SACD production demand increases.
In terms of SACD pressing equipment, Crest National is using the Singulus Spaceline SACD Manufacturing Line equipment that we featured in an earlier High Fidelity Review story. According to Bob Freedman, Singulus is the “world leader in optical disc equipment” with its equipment currently being used in the production of over 60% of all DVDs made worldwide.
Freedman said that when Crest National decided to add SACD production to its list of services, they approached Singulus and worked with them on the features and specifications of the Singulus Spaceline SACD Manufacturing Line equipment. Barry Singer of the Crest National technical staff then took the Singulus equipment and added to it to achieve the end-to-end automated Hybrid SACD production line that Crest National wanted.
Cyclo-Olefin vs. Polycarbonate Materials for Hybrid SACD Discs
Bob Freedman is not only a Senior Vice President at Crest National but he is also a chemist. This became very clear during our discussion of the chemistry behind the Hybrid SACD discs produced by Crest National.
In the past, Hybrid SACDs were made from Polycarbonate, the same material that most CD and DVD optical discs are made from – at Crest National and other optical disc plants. In the case of Hybrid SACDs made at Crest National, they have decided to follow a different path.
Crest National uses a material called Cyclo-olefin Copolymers that Bob Freedman says offers several advantages in Hybrid SACD manufacture. Some of the key advantages of this material according to Freedman include:
- Cyclo-olefin SACDs do not require the addition of a “face coating” on the disc to keep moisture off the CD layer of the disc. This eliminates the need for the caution labels now found on some Hybrid SACDs about not using cleaning or anti-static solutions on the disc surface which may remove the SACD’s face coating.
- Cyclo-olefin SACDs have a higher level of transparency which makes it easier for the CD Audio layer to be read by the consumer’s optical disc player.
- Cyclo-olefin SACDs also have slightly less measured jitter (3% less) than a polycarbonate SACD.
In summary, Freedman says that
“Manfacturing SACD hybrid discs using cyclo-olefin based plastics, as opposed to polycarbonate, allows us to produce discs which will exceed all of the SACD specifications, use a stable manufacturing process with a high
process capability, and produce a disc with the ruggedness and life expectancy consumers have come to expect from CDs and DVDs.”
A Tour of The Plant
After this orientation, Bob, Philip, Michael and I headed out to the plant to see the Crest National facility in action.
Our first stop was the area where the pressing stampers are made. The CD layer of each Hybrid disc is made from either a CD-R or a ¾ inch Umatic master that is played back by a Sony 1630 PCM recorder. On the other hand, the master of the SACD layer is made from an AIT master tape.
The information from these tapes is encoded into a glass master which is then plated with nickel sulfur. According to Bob Freedman, the operators of this process use 125 amps of current to plate the glass masters.
The next stop on the tour was the Quality Control lab where finished discs are tested for meeting the CD and SACD specifications. On today’s tour, we witnessed the technicians testing the finished discs of ‘Soular Energy‘ by The Ray Brown Trio and ‘Just Friends‘ by the L.A. Four on the Groove Note label.
These were the first two SACDs made at the Crest National plant and they were undergoing final review before being shipped to Groove Note. (Since the tour, these SACDs have made it to the market and are now available for purchase).
At this point, Bob Freedman noted that each SACD is inscribed with a notation that it was made at Crest National. It took me awhile to find this notation, but with the assistance of a magnifying glass, I did see that the words “Mfg. by Crest National” do indeed appear above the disc number on each of these SACDs.
Watching The Hybrid SACD Replication Process
As luck would have it, by the time we reached the production floor, we were in time to watch the start of a new production run. In this case, the replication of the upcoming Hybrid Multichannel SACD release of ‘Star Trek: Nemesis Original Soundtrack’ by composer Jerry Goldsmith for the Varese Sarabande label. The SACD is due out at the end of February so it was being pressed 60 days ahead of that date to allow time for quality control, packaging and all of the other steps between the disc’s duplication and release.
The replication process involves several steps:
- Cyclo-olefin crystals pellets are loaded into an injection molding machine. These pellets are melted and injected into a mold cavity under high pressure. Onto one face of the mold cavity is mounted the “stamper” (mentioned earlier), which transfers the music to the clear plastic disc.
- Two clear plastic discs are produced using the process described above – one contains the SACD music and the other contains the CD music. At this stage of the process, the two layers are processed by different sections of the production line.
- An Argon Ion laser plasma is used next to treat the surface of each disc layer so they will stay bonded when combined.
- The next step is to apply a UV Curable bonding resin to the SACD layer of the disc.
- The CD layer is then brought over by a mechnical arm which flips the CD disc layer and then applies it to the SACD layer.
- The disc with the combined CD and SACD layers is spun at high speed to spread the bonding resin completely between the CD and SACD disc layers. This also insures that the bonding resin has a uniform thickness.
- A two to three second UV curing process occurs next to complete the bonding process.
- A final protective coating of UV curable lacquer is applied to the CD layer for protection.
- The finished discs then roll off the assembly process on to spindles which are later used to transport the discs to the packaging process.
The entire replication cycle is said to take only 6 to 7 seconds. And it is as we were told earlier, completely automated from the time the Cyclo-olefin pellets are loaded until the finished, Hybrid SACD discs roll off the production line and on to the spindles. Very cool!
Planning A State of the Art, Reference Listening Room
After work was completed on their Hybrid SACD replication line, the folks at Crest National decided that they needed to build a companion state of the art, reference listening room. The purpose of the room would be several fold. First, it will serve as a place for clients to perform a high quality review of the discs made at Crest National and to compare them to the master tapes submitted to the plant before the discs go into release. Second, the room will provide recording artists, producers and engineers an idea of what is possible in terms of audio and video optical discs made by Crest National. Third, it will serve to introduce many in the audio profession to the Super Audio CD (SACD) format.
According to Bob Freedman from Crest National,
“Having a high quality audio and video room like this gives you an idea of what is possible from optical discs made by Crest National. The room is designed to let the professional music community in Hollywood experience music at its best. In terms of SACD, I believe the music industry needs this format. To make people aware of the SACD format, they need to hear it. And when they hear it played back in this room, they will be excited at how well it can sound.”
Visiting the Reference Listening Room
To reach the Reference Listening Room, we left the replication plant and headed across the Crest National campus to another building. Inside the building was a new listening room equipped with equipment from Halcro, Eggleston Works and Ed Meitner’s EMM Labs. When I arrived at the room, I learned that it was a very new facility – it was literally completed the day before and I was the first visitor to the room.
At this point, Philip O’ Hanlon and Michael Sabre took over and told me a bit about their equipment and how the room was put together. The room has been acoustically treated and the speakers are in a 9½’ ITU specification circle.
Equipment in the room includes a Philips SACD-1000 that has been outfitted with the new Digital Output Card designed by Ed Meitner at EMM Labs. The SACD-1000 Transport has been connected to a professional Meitner EMM Labs DAC8 Multichannel DSD DAC into the EMM Labs Switchman II professional preamp/switcher and then to five Halcro DM 58 monoblock amps, driving five Eggleston Works Andra II speakers.
Listening to Some Multichannel SACD Music
With such a high quality facility at our disposal, it was time to listen to some Multichannel SACDs. Bob Freedman turned the remote control over to Philip O’Hanlon. O’Hanlon has done many a high resolution audio demo over the years and is easily one of the more knowledgeable folks in the audio business when it comes to what sounds good in the world of SACD.
1. Tracks 3 and 4 from ‘Mahler: Symphony No. 1‘ by Michael Tilson-Thomas & S.F. Symphony (SFS Media)
Before playing this one, O’Hanlon said “The Mahler 1 conducted by Tilson-Thomas in multi channel is breath-taking. One can clearly here Mahler’s unique orchestral layout: the cellos are directly behind the first violins on the left, while the violas are behind the second violins on the right. It is also obvious that the trumpets are not in the same hall; they were in fact recorded off to the side.” Listening to the Mahler SACD I would agree that the disc and this system provided a very nice sense of dimension and instrument placement.
2. ‘The Look of Love‘ from ‘Look of Love‘ by Diana Krall (Verve)
Moving to some jazz, the title track from the Diana Krall Multichannel SACD entitled ‘The Look of Love‘ was featured. Played through the Philips SACD-1000 Transport, the Meitner DSD8 Pro DSD DAC, the Halcro amps and the Eggleston Works speakers the song was very smooth and warm with good definition and room filling surround sound.
As an interesting experiment, we compared the same track from O’Hanlon’s copy of the SACD pressed by Sonopress and a copy of the same SACD which was pressed by Crest National. O’Hanlon and I switched between the two SACDs and found both sounded excellent. Any differences between the two were so small that it would be hard to tell them apart.
3. ‘Let Me Touch You For A While‘ from ‘Live‘ and ‘New Favorite‘ by Alison Krauss (Rounder)
Next up, we played the song ‘Let Me Touch You For A While‘ from both the upcoming ‘Live‘ Multichannel SACD pressed at Crest National and the ‘New Favorite‘ Multichannel SACD which has been out for sometime now by Alison Krauss. The live version featured vocals center front and most of the performers and music across the front channels with ambience and the audience in the surround channels.
The same song from the ‘New Favorite‘ Multichannel SACD featured more material in the surround channels and had a richer tone to it. Of the two, the studio version was preferred although the many hits featured on the 2-SACD Live Multichannel SACD will be tempting to many Alison Krauss fans.
4. ‘New Favorite‘ from ‘New Favorite‘ by Alison Krauss (Rounder)
While we had the ‘New Favorite‘ SACD out, I asked O’Hanlon to play the title track as that’s always been my favorite surround selection from that album. As soon as the song started out, there was stunned silence in the room. We heard a beautifully balanced playback of instruments and vocals almost floating around the room.
“‘New Favorite’ is wonderful in Stereo SACD, in multi-channel on this system it’s to die for, both the performance and the sonics are nothing short of spectacular.”
I’d have to agree – the sound was just wonderful – surround sound playback doesn’t get much better than this. If you ever get a chance to hear the Crest National Reference Room, this is a must hear performance!
5. ‘Ooh Wee‘ from ‘Live In Tokyo‘ by Marlena Shaw (Eighty Eights)
More jazz; this time O’Hanlon put on ‘Ooh Wee‘ from the Marlena Shaw ‘Live in Tokyo‘ Multichannel SACD on the Eighty-Eight’s label. This Direct to DSD Multichannel recording features vocals mixed hard center as well as a dynamic band backing Shaw. The full impact of the band came through with excellent transient response on the system. The vocals, which can sound a bit “hot” on some SACD players were crystal clear on this set up. Very impressive.
6. ‘The Storm is Passing Over‘ from ‘Grace‘ by Broadway Inspirational Voices (DMP)
If you’ve read the recent show reports from the AES Convention in L.A. and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month, you’ve heard about the upcoming ‘Grace‘ Multichannel SACD. Recorded by Tom Jung at DMP Records, this is a direct to DSD multichannel recording of a group of Broadway Singers who perform gospel tunes when not on the stage. Jung’s recording features a room filling gospel choir plus a lead singer in hard center front. This is an impressive Multichannel SACD on every system I’ve heard it on. In the Crest room the choir was even more expansive and dynamic than before.
7. ‘Babylon Sisters‘ from ‘Afro Blue‘ by M. Sasaji & the L.A. All Stars (Sony Music Entertainment Japan)
‘Afro Blue‘ is the new album by M. Sasaji & the L.A. All Stars on the Sony Music Entertainment Japan label. Unlike their previous SACD ‘Birdland‘ which was recorded direct to DSD for Stereo but not Surround Sound, this album features direct to DSD recording for both the Stereo and Multichannel SACD tracks. ‘Babylon Sisters’ is a big band treatment of the Steely Dan favorite. Through the Crest reference system, the sound of the big band was very clean and dynamic. Again, a very impressive playback and more dynamic than I’ve heard this SACD before.
8. ‘Daraijin‘ from ‘Mondo Head‘ by Kodo (Red Ink)
Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead is both the producer and a performer on this one. It features the group Kodo on some massive drums performing the tune ‘Daraijin‘.
According to Philip O’Hanlon, he selected this cut to highlight the visceral impact of the drums, the cut’s “subterranean bass” and the ability of SACD with the Halcros and Egglestons to reproduce some very wide range and deep transients, even without a subwoofer. It was very effective and did make O’Hanlon’s point.
We talked about what’s next for Crest National. As I mentioned earlier, they are already at work in bringing a second Hybrid SACD replication line up. It’s slated to be operational this Spring. More replication lines will follow as demand for Hybrid SACD pressing rises.
Since Crest National also makes DVD Video discs, Freedman is planning to add a Sony High Definition Video Projector to the reference room so that it can be used for video playback as well. With the sound quality that is already present, that should be very nice.
After our listening session and as my visit was coming to a close, I told Bob Freedman that if this is how the reference room sounds after one day, before a full break in, his goal of having a room that people will be excited to hear has been met. No question about that. Indeed, the future for disc replication and the sound room looks bright indeed at Crest National.