Is it possible for recordings to sound as good as the musicians when they performed in the studio? RICHARD VAREY has found a record company that do just that.
We’ve all got favourite albums that show off the sonic qualities of our home audio system, right? I’ve got some news for you. If you haven’t heard music recordings issued by STS Digital, then you are missing something truly spectacular.
The Extended Dynamic Experience is all about full dynamic range and clarity. We are not talking simply louder, but quieter in the quiet parts and louder in the loud parts. And there’s more to it than that. This is clearly heard in the impact/punch and solidity, detail and clarity, ambience, speed, and depth. The tone is cleaner and more musical, and the emotional connection more immediate, and this encourages listening at higher (‘realistic’) volume.
STS Digital is a Dutch business producing premium music recordings on CD, LP, and reel-to-reel tape. They’ve produced a lot of demo discs and projects for hi-fi companies, as well as building a growing range of artists and albums. The catalogue of titles available is on the website, and includes artists like Ingram Washington, Ralph Rousseau, Carolin No, Madeline Bell, Lils MackIntosh, and Big Ben Webster. Other products are re-mastered titles from various back catalogues that are used to demonstrate the quality of reproduction possible from older titles.
Each sampler disc that I have auditioned carries a warning: “Heavy stuff, so watch your volume! We are not responsible for any damage on your equipment, so take care!” The demo collections include some very familiar artists for comparison with your regular album issues.
I played ‘Rudy’ from Supertramp’s album Crime Of The Century, which I’ve heard many times in the decades since it was issued on vinyl, including an A&M Audiophile Series special edition, and on standard CD. This STS Digital sampler rendering has by far the most detail and complexity of imaging, with genuine punch and subtlety. This is the closest I have come to the sound captured in the studio, I’m sure. Just wow! And wonderful! Oh, and then there’s the richness of Mark King’s bass tone and the impact of the drum strikes on Level 42’s ‘Dune Tune’, another favourite played many, many times. This is beyond doubt the best I’ve heard it.
On the tracks I also have on other discs, I went back and forth to compare, and sure enough the character of the music presentation is markedly different in a very pleasing way. The sound quality surpasses anything I have on CD or vinyl, or most digital files I have in my collection, except a few uncompressed HD files – lifting a veil to reveal nuanced detail, room ambience, and the particular qualities of voice and instruments. There’s a stunning recording of Joni Mitchell (‘Trouble Child’) as I’ve never heard her before, and the imaginative quirkiness of Bela Fleck’s ‘Flight Of The Cosmic Hippo’, which features superb and surprising bass guitar and banjo! The presence is gobsmacking, and presumably much closer to what is heard in the recording and mastering studios than delivered by the oh-so-prevalent mass market compressed commodity pressings.
The folks at STS Digital evidently like music very much, obviously because it is such a marvellous way to express feelings and communicate. Musical instruments, when played in fine acoustic surroundings, sound so pure and warm, but most CDs and LPs have a harsh sound that is closed and lacking ambience. STS Digital was founded 20 years ago to do something different to deal with this, and the results are recordings for Dynamic Experience, Celebrate The Art & Spirit Of Music, Siltech Test Demo CD, The Absolute Sound Reference, demo discs for audio shows, and a growing list of albums.
In these products, every musical instrument is given the space they need, so you hear the typical sound of various instruments with the help of good ambience. It is so important to record music in a good sounding concert room and not in a dry studio with close miking. STS Digital use Schoeps microphones with gold/silver cables from Siltech, and copper cables from Van den Hul, and they clean the AC power supply current with their own 6 pack AC Power Block. Their most important instrument at the outset of recording is their ears, as they listen for some time in the concert room where musicians are playing, then go back to their recording room to get the sound as they heard in the room as natural as possible. This is usually achieved by not placing the microphones too close, and they also put a lot of careful effort into mixing and mastering the recordings. The whole recording process is protected by their ears!
At every step of creating a disc or tape copy, the results are checked and compared with the original recordings. STS Digital understand that ordinary CD and LP recording companies can’t afford to give such Rolls Royce-type treatment to their products. STS Digital can do it because they get financial support from the best brand audio manufacturers to go as far as possible to reach that high end music reproduction standard.
STS apply five key principles in all of their work when creating Master-recordings. The warm sound that acoustic instruments possess is often not captured by sound technicians. STS obtain this by using Siltech-cables, top quality microphones and top-notch AD-Convertors. Acoustic placing and recognition of the musicians in the recording space is re-created in the reproduction soundstage, through their STS3 or STS6 system. Horizontal and vertical information is important. Phase purity of a recording, both the electrical phase (good cable/fibre connections, etc), and the acoustic phase, must be acquired through proper placing of the microphones. This is checked with a closed pair of headphones or with a phase-correlation-measuring meter. Symmetry in the recording means always placing the microphones in such a way that on both the left and the right side there’s an equal division of signal, and not placing mono support microphones that introduce unnatural exaggeration on the extreme left and right. Transparency and clarity in a recording means no overly-sharp recording, and softness in tone and clarity, in which especially the 3-dimensional recording-space is displayed.
STS Digital master CDs and LPs with their coding process to create the analogue sound of an LP, even on CD. The MW Coding Process, developed by STS Digital, is an optimisation of parameters in the whole chain from recording to mastering. It presents a wide dynamic range, precise sound stage and localisation, and smoothness comparable to a 24-bit master with the lowest jitter possible over the complete frequency range. It provides a perfect combination of the exactness of digital with the character of analogue.
I read a 2012 piece from Steve Guttenberg in which he said that “completely uncompressed music would sound lifeless and boring to most listeners”. Try telling that to the STS Digital folks! It seems that for connoisseurs of beautiful music, the purity of the extended dynamic experience is a must. I have been delighted by what I’ve heard on CD, and can’t wait to hear some of the vinyl albums. The packaging of several of the audition discs is let down by quite a few errors in the track listings, but this in no way detracts from the sheer audio delight experienced.
The STS Digital discs are available in New Zealand from Ian Ross Brown at Critical Sound Information, Hastings, Hawkes Bay.