Review from Sound+Image magazine
This feature originally appeared in Sound+Picture magazine, Australian sister publication of Which Hi-Fi?. Click here for more information Sound+Pictureincluding digital editions and details on how to subscribe.
Long before Apple brought spatial audio to the masses (and blessed the company for it), in those forgotten days before anyone believed that a surround effect could be convincingly delivered by stereo headphones (and shockingly, there are still those who cling to this heretical notion ), before standards for surround sound in movies were even agreed upon, there was already multi-channel music.
Multitrack recording in the 1960s led to multi-channel mixing in the 1970s, and 50 years ago you could choose between a stereo LP of “The Dark Side of the Moon” or the quadraphonic release that would play from every corner of the room – provided, of course, that you had a compatible system.
And those lucky hi-fi nerds who did were assured of all sorts of cool and vivacious hippie chicks coming to dig their quadrophonic Floyd sounds, man, and long-haired dudes would come share their joints and probably take the hippie chicks away again.
Well, that’s how I remember it. Those halcyon hi-fi times were golden years, a heady mix of a home hi-fi revolution and music that meant something and love that supposedly did nothing, all rolled up on an LP sleeve in a fading Kodak haze of orange wallpaper and long hair and concepts of free love which, of course, have now been rightly and extensively prosecuted in the courts.
But in the privacy of the private home, multi-channel fun has been going on ever since, with a lucky few liaising with the cognoscenti (aka hi-fi “dealers”) to capture the joy and rapture experienced when a multi-channel sound system breaks broadcasts of a multi-channel mix floating through a room adequately filled with speakers.
By the late 1990s, dubbed the “post-greedy “me” decade, multichannel enthusiasts largely locked themselves in dedicated home theater rooms and watched movies. The likes of Nirvana weren’t interested in spreading grunge across multiple channels for laid back listening sessions, though the golden era of DVD did bring a pleasant period with large numbers of live concerts and greatest hits DVDs getting 5.1 channel mixes – some of them even in high-resolution DTS. These DVD mixes still stand against the Dolby Atmos mixes of today, and they deserve to be saved from the street clearance piles whenever you come across them.
But such multichannel musical delights were experienced by few: only a portion of home theater owners were as much or more concerned with music than their movies. Very rarely you will find a true multi-channel music system. Most systems were more about big bang-bang movies, with the ever-increasing provision of subwoofer-driven bass, so that home theater owners became increasingly isolated, both acoustically and personally, though often thrillingly equipped in terms of channel count.
They kept a lot to themselves. “We don’t want to disturb the neighbors,” was the cry of the home theater enthusiast at the turn of the millennium, when everyone else switched to headphones and went out for a bit. “We don’t want the bad old days of quads and hippies. Or 3D for that matter. Please come along; leave us alone.”
Meanwhile in Norway…
To avoid all this furor and enjoy the rare joys of multichannel music in peace, few went to the extreme of Morten Lindberg, working from an isolated audio oasis half an hour south of Oslo, his mastering studio majestically loaded with many channels of mega-accurate Genelec ‘The One’ active speakers.
Lindberg is a recording engineer and producer; his recordings on the 2L label were made in huge churches and cathedrals over the past 20 years. It uses high antenna-style arrays of microphones that map directly to your home speakers, so when you start one of its Blu-rays or SACDs you can choose between 5.0 DTS-HD MA at 24-bit/192kHz or Dolby Atmos in 7.0 .4 at 48kHz, or Auro-3D if you’re hanging out with a voice of God in your multi-channel arsenal.
Or just (and you shouldn’t really say ‘just’) 24-bit/192kHz stereo.
Everything he does is recorded there, and it’s almost all vocal stuff – choirs and ensembles that are particularly suited to the acoustics of these vast spaces. I don’t know if anyone ever said, ‘Hey Morten, wanna come to the Montserrat sun and record the Rolling Stones? Or the Cure in a phone booth? Or my buddy covering Elton John?’ You know, something less ethereal?
Probably not. Maybe it’s not tanning well. Or maybe he shoots his multi-channel recordings in these far northern environments, because sound is known to hang in the air just a little bit longer in those subarctic conditions, floating and humming like the northern Lightswhich explains why his shots are so ridiculously perfect in their expression of space and detail and pure magic.
They are not only immersive but experiential shots; if your system is right, they’ll knit your speakers into the high-vaulted cathedral they’re shot in, and more importantly, you’ll sit impeccably in the middle of the performance. The recordings are so well made that, despite the particularly Norwegian focus on material and artists, Lindberg has received 42 Grammy nominations since 2006, mainly in craft categories such as Best Engineered Album, Best Surround Sound Album, Best Immersive Audio Album and Producer of the Year. He is an engineer’s engineer. The connoisseurs know him well.
I now have eight of its most recent pairs of discs – and I should note that you can also stream 2L’s music, some of which are even in Atmos on Apple Music. But streaming Atmos is highly compressed (an alarming compression ratio of 10:1 or thereabouts), and such compression really isn’t what Morten is all about. So the 2L high resolution downloaded files or the dual disc releases (Blu-ray and SACD) are really the way to go.
2L’s ‘Trio Mediæval’ audio Blu-ray
The latest 2L release came just as I was testing the new Sony STR-AN1000 receiver (the Australian version of the Sony TA-AN1000), which I am anticipating my full review for Sound+Picture just saying that things are going really well at the moment indeedso much so that my wife complained that I spend too long alone in the music room “up there with your surround”.
As part of the multi-channel music listening I do with every visiting receiver, I loaded up this latest 2L Blu-ray disc, confirmed Atmos was coming, and sat back down to listen.
The performers on this latest 2L disc are the ‘Trio Mediæval’, an unsurprisingly Norwegian vocal trio (although one of them is a Swede), which also features Catalina Vicens on some tracks, playing something called an organetto, what appears in the photos in the notes notes to be a portable (or maybe only slightly portable) pipe organ played a bit like a harp, with a keyboard on the right and a harmonium-style hand pump on the left.
Ms. Catalina studies antique keyboards (not to mention being a harpsichord professor) and probably drives around in a small van filled with such curious keyboards.
The music, meanwhile, comes from the “Old Hall Manuscript,” a beautifully decorated 15th-century choir book that was lost to history for the better part of 400 years until it reappeared in the late 19th century in a Catholic seminary in Hertfordshire.
Not your usual bag? Nor mine, I confess. Medieval music isn’t what I generally load up on during hours of free time — let’s see: If I just let Apple Music play me a “Favorites” list, Slade, Genesis, Leonard Cohen, Sky, and ELO are in the row (that’s today’s list; it varies pleasantly).
But I grew up with little Catholic tastes in music, so I’m definitely open to the joys of an Old Hall Ladymass.
It’s really easy to set your levels for 2L recording playback: just keep cranking up. Nothing stops you, except the equipment you have connected, that’s how pure the recordings are. You’ll know when you’re there because you really are Are over there; you feel the hall, you feel the height.
This is common in 2L’s recordings, but this one – I don’t know: is it the music or the recording? I went pretty transcendent during the opening track – the three singers yes, but that organ? WTF is that organ thing? I could listen to that, in that room, those tones, all night long; just wow.
So with the utmost respect for the divine voices of TrioMediæval, I kept waiting for that organ thing to return. It returned to number 3 in the intro; I was pinned into my chair and felt the space.
And then track 4 happened: Sol Lucet, it is called – “the sun is shining”, according to Google’s translation from Latin. No organ here, just the voices, climbing up and interweaving with some wild vocal intonations there too. Incredible.
I’ve since streamed this in stereo, and it’s interesting but not incredible. I was also occasionally flipping on the Blu-ray between the DTS high-res 5.0 and the mere 48kHz Atmos. The DTS sounded clearer and more detailed; the Atmos softer. But the semicircular soundstaging was much more real. All of Morten Lindberg’s recordings are excellent, but for me this is the best yet, the most immersive and most perfectly realized in terms of total immersion.
To the song that opens to Regina Celi (Queen of the air), the Trio takes off powerfully over a drone-like wandering organ: the emotionality of this felt more qawwali than Christian chants, and I went transcendent again, away with the fairies. Astonishing. If music sounded like this in a 15th-century cathedral, you’d understand why they all believed in God.
Anyway, in summary, it’s the best music recording I’ve heard in Atmos to date – and I’ve heard a lot. The music may be literally divine, the vocal trio is mesmerizing, nothing more OMFG unique organ, and bringing it all home is Lindberg’s uncanny conquest of the audio world.
After 42 Grammy nominations, he’s hardly a secret. But if you’re new to 2L shots, these are great drives to start with. Let Morten Lindberg into your audio world and he’ll let you into his.
What now for 2L? I’m putting my money on a Norwegian cathedral and a few singers. And you know what? Place a pre-order now.