Virtual DSO

The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center was hailed as a "world-class hall" and "one of the most acoustically perfect concert halls in the world" by the media when it opened in September 1989 to the cheers of champagne-sipping socialites and other lovers of the fine arts. I.M. Pei's masterpiece was the perfect size, holding 2,062 patrons, and the perfect shape for such a venue--intimate enough to surround its audience, yet big enough to hold the sound of the 92-piece Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for whom the Meyerson was specifically built.

Unfortunately for an orchestra that likes to record--the DSO has released 19 albums since moving into the Meyerson seven years ago--the Meyerson's many-portaled reverberation chamber (which bounces the notes between the walls, creating the effect of thousands being played at once) and other acoustical features created a dilemma: There was simply no way to capture the hall's visceral, organic sound during the recording process.

The peaks and valleys of the sound would go flat; the depth would be lost in the digital translation. On CD, the Meyerson--so famed for its lustrous sound--would be reduced to nothing more than a shack, and for an orchestra that places such importance on reaching an audience far outside Dallas through its recordings, that wouldn't do.

Andrew Litton, the DSO's music director since 1994, was well aware of the predicament: On his four previous recordings with the DSO, he heard little of his orchestra's warmth, little of its soul, and in the end, the DSO's personality was wrung out in the recording process. Speaking from England, where he is serving as conductor for a new production of Salome, Litton recalls the frustrations he faced when he came on board.

"One of the things about working with such a great hall is how challenging it is to recapture the sound on record--how wonderful it is to human ears, how the instruments ring out, that sense of afterglow, that sense of warmth," Litton says.

But Litton has found the solution to his problem in the Los Angeles-based company Delos International Inc. After a long courtship that began in 1992, the DSO has just released its first recording for the label that utilizes a new recording process that seems to literally place the listener inside the Meyerson.

Called Virtual Reality Recording (VR2), the new technology is the difference between putting your ear to a transistor radio and listening to a concert from the front row.

"I think this is the most honest recording we have ever made, even in stereo," Litton says of the disc, which features the music of Tchaikovsky and includes a breathtaking version of The 1812 Overture. "I love the sound. I'm thrilled this new technology exists that allows us to capture the beauty of the hall...It's really a great mesh of existing technology and something in the future, something we haven't seen yet."

Delos president and founder Amelia S. Haygood worked for three years to convince Litton and the DSO to sign to her label; she attended numerous concerts and negotiated extensively with the management of the Dallas Symphony Association. In the end, she landed the DSO for an exclusive contract that will include at least two more releases in the next several months with more likely to follow in 1997 and '98.

"I think our new sonic breakthroughs were an enticement," she says of the reasons the DSO eventually signed on. "We picked the orchestra because of the quality. We wanted to let all of the world hear how great they are...[Litton] is a go-ahead orchestra conductor, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra is one of the premier orchestras in the country. That's one of the main reasons we chose Dallas...

"[And] I find their management to be one of the most supportive groups in the nation, if not the world. The thinking there is right on target."

The Tchaikovsky disc is the first in what Haygood calls "a very long-term" relationship between the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Delos, which expects to release about three CDs a year; Delos' previous VR2 releases were a disc with the New Jersey Symphony and another containing the national anthems of 48 countries performed by the Millar Brass Ensemble. The DSO has already recorded two more discs for future release: Shostakovich's Symphony No. 8 should be in stores in October, and Mahler's Symphony No. 6 is due for release in early 1997.

The Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich CDs were both recorded in private sessions inside the Meyerson Center, using a 14-microphone setup; the Mahler disc was taped live during four concerts last fall and completed during one more evening session. The next series of discs, featuring the works of American composers, will be recorded this fall.

The Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, and Mahler discs were recorded in the standard stereo form for CDs and a new multichannel form that engineer John Eargle explains turns common stereo sound into a larger surround sound; the result is palpable even on regular stereo systems. (New systems designed to accommodate the VR2 technology won't be in stores for at least a couple of years.) The sound is so remarkable, in fact, that after the first few seconds of the DSO's performance of The 1812 Overture, your ears deceive your brain into believing it is somewhere else--maybe the Meyerson, maybe St. Petersburg.

"What VR2 has allowed is a real sense of space," Litton says. "I'm thrilled that this new technology exists. It allows the music room to breathe."

Explode is more like it: During the finale of The 1812 Overture, the music swells to a furious crescendo, urged on by bass-drum blasts and cymbal crashes, replicating the mood and atmosphere of a battlefield. The music encompasses the sound of small skirmishes, full-on attacks, and final victory.

After two years of research, the VR2 process has been in use for about eight months. True to its name, it was created to give listeners a more realistic concert experience when listening to CDs, which have long been criticized by detractors for sterilizing music's natural, warm sound. Eargle recorded the DSO using the maximum number of microphones allowed in a symphony arrangement (14) and fed them into an eight-track digital recorder, which resulted in a layered and grandiose sound.

Delos designed the process to be compatible with a new sound system that ultimately will offer much better sound quality than the typical stereo. But until then, discs recorded using the VR2 process are best listened to using a system that offers some form of surround sound, such as Dolby Pro Logic. However, the richness and clarity of the recording still can be heard on a normal two-channel stereo arrangement; the difference is simply a bit more subtle. Haygood hopes the new discs will speed development of systems that take advantage of the VR2 technology.

"It's a little like when we manufactured compact discs before many people had a CD player," Haygood says. "I hope that they [stereo manufacturers] will get inspired by what we are putting out there."

But the DSO and Delos can wait a while longer. Litton says he is committed to the company for the long haul, insisting that Delos is a perfect match for the DSO because they share the same goals philosophically and artistically. He doesn't mind being the guinea pig as long as he gets to play in his own cage.

"They were willing to record whatever we wanted to play," he says. "They let us do what we wanted instead of what the record label wanted, which is usually how it is. They didn't force us into a pops album. This is a big reach for them, because they are an American company that specializes in American music, and here we come playing Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. We're both interested in making music.


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