Site review by Christine Tham November 5, 2009
|Never have I been more (pleasantly) surprised with a review disc than I have just been with this title!
This disc arrived from IsoMike about a week ago, and to be honest I did not look forward to reviewing it. "High Altitude Drums"??? Is the listening experience akin to suffering from high altitude sickness? I half imagined that the disc contains recordings of high school kids in marching bands playing Sousa waltzes, with "Danny Boy" or "The Sound of Music" thrown in as bonus tracks.
Also, the disc seems to suggest "audiophile demo material" - anyone remember the Sheffield "Drum" and "Track" records? Audiophiles love showing off their systems using "demo discs" with excellent recording quality but questionable musical quality, and this disc seems to fit into the same category.
When I inserted the disc into my player and started spinning it, I didn't read the "Volume Control" instructions on page 10-11 of the booklet first, and as a result I was initially completely underwhelmed. The sound was tinny and distant. I thought "What are these? Toy soldiers playing miniature instruments?"
Here's the scoop: the album has been recorded at an extremely low level in order to capture the full dynamics of a drum and bugle corps with no compression or peak limiting, so to hear the recording at a "normal" listening level requires turning up the volume control. Way up. On my system, I normally play multi-channel SA-CDs with the volume control at the 9 o'oclock or 9:30 position (in comparison to an analog clock), and the highest I have ever had to turn up the volume was to a 10:30 position (for an uncompressed recording of a symphonic orchestra). For this disc, I had to turn the volume control all the way up to 11:30!
The first track "Prelude" is useful as a volume level calibration track (according to the liner notes) - the volume level is adjusted until the crescendo sounds natural and peaks at a loud but comfortable hearing level.
After doing that, all I can say is "Wow!" This disc truly is "audiophile demo quality" - the music comes alive in such a truly remarkable way that if I closed my eyes I could well imagine I am in the field surrounded by the musicians. In the background, I can even hear distant sounds of motor traffic and snatches of conversation.
As for the instruments themselves, being used to listening to synthetic compressed drums I never imagined that the drum as a musical instrument can be so subtle and alive. The bugles also sound wonderfully nuanced and realistic.
It's amazing hearing these instruments uncompressed because they sound so natural and amazingly realistic. The loud passages are really loud, so loud that they literally take my breath away, and yet not painfully loud (unlike what happens when the volume control is turned up on compressed recordings) and my ears remained open and not "clamped down" at the end.
What about the music? No, I did not hear Danny Boy, or the theme from Hawaii Five O rendered by amateur musicians - what I heard was intelligent, interesting, articulate music played by a group (actually two groups, the Blue Knights and the Troopers Drum & Bugle Corps) of very professional musicians.
This recording also dramatically showcases the advantages of the SA-CD format - the 4.0 surround recording has a truly enveloping soundscape, and the high resolution of DSD means the music sounds incredibly detailed and alive despite being recorded at a very low level - I can hear a very palpable loss of resolution on the CD version.
In summary, if you are into audiophile demo discs, this is the one that will rule them all. Even if you are not, you will enjoy about 40 minutes worth of great music, thrilling to listen to.