I shamefully have to admit I wasn’t familiar with Blue Coast records until I recently learned of their intriguing approach to audio recording a couple of months ago. This label is an audiophiles dream come true, and they continue to push the boundaries of recording to levels so exacting that it seems that the musicians are playing in your listening room.
What listeners hear is the outcome of a couple of years of work, during which Producer and engineers Cookie Marenco and Jean-Claude Reynaud developed a surround recording method that is both intimate and expansive. Their trademark technique is called Extended Sound Environment (E.S.E.) and places the listener in the room with the musicians, creating an impactful and ever so realistic listening experience.
While they focus on a surround experience, you won’t hear parts flying around the room, nor wild shifting between channels, phasing, reverse snares, or other studio wizardry. Also, you won’t need to sit in a single sweet spot to gain full appreciation of these recordings, instead you will be bathed in the most natural recordings I have heard to date, so real that you can literally touch the musician.
Available on SACD, The Blue Coast Collection I and II feature beautiful recordings of several different acoustic artists playing a selection of folk, bluegrass, and new age styled pieces. I was astonished at the transparency of the recordings, and even more amazed by the vivid dynamics. I was immediately transported to the acoustic environment that enveloped the musicians, and felt the impact of each note plucked on the strings. The ensembles were initially limited to duos and solo performances, with absolutely no overdubs. Also unlike most recording environments, no headphones were used. It seems clear that the combination of live and direct acoustic feedback among the musicians creates an unparalleled interactive connection between the musicians that all have been craft fully recorded.
Using a combination of close mic and room mic placement, the ESE technique records each microphone to a single track to minimize phase factors. While the close mic provides intimacy, the room mics provide the spacious ambience which lends so much life to these high resolution recordings that one is transported to the studio where it all happened. The multiple tracks are then mixed through a Neve console, carefully reassembling the natural acoustic space which creates massive depth and breadth across the various tracks. Their three-dimensional approach allows the listener to be inside or outside the speaker circle with literally the same aural sensation. It is remarkably live and purely natural, my skin tingles with excitement when I kick back and hear the Bleu Coast Collection.
On the first collection, Lilianna explodes with each Flamenco strum, accenting Jason McGuire’s warm nylon string guitar. Reflections bounce off the back wall while Jose Manuel Blanco’s vocals extend the dynamics to new heights. Tony Furtado’s slide guitar expands across the soundstage on the track Tamalpais, with each nuance of the raspy slide ever so present. Check out the subtle movement of his fingers across the fret board and catch the shimmering vibrato like ending.
From slapping and popping of strings to gentle picking, every range is perfectly captured. Vocals are clear and airy, providing pure audio ecstasy which penetrates the soul. Physical locations of musicians are preserved, with Chris Kee’s bass holding down the bottom from the left front channel, while Jane Selkye’s emotion driven guitar fall toward the right side and her vocals leaning into the center.
While the surround experience is amazing, the ESE technique that Marenco developed has also been translated into incredible two channel high resolution audio. The second collection from Blue Coast only contains two channel recordings on its hybrid SACD. Kicking off with a spirited version of Three Little Birds performed by a trio comprising of Keith Greeninger, Chris Kee, and Brain. Drums are exceedingly crisp and bass spreads across the two channels with a full and rich sound.
The selection of microphones, preamps, cables, recorders and effects all become an important part of the process which listeners can readily hear on Chi McClean’s vocals on the song Hole in my Heart. There is a pure airiness and ever so subtle grittiness which emanates into my listening room, all while the slinky guitar is fingerpicked.
To best preserve the quality of 1-bit recording, Marenco mixes the digital multi-track audio through analog consoles using the analog eq's on the board. Using a combination of vintage reverbs and effects to create a natural environment, she slightly varies the environment for each song. A wonderful example can be heard on Matt Rollings piano work on Mutineer. Listeners face the piano as if they were playing it themselves, with the left hand toward the left channel, and the right hand tingling the upper range toward the right side. The reverb falls behind it adding gentle depth while Jenna Mammina’s vocals soar over top.
If I haven’t drilled it in yet, not only is it the incredible quality of these recordings, but the emotional connection between the musicians that make the ESE process such a leap forward in recording. These two early collections are just the small sampling of what can be found on Blue Coast Records. Former Windham Hill artist Alex de Grassi along with pianist Art Lande, guitarist Tony Furtado, folk trio City Folk, pianist Fiona Joy, among many others have released many records since its founding in 2004.
Taking a modern approach, Blue Coast primarily releases its music as both downloadable DSF 2.8 & 5.6MHz or 24bit / 96kHz WAV or FLAC files. Many albums are also available on gold CD, and newer releases have upped the ante with the availability of DSF 11.2MHz along with 24bit / 192kHz WAV or FLAC files.
While you may want to start with these Collections, I can safely say that any of the albums by Blue Coast will have superlative sound quality. These are emphatically the discs you want to use when convincing your buddies to upgrade their sound system. Even if you are not a fan of acoustic music, I believe after hearing these recordings you will become one. They are so amazing that they will grow on you, and their purity and realistic quality will keep you coming back for more. Check back here for a future review of the recently released Fiona Joy SACD “Into the Mist” along with her already available SACD “Signature.”
Please visit Blue Coast Records for audio previews.
Get your copy here:
The Blue Coast Collection Vol 1
The Blue Coast Collection Vol 2