Q&A With C. Jared Sacks of Channel Classics Records

I recently wrote about the Penderecki Violin Concerto, Horn Concerto which I purchased from Channel Classics Records in DSD format (there are 130 DSD titles available) in my review of the Mytek Stereo 192-DSD DAC (I called it "gut-wrenchingly gripping"). Soon after, I received an email from C. Jared Sacks, the Director, producer, recording engineer and founder of Channel Classics, and during the course of our exchange he agreed to the participate in this Q&A. I'd like to thank Jared for his time and hope you enjoy this peak inside Channel Classics.

Please tell us about your background and how your record label, Channel Classics Records, came to be.

I was born and raised outside of Boston and played horn in all the youth orchestras and went to Oberlin Conservatory for horn, piano, composition and conducting. At Oberlin, I spent a good deal of time at the College radio station having my own shows and listening to recordings. I even did an internship at WCRB Radio in Boston. In the summer following my second year I was able to play in a new school and orchestra in Switzerland. I stayed on playing and never even went back to Oberlin to collect my belongings! I got to know the solo hornist of the Concertgebouw orchestra who gave me the chance to come to Holland to study and play (this is 1975). So off to the next adventure with 1 suitcase, my horn and even my bluegrass banjo.

In Holland I studied and played in orchestras but was still restless as to what I really wanted to do. I knew that sitting in orchestras for the remainder was not for me.

I was able to buy a house with a large space where I could rehearse with all my chamber music ensembles. Other musicians also used the space so we decided to start a concert series (we being my Dutch girlfriend with whom 36 years later I am still with plus three kids!).

The next step was to start recording these concerts. The setup was simple - AKG microphones plus a Teac 2 channel recorder with DBX noise reduction. More recording of more concerts and being asked to make demo tapes for the musicians had me investing for the first time in a consumer digital system in 1985 that Sony produced. By 1987, I was doing so much recording that I decided to stop playing horn and concentrate on the recording end. I was able to get a bank loan to buy a professional Sony digital recording and editing system. I ended up working day and night making master tapes for others from classical to heavy metal!

By 1989, I moved to a nearby building working in two editing suites with 15 man personnel.

The reason I started my own label in 1990 is that there were many times that I was hired to record for other labels but was frustrated that some of the recordings were with musicians who were not good enough – the only way to change that is to start for myself and chose those musicians I wanted to work with. Since I lived on the Kanaal street, the name of the company became Channel Classics.

"My main thought is to have the least amount of electronics between the source and the recording medium."

Can you discuss your approach to recording from a technical perspective?

My main thought is to have the least amount of electronics between the source and the recording medium. ‘My man’ in Holland is Rens Heijnis who has hand built all of the equipment I use since the beginning in 1990. The mixing boards are made to specifications whereby all faders can be bypassed. One can either mix from the bus or direct out. He even built a matrix for MS technique which I use all the time in combination with a A/B setup. All microphones have been rebuilt by Rens to be 4 pin with his own power supply design powering from on the stage close to the mics. Not having the phantom powering going through long cables is a win for the overall sound and this improvement is especially noticeable in the low frequencies.

How does a recording session differ from a performance?

A performance with the audience and the visual contact usually seems like a great way to record a CD. Unfortunately on listening later, one gets more analytical and hears all kinds of things that are passed over during a live performance. So this is fine for one listening but not the 2nd and 3rd time. Sessions provide the opportunity to take more time to really get into the musical aspects of the pieces and to work out technical aspects of the recording including balance and dynamic issues.

Actually, we usually organize a small concert on the end of the third day of recording. Even if there are three people sitting there, it feels different. On one hand you play through everything like it is a concert, but since you know that everything has already been recorded and is on the tape, you are then free to just have a good time and make music. There have been many instances where more than 50% of the recording is used from this mini concert!

You detail the equipment used for each recording on your website which is something most audiophiles appreciate. Can you tell us about the equipment you use for monitoring your recordings?

For recordings, I sometimes have to set up my listening room in the most dreadful locations (especially when recording baroque music in churches!). This means having equipment I can trust and know that what I am hearing is what I am getting. I use the same speaker for location as in one of my postproduction rooms. This is a Dutch made 2 way speaker from Audio Lab in combination with mono block amplifiers from van Medevoort, also of Holland. In my other room I have a B&W 801 diamond series multichannel system with a Classe A amplifier. The passive Pre amps are made by Rens Heijnis.

"In 2001 Channel released the first commercial hybrid SACD on the market."

Channel Classics offers every recording in the Hybrid SACD format. Why SACD?

In 2001 Channel released the first commercial hybrid SACD on the market. Philips asked me to help them develop and implement this new format and of course I immediately jumped in. Having been at listening tests I immediately heard the possibility of this format. Especially the chance to have the technology no longer be in the way of listening to the music. I was a beta tester for the new software of Merging Technology who were working with Philips. It was a very stressful two years with many, many hours trying to get the software/hardware to work correctly. All well worth the efforts.

You also offer your recordings in Multichannel SACD. Why Multichannel?

The multichannel is the icing on the cake. By adding three omni microphones to the session that are in the same position as the center, surround left and right speakers that you might already have in your home (for the home theater), it is possible to give that extra dimension to the sound which creates the sense of being in the concert hall.

When you are in the concert hall listening, you are getting reflections from all sides which in principle you are not consciously hearing. It is these reflections that make or break a good sounding hall. You have your direct sound, your first reflections that come from around the podium, and then the reverberation sound that fills the hall. The surround microphones capture these reflections. When you are listening at home, the level should be set as such that you cannot consciously here the speakers (set during the postproduction process). It is only when they are switched off that you notice the difference. Of course I have no control over how people listen in their own rooms so there might be some adjustment needed.

"The sense of space and depth in the audio is wonderful. The emotion that is present cannot be described making it difficult to go back to stereo."

The sense of space and depth in the audio is wonderful. The emotion that is present cannot be described making it difficult to go back to stereo. The SACD stereo is also a giant step from PCM audio. The dynamics, the depth, clarity of sound, the openness of the sound coming from the speakers, it is just that the multichannel gives that much more. The center speaker has an important function when using multichannel, which is to give greater stability to the sound stage. You are then really sitting in the 10th row.

You also offer downloads ranging from MP3 to 24/192 as well as DSD. Can you talk about the differences between PCM and DSD in terms of sound quality?

I take the DSD mother file and downsample using the Weiss Engineering software to create the 24 bit sample rates. Listening tests convinced me that the algorithms from Weiss were the most musical up to now.

The difference is, as described above, the level of emotion. Like scanning a picture at a higher resolution so be it with audio. More dynamics, depth, color and in the end this comes down to emotion.

Do you plan to offer your complete catalog in DSD download format?

For the recordings since 2001 which have been recorded in DSD, these are all now on the site as downloads. I have now added the first DSD multichannel download. It is the chicken and the egg situation. There is now software available – now the hardware.

"It will be just a matter of time when you will be able to play back 5 channel native DSD."

Since putting the stereo DSD files online, many hardware and software makers have announced plans to extend their DAC’s to include DSD. It will be just a matter of time when you will be able to play back 5 channel native DSD. [Editor's note: You can see a list of DSD capable DACs and Media Player software here]

Can you recommend a few recordings for listeners who are new to classical music?

I would suggest our recording with Rachel Podger La Stravaganza /12 Violin Concertos [CCS SA 19503], music of Vivaldi. This DSD recording really shows the ‘emotion’ in music. For orchestra I would suggest our latest recording with the Budapest Festival Orchestra and Ivan Fischer – Mahler Symphony No. 1. [CCS SA 33112].

Can you recommend a few recordings that may surprise the seasoned classical music listener?

Holland Baroque Society Barbaric Beauty - Telemann & 18th c. Dance manuscripts [CCS SA 31911] and the Ebony Band – Revueltas, Chamberworks [CCS SA 21104].

I'm guessing that you have a hi-fi at home. Would you care to share the details of this system?

I work at home! The kitchen and work room do not have special systems which is fine because I test my mixes in these rooms!

What's on the horizon for Channel Classics Records?

In September I will be in Budapest recording the Budapest Festival Orchestra - Mahler Symphony No. 5, then in London with Rachel Podger recording Bach's Double Concertos, and then back in Holland recording the Regazza String Quartet in music of Schubert and Haydn.

We have also just added our Super Audio Samplers as downloads so for 8 euros you get a compilation with complete tracks from the productions in DSD, 24/192, 24/96, 16/44.1, and MP3. These can be found on our home page.

labjr's picture

I'd like to know if Mr Sacks believes conversion from DSD to PCM is transparent? And does he believe 192khz sample rate offers any benefit over 96khz when using Saracon for conversion? 

Has he started using double rate DSD128 yet?



firedog55's picture

Bought a couple of his recordings. "The Right of Spring" and Dvorak 8th-9th Symphonies. Great SQ.  If you see in the site info that the recording was done with the new Grimm converter, I  think they sound even better.