Because they use zero compression. And have the recording set so the maximum signal level is still below anything which will cause distortion.
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Elizabeth is correct. I've looked at the sound waveforms of their Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliet" recording, using a computer program, and the difference in volume between the loudest notes and the softest notes is around 55 db! That corresponds to about 316000 times as much power being required for the loudest notes as for the softest notes.
Many popular recordings, in contrast, are compressed to the point where that difference, in db, is in single digits. Presumably one of the reasons that is done is that it will make those recordings sound as loud as possible when listened to on car radios.
I suspect that an additional reason for the relatively low average volume on the Sheffields is that since the direct-to-disk process does not allow any post-processing or editing, recording levels were adjusted to provide more margin, relative to anticipated peak levels, than would normally be used with other recording techniques.
I listen to classical orchestra recordings more than 90% of the time. I have approx. 3500 LPs and about 400 cds,again about 90% classical orchestra.
I have been listening to records for over 50 years and now have a $25K system.
I have learned not to make or accept absolute statements about pretty much anything, and certainly about sound reproduction.
But I am willing to say that I find the Sheffield direct-to-disc recordings of Wagner and Prokofiev, recorded in a studio (actually a cinema sound-stage), to sound more alive, present, grain-free than any other recordings, analog or digital, in my collection. This has been consistent over all the rooms and systems I have had since I first got these records back in 1980. Nothing else I have heard quite as convincingly captures both the tonality and the feel, the clean impact, of the instruments. The low brass, with great parts in both the Wagner and Prokofiev excerpts, are especially vibrant, clean, and alive. I have other records which fairly well capture the ring of brass instruments, a distinctive "brassiness" which enhalos everything from the pocket trumpet down to the Sousaphone; but on these discs there is a bit more authenticity to this "ring" than elsewhere. The violins, the glory of the orchestra, are somewhat bright and hard-edged; but the tonality, body, sheen, and glow of massed strings is amazing enough that it seems certain that the edginess is real and not artifactual--I am sure that's how they sounded in the studio.
The dynamics, as indicated above, are outstanding.
I also feel the Sheffield Harry James, Thelma Houston, and Tower of Power lps are outstanding in the same ways as the Classical stuff.
The Big Band lp is perversely reverberant though I guess that reflects the super-accurate way in which the direct-to-disc process captures the sense of the original space, in this case a high school gym!
The all too common lacunae involve the quality of the music.
The Wagner and Prokofiev are given average performances and personally I don't care for excerpts.
Harry James never was a very exciting trumpeter and he outdoes himself on these three beautifully recorded lps.
Thelma Houston is given a competent but uninspired group of studio musicians to work with. Even so, for my taste, "I Got the Music in Me," the opening number, with some powerful and gorgeous trumpets, and a great gospelly voice, rocks the rafters and provides some extra reward for owning the album (besides the great sound).
The Tower of Power album is probably the best of the lot, musically. As usual, the sound is extraordinarily alive and grainless and dynamic. The material consists of runthroughs of some of their hits. Not bad if a bit rehashed.
All in all, I agree wholeheartedly with the OP--They are a cut above.
(I haven't heard cd transfers of these records so I have no idea if their aliveness and thrilling tonal accuracy survives the big domain switch. Has anyone out there heard both?)
While compression undoubtedly plays a part, I believe that most of the reason for the low level is because direct-to-disc are mixed AND CUT in real time. The engineer running the lathe that is cutting the master has to guess what the loudest signal will be on the recording. With analog tape if you guess wrong, the level exceeds 0 db and you get a little tape saturation. But the cutting engineer has to set the inter-track distance before or while the master is being cut. If you set it too wide, the maximum length that can be recorded is less. If you set it too narrow and the level exceeds what you expected, the stylus cutting the groove modulates through the wall separating the current groove from the previous ... and you start over. For this reason, I think the engineer fudges a little to give themselves more room for error. Of course this also affects the S/N ratio on the disc.
09-26-12: RpfefI have two of the Sheffields in both formats, the Prokofiev "Romeo and Juliet," and the Sheffield Track Record. Both are combined with other releases in the CD versions.
I'll introduce my comments by saying that I have no ideological biases concerning analog vs. digital. I enjoy both formats.
The Track Record, which Harry Pearson famously described at the time of the Direct-to-Disk LP release as "absolutely the best sounding rock record ever made," I found to be very disappointing in the CD version. While reasonably good sounding in comparison to most rock recordings, in comparison to the D-to-D original it sounded dark, sluggish, closed in, and significantly compromised in definition. I suspect that a major contributor to that was, as indicated in the liner notes, that the digital master was created by playing back the LP using a Shure V15 Type V cartridge.
The Prokofiev fared somewhat better in the transfer to CD. In this case the liner notes do not indicate what source medium was used (LP, backup analog tape, etc.), or what equipment was used to play it. While the CD version sacrifices a lot of the magic of the D-to-D original, which IMO your post accurately described, it remains a very impressive recording. In comparison with the LP, I would characterize the CD as suffering a general loss of definition, but to a degree that allows it to remain highly recommendable. I'll add a couple of caveats, though, that are applicable to both formats. Those whose systems tend toward brightness, or that generate significant odd harmonic distortion, or that tend to homogenize massed string sound, will probably find the brightness of its string sound to be bothersome. Also, the dry (but I believe accurately captured) ambience will be a bit disconcerting to some.
Given those caveats, with respect to sonics I consider the D-to-D LP version of the Prokofiev to be an astonishing recording, and the CD to be simply excellent. And both formats IMO present a certainly serviceable performance of highly appealing music.
Yogiboy, If you enjoy the King James version, you should try and acquire the other 2 LPs. My favorite is Still Harry After All These Years.
The beauty of Harry's trumpet playing is that he makes the instrument sing. It is what separates the most gifted performers from the excellent performers. You forget about the player and the instrument and get raptured by the melody and song.
The arrangements and the supporting musicians on Still Harry are spectacular. Every arrangement is superb. However, Satin Doll, Ciao, and, culminating in my favorite, Moonglow, are outstanding. I wish the song could keep going.