Interviews Vinyl

Devialet & Fondamenta get TOTALLY LACQUERED: Phoenix Restoration/Mastering System promises enhanced sonics

Gallic mastering engineering outfit, Fondamenta, via the French audiophile hi-fi outfit, Devialet, has launched the Lost Sessions series of vinyl using the latter’s new Phoenix system

The Lost Recordings is a new series of carefully crafted audiophile vinyl LPs (primarily, although CD and hi-res files are available alternative formats too) that unearths previously lost music for your listening pleasure. So far, we’ve had three jazz LPs from Sarah Vaughan (at the Laren Jazz Festival in 1975), Oscar Peterson (at Concertgebouw in 1961) and Bill Evans (at Hilversum in 1968) and there’s a fourth on the way (see The Latest, below) but non-jazz releases could be forthcoming in the future.

Audiophile vinyl releases are, especially these days, not especially infrequent. The difference with this announcement is two fold. Firstly, the audiophile hi-fi company, Devialet has leant its Expert Pro system to the mastering process. The Expert Pro is essential to the creation of these LPs. Secondly, the restoration/mastering engineer studio, Fondamenta has developed a wholly new, multi-step system of restoration and mastering to create, in its view, the best vinyl editions that you can buy anywhere in the world. Such is the faith that Fondamenta has in this new system, it has even issued patents all over the place to protect its new technology and has given it a name: Phoenix.

Before we get to the techie parts, though, why vinyl at all? If you’re going to launch a shiny new restoration/mastering system and you’re looking at a product that is equally shiny, why not package it in something like DSD 256 or even the new DSD 512 into a fancy package and charge a lot for it? Why pick on ye olde vinyl?

According to Devialet’s UK General Manager, Victor d’Allancé, there was no contest, “After finding the original master tapes we wanted to do full justice to the sound,” he said. “We felt that the lacquer was the best medium firstly and the limited-edition vinyl followed from that. We also wanted something tangible, somewhat that you can touch.”

Again, though, you could put a series of DSD files in a fancy looking USB stick-like package couldn’t you? “The first thing I did when I was in Paris and discovering the whole Lost Recordings project last year,” said d’Allancé, “that was the first time in my life that I had seen a lacquer disc. The first thing I wanted to do was to touch it and…to smell it. You yourself are bringing emotion to this record. You’re also talking about some of the greatest jazz artists on earth. Also, this project is all about playing something for the first time in history, to the public. Something that has never been put in public hands.”

It’s amazing just how organic and necessary vinyl still is to music fans and producers. Even here, within this premium project and its high-priced reproduction process, vinyl was seen as the ‘go-to’ source format. It seems that, if you want to present the essence of what music is to the public, vinyl – even now – cannot be beaten. Especially where Phoenix is concerned.

The system itself was created by Fondamenta’s founder (and recorded concert pianist) Frédéric D’Oria Nicolas, who is responsible for all artistic direction.

“I asked four engineers to help to develop a mastering process,” said D’Oria Nicolas. “I was the only one to know about all of the stages. The engineers only knew about the part that they were developing. At this time, we were using the Devialet Expert Pro convertor. The Phoenix system is actually a restoring process from the original source to the final result. Phoenix doesn’t actually work with the vinyl itself. Phoenix comes into play before vinyl appears on the scene. It is only the restoration process. Not just tape, either, it can be original vinyl processing, even 78s.”

Phoenix is a four-step process. You have to clean and prepare the sources, play them well, convert them into digital and then delete every flaw in that recording, “We have very good algorithms for every kind of flaw too,” said D’Oria Nicolas. “How we extract and how we restore the signal, before we even get to those algorithms, this is the secret bit. On the final step, we had to use our ears because the algorithms are only tools. If you don’t use your ears then you can ruin everything. The result? It might not sound very humble but Phoenix cannot be compared to anything else. Really. Treated music sounds like it was recorded yesterday.”

But what about the audiophile who may complain and say that Phoenix moves you out of the analogue domain, into digital and back to analogue. Surely that is a cheat? It’s no longer analogue is it? “I can tell you that if you are losing something, it’s not really measurable. But look, even if you do lose something, the gain, on the other side, is so huge, it doesn’t matter. The ‘win’ is so large,” said D’Oria Nicolas.

As for the choice of Devialet kit in the process? “We didn’t use the Devialet convertor because they were a partner and we felt obliged to use their hardware. It was completely the opposite. We chose to use their convertor and then we approached the company. We tried may convertors before we talked to them. The best was the Devialet. It is absolutely amazing. Its also light and mobile so that we can process source material in the host country because most people will not ship precious tapes via the post.”

So just how exacting has this process been? How in depth has Fondamenta been in creating The Lost Recordings LPs? Here’s one insight, the company actually tested different lacquer and cutting stylus types. It actually heard differences between different types.

“We travelled the world and tried different lacquer recipes to see which one was the best. Why? Because creating a lacquer is a hand-made process. This included lacquers from France, Germany, UK and Japan. I then asked a French engineer to create a lacquer using a Japanese and then an American cutting stylus on American and then Japanese lacquers. Four were created from the same recordings. There were huge differences! Two were not great, two were very interesting.”

The final choice was a Japanese cutting stylus on an American lacquer. That was seen as the best sounding combination for the project..

“When we created the lacquers for the limited edition releases,” said D’Oria Nicolas. “That is, when we made available for sale with Devialet the 30 listed lacquer box sets, we had to use every American lacquer and Japanese stylus in stock at that time. There was actually a European shortage of both for a short time and it was our fault! The industry was complaining about the shortage and no-one could understand why the shortage had occurred. We knew though!”

So how good is the lacquer’s sound quality? Compared to the original master tapes? “It’s much better,” said D’Oria Nicolas. “ Don’t forget that the Phoenix system has restored the tapes too. With no doubt is the sound quality better.”

BUY THE LACQUER?

Created from aluminium, coated with nitrocellulose lacquer and spanning 14” with a blue edge, there have been a limited number of lacquers of each album produced for sale. Limited to 30 sets for each title release with multiple lacquers forming the entire album, the Vaughan, Peterson and Brubeck sets (of four discs in each) will cost you £6,300 per set. The Evans (of just two discs) will cost £4,500. This is a lacquer, though, which means that the sound quality will be far superior even to the released limited edition vinyl but – and here’s the kick – the surface is very soft. Play it once, just once, and the stylus will distort the medium. It will never sound that good ever again yet, because it is the lacquer, this is the best way to hear this LP. You’re looking at a one hit play experience, though. Keep it for a special occasion.

For the money, you get the discs themselves presented in a numbered calf leather case with suedettee inside. Additionally, you will receive a story of the concert and The Lost Recordings collection, a user guide for the lacquers, the vinyl album and download card to obtain the digital files, hi-res Studio Masters at 176.4 kHz available on demand.

THE LATEST

Next in the series within The Lost Recordings collection is one of the very last concerts of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, in the Grand Hotel Kurhaus, famous for its concert hall. From October 1967 in Scheveningen, the concert has been restored and remastered by Fondamenta. Released by Devialet on its online store, this limited edition vinyl will include a download card to receive the digital files (MP3 and AIFF 16bit) for free. A CD and hi-res 24bit version will be available separately.

REVIEW – SARAH VAUGHAN

Title: Live at Laren Jaxx Festival 1975: The Lost Recordings

Label: Fondamenta

This previously lost jazz recording is presented here as a limited-edition, 900 copies, two-disc packaged. It’s expensive at £110: principally because of the time-consuming and expensive Phoenix system. Is it worth it?

Well, you’ve got to take the occasion into consideration here. No matter how good the audiophile process, this was a live recording which means sonic compromises before we even get to the question of ‘hi-fi’. Hence, vocal clarity is excellent but not top notch, the upright bass is slightly masked while the hall itself is a touch smeary, adding a slight bite to the midrange. That’s the location and the venue. And that’s history.

From that point onwards, though, Fondamenta has done a splendid job. The pressing is beautifully quiet, the percussion is delicate in terms of cymbal taps, bass is rhythmic and can easily be tracked by the ear while the piano is melodious but its Vaughan’s vocal delivery, sitting in a 3D space, which is the star here. The vinyl tracks every detail available from the compression of her vocal chords, the effort and amount of air she expels, you can even hear how wide her mouth is and how she quickly manipulates that ‘instrument’ to vary pitch and to shape notes.

I’m absolutely not convinced by the price tag for a ‘mere’ live recording that can only ever give you 70% or less of all musical information which means you begin with a crippled situation from the off but, nevertheless, this LP remains a terrific release of a rare and precious archival tape document.

As for Fondamenta’s ‘unique’ Phoenix system? I’d like to see it applied to a quality studio recording.

Contact Fondamenta at www.fondamenta.fr and learn more about Devialet at en.devialet.com

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