December 2009

The Digital Music Revolution: What Download Sites Have to Offer -- Part 13

This month’s download adventure takes us to Blue Coast Records for some exquisite but limited fare that will leave you longing for them to post more. Downloading and listening to these tracks is like discovering a great new restaurant. You enjoy your meal and feel satisfied, but even though your experience is complete for the moment, you can’t wait to return.

Launched in 2005, Blue Coast Records is very new. It’s the brainchild of respected producer and recording engineer Cookie Marenco, who has recorded over 400 projects in the last 15 years. Marenco felt our ears were being dumbed down by MP3s that sacrifice audio quality for convenience. Along with Jean-Claude Reynaud, son of the audiophile speaker manufacturer Jean-Marie Reynaud, she developed E.S.E. (Extended Sound Environment) technology for recording in surround, a technique that’s now applied to stereo recording. This method uses room and direct microphone placement to let musicians place themselves without using headphones. With E.S.E. there are also no overdubs or digital effects. The resulting sound lets you hear pure music without artifice. All of the masters are analog-to-2" tape.

With Marenco so interested in providing an audiophile alternative to iPod limitations, it makes sense that she would create an audiophile environment for downloads. Yes, Blue Coast Records produces both CDs and Hybrid SACDs, but it also has a very lively download venue. On its surface the site operates like many others, but there are a few surprises. It’s easy to surf because for the moment there are only two album-length downloads, Blue Coast Collection and While She Sleeps. But if you start examining the fine print under the Store and Special Events tabs, you’ll find many more singles and short concerts by Blue Coast Records artists. All downloads are DRM free, and prices range from $15 for CD quality to $40 for 24/96 HD.

You can listen to any of the individual cuts before purchasing, but before your first purchase you’ll have to create an account, which will make it easier to order on subsequent visits. You can pay with any major credit card. All of the files are WAV format, whether 16-bit/44.1kHz or 24-bit/96kHz, and they’re zipped. I found that they both downloaded and unzipped very quickly. One interesting thing about Blue Coast Records is that in addition to linking to your download file on the site, they also send you an email containing the link. Downloads are good for seven days, but should you run into any unforeseen problems, Blue Coast is big on customer service. Marenco likens Blue Coast Records, its artists, and its listeners to a big family.

Since their list is currently small, I easily downloaded all of the tracks from the Blue Coast Records page and two or three from its sister site, Blue Coast World. This site is available in beta for now. Marenco hopes it will someday be a showcase for other producers who create great recordings, regardless of whether they use the proprietary E.S.E. system. One of the albums I liked most, Calico Heart by Houston Jones, a West Coast band that blends bluegrass, folk, and blues, came from this site and is also available as a 24/96 download on the Blue Coast Records page. If you like Alison Krauss, you’ll most likely enjoy the heck out of this album.

On the Blue Coast Records site, I particularly enjoyed discovering Keith Greeninger, a balladeer whose laid-back style and superb guitar technique combine to focus on the lyrics and meaning of a song. The approach is almost conversational, and thanks to the E.S.E., it’s like he’s singing just to you. Many others, including Jenna Mammina, are well worth hearing. There’s some jazz and New Age music, but I think the real draw at Blue Coast Records is the folk and jazz vocalist genres. If you watch the video on the site or read the detailed article on E.S.E. recording, you’ll notice that none of the singers are too close to the microphones. This distance creates some of the best vocals I’ve ever heard -- they’re clean, open, and totally focused, yet they have a little space around them. The recording of guitars, bass, and piano is as good as anything you’ll hear, but the vocals are something special.

Blue Coast Records is adding special events, singles, and albums on a regular basis, and you can sign up on the site to be notified when there’s something new. After a few downloads, my bet is that you won’t want to miss a thing!

. . . Rad Bennett