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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 3, No. 8

DOREMI's Jacob Harnoy Resurrects Classic Performances

by Wah Keung Chan / June 1, 1998

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Sound engineer Jacob Harnoy is the director of the DOREMI mastering studio and record label in suburban Toronto. Presently, Harnoy is one of the world's foremost experts on restoring old acoustic recordings - mostly lacquer 78s - to pristine condition on CD. His DOREMI digital audio laboratory specializes in restoring the recorded legacies of great classical musicians such as violinists Jascha Heifetz, David Oistrakh and Nathan Milstein, guitarist Andres Segovia, cellist  Vladimir Orloff, pianist Sviatoslav Richter and violist William Primrose.

Harnoy was trained as a violinist and also studied mathematics, physics and chemistry. He taught at the University of Toronto before becoming a research scientist with Ontario Hydro, yet music always remained the love of his life. In the 1970s and 1980s he produced and engineered his daughter Canadian cellist Ofra Harnoy's many recordings for RCA Red Seal. To date, he has produced nearly 250 recordings for RCA and Analekta, among other labels. Harnoy, now in his fifties, retired from Ontario Hydro two years ago to start DOREMI, his own label specializing in audio restoration.

Harnoy's interest in audio restoration dates from the mid-1980s, when he got fed up with the poor quality of commercially available CD transfers of his favourite old 78 and LP recordings. "The CD transfers actually sounded worse than the original recordings. There was too much surface noise, making them difficult to listen to. I knew that I could do a better job."

Harnoy devoted a year to developing digital restoration components and to experimenting with noise reduction software such as CEDAR and Sonic Solution's No-Noise, during which time he and his technician Harry Quan designed a custom analog-to-digital converter.

The actual restoration of an old recording is a time-consuming business. Harnoy has no qualms about spending 200-400 hours perfecting a single CD, because for him, sound restoration is a labour of love, "Most companies budget a maximum amount per CD for restoration. They couldn't afford the time I take."

The usual audio restoration process at DOREMI follows four steps:

  1. Conversion from the analog sound source into the digital domain.

  2. Noise reduction with the CEDAR System

  3. Noise reduction with the No-Noise process (when necessary)

  4. Digital equalization and bit-conditioning.

Of course, good sources and the right needle for the 78s are of primary importance. An avid collector since age 10, Harnoy has amassed a huge collection of old records. He also taps a network of fellow collectors for source material, and is helped by DOREMI's own researchers.

Once the material is transferred to digital, Harnoy uses the computerized CEDAR noise reduction system to reduce hiss, crackle, small clicks and pops. He checks the results with a "before and after", A/B comparison to ensure all of the original sonority is preserved. Analog-to-digital conversion and CEDAR noise reduction are done in real time, i.e., the results are stored as the record is played. The No-Noise process, on the other hand, requires many hours of intense computing. At one of DOREMI's Macintosh workstations, Harnoy demonstrates the Sonic Solutions' No-Noise processor. The process is akin to touching up a scratchy photograph. Each big click is removed by the No-Noise interpolation technique.

Harnoy played me a "before and after" demo CD of Granados' Dance No. 5 by guitarist Andres Segovia. The results were spectacular, with the instrument sounding remarkably close and clear. Harnoy emphasizes that the recording technology back in the 1930s and 1940s, including microphones, was "more advanced than we tend to think today." Harnoy is often surprised by the richness of the original sound after the surface noise has been removed. "The great violinists had a personal, distinctive character and sonority. I'm trying to bring it back."

When asked where he stood on the issue of keeping the absolute "authenticity" of an interpretation versus "improving" it, he replied firmly, "As I would do to new recordings that I produce, if I can fix a wrong note, I will. It's not the musician's fault if their engineer left an error there. My aim is to display the musician's artistry at its best."

Standing among piles of old records in his studio, Harnoy reflects, "there are many great neglected artists out there that I would like to restore." We can look forward to many treasures to come.

jasha.jpg (6292 bytes)Some Doremi Titles: Heifetz Series: Jascha Heifetz Collection Vol. 1 (DHR 7705) of 1932 Bell Laboratories test recordings and 1943-45 radio broadcasts (contain material never before available -in any form - commercially). (Segovia and His Contemporaries: Andres Segovia & Julio M. Oyanguren CD Vol. 1 (DHR 7703) - first of the three now available in the Segovia series, was voted by classical retailers attending Allegro's 1997 annual conference as the "Best Historic Classical CD of the Year". David Oistrakh Collection: Vols 1-4. For future releases consult the DOREMI website: http://www.doremi.com/~doremi/

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