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Black Sabbath MQA-Encoded Boxed Set Took 2 Years of 'Preparation,' Says BMG

LONDON -- A prelaunch listening session last week for BMG’s slated fall release of The Ten Year War, a limited-edition boxed set of the first eight Black Sabbath albums encoded in Master Quality Authenticated (MQA) (see 1706220043), provided an updated rundown on MQA’s progress with commercial adoption, the company’s plans for IFA, and insight into why BMG decided to use a hi-res digital system for rough-edged heavy-metal music recorded nearly 50 years ago.

About 150 MQA hardware products are now on the market from more than 30 companies, and deals have been signed for MQA content with most of the major labels, Spencer Chrislu, MQA’s director-content services, said at the briefing, held at Gibson Showrooms in central London. There aren't yet any tabletop AV products with MQA built in, but “we are aiming to launch more product categories” at IFA in Berlin, said Chrislu. MQA will have no booth of its own at IFA, but will promote with Pioneer and Onkyo, he said.

The Black Sabbath MQA project “took two years of preparation,” Steve Bunyan, BMG director-marketing for catalog recordings, told the audience of rock music journalists and specialists. “We needed to find original tapes for the eight albums and extras like singles, and talk to the band. There is no unreleased material and Sabbath fans will already have all the material and say, ‘Why should we buy?’ So we needed another element. Someone said, ‘How about using MQA?’ And that was what we did.”

Black Sabbath members “were incredibly tight, like session musicians, because they had been playing live so much and were so well rehearsed,” said Tom Allom, the engineer who recorded the group’s first three albums. “These were live albums made in a studio. No one was giving them any money. So they had to get it done quickly and get back on the road to earn. We kept it all very simple.”

The project “took us months to remaster” the content for MQA, said mastering engineer Andy Pearce. “We had to align the playback heads to match the heads on the recorders and so hear exactly what was originally put down on the tape. For listening, you have to be in the right mood and condition. If you have a cold, or a hangover, you just do something else that day.”

Playback at the event was through a Pioneer AV amplifier with a stereo pair of Pioneer speakers, sourced from a Mytek digital-analog converter, which upconverted the folded-down 48/24 MQA file to 96/24 PCM audio. Asked what listeners without MQA-capable hardware will hear, Chrislu assured that MQA is “fully” backward-compatible. “The full quality is folded inside the standard PCM signal, so anyone with a regular DAC will still hear quality that is higher than CD,” he said. “Anyone with MQA product will hear the full hi-res experience opened up.”

Explaining why it makes audio sense to re-release old heavy-metal music, complete with the musical and recording system distortion that's endemic to the genre, Pearce said: “You are capturing every nuance of the original, everything that’s there, and faithfully recreating it.” MQA’s job “is to reveal more of what’s there on the master tape” said Chrislu. “Very few people ever get to hear a master tape. That’s what the technology achieves. We want to capture the real original emotional impact of the music. CD captures only half the information on the master tape. MP3 throws away 90 percent of the information. It dumbs down music to fit the format. MQA restores the feeling to the music. Audio is one of the few industries where quality has decreased over the years. ”

Asked to quantify how much better the MQA Black Sabbath remasters are compared with previous remasters, Chrislu was unequivocal: “A hundred million times better.”