US-based GRAMMY® award-winning recording label Yarlung Records is all about helping talented young musicians to launch their careers. Neville Roberts chats to the label’s philanthropic founder, and listens to a handful of the label’s extremely impressive artists and recordings.
An old audiophile friend of mine (and recent convert to analogue tape – he still hasn’t forgiven me!), who is now living in North Carolina, introduced me to GRAMMY® award-winning Yarlung Records, a California-based label that makes superb quality recordings. The company has recently added analogue master tapes to its available media and this prompted me to get in touch with its founder, Bob Attiyeh, to find out more. A telephone conversation followed, in which Bob told me all about the organisation, and during which it soon became clear that Yarlung Records isn’t just about producing top quality audio recordings, it’s equally focused on supporting its growing list of young musicians.
Bob Attiyeh, a former history major at Princeton University and now a recording engineer, has been a connoisseur of classical music for many years. As a young child he would listen to chamber music and opera at home and tag along with his parents to concerts. Today, his passion is to discover and record young artists, helping to provide a foundation for them to build their international concert careers.
Before starting Yarlung Records, Bob worked as a freelance recording engineer. He recorded albums for Southland Opera, which is based in southern California, as well as for various composers of new music. Yarlung is named after a valley in Tibet where Attiyeh made some of his first recordings. There’s a Tibetan legend which holds that, for a brief moment, heaven and earth touched in that valley. Bob says, “For me, this intersection of the earthly and divine realm provides a wonderful metaphor for music.” He initially set up Yarlung Records as a US charitable institution that produced CDs for young classical musicians. Now, he also releases his recordings on high-quality vinyl, high-resolution digital and, most recently, studio-master analogue tape.
But why a US charitable institution? The answer is that the profits from the sale of the recordings, plus donations from supporters and recording underwriters, are re-invested in supporting emerging young musicians. The 501(c)(3) tax-exempt arm of the organisation, Yarlung Artists, raises money to support these young musicians as they begin their performance careers. The company’s board of directors, executive producers and special advisers help Yarlung to record, market and distribute debut albums for selected young concert artists to help them gain stature and visibility with their audiences, critics and peers. Bob notes on his website that artists like Yo Yo Ma and Martha Argerich gained worldwide acclaim through the sale of CDs, LPs and downloads, and he maintains that a great recording can make all the difference to a young performer’s career.
In fact, Attiyeh is endearingly humble about his achievements in this regard. It turns out that a number of international careers have been jump-started by exposure from Yarlung recordings, in recognition of which The Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society honoured Attiyeh with a Humanitarian Award in 2015. (Attiyah’s acceptance speech was published in full by The Absolute Sound, after editor Robert Harley was impressed to discover the contribution that Yarlung Records was making to supporting young musicians. It makes for a very interesting read and includes several examples of musicians whose careers have flourished).
I asked Attiyeh about his views on the relative qualities of CD, vinyl, digital and tape formats. He replied that he hesitates to get involved in format comparisons since Yarlung do their best to make each format as musically engaging as possible. He considers that each of the formats delivers different sonic and musical results. So although Yarlung offer as many formats as they can manage, they have tried to stay away from the ‘format wars’, since the goal is to present their musicians and their music to as many audiences as possible, rather than to try to focus the attention on themselves as engineers and producers. While I do have my views and preferences when it comes to formats, having listened to a number of Yarlung’s recordings in their various guises, I can certainly see what Bob means. And I’m not alone… Stereophile’s Michael Fremer awards Yarlung 11 out of 10 for sound and 11 out of 10 for music).
A first listen: Elinor Frey and David Fung
I received copies of the Yarlung album entitled ‘Dialoghi’ featuring Elinor Frey playing the cello and David Fung playing the piano on CD, LP (cut at 45rpm) and master tape – all the way from Los Angeles in just a couple of days. All of the media versions of the recording sound excellent, but different, as you would expect. The CD has a brightness and intimacy that many will love. In fact, the CD is manufactured in Germany using a Yarlung special alloy and high-resolution virgin polycarbonate. Without doubt, this is one of the finest-sounding CDs I have heard. Of course, for me, being an analogaholic, the 45rpm 180g vinyl takes the realism and presence in my listening room to new heights, and the tape, which has no compression whatsoever, simply blows me away! The recording itself is really excellent. Bob used an AKG C-24 stereo valve microphone feeding a valve preamp and he recorded directly onto a Studer tape recorder at 15ips using Agfa 468 tape.
The musicians are of course top-class and it’s worth noting that this recording proved to be important in the future development of both Elinor Frey’s and David Fung’s careers.
Hot off the press: The Yuko Mabuchi Trio
Following on from the superb ‘Dialoghi’ tape, I was one of the first people to get my hands on the two-pancake set of Bob’s 2017 recording of some fine jazz playing by the The Yuko Mabuchi Trio (Yuko Mabuchi on the piano, Del Atkins on the double bass and Bobby Breton on drums). Incidentally, a ‘pancake’ is a tape that does not have flanges fitted and is designed for playing on a machine that is lying horizontally and with a pancake plate fitted. Since I operate my Studer A810 in the vertical position, I fitted flanges to the pancakes before attempting to play the tapes.
Yuko Mabuchi was born in Fukui, on the west coast of Japan, north of Kyoto. She moved to the United States in 2016 and has been building a strong reputation as a jazz pianist and composer there. In addition to her jazz gigs around North America, Yuko volunteers with the Watts-Willoughbrook Youth Symphony. This debut album with Yarlung Records was recorded on March 30th and 31st 2017 at the Brain and Creativity Institute’s Cammilleri Hall, designed by Yasuhisa Toyota.
The album came about as a result of the recording’s executive producers Craig and Diane Martin attending Yarlung’s annual meeting in 2017, where Yuko, Del and Bobby played to celebrate the release of the Trio’s first CD. The Martins decided to support Yuko further and so they underwrote Bernie Grundman’s 45rpm pressing of the first half of this album on vinyl. Bernie Grundman is a well-known American audio engineer and is most known for his mastering work and for his studio, Bernie Grundman Mastering, which he opened in 1983 in Hollywood. Yuko dedicated this vinyl release to the 25th Anniversary of the Los Angeles and Orange County Audio Society, which is one of the largest associations of audiophiles in the US. I’m also honoured to have been quoted on the back cover of the vinyl LP from when I reviewed the recording for Hi-Fi Choice magazine!
Regarding the performances and the music, as I stated on the LP sleeve, composer and pianist Yuko’s jazz performances on the piano are remarkably mature. Her rapid single-note runs are impeccably executed. There is something there for all jazz aficionados with compositions from Cole Porter, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington and Yuko herself.
The performances benefit from an exceptionally realistic recording that stands out for its in-the-room ambience and tonal clarity. As with ‘Dialoghi’, the presence and realism of this recording is uncannily true. Furthermore, the tape somehow captures the ambience of the recording environment to an even greater extent than the vinyl.
Masterful range: Jung-A Lee
Yarlung’s most recent recording is ‘A Private Organ Recital’ in Walt Disney Concert Hall by organist Jung-A Lee, which was recorded in June 2018. Jung-A Lee earned her undergraduate degree at Toronto University, her Master’s at Yale (where she was also awarded the Charles Ives prize) and a Doctorate at Boston University. She served as organ scholar at The Memorial Church, Harvard University, during her time in Boston. I first heard this recording as a set of high-resolution 24/96 digital files that Bob sent to me shortly after the recording session and found it to be an incredible album. The quality of the recording, the quality of the playing and the quality of the compositions were all superb! The album is a wonderful selection of pieces with everything from the fun of Guy Bovet’s ‘Hamburger Totentanz’ and Ad Wammes’ ‘Miroir’, through to breath-taking classics by Diderich Buxtehude and J.S. Bach. I was also enchanted with Jung-A’s own composition, ‘Fantasia on Blessed Assurance,’ which is based on a modern hymn.
After hearing the digital files, I just had to have the analogue master tapes – no less than three 10.5-inch standard-play tapes are required to hold the repertoire. With the tapes, the top end is more expansive and with more headroom than the digital files. Also, the bass goes even deeper – sub-audible. The sound seems more natural and free – there’s nothing holding the music back. As for the lovely Jung-A Lee’s playing, it’s both masterful and effortless. She captures the individual atmosphere of each of the pieces in this varied repertoire. The fun and amusing ‘Woods and Brooks’ (in which she added some birds singing in a couple of places by playing a Pajaritos, which is an organ pedal that does indeed sound like birds singing and has to be filled with water before each performance) is cheerful and yet pastoral – I can sense a pleasant stroll through the woods. The cheeky ‘Hamburger Totentanz’ (as mentioned above) is fun and vivacious, while the tuneful ‘Carrillon de Westminster’ is both powerful and stately. ‘Toccata’ has a full sound – which Bob Attiyeh describes as having a “Telarc Oomph” factor! For me, it’s not only the ‘Toccata’ that demonstrates this, many other tracks do as well, including the splendid Buxtehude and the Bach – and indeed the Jung-A Lee composition with its powerful and majestic finale that has my woofers massaging my kneecaps! I know the Telarc LPs well, having several in my collection that I bought in the seventies, including the famous (or infamous?) Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra recording of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 with live cannons! Anyway, this set of tapes is certainly one of the finest organ recordings I’ve ever heard.
All of the above recordings can be purchased directly from Yarlung’s website at www.yarlungrecords.com What’s more, the prices are not extortionate. The 15ips CCIR-equalization master tapes are a very reasonable $200 each, with all tapes being made to order. This is great news for audio enthusiasts as Yarlung is clearly another source of superb quality copy-master tapes. However, the extra bonus here is that your purchases are helping to support up-and-coming young musicians.
Neville Roberts is a man of many interests and talents. As well as being a regular contributor to Hi-Fi Choice magazine, he’s a retired UK National Health Service (NHS) director, electronics engineer and physicist. He’s also a lifelong audio enthusiast with a particular interest in valve/tube audio design, and a devotee of vinyl and tape. Neville enjoys an eclectic range of music including classical, especially baroque, light orchestral and jazz. He lives with his wife near Bournemouth in Dorset, UK, where he grows orchids and is a keen photographer.