Lowering our guard
We learn from very early on to protect ourselves from pain and unpleasantness. If something is too loud we cover our ears and move away.
On a more moderate scale, we do the same thing when listening to music. If something is too piercing, bright, screechy, or objectionable our ears tighten up as a form of protection.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, when music is natural, open, and inviting, our ears relax. We become more open. We invite in the sounds.
I often think of this as a safety valve. The better the system and the recording the more open the valve.
This observation is intriguing because it suggests our hearing is variable. Unlike the wags who would have us characterized as machines that can be cataloged and judged based on A/B testing in a vacuum, I would suggest circumstances skew those results.
Imagine an A/B stereo amplifier test where a poor recording is employed. Listener’s ears are tightened up to the point where they cannot relax and hear into the music.
I have long preached that surroundings, environment, and circumstances play an equally important role as the electronics and recordings themselves.
If our dukes are raised for a fight it’s unlikely we can (or should) lower our guard enough to enjoy the music.
Not soft, if it’s a good analog front end.
Is analog soft?
When we think of the analog sound we’re inevitably referencing a reproduction. This is because we experience analog sound through our stereo systems which, of course, are reproduction playback systems.
And every analog reproduction is either captured on vinyl or magnetic tape. This of course means everything we associate with analog has passed through analog electronics and analog storage mediums—all of which have an analog “sound” to them.
True analog sound is what comes directly out of the recording microphone. But, unless you’re at the recording studio at the time a record is being made your only means of hearing that analog microphone feed is after it’s been processed through the storage medium of vinyl or tape.
And if we dare to suggest capturing that feed with digital means, either PCM or DSD, we have then violated the analog label’s definition. By default it can no longer be “analog” (even if it sounds identical).
When I listen to music captured on pure analog means I hear a softness to it. Hard to describe, actually, but a softening of the original signal is about as good as I can come up with. And maybe the opposite is helpful. On many digital captures, there is a sharpness that colors the sound.
The perfect capture is when we can tell no difference between the source and the output.
Nice if we had a name for that.
We all have our personal standards by which we determine whether or not something lives up to our expectations. When I play a new track of music I expect a certain level of musicality, transparency, tonal accuracy, and overall believability. If I listen without any preconceived expectations I can either accept or reject the new music.
Sometimes, however, I manage to let my expectations get a bit out of hand. I struggle to separate high-hope expectations from personal standards.
Or, put another way, I might have unrealistic expectations of a new recording or piece of equipment. If that happens it’s hard to then accept it based on those minimal personal standards.
Why does this sometimes happen?
I think most of us are on the lookout for that undiscovered gem (I certainly am). We hear from those we respect how great a new piece of music is or how much better their stereo equipment sounded when they added this or that. Our expectations might soar and we give it a shot. If the results match our high hopes, bingo! But, if not, we sometimes reject it out of hand (despite the fact it meets our personal standards of acceptability).
All this to suggest the more we approach expectations with a touch of caution the more likely we are to discover the new that meets our personal standards.
Raw or refined?
As an aspiring amateur hack of a writer, one of the first lessons in getting words on paper was to just start typing. Let whatever was in my head flow onto the page without worrying about prose or form.
Just start writing. It is easier to clean up and rejigger than it is to populate the empty space.
If we use that same advice in the recording studio our mantra might be “fix it in post”. Get the raw musical emotions out of the performer and make it sound good later.
Only, that doesn’t seem to work too well if your goal is to capture live perfection.
Music seems a much harder challenge than writing.
I have spent the last ten years working on my trilogy, Eemians, and inch by inch, drip by drip, the work gets better.
Imagine the same amount of time and effort applied to making a musical offering sound natural and spontaneous. I know some musicians can pull it off in the studio (Todd Rundgren was famous for obsessing over his musical output—playing every part in the work over and over again until it sounded live).
But, try that live and on stage. Imagine the skill, talent, and years of practice required to perform live in a manner that makes it fresh, spontaneous, and from the heart, night after night.
It’s like the old adage: how many years of hard work does it take to become an overnight success?
So much of what we are searching for falls into the realm of personal taste: food, art, music.
What I like you may or may not.
What builds community is when our personal tastes are shared.
We all like great audio.
We all get excited when we hear something extraordinary.
This need for a community sharing the same pleasures is one of the reasons we created Octave Records.
And why on our forums we have over 5,000 LP albums recommended here.
The greatest pleasures in life are those we share.
I didn’t know this, but can hear the difference on this test.
Bit Perfect engineer and friend, Tim Murison, sent me an interesting note about a strange artifact added to about 1/4 of all the music we stream.
In a blog post from software engineer, Matt Montag, he describes the following:
“A while ago, I wrote about my confusion regarding Weird Spotify Compression Artifacts. It turns out the artifacts I was hearing are not due to compression, but a result of audio watermarks that Universal Music Group embeds in digitally distributed tracks. This watermark is embedded in UMG tracks on Rdio, Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, and others. The watermark can also be heard in Universal tracks broadcast over FM radio. Universal Music recordings make up about 25% of most online catalogs, and its labels include Interscope, The Island Def Jam, Universal Republic, Verve, GRP, Impulse!, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Geffen, etc.”
While subtle, it surely ain’t nothin!
If you’re interested in discovering more about this added distortion to the music you’re downloading, go here for the info and examples.
I have long suspected something’s going on because to me Tidal doesn’t sound as good as Qobuz and Qobuz doesn’t sound as good as my stored original rips. Something’s afoot and perhaps this is the beginning of uncovering the truth.
The power of small
A small change in loudspeaker toe in of less than an inch can snap a stereo into focus the center image.
That’s the power of small.
But, it goes deeper.
Once the center image is stabilized your emotional connection to the music changes. You relax. No longer are you working hard at wondering if what you’re hearing is right, or moving your head enough to center the singer.
You let down your guard and the music pulls you in.
An inch can make all the difference—not in the big scheme of things—but in the little scheme. The one where you are relaxed enough to forget everything else and engage with the music.
We savor the moment, the meal, the day. Yet, how often do we savor the music?
Last night, Terri, me, and Jessica (Octave’s director) got our first listen to an extraordinary new talent: Clay Rose, the lead singer, and songwriter of the unlikely named group The Gasoline Lollipops.
Why am I bringing this to your attention? Simple. I wanted to share with you the extraordinary experience we three listeners had.
Our job last night was to critically evaluate the mix and recording: taking careful notes to put the finishing touches on the work. In other words, to make sure it meets the standards for Octave Records and point out where it doesn’t so that the engineers could fix it.
We managed to do the work but only barely. As the singer’s voice and poetry reached down deep inside, tears streamed down all three of our faces. I found myself so immersed in the story I was lost.
I was savoring the music.
Ignoring the stereo.
Not doing my job.
What a blessed joy that was.
Look for the release of Nightmare in April.
Stand out products
When a piece of stereo gear sonically singles itself out in an audio system it is typically not a good thing. What we hope for is a synergistic pairing of components that benefit the whole.
Sure, it’s not only alright but actually welcomed when we can add a product that elevates the whole. But then elevating the whole is the point, right?
I remember years ago when I experimented with a Teac Dolby noise reduction system designed to “eliminate hiss, pops, and unwanted artifacts of sound.”
Unfortunately, it was a stand out product that eliminated more than simply unwanted noise.
I love visually attractive stand out products.
I am not so sure about those that sonically stand out from the rest of the system.
For me, the beauty of music is found in the perfection of the whole.
Room in a room
Our rooms contribute to how reproduced music sounds.
Have a room resonance peak at maybe 150Hz? Every track of music played in the room will have that same bass bump.
Your room’s response is then added to by the multiple room responses of where the recording was captured, mixed, and mastered.
What we hear when we play music is a messy amalgam of rooms and their imperfections.
Which is often why my favorite audio recordings may not be yours and vice versa.
Rooms within rooms.