In yesterday’s post we started a discussion about the fallacy of the Absolute Sound. Absolute compared to what? Without knowing what it is you are listening to or how it was recorded – even a hint as to what to expect – it’s a nearly impossible task to know if you’ve reached the Absolute Sound of exactly what the recordist wanted you to hear.
And that really sums it up. We can’t expect our systems to playback the sound of live un-amplified instruments on recordings that never had that goal in mind. But what we can expect is to duplicate what the recordist was trying to achieve.
Audiophile record producer Kent Poon has made some strides in that area – as have other pioneers in this field (including some of the original Mercury recordings). What Kent’s done in several of his recordings is provide a layout of the musicians and the recording microphones.
I have found such a map ever so invaluable on the few recordings I have that provided it. In fact, I remember one of my favorites was the Weavers in Carnegie Hall. I remember finding a sort of map detailing where the performers were standing and how they miked them – wow – that was incredible.
We all strive to visualize the performers in the acoustic space when we listen. Having a map makes it ever so much more vivid.
Reader Mark Laufer sent me an interesting letter that I want to share with you. He brings up some excellent points: ones we will be exploring in future posts.
“I always am amazed when reviewers talk about two things: one is “true to the recording” and the other is “true to the live performance.” They are both total fallacies.
A recording is true to what? To the studio monitors used to balance the sound? To the way the studio monitors sound in the mixing room? And really, what is the “actual” sound of an electric guitar? Is it the sound of the playback monitor heard by the artist? Or the playback speaker heard in the recording room?
And for live recordings – is it any different? I am always going to live concerts in NYC – I am blessed with some of the best concert halls in the world (and some of the worst). Sitting in the orchestra at David Koch theater has a distinctly different acoustic “signature” than seats in the front of the mezzanine. Move 8 rows back and you move under the overhang for the next tier up, and the sound changes again. Move up another tier, and another, and the sound changes again. Which is better?
Well, for me, I prefer the first mezz center to center orchestra. I like the “lift” the sound gets as it moves “up.” But others like the orchestra … At Carnegie Hall, I just sat 8th row orchestra during a Bartok concerto. The orchestra is actually “above me.” Many would say that a more “accurate” sound comes from sitting much further back in the hall, or in the first tier (again, up). Distinctly different sonic signatures. When you sit closer to the orchestra, the instruments in the front are much more pronounced … the totality of the sound is much clearer further back in the hall. The point is quite simple. There is no “correct” sound, there is no “absolute” sound. There is no “sound as it appeared live.” There is only the sound as it appears at a given moment in a particular acoustic setting. Which can change one seat over.”
Mark’s points are well taken. The Absolute Sound is something coined by HP to describe what we’re all seeking but it doesn’t exist and if it did, how would we know it’s right?
Much more to come on this subject.
Most high-end audio systems I see and own are collections of equipment added/subtracted/modified over time.
The systems have grown organically as we add the next best thing or eliminate the one we don’t like. Rarely do we get to sell everything and start fresh with a clean slate.
Imagine for a moment what your system might look like if you started over with everything new. I just went through that mental exercise and surprised myself with the results.
My first thought was one of excitement – this would be the chance to take all that I knew and really get it right. I’d start with getting the AC power foundation right, get my sources exactly the way I want, settle on exactly the right amplifier that had more power than I needed, a great pair of loudspeakers and then cable all of it together. Pretty exciting.
Except it’s a crap shoot. There’s an old saying “the devil you know” resonates well here. I am quite familiar with all the warts as well as all the great points of my system. I have made many studied experiments, work arounds and arrived at the best set of compromises I know how to make.
Starting fresh with a clean slate means I have to do it all again and what compromises and changes will I make?
There’s safety and confidence in changing out one area at a time in a system you know well. There’s also the chance that starting fresh might just blow you away.
So many choices.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes you’re focusing so hard on a minute details that you miss the elephant in the room? Happens to me all the time.
A commenter to these posts mentioned an AB test he witnessed between two amps and after multiple A/B back and forth tests someone suggested the channels between the two amps were reversed. Horrors as not one Golden Ear in the crowd noticed it. While this was an embarrassment to those in the room as well as the presenters it happens more often than you might think.
We have the amazing ability to filter out everything but what we want to focus on – as humans living in an incredibly noisy environment this feature is a must.
This happens so often to me that I routinely bring someone else into the listening room without telling them what I am focusing on to see if they pick up something stupid like the channels reversed that I missed.
Next time you’re evaluating something new in the system take a break and let a day go by before you revisit your decision.
You might see the elephant in the room.
Have you ever wondered what recording studio engineers use for monitors? I’ll tell you – probably nothing you’d have in your home or system. For the most part they are anything but high-end.
A few loudspeaker manufacturers proudly show us their products in the studios and mastering rooms of the world, but this is done for advertising and does not represent what the real world speakers are – Genelec, JBL and brands you wouldn’t consider in a high-end setting. Yet we high-end people judge the work mastered on these less-than-high-end speakers on a daily basis.
I remember speaking with Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings asking what he uses and was surprised to learn he has some home brew designs that work for him. As Keith told me “you’d hate them in your listening room” but they work for Keith.
If I were to build a studio to record music I’d make my control room setup an identical copy of my listening room. Think about it for a moment. What if you could have live musicians playing in the next room and a control panel connected to your high-end setup. The control panel could set levels and tonal qualities of each microphone feed such that when you were done, you’d have the finest sound your system was capable of.
I remember “back in the day” when Dave Wilson was into recordings. He actually designed the Wilson WATT loudspeaker to be his recording monitor and later turned it into a company that made loudspeakers. They are certainly high-end.
I probably will never have the time to build my recording studio, but it sure is fun to dream.
from PS Audio International 1/12/2012
I was reminded by one of our commenters to these posts about an era in audio I think of as the flavor of the month. It was a period of time in the 1970′s and early 1980′s that found loudspeaker and audio electronic manufacturers designing products that were not especially true to the music.
No, in fact these products were tailored to meet the perceived needs of “ordinary people” who probably didn’t want music – they wanted sizzle and flash.
I remember well one CES where an (unnamed) loudspeaker manufacturer demonstrated their entire line of these speakers with a Telarc recording of a 747 jet passing overhead. You know what? They sold a lot of speakers. The pitch was: “if it can reproduce the sound of a jet thundering overhead, just think what it can do for your favorite music”.
I am happy to report that we’ve managed to mature out of this era and most manufacturers aren’t selling sizzle and flash, they’re honestly trying to reproduce music or theater as if it were live.
As a certain commercial back then said “We’ve come a long way baby”.
My friend Art Tedeschi from the Colorado Audiophile Society sent me an interesting observation which I think is rather relevant and relates to our thoughts.
“I think most died-in-the-wool audiophiles have two distinct goals:
1) We want a system that bathes us in glorious, unadulterated sonic bliss that washes away our troubles and soothes us emotionally and inspires us intellectually and….
2) We want a system that’s as true as possible to the live performance.
Unfortunately, these goals do not necessarily coincide, which is the crux of the problem.
So however unreachably lofty, my vote would be to strive for accuracy, as I believe the best recordings will always supersede a system that consistently sounds good with all or most sources.
Practically speaking, of course, I also prefer a system that sounds good, but the industry itself must have some kind of standard to evolve it in a positive direction, and I think the only standard we have now, as flawed as it is, would be the live performance.”
So accuracy or emotionally inspiring? Heck of a choice.
Why can’t we have both?
from PS Audio International 1/11/2012
What’s the difference between 0.5% distortion and 0.5% distortion?
Is it a trick question as the two numbers seem identical? No, I use this as an example to make a point.
If the output of my Power Plant is trending down, from 1% to 0.5% I am happy. If my Power Plant is trending up from 0.1% to 0.5% I am worried. The number we are working with is identical, it’s now the trend we are concerned with. The direction of the movement is what we are now focusing on not the actual number itself. So if you start with 5% distortion on your power line and a product lowers that number by ten times, that’s a good trend.
When it comes to absolute numbers, how you are feeling about those numbers has a lot to do with your attitude towards the equipment at hand.
Trends matter more than absolutes in the long run.
Paul’s Post from PS Audio 1/10/2012