You are reading the older HTML site
Positive Feedback ISSUE 2
The Creative Art of Recorded Music - Translation,
Transduction, and Transformation
Virtually since our first meeting, David Robinson and I have explored (typically over good Port and fine cigars) this collective passion of ours, which David has entitled Fine Audio. We have long agreed that recorded, reproduced music, rather than being a diminished version of live music, is its own art form. Agreement on this fundamental concept extends through the Positive Feedback editorial community with some unanimity. In this article we would like to begin the process of articulating this alternative viewpoint.
Our attempt will be multifold. First, we wish to articulate a set of basic principles that describe and illuminate the art form of recorded music. Secondly, we want to invite participation, comment, and debate from our readers. Third, wed like to explore the phenomenon commonly referred to as audiophile nervosa as a function of misplaced conceptual models about audio. Lastly, we want to place the relatively new technology of Direct Stream DigitalŽ (DSDŽ) and its delivery format, Super Audio Compact DiskŽ (SACDŽ) in a context that elucidates its importance in this art form. With SACD approaching mass-market availability through inexpensive players and increasingly varied and more widely available software, it is time to begin exploring our ideas on this subject more formally. The task will not be accomplished through a single article, butclosely akin to the art form we describea nascent model will emerge in ever more clear detail through exploration, dialogue, discussion, and yes, disagreement.
Perhaps the most straightforward method for beginning the process is a statement of our basic precepts. We do not intend to offer a final, dogmatic model, but rather to remain true to the spirit of community that defines Positive Feedback by offering the opportunity for exploration and dialogue, and to incorporate our ongoing experiences into a living, dynamic model of the audio arts.
Recorded music is not, nor can it ever be isomorphic with the live event. The irrefutable basis of this contention lies in simple physicsthe representation (transduction) of a thing can never be the thing itself. As with the Realist school of painting, even the most faithful rendering of a subject remains a representation, and a representation from a specific perspective. In art, it is representation that constitutes the art form itself.
Using live music as an immutable reference from which to evaluate or judge recordings or equipment is ephemeral and will always be so. Plays are not real life. Movies are not recorded plays. A photograph is not a painting. Color and black and white photography are distinctly different. A painting cannot be the thing it depicts. These are all discrete art forms. They are perhaps similar in some ways, but each is unalterably different from the others, and each is valid in its own way.
The process of recording music forever transforms it. Recording engineers are frequently not much different from audiophiles, in that they have specific tastes and preferences. They take a transitory event and create something new, a recording. The selection and placement of a microphone is just as much a valid part of the creative process as the choice of a performer to use a particular instrument, or to play a passage of music in a particular way. Add to this the unassailable fact of the recording-studio-as-instrument. Approve of it or not, the vast majority of recorded music makes no pretense of being a simulacrum of a live event. It is a product of a recording studio. Even music recorded "live" must eventually pass through the recording studio for mixing and mastering. At each stageeach transductiona creative act occurs, and the result is distinctly different from what preceded it.
Tyranny, Dogma and Superstition
It has long been held that fidelity is the goal of audio. We believe that this conceptual model, which uses the live musical event as the sole true reference, is dogmatic, divisive, and misguided, and has spawned many forms of conflict and insecurity within the audiophile community. Not only does reproduced music not sound like the live event, individual sound systems, regardless of their sophistication and quality, rarely sound like each other.
If an audio system reproduces music that is clearly and audibly different from the live event, and clearly and audibly different from other systems (each claiming at least some degree of neutrality and fidelity), we are left with inevitable, irresolvable conflict. If there is an absolute reference, thenas with monotheismthere is, and can only be, one true method or approach. Tubes and solid state amplification cannot peacefully co-existone is an apostate and must be treated as such. Dynamic and electrostatic speakers cannot both be faithful. One must be superior. So, like lightweight contenders, the various camps line up along their dogmatic leash lines, bare their teeth, and begin again the endless and rancorous warfare. We believe this to be absurd and destructive. There are many paths to enlightenment.
More insidious is the sadly dissatisfied audiophile who vainly tries over and over to recreate what he or she has experienced in a live event within the confines of the listening room. This is a pointless, frustrating, and ultimately misguided approach, guaranteed to produce insecurity, despair, and poverty, and its tyranny is all-pervasive. We are not even allowed to have tone controls, because we cannot be trusted to alter the "sanctity" of the experience. This belief, as with many primitive religious rituals and superstitions, has its origin in history. Perhaps at one time it was impossible to produce tone controls that had little if any deleterious effect. This is not the case now. However, manufacturers still eschew them, knowing (or at least suspecting) that audiophiles will interpret the addition of such a feature as sonically compromising. In many cases, this will not be because they have any personal experience from which to make that judgment, but because an authority figure has (a very long time ago) told them it is bad.
Frankly, this is fascist nonsense. If I order a meal at a fine French restaurant, I will TASTE it before adjusting the seasoning. However, once they put the food in front of me, and it becomes mine, Ill be damned if anyone is going to dictate to me what I do with it. You may abhor the fact I like catsup on fried chicken... but I do. You dont have to like it and I dont have to defend it. Its my chicken.
The experience of recorded music is fundamentally different for individual listeners as a result of sensory preference. My first review for Positive Feedback (Balanced Audio Technology VK-5i line stage preamplifier/VK-500 solid state power amplifier) advanced this basic idea of sensory preference, and the following is drawn generally from this review.
While we all sport basically the same sensory "equipment," there are three primary sensory orientations that effect how we listen, think, and even talk about the experience of listening to recorded music, each with its own lexicon of adjectives. These sensory orientations are auditory (harsh, mellow, screechy, sonorous, etc.), visual (transparency, vivid, image, shimmer, etc.), and kinesthetic, a term that refers to emotional response, touch, proprioception, etc. (common kinesthetic adjectives are slam, impact, rough, smooth, palpable, etc.). All humans have what is (apparently) a genetic preference for organizing and representing subjective awareness in one of these sensory modalities. Our sensory preferences have a profound effect on how we perceive, understand, and represent subjective reality. Our "map" of the world is formed through the fabric of our sensory orientation.
Logically, listening to music is primarily an auditory exercise. However, this does not mean each of us processes or makes sense of what we hear in the same way. There are visual listeners (translating sound into pictures), kinesthetic listeners (translating sound into feelings and body sensations), and auditory listeners. This sensory orientation has a profound and largely unconscious effect on how we experience recorded music. In order to form a working understanding of this concept; think of a typical audio equipment review with this sensory-orientation idea in mind, paying attention to the sensory-based language choices the reviewer makes. You should be able to quickly discern the primary sensory orientation of the author. I find that many audio reviewers use predominantly visual adjectives to describe what they are hearing (clear, image, transparent, resolution, depth-of-field, gloss, sheen, etc.). Many audiophiles talk about having to listen in darkness so their internal pictures are not interfered with, and their need to "see into" the sound stage.
These are perfectly wonderful adjectives and would obviously make sense to their visual readers. However, there are many listeners for whom vision is not the predominant aspect of listening to music. Presumably, many audiophiles are primarily auditory and kinesthetic. One can reasonably argue that listening to music is an auditory/kinesthetic experience, not a visual one. That is, we listen to artificially propagated sound waves and experience emotional and tactile responses.
The listeners primary sensory orientation will skew their subjective responses to the sound they are hearing. Once the sound gets past our ears and into the brain, anything can and frequently does happen. I suspect primary sensory orientation affects both how we actually process music and our tastes and preferences in its reproduction. For example, while "pinpoint imaging" and "transparency" may be extremely important to a visual-based listener, "harmonic weight," "dynamic impact," and "tonal warmth" are likely to be more meaningful to the kinesthetic listener. The auditory listener will value "timbral accuracy," "voicing," and "tonal richness." I have also frequently noticed that highly auditory people are keenly aware of dynamics and are quick to criticize systems that dont "swing." This is not just a matter of individual taste. It has to do with the nature of individual subjective reality.
Since we are all quite different at the sensorium level, an absolute reference is simply not possible. The process of perception is as active as any other link in the chain. At an individual level (because we experience recorded music in fundamentally different ways), even our basic frames of reference are highly individualized. When I find myself perplexed at peoples preferences for things audio I must continually remind myself it is not simple aesthetics at work here, but the immutable fact that subjective sensory reality is highly variable and individually constructed.
Recorded music is both a part and the result of a process, a series of interrelated but distinctly different art forms (not all of which are musical), which interact with and are complemented by each other. Using a Beethoven symphony as an example, there are nominally at least the following art forms interacting with each other as we move from the exigenisis to the point at which we are listening to recorded music in our homes. We anticipate the reader may raise an eyebrow at what may initially appear to be a "stretch" including some of what we do, but the point is important.
The art of musical composition.
It is this complexity that makes recorded music a wonderfully complex and variable art, and, at the same time, provides the potential for endless sources of interest and entertainment. The recorded music aficionado is not relegated to a simple two- or three-dimensional experience. It is possible to approach the appreciation of recorded music from many points of view, each of which must be considered as valid as any other.
Corollary OnePrecept Three
The multi-faceted nature of the art of fine audio is reflected in the many orientations of participants in the art. We have asserted that there are multiple, interactive, discrete art forms involved in the art of recorded music. Our first corollary to this assertion is that there are multiple, interactive, and discrete "orientations" or areas of interest within the art of Fine Audio, each of which is perfectly valid. Below, we articulate some of the more obvious. Most audiophiles will have characteristics within several of these basic divisions. However, most of us will have observable preferences, even if we may not acknowledge them. It does not take much thought to realize that these various orientations are likely to have a significant effect on how the listener experiences recorded music. Again, this makes an absolute reference impossible.
The Music Lover. This is a controversial term, often rancorously debated and used as a pejorative ("He/she/it is NOT a music lover."). However, this may not be the primary orientation of all, or perhaps even most audiophiles. We have heard it articulated as clearly as, "Hey, I am an engineer, not an audiophile. Frankly, I dont listen to music all that much." to observing audiophiles with $100K systems and a handful of recordings, of which they listen only to certain selections. Our point in saying this is NOT to present the Music Lover as the sine qua non of audiophilia, but simply to articulate one of many primary and valid orientations within the hobby.
The Engineer. The equipment used to record and reproduce recordings is endlessly fascinating, and there is great pleasure to be had in developing a scientific understanding of recorded music, as well as an appreciation for the art and science of designing audio equipment. For many, the equipment exists as at least a somewhat separate art form from the music.
The Musician. Many audiophiles are musicians, for whom fine audio becomes an extension and enhancement of being a performer. It has frequently been observed that musicians have crappy taste in audio equipment, and it can be a source of discomfort to audiophiles that performers seem to have little interest in the equipment used to reproduce what they do. However, we are convinced that musician listeners experience recorded music somewhat differently than the average audiophile.
The Equipment Listener. Who among us does not possess certain recordings that are primarily or solely used to demonstrate specific characteristics of our sound systems? We have all "listened to the equipment." From those who rhapsodize over their favorite NOS tube or esoteric phono cartridge to those who constantly change interconnects, suspension devices, and so on, one of the most common orientations is towards the performance of the equipment itself. Some assert that it is this very thing that defines an audiophile.
Equipment as Jewelry or Statement. Fine audio equipment provides many with the same pleasure of ownership as other quality possessions. It is apparent that this fact is not lost on manufacturers. We have all seen audio equipment that draws comments of appreciation even from people who have no idea of its function. Additionally, there is the pride-of-ownership factor that accompanies the possession of a fine audio system. The acts of acquisition, possession, and demonstration may be the most significant portions of the experience, and the equipment itself can be a sensual delight.
The Equipment Specialist. There are audiophiles who have found their audio nirvana with certain types of equipment. They even form social groups, as with vintage car owners. Examples include the SET group and those who believe that electrostatic speakers are the only truly valid transducers. Many audiophiles attach great significance to particular types of equipment, but because of audiophile nervosa, cannot be content in their preferences without disparaging those who chose a different path.
The Collector. One whose primary orientation is to collecting music recordings or the devices used to record or reproduce them. One cannot listen to ten thousand recordings. Many audiophiles own considerable numbers of recordings they have only listened to once, or not at all. Some audiophiles have equipment that is not in use and retained for values other than operational ones.
The Trader. One of my audiophile friends is consumed with going to flea markets, yard sales, and various other venues to try to find huge bargains on quality audio equipment (obviously, usually vintage) and recordings. Some of these "finds" he will retain, most he cleans up, repairs, and sells at a profit. Ebay, Audiogon, et al. have all become havens for equipment and music traders. For some, this becomes an economic enterprise, for others the chase simply adds savor to their enjoyment of the hobby.
The Historian. One who orients to recorded music from a historical perspective, developing knowledge and insight into the people, events, and processes. While you might immediately think of classical music listeners in this context, actually we find historians in every musical genre, including pop and rock. We also see equipment historians, and even biographers, within this category. We have all met audiophiles who can reel off model numbers and variants of equipment made decades ago, and tell you who designed them, how long they were made, perhaps even where they were constructed.
The DIYer. There is a long tradition of audiophiles building their own equipment. The combination of art, design, engineering, and economy is compelling to many, and adds a richness to the art that can be enormously gratifying.
The Recording Engineer. Hobby recording and audiophilia are long-term bedfellows. Hobby recording declined sharply during the early days of PCM digital, but we are a seeing a renewed interest as digital workstations, CD burners, and sophisticated computer software has become more affordable.
The articulation of these orientations is pointless without a purpose that goes beyond simple categorization. For this reason, we reintroduce the concept of "community." We assert that any and all of these orientations are valid, and should not serve as value-laden divisions amongst the audiophile community, but as a continued opportunity for enjoyment, learning, and growth.
While attending the 2001 VSAC conference in Washington State, I overheard a person comment about the DIY show room, "I never really understood that these people are artists, and even their designs are full of creative expression." If we are not bound to a single immutable reference or point of orientation, we are free to pursue and appreciate differences, and to relax.
The process of recording and reproducing music, while somewhat linear in practical terms, is composed of repeated and interacting "feedback loops," and is thus somewhat self-referential. Composers frequently compose with the sounds of specific instruments as part of the process. Recording engineers make specific choices around the strengths and weaknesses of their equipment and the venues in which they work. Equipment designers are motivated (and constrained) by available and familiar technologies. Various pieces of a musical reproduction system interact with each other, sometimes in difficult-to-predict ways. This means that what takes place during one part of the process can have profound effects throughout the entire chain. Most importantly, it means that with every "transduction" we move further from the original event, and in each transduction there are creative acts.
Throughout this complex, multi-stepped process, there are translations from the ineffable and emotional to the concrete and physical and back again. Recorded music is literally the result of multiple, creative, generative acts. The composer takes something ineffable from the heart, mind, and soul and creates something with palpable reality, a musical score. A conductor interprets this physical "thing" and leads the translation back to a non-physical form, a performance. The musicians interact with the composers score (a physical thing), the conductors interpretation and guidance (an emotional and communicative thing), their instruments, each other, etc. The recording engineer takes this event-in-time and creates a physical form (a recording), and so on.
While I might reasonably argue that certain portions of this process are preeminent, each step is both a creative act and profoundly impactful. Moreover, in each step, there is both the opportunity for both true art and feckless dross. A ham-handed conductor can reduce a brilliant score to a murky mess. The finest conductor can be dragged into banality by the uninspired playing of musicians. Well-designed and manufactured pieces of reproduction equipment can be assembled in an artless and unsatisfying manner. Yet there is an equal opportunity at each step of the process for something magical to occur. It is this dependency on the performers that is at the very spine of any art form. Our contention remains that there are multiple levels of "performance" in recorded music.
For whatever reason (and the reasons have been endlessly and acrimoniously debated), many believe that analog reproduction has proved to be superior in capturing and translating the musical event when compared to standard PCM digital. We believe this resides in the comparative failure of conventional PCM technology to capture the emotional reality of the recorded event, and to properly evoke the emotions of the listener. However, the fact that this distinction is not universal has led many to assert that the problems with PCM digital are in its execution rather than an inherent inferiority to analog. Presently, these arguments may be rendered mootwe believe that the technological limitations of both PCM and analog are largely resolved with DSDŽ.
Direct Stream DigitalŽ (and its delivery vehicle SACDŽ) provides the first fundamental, positive evolution in recorded music since the adoption of the analog open-reel tape recorder in the mid-1940s. With the advent of DSDŽ we have a technology that combines the ease and simplicity of the compact disc with the resolution, musicality, and emotional integrity of the finest in analog recording and reproduction, with few if any of the inherent limitations of either medium. We also assert that DSDŽ has the capability of both superior recording and playback in comparison to even the finest analog devices.
If fully and appropriately implemented, DSDŽ can result in a reverse "wave" throughout this chain that is recorded music. We believe that this wave may profoundly alter how we think about and experience recorded music. From equipment design to recording technique, it is no longer business as usual as people increasingly experience this new technology. It should also serve to free performing artists from many of the obstacles presented by conventional analog and PCM digital.
This most profound effect of DSDŽ lies in its ability to present the end user with a virtually indistinguishable facsimile of the master tape, in a physical format that is widely known and accepted, and backward compatiblethe compact disc. David has coined the phrase "Master Tapes for the Masses." The profound possibility is that the end user now has a practical, mass-produced equivalent of the master tape in his or her listening environment.
Furthermore, if the software manufacturers can remove their heads from their nether regions, they will realize that hybrid SACD/CD manufacturing is the only viable way of the future. Consumers can painlessly be introduced to this new, superior medium. There is no need for retailers to have dual stock. Even at this very early stage, the production costs of dual layer are only slightly higher than that of CDs. We see a simple scenario at the brick-and-mortar retail music store level, which goes as follows:
A Model for the Transition
We have been watching CD prices climb to the $17.99 level with hardly a comment from consumers. Somewhere between $17.99 and $19.99 is the magic level at which dual layer discs become economically viable on a mass scale. So, even without any current domestic production of dual layer SACD discs, we are still very close to being able to produce SACDs at the current retail price of CDs. However, a dual layer disc represents a significant change in the value of the product. This means the consumer stands to benefit enormously, and not simply to pay higher prices.
Record companies are understandably apprehensive about the continually slowing market for recorded music. They are also faced with a profound need for something to energize consumers in a manner similar to the introduction of CDs. Fewer and fewer consumers see quality distinctions in recorded music as an issue. Inured to PCM sound, they are no longer driven by the desire to pursue listening as an art form, which was what spawned the audiophile movement in the 1970s. Without something to balance this trend, consumers will continue to go down the path of MP3, cheap or free downloads, and indifferent mass market equipment, and fine audio will be the province of a tiny number of eccentrics, even more so than now.
Because consumers are very attracted to value-added products, the replacement of standard CD inventories with dual layer will create a "pull" effect in the market. Imagine if you will, the typical CD store, redolent with incense and tattooed and pierced children of the night. Mary Consumer wanders over and notices there is a new Yanni disc in the rack. Oh joy! She clutches it to her ample bosom and then looks at the cover with its gay silver "DUAL LAYERHYBRID SACD" sticker. She is puzzled but intrigued. She motions to one of the pungent clerks and asks, "What does this mean?" pointing at the sticker. He replies, "Oh, man, you gotta hear this. Really trippy." And without the slightest technical description (owing, no doubt, to his highly altered condition), he walks her over to a listening station comprised of several of the inexpensive multi-channel SACD changers (similar to CD listening stations). He slides the Yanni disc in, and plops the headphones on her. He selects the CD setting. "See man, these work fine on your CD player." Then he gets an evil grin. "But wait til you hear this!" and switches to the SACD layer. Our innocent consumer has an immediate eargasm.
She asks the clerk, "Holy shit, will this sound the same way on my player?" He brushes the golden seal crumbs out of his beard and fixes her with a sad but knowing expression. "No babe, but when you get another CD player, just buy an SACD player, you get the ability to play all your CDs and you get multi-channel SACD, what you are listening to now, and they are CHEAP!" He points to a stack of boxes behind the register. "I can set you up with one and your life will never be the same."
Of course, she demurs . . .the first time. She goes home, listens to her Yanni disc, and keeps remembering what she heard in the store. Each time she buys another disc, she sees that sticker. Finally, the cognitive dissonance is too much. She breaks down and buys an SACD player, and is now on the path to madness. The last time we see our consumer, she is grilling a salesclerk about whether or not the tube amp she is considering has sufficient damping control for her speakers. This is not only a practical scenarioit is one of the only truly viable ones left for the record companies.
Back to beauty and truth
Beyond the merely practical considerations, we are faced with true magic here. This is profound. Imagine, as a metaphorical illustration, that one could own reproductions of original master art that are, for all intents and purposes, virtually indistinguishable from the originalsa Rodin bronze, a Monet watercolor, a Rembrandt oil. Yes, there will always be subtle distinctions between the master and the copies. What we are describing is practical equivalency.
Due to inherent limitations in both analog and PCM digital technologies, throughout the recording and reproduction process, it has been necessary or preferable to introduce deliberate compensations or euphony into the process in order to achieve a more satisfactory result. We believe that DSDŽ requires far fewer of these compensatory actions, and therefore allows for greater fidelity to emerge. However, we can be assured that because we are all creatures of habit, many people will simply turn away in favor of habitual preferences, even when faced with a more honest alternative.
We have made what we consider to be a relatively strong case for eschewing the use of an absolute reference in judging recorded music and the equipment used to reproduce it. However, if we stop here we will have conveniently avoided the apparent paradox between the subjective experience of recorded music and the objective sciences that are intimately involved in its creation. While theoretical physicists generally agree that there is little meaningful separation between the observer and the phenomena being observed, the universe still appears to operate in large part according to basic principles that are observable and replicable. This is the basis of the scientific method. In other words, the truck bearing down on you may not be ultimately "real," but you are well advised to treat it as though it is. If we simply stop our discussion with the positing of a variable and constructed subjective reality, we simply remove the sideboards of science, rationality, and order.
Good engineering is based in science. To be sure, there are always things about which we do not have compelling scientific explanations, but to the extent we do, it is generally wise to favor explanations that are testable and repeatable. Unless we are deliberately seeking euphony, audio equipment best serves the performance if it has low distortion, wide bandwidth, and sufficient overall efficiency (including the loudspeaker in this determination) to more or less accurately preserve the recorded waveform. However, there have been serious problems with that original recorded waveform (frequency response anomalies, distortion, phase problems, audible noise artifacts, dynamic range limitations, etc.). Because of this, there has been an understandable desire to manipulate the recorded signal in order to achieve a more pleasing and enjoyable listening experience. Let us be blunt about this: When faced with choosing between "fidelity" and "beauty," most listeners will opt for the latter, even if it is with some discomfort.
Because SACD does not require the extreme measures used to make PCM and analog listenable (if you dont think analog requires such measures, check out RIAA curves some time), we believe it will push designers and manufacturers toward equipment of wide bandwidth, linearity, and fidelity.
Synthesis and Conclusions
We wish to draw some operational conclusions:
Recorded music is its own art form and it is a performing art form, with the end user markedly more a part of the process than the typical observer of art generally is. We audiophiles dont simply hang a "painting" and look at it; we participate in the continued retransformation of the "painting." We are active partners in the creative process.
Recorded music (as an art form) is comprised of both art and science, and is defined by an uncomfortable balance between the two. Slavish adherence to the scientific method in evaluating and understanding recorded music is no more useful than a complete abandonment of science in the lust for pure subjectivity, with its accompanying lack of guidelines and rational constructions.
If one is to pursue fidelity in the reproduction of recorded music, the master tape is the only reasonable, common reference point. However, it is only a common reference point, not an absolute reference.
At this point in time, Direct Stream DigitalŽ has the greatest potential for fully capturing and honestly rendering the recorded musical event.
Because of historical practices, there are compensatory steps, processes, and devices strewn throughout the recording and reproduction chain that will take years to ferret out and undo.
Each audiophile pursues his or her own vision and artistic sensibilities. Each audiophile carries within them a representation of the "true" sound and it is, for lack of a better word, the sound of their own souls. Between beauty and fidelity, there is no contest for most of us.
Each audiophile is oriented to various parts of this complex art form, both as a way of creative expression and to enhance enjoyment. None is superior to another.
Each performer in this complex art carries inside a representation of the ultimate expression of the sound they are seeking, and tries actively to achieve this in performance. Each representation is thus, by definition, different.
Audiophile nervosa is an unnecessary and maladaptive response to conceptually narrow and unrealistic ways of thinking about audio.
There is no "best" or "right," but rather that which most completely touches the individual soul. We should honor the paths that others have chosen as valid and meaningful for them. There is a profound difference between "bad art" and individual preferences.
This is not a competition. We should not be pitted against each other in some sort of ghastly artistic Jerusalem. We are a community of interest, and need to behave as such. Those who seek to actively foment conflict and disparagement of other paths should be confronted or ignored and isolated from the community.
Vigorous debate, disagreement, and dialogue are healthy and necessary for the advancement of the art. As with much of life, true value lies in the diversity of human experience.
We look forward to an ongoing discussion of these assertions.