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The Deafness of Today's Recording
[21st Century Science and Technology, July-August 1989, with permission.]
[Editor’s note: Although cast as a book review, this document, now fully 18 years old, serves still to illuminate the persistent follies of the audio/recording industry. Johnsen had not seen it for many, many years, and when he stumbled across it again was very pleased indeed, and submitted it for republication.]
The Wood Effect
R.C. Johnsen has fired a barrage at the audio-recording industry. A combination of moral outrage, hard work, and intellectual acumen, mixed with wit, humor, and even street-theater antics, makes this 98-page book a rare and refreshing exposé, guaranteed to miss the audio industry's puff sheets.
Johnsen has seized upon a simple truth: Music and speech are living processes. The authentic representation of such living processes for larger audiences involves more than adding up scalar, quantized units of vibrating dead things. When Helmholtzians sell the latter as the genuine article, the listener should beware.
The particular problem referred to as the Wood Effect was first detected by Charles Wood in 1957, at the Defense Research Laboratory at the University of Texas. Wood designed a sound characterized by a sinusoidal wave with a flattened top and found that the reversal of compression and rarefaction patterns in the reproduced sound would change its timbre.
In recording an actual musical performance, therefore, it matters that the physical sequence of compression and rarefaction is preserved in the recording as the actual physical event occurred. If the polarity is reversed, or if the recording is simply recorded "out of phase", a key aspect of the live performance is blunted. Most of the recording industry ignores this question of polarity.
The author documents his findings with example after example, as he takes the reader on a tour of the recording industry, its history, its productions, and the extant literature on the subject of "absolute polarity". How does he conduct his tour? Not unobtrusively. He tracks his subject "as a hunter knows his quarry, by reading the spoor.... The hunter reads the mind of his prey from the spoor, to discover which species have been present and how recently, and where each can be found next. If he then places himself on the flank, he has tracked well."
Granted, only an audiophile will appreciate some of the described infighting in the audio industry. However, there are precious jewels to be found here too. Where else does one find Thomas Edison's assertion, "Music has done more to elevate the spirit of man than anything else since the birth of Christ"?
The industry is properly indicted for its obsession with developing recording technologies that fit in with a "planned obsolescence" marketing strategy. Currently, the compact disc technology is to be served up in three stages, with increasing sampling rates, allowing for new waves of purchases of audio products a few years apart. The actual logjam in present audio reproduction systems—the relatively poor quality of the home delivery systems—remains as a result.
However, this too-typical industry problem is dwarfed by the ideological deafness maintained by the Helmholtzians. Since their auditory theory does not account for absolute polarity, it does not exist. And if someone "hears" it, he must be a kook.
Johnsen claims, "...Helmholtz was wrong to deny monaural phase audibility. So immensely wrong, in fact, that a whole new auditory theory is needed, based on the neglected work of his academic adversary, Bernhard Riemann." He adds parenthetically, "Helmholtz was driven by vengeful animus, and by a mistaken belief that the relationship between the human mind and nature is statistical in character."
This affair of the acoustical theory of the ear should remind readers of the famous, documented case of Helmholtz's inability to deal with Riemann's 1859 work on shock waves, and the pathetic insistence of the Helmholtzians on the impossibility of the existence of such waves.
The author may rail against the audio industry, but he does propose a remedy: "Develop a 'cutting-edge' phonograph made of the finest parts and designs, far beyond today's mere 'state of the art.' That system would then be replicated and demonstrated before the public, forcing manufacturers to cringe or compete." Excellent!
Further, he advises, that until a "comprehensive sonic theory" is developed, "aesthetics in music reproduction must be thoroughly dequantified. A sound methodological suggestion. Instead of quantification, Johnsen maintains, for the time being we should simply ask, "Does this device sound right, or not? To any true instrument builder, that is the question."
All well and good. However, the questions that this book brings forward are too good to remain locked within the domain of technicians and audiophiles. And, to the extent that the author attempts to ask these questions within that domain, the book's discussion is skewed. For example, how does the true instrument builder know what sounds right? Was there a "comprehensive sonic theory" preceding Stradivari's work? How does a society grow deaf? Is this simply a conspiracy of short-sighted, money-grubbing audio marketers, preying upon an innocent public?
Johnsen may well blame the audio industry for its role in subverting the listening standards of the general population. He certainly has fun in providing suitable leads in his early chapter—outlining the doings of Morgan and Rockefeller in cornering the work of Edison, et al. However, sooner or later, the population needs to be asked whether it deserves what it is getting.
The Survival of Beauty
The standards of sound reproduction systems will rise or fall depending on the standards of live performance. A society that makes a habit of speaking truthfully, and singing beautifully, will hear inauthentic reproductions as "tinny," and so on. However, if a society grows increasingly deaf to the richness of an actual public performance of Beethoven's late quartets, or for that matter, increasingly deaf to the rich interconnections of Shakespeare's English, or even to the richness of possibilities of human action reflected in a public discussion of the Federalist Papers, then no revised audio industry standards will reverse the damage. Fundamental questions on the survival of beauty in culture will not be answered simply in the battle over the preservation of earlier recordings.
Johnsen does not totally miss this problem. He quotes, in passing, David Stodolsky's statement that the "fact that there is less and less listening to 'live' music ...could result in rejection of phase parameters by the ear-brain systems as 'useless information.' Many of us could have become phase deaf." (IEEE Transactions on Audio and Electroacoustics, 1970).
Later, he concludes quite forcefully that "the cult of novelty cannot breed true culture. Only the adoption and dissemination of true sound standards, including accessible music reproduction systems capable of cutting-edge performance, combined with extensive efforts to isolate and draw the best from the past, can attain the glory of culture. The rest is folly."
If by the "adoption and dissemination of true sound standards" the author means real, live recitation of poetry, or vibrant, passionate, public discourse over important ideas, or the lased and round sound of bel canto singing, then he has situated his fight for "music reproduction systems" exactly where it should be. To that degree, Johnsen does musicians, engineers, and citizens a much-needed favor.
Johnsen takes the reader on his own, very personalized tour. This may make for an uneven ride, but the sights on the tour generally live up to the trust that the reader must put in the tour-guide.
*A few copies remain, for PFO readers:
$20 + pps. Contact author at