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Why Audio is not all that good, but it’s great

When the era of Audio recording began, it changed the face of music. Just the fact that one can hear the great music of mankind’s creation when and (especially nowadays) wherever we want is miraculous, whatever the playback quality.

But, for many of us, getting the sound as good as we can is a most worthy objective. It’s why I am typing this and why you are reading. What can be frustrating to folks like us is that there is seemingly no end to the trail, even as sound keeps getting better it seems the goal keeps moving away from us. Sometimes, it can even seem doubtful that progress is even being made as listening to vintage gear that can sometimes seem in certain ways closer to the goal can show. The crux of the problem, as I see it, is that even in principle, perfect reproduction is not possible. Facsimile reproduction would be the end of the line, but it’s nowhere near.

I liken home audio to a blind man in a shooting gallery firing at a moving target. It seems every steps of even the recording/playback process has it’s shortcomings. Start even before the hardware, with recording techniques. So which combination of recording and playback techniques are “best”? Well, we all can have our own personal takes but really, even among professional recording engineers, there seems to not be any kind of true, absolute consensus, no perfect way to record. Where there is no perfect technique, there can only be differing compromises. Over time, some have ben employed and largely discarded, at least sonically. For example, you just don’t see many Classical extreme multi-track recordings any more, though it must be said that the best recording engineers that employed that technique could sometimes produce quite credible recordings. On the other hand, you don’t see many completely purist 2 mic recordings or indeed, even true Blumlein recordings (despite their oft-touted technical desirability). The reasons? Some are economic. The fewer the mics used in a recording, the harder it is to find their optimum placement. This placement requires expensive orchestra time to attain, so having a few more mics allows you to cover your bases better.

You could say that using the “best” mics (whichever ones that might be) with “proper” placement (wherever in the hall (hell?) that might be) and employing the proper recording technique (Blumlein?) would result in as good a recording as is possible to produce. Maybe that’s true. But if at least if one technique (whatever it was) had been settled upon at the beginning, one could arrange their playback system as a compliment to whatever had been chosen. But the reality is that recordings are wildly different, so we have a problem in reproduction right off the top.

Moreover, whatever the sonic truth of the original recording technique, complete faithfulness to that is not, even in principle, (at least with today’s technology) attainable. Mics are far from perfect. Our digital recording systems are quite good these days (not so much earlier on) and the old reel to reel master tapes, if in good shape, are pretty credible, too. But Records are imperfect, CD’s are variable and limited technically in their ways, SACD’s can be good but are limited in availability and depth of catalogue and downloads of less that lossless formats mediocre (true hi-rez files are probably the best we have). And there’s nothing to say that a particular format will be “transferred” well from the masters.

Then we get to Turntables, Cartridges, Tonearms, CD players, SACD players, D/A converters, Preamps, Amplifiers, Speakers and our listening rooms. All have at least potential problems. It seems like all hope is lost. But…

Let’s go back to the opening paragraph; “Just the fact that one can hear the great music of mankind’s creation when and (especially nowadays) wherever we want is miraculous, whatever the playback quality.” This is why we try and slog through all this and what’s amazing is that somehow, with all that is working against us at times the sound is good enough to take us virtually to (pre “renovation”) Symphony Hall or Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall or any of the (scandalously) now gone venerated rock venues or Abbey Road studios or wherever.

And that’s why we keep typing and reading and listening.


ProArte Rachmaninoff Symphonic Dances and “calibrating for the reviewer”

It’s always interesting to get other perspectives on audio and the recordings we listen to for our pleasure. I ordered the ProArte recording of Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances (Mata/Dallas) recently as result of a recommendation on the “REG on Audio” Yahoo Group. TAS reviewer Robert Greene (REG) considers this to be a sonically better recording than the more generally acknowledged “audiophile” recordings of this work. What follows is the results of listening to this CD on my system including Magnepan MG 3.7 speakers.

ProArte is a bit of a mystery label, as far as I can tell. Some classical and a lot of oddball and novelty type CD’s, much of them look like “licensed” material. I am really not sure if the label instigated and recorded this on their own using their own personnel. As I recall, they were an “off price” label back in the day, but that’s about all I remember about ProArte. As far as technical info for the recording under review, the mystery continues.

ProArte bills this as an “Audio+ Direct to Digital” recording and infer it’s something of an audiophile release. They even provide some recording info, but it’s all pretty vague. For example, they list K&K, Shure and AKG mics, but give no model numbers. K&K appears to be a company that specializes in pickup mic’s designed for acoustic instruments, so that doesn’t help much and Shure
and AKG made everything from exotic to prosaic instruments, so who knows? All we can do is listen…

This is a recording that sounds as if it were recorded with a rear-hall sound in mind. At first, it may seem dull and the sound field a bit vague, but really it’s a pretty credible example of the sound balance one would hear at that distance from the orchestra in a typical hall. There does seem to be a bit of opaqueness as though the mics were not absolutely first-rate, but overall, one would have to consider this a successful recording with much beauty to be heard from its calm balance.

One can contrast this to the Johanos/Dallas/Turnabout recording of this piece. This has a definite front of the hall perspective and exhibits a very spatially distinct, vivid and detailed sound. Unfortunately, this also results in a recording somewhat lacking in hall ambience, which robs the sound of some of its potential beauty.

The Reference Recordings Oue/Minnesota recording may be the most sonically successful, to me. It also has a somewhat close-up sound, but sounds as if some discreet accent mics were blended in to add some hall ambience and back off things a bit. This results in a front hall, but still ambient, sound.

Recordings being compromises in first principle, I would say these recordings all present viable perspectives on an orchestra in a
concert hall. Which one you will like best will depend on what kind of concert hall you prefer and where you prefer to sit in the hall. Personally, I am glad to have these quite different sonic perspectives available and find much to enjoy in all three, but would have to say the Reference Recordings has the “best” sound based on my tastes.

That said, the reviewers sonic preferences should be an important factor in your assessing the reviews of recordings and equipment you may read or hear. I will refer to this as “calibrating for the reviewer”. As you read any reviewers work, they will tend to betray their inevitable biases and likes in their reviews. In my mind, the better reviewers will give you enough straight reportage of the sound to allow their descriptions to be relevent to you once you figure in the calibration factor between you and the reviewer.