Squeezing the Music...
I write these words mere hours after returning home from Home Entertainment 2005, the Show cosponsored by Stereophile magazine that took place from April 28 through May 1 at the Manhattan Hilton. A full report will appear in the August 2005 issue of the magazine.
HE2005 was an upbeat affair, the majority of exhibitors presenting good sound at levels that, in general, were nowhere near deafeninga welcome trend. But for me, an essential aspect of the Show that had been relatively neglected at our 2004 event was the inclusion of live music. Not only did XM Satellite Radio sponsor a well-attended concert Friday night featuring that quintessential jam band, Medeski Martin + Wood, but there was a superb support act as well: torch singer Holly Palmer backed up by Mojo Mancini, a band that includes that most tastefully powerful of rock guitarists, John Leventhal (Shawn Colvin, Rosanne Cash). And there was a continuous program of live performances throughout the Show's three public days.
My thanks to: the jazz trio led by guitarist Tony Ormond; blues singer Deanna Bogart and her band; folk singer Kevin Mileski; the band led by singer Pamela Lewis and guitarist John Hurley; Hip Hop & Classical ensemble Nuttin But Stringz; jazz singer-pianist Tony DeSare (courtesy Telarc International); my colleagues in my jazz trio, pianist Bob Reina and drummer Allen Perkins; and, most important for me as his producer, Canadian pianist Robert Silverman, who previewed his forthcoming Stereophile CD with a blistering Saturday-afternoon performance of Beethoven's monumental Diabelli Variations.
An important function of the live music program is to allow Showgoers to recalibrate their ears with the real thing. But the emerging paradox is that, even as playback equipment reaches new heights of transparency and musical accuracy, the recordings we play on our equipment are increasingly compromised in sound quality. I first wrote several years ago about the sonic disaster resulting from heavy-handed compression. Things are now, if anything, worse.
I hasten to add that I refer to rock and popular musicclassical recording, led by companies such as Channel Classics, ECM, Pentatone, and Hyperion, is currently enjoying a quietly underpromoted golden age of sound quality. But as one of the judges for the CEA's new Demmy Awards, a scheme intended to recognize the technical excellence of the audio and video recordings used to demonstrate gear, I grew increasingly depressed as I auditioned the contenders in all categories that had been nominated by attendees at the 2005 Consumer Electronics Show last January. (The Demmy Awards ceremony, where the winners will be announced, took place May 14 at the Professional Audio/Video Retailers Conference, now organized in conjunction with the CEA.)
Yes, there were superb examples of the modern recording artthe Tony Faulkner/Andrew Keener collaboration on the Florestan Trio's recording of French music for piano trio, for example (Hyperion SACDA67114)but many of the nominees dated from an earlier, pre-digital age: tracks from Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, Derek & the Dominos' Layla, Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Muddy Waters' The Folksinger, Frank Sinatra's Live at the Sands 1966, and the Grateful Dead's American Beauty. I mean, come on.
Yes, these are all great recordings (other than the remastered Dark Side...) but they were all laid down on analog tape before Stereophile writer Stephen Mejias was even born. And when I listened to a modern recording that had been nominated, the aggressively compressed and equalized "Lose My Breath," from Destiny's Child's Destiny Fulfilledwhich CES attendee nominated this piece of sonic excrement?I felt like shutting down the system, going outdoors, and listening to some silence.
Again perhaps paradoxically, it was the DVD Music Video/Concert category that provided the best examples of modern recorded sound. "Narrow Daylight," from Diana Krall's Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and "Lido," from Boz Scaggs' Greatest Hits Live, both have excellent dynamics and clean, natural balances. In fact, the recording I've been listening to most over the past few weeks is not an SACD, not a DVD-Audio, not a Dual-Disc, not a CD, and not even an LPit's the live double DVD-Video of Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival (Reprise R2 70378). Great music, great sound, great atmosphere, great musiciansdammit, I love ZZ Topand as far as I could tell on the 15" LCD monitor set up between and behind my speakers, great video. As I wrote last November, the true replacement for the CD medium is not a hi-rez audio-only medium but the live concert DVD. Now that's a medium worth an award in itself.
2014 Postscript: There are signs of improvement nine years after I wrote the words above and returned to the subject in The Spaces Between the Notes in November 2009. The bestselling album of 2013, Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, has excellent dynamic range without losing its get-up-and-dance quality and Rush are remastering some of their catalog, admitting that a heavy hand on the compressor during the original mastering had made the CDs unlistenable. But there is a long way still to go before popular recordings are fit to play on audiophile systems. As Steve Guttenberg wrote last June, "compression doesn't sound so great for audiophiles craving maximum dynamic contrast, but we're just a tiny minority of music buyers."John Atkinson
Footnote 1: Compression of the analog signal during mastering should not be confused with lossy digital compression processes like MP3 and AAC, which concern the throwing away of audio data to reduce file size.