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Jan Vigne
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And now for something competely different ...

Here's an exchange that occurred a few days ago. I hope Axon doesn't mind my posting it here but the forum seems stuck on one topic right now and I thought this might get us out of the ditch for awhile. At least I hope this will not become a subject that can so easily be driven into the ditch.

The discussion went as follows.

From Axon to jj;

Quote:

Would you agree that this same loudness-modulating effect of distortion also explains some aspects of instrument design, and of mastering for low dynamic range environments?

jj;

Quote:

And a big yes to the instrument questions.

Jan Vigne;

Quote:

Please explain this, jj. Instruments are meant to distort? Or instruments are meant to shape their own harmonic structure? All instruments or only certain instruments?

I received no answer from jj but this came as a PM from Axon under the title "wrote this reply while the thread was locked...." ;

Quote:

I'm not jj but I can say what I meant when I posed that question. Allow me to pontificate.

In the evolution of many musical instruments you can see a trend of aiming for increased loudness. Pianos are the obvious example of this, where a very quiet instrument (clavichord) evolved into something that could compete with an orchestra (concert grand). In large part the difference in loudness relates to an increase in sustain ability at the expense of the relative loudness of the percussive sound of the keys. In other words... reverb. While there were many mechanical changes that improved the actual power output of the instrument, other changes simply held the same energy in the system for a longer period of time, increasing the sustain of the instrument. What could be considered a distortion or at least a coloration in audio playback (in the form of speaker box resonances, room resonances, etc) became an essential feature of the instrument. At the same time, this evolution in sustain meant that certain pieces written for earlier instruments, like the harpsichord, do not translate all that well to a modern piano, because the percussive, transient character of the instrument is relied upon, while the sustain in a modern piano makes it sound like a muddled soup of notes. I'm thinking specifically here of some of Bach's harpsichord pieces, and also Beethoven's piano works that need to be adjusted for modern performances because of differences in sustain.

So in a sense, there was a loudness war in keyboard instruments, and there even were some casualties. It just happened very slowly.

The same sort of thing has happened with electric guitars, except along the frequency axis instead of the power axis. Increasing amounts of distortion spread out an instrument's spectrum. An electric guitar with a very pure, clean tone is going to sound quieter than the same guitar with large amounts of amplifier distortion for this reason, even with the same power output. From a strictly analytical point of view (if not perhaps an emotional view), I think a lot of the evolution of rock can be characterized by how instrument distortion, and especially guitar distortion, is manipulated to achieve specific loudness requirements.

And of course there are downsides to using that kind of distortion too. Spreading out an instrument's spectrum means it can more easily mask other instruments, making it much easier to make a wall-of-sound type of production. I'm talking a little out of my ass when I say this, but I would hypothesize that there is a decent inverse correlation between the size of a rock band and the spectral width of the harmonizing instruments such as the guitar.

So, in the grander scheme of things, I think the "loudness war" is 400 years old, not 20-40. Music production has always pushed for greater and greater loudness.


My response was;

Quote:

I have to disagree on several levels. First, your assumption that many instruments were designed and manipulated over time to increase "loudness" as a primary concept is not in keeping with my experience with both piano and guitar. Yes, over the centuries the instruments became more capable of playing louder but the instruments also became more capable of playing softer thereby increasing the range of performance skills.


Quote:

In large part the difference in loudness relates to an increase in sustain ability at the expense of the relative loudness of the percussive sound of the keys. In other words... reverb.

"Reverb" and sustain are not synonymous. "Loudness" in an acoustic instrument is taken from the attack of the note and not from the sustain which is already decaying to zero the moment the note is struck. "Projection" is an all together different thing but, in a fine instrument, does not operate at the "expense" of relative loudness. Martin guitars are famous for their projection, sustain and separation of individual notes at all levels from softest to loudest and from lowest to highest, as are many fine pianos. In short, "loudness" is not directly related to sustain (or decay).

What differentiates a modern piano from any of its more primitive ancestors is the ability of the performer to control and adjust the volume and the dynamics of the instrument to the moment of performance. Add to this an increase in tonal range where a harpsichord was capable of four octaves and a modern piano can reach as many as seven octaves. Where a harpsichord could only play with a set amount of volume on each string with each strike of the string a modern piano can vary the intensity of volume with the mechanical action of the pedals and with the skill of the performer. A light touch of the key and use of the pedals results in a light volume from the instrument while another pedal and a more forceful playing style will provide a bigger sound. This value scale was not possible with earlier instruments. Additionally, the ability to maintain proper tuning has been an important improvement in modern paino design. So while I would grant you that the modern piano is more capable of playing with a full orchestra it is also more capable of expressing the intent of the performer in any setting.

The same holds true with the guitar. You appear to be looking only at the increase in volume that resulted from rock performers playing to larger and larger audiences. Yet the history of the guitar shows the same values were designed into the modern instrument as shaped the modern piano. From the lute to the modern electric guitar both the range of volume and the octave reach has been increased. Moving from gut strings to steel strings gave both ends of the dynamic scale more expression. Electronics came along because of society more than a simple desire for more volume. People danced to the guitar music of the late 1800's through the 1930's and the ability to reach above the din of the crowd was as important to Charlie Christian as was the ability to play softly and expressively in the style of the day - jazz. Those expressive skills moved the guitar from a strictly rhythm instrument to a lead.
"Distortion" as an expressive tool, like so many other such devices, came about by accident when a guitar amplifier fell off the top of the car while the band was travelling to a recording session and had neither the time nor funds to repair the amp before they played.


Quote:

An electric guitar with a very pure, clean tone is going to sound quieter than the same guitar with large amounts of amplifier distortion for this reason, even with the same power output. From a strictly analytical point of view (if not perhaps an emotional view), I think a lot of the evolution of rock can be characterized by how instrument distortion, and especially guitar distortion, is manipulated to achieve specific loudness requirements.


The "distortion" you speak of in a guitar amplifier is overdrive, too much gain at the front end of the amplifier or its inputs from the guitar itself. A "clean" signal (what is actually referred to as "clean" on the control panel of the amp's head unit as opposed to "overdrive") will play just as loud and sound just as loud as a distorted signal if it sent through the same amplifier and speaker. The difference here is in the microphonics and the clipping characterisitcs of the amplifier's gain devices and the application of additional and often separate amplification after the distortion has set in.

As intentional distortion became an expressive tool for a jazz, blues or rock musician pedals were created that gave a broader range of expression and distortion types to the performer. However, if you are talking about electric guitars the ability of the instrument itself to not overdrive the amplifier with feedback has been an ongoing adventure since the earliest archtops were fitted with crude single coil pickups. All of this allows an electric guitar player to reach a wider envelope of volume and thus emotion. Listen to one of the Pizzarelli brothers, B.B. King or Tommy Emmanuel and hear just how expressive an electric guitar can be when it is played clean to dirty.


Quote:

From a strictly analytical point of view (if not perhaps an emotional view), I think a lot of the evolution of rock can be characterized by how instrument distortion, and especially guitar distortion, is manipulated to achieve specific loudness requirements.


Then you are separating the emotions from the playing and that is not possible. Distortion and volume are used for emotional impact. You cannot analytically remove them from one another, particularly in blues or rock music. Clapton's "woman sound" would not be possible without overdrive and the resulting distortion yet he could play that sound no matter the volume level thanks to modern amplification. You are once again ignoring the fact that most modern rock is amplified to fill a stadium after the overdrive distortion has occurred.

I think your concept of "loud" as a rationale for instrument design is only partially correct.


Quote:

What could be considered a distortion or at least a coloration in audio playback (in the form of speaker box resonances, room resonances, etc) became an essential feature of the instrument.

I am befuddled by how you can take an essential quality of a fine instrument and turn it into a "distortion" just to make your case. If an instrument had no sustain, it would be a muted, damped sound. That is not even the sound of a harpsichord. Improved sustain is a by-product of the increasing quality in materials and skills of the designer/builder. What would a violin sound like if it had no sustain? A cheap student instrument. Am I correct when I assume you have no clear concept of how the "sound board" of an instrument operates? The diferent choices to be found when presented with cedar, rosewood, maple, mahogany and spruce? Or how the different sizes and shapes of a guitar affect the sound quality of the instrument by affecting its resonant faces? Going back to Martin guitars, the bracing patterns used with various materials and sizes of instrument form the voice of the guitar. Controlled resonance and sustain are not thought of as "distortions" when choosing an instrument but rather as hallmarks of a better product.
Additionally, you suggest distortion can be identified by a particular group of numbers and specifications. I would say that betrays a too rigid mindset which only acknowledges one particular - a rather "Western" or specifically "American" - approach to speaker design. Killing off cabinet resonances and striving for "dead enclsoure" and an "analytical" sound is a thoroughly American approach to speaker design and execution. Many other parts of the world do not consider "dead" to be the best approach and take instrument design and manufacture as their guide. Italian designers often prefer controlled resonance and sustain in the cabinets. To say they are wrong and only what a particular group prefers is correct is not being fair to all concerned.


Quote:

I'm talking a little out of my ass when I say this, but I would hypothesize that there is a decent inverse correlation between the size of a rock band and the spectral width of the harmonizing instruments such as the guitar.


Then I would suggest you go listen to any of the great three or four man groups, say, Cream or The Doors compared to, say, Chicago. Even John Lee Hooker by himself was capabale of a mesmerizing "wall of sound". Amplification has changed any coorealtion between the number of performers and the scale of sound they can achieve. Even when considering purely acoustic instruments, which might be considered to present the "spectral width" more effectively, a single trumpet or a dozen nylon string guitars?


Quote:

So, in the grander scheme of things, I think the "loudness war" is 400 years old, not 20-40. Music production has always pushed for greater and greater loudness.

Would the sound of a single drum travelling through the forest be included in your "loudness wars"? It could travel for miles while not deafening those standing alongside the instrument.
I tend to think you are again "talking out of your ass" on this one. The goal of virtually all modern instrument design for the last 500 years has been to broaden the range of the instrument; softest and loudest, highest to lowest and with the capacity for any instrument's range to more effectively communicate the artist's intent.

I realize this was a PM you sent while the forum was temporarily closed and you did respond in place of jj. If you would like to move this entire communication to the forum - I would suggest another, new thread, possibly others might have further contributions. I have no problem opening this to the forum as a whole.


Anyone care to comment on something other than who is right and who is obviosuly the most ignorant person ever to draw oxygen away from others? I know there are several musicians on the forum. What say you?

Lamont Sanford
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Re: And now for something competely different ...

I can disprove "Oxymoron" in one simple experience. The time I went to see Cheap Trick, with the little drum set player, and my ears rang for three days afterward. And that was an outdoor concert. I could clearly hear the little drum set along with the rest of the instruments and vocals.

j_j
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Re: And now for something competely different ...

Some of you guys may have infinite time to spend here, but I have to do things like work, go on trips to AES meetings, etc.

I'm not sure why anyone who doens't want to pick a fight thinks that there is disagreement.

The drum set stuff simply does not understand how hearing works, sorry.

And yes, having harmonics is an artistic part of instruments, otherwise music would be boring. Yes, harmonics increase loudness of the instrument. Yes, guitarm amps are overdriven AS MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS (and this is quite intentional, artistically driven, etc, so what's the problem).

As to designing speakers to be analytic, well, do you want to hear what the producer intended or what you want to hear? Take your choice.

ETA: The "loudness war" goes back beyond 30 years, back to the change from clavichord to harpsichord (increase in loudness) to pianoforte (increase in loudness AND expression).

One of the marks of a Strad is its ability to put out a LOT of energy vs. some other instruments.

Etc.

The war has been going on for a long, long time, but only lately, I think, has it become detrimental. This actually happened with 45's in the 1950's and 1960's, and is happening again with CD's now, partially due to the domination of the CD manufacture business by people who only consider the 3-month short-term.

Lamont Sanford
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Re: And now for something competely different ...

Another goddamn whining John Cougar.

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