Audio: The View From Outside Page 2

Therefore, I take this opportunity to suggest a practical, if not philosophical, approach to the subject by offering some of the criteria that this musician uses in evaluating high-fidelity components and recorded performances. I certainly don't want to come off sounding pontifical---contrabassoonists should never pontificate---but most of the elements of performance I want to discuss, while familiar and obvious to a musician, may not be so to the average reader.

Presentation of all musical lines with integrity:
In the music business, we have a hackneyed, but all too often relevant phrase: "the right note in the wrong place is the wrong note." In other words, if the rhythm and note placement are not correct, the world's greatest technique, sound, and interpretation won't help. So it is with audio: all of the various musical lines (rhythmic, melodic, harmonic) must first be accurately presented in order to allow the listener to correctly identify voice leadings, sequential melodic and harmonic patterns within complex passages, and get an idea of the overall shape of the composition.

Additionally, primary and secondary voices should be presented in their proper perspective, without editorial comment. Assuming that recordings are accurate in this sense (a very big assumption), this information should be apparent without exaggerated, frequency-dependent, artificially induced clarity. Many listeners who do not have regular exposure to a live source seem to prefer an unnaturally bright, overblown, and spectrally thin balance. This misguided effort to provide sonic transparency and clarity not necessarily present in the program material, is a common symptom of the hi-fi syndrome. While the weight and articulation of individual notes comprising the various lines must be in evidence, many of the fine nuances that determine the mood and character of a particular performance are more introspective, and are not so obvious in live music.

I can recall an instance when, after attending his first symphony concert, a fellow audiophile mentioned that he was very disappointed, finding the soundstage lacking in depth, the spectral balance directed too much toward the mid bass, along with a general lack of clarity. I suggested that perhaps he had been a victim of too many predigested recordings, and the false expectation that a live concert should actually sound like his RS-1bs.

Accurate harmonic representation of instrumental and vocal timbres:
Live, unamplified acoustical instruments and voices don't have as much "technicolor" and shine in their tonal spectrums as many people in the audio world think. The real thing is indeed colorful, but the complex harmonic tonal variations which distinguish one performer's or ensemble's stylistic trademarks from another are rather subtle, suggesting such nuances as open or covered, bright or dark, focused or spread, and resonant or dull. These apparent minor tonal variations can subliminally supply the listener with a great deal of information concerning the musical personality of a performer, and even of an entire ensemble.

For example, rather than hearing a "generic" bassoon, I want to know whether it's a German or French instrument (a significant difference; the French bassoon has a different harmonic distribution resulting in a lighter, more nasal tonal quality); what fingerings the bassoonist is using (alternate fingering patterns for the same pitch produce slightly different harmonic spectral balances); and how the individual player's reed was designed (always determined by the predominance of the second harmonic in relationship to the fundamental).

Is the melodic line which begins at the end of the seventh bar in the opening of Sibelius' Fourth Symphony played by a solo cello or a double bass? It might surprise you (since most loudspeakers get it wrong), that it is played by a muted cello. If a component or system cannot resolve such important nuances, a great deal of the life and musical interest contained in the program material will be lost.

Correct re-creation of attack and dynamic impact:
Volume of sound is not the only determining factor here. Concerning attack, large pipe organs, brass, and percussion instruments not only play louder than woodwinds, strings, voices, and piano, but also physically move more air. Additionally, the lower the tessitura, or general range of an instrument, the slower and more amorphous the leading edge of attack. Not every low-pitched instrument, however, has the same speed of attack, something many audiophiles and too many loudspeaker manufacturers have yet to realize. The bass tuba, for example, by virtue of its larger internal bore dimensions and construction, produces a slower, fatter, less focused tone and attack than does the contrabassoon. The same theory holds true for other instruments which play in similar ranges, but have different tonal characteristics. Bass drum and tympani, recorder and transverse flute, and violin and viola are all good examples.

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