The Fifth Element #2 Page 2

More expensive but more effective and elegant is to include an art-supply store in your rounds, and buy wooden canvas stretchers to make panel frames of the requisite sizes. You can usually get stretchers in Golden Ratio proportions, which might look better than squares anyway. (Single women: You could do a lot worse on a Friday night than go to an art-supply store and look capable.) Use a staple gun to stretch the quilting over the stretcher frame, then cover the face with fabric. Hang the panels like pictures, but—and this is really important—hot-glue or otherwise affix a champagne cork behind each corner as a standoff. Providing an inch or so of sound-pressure ingress all around seems to enhance the beneficial effects.

The very effective (but getting expensive) solution is to order Binary Amplitude Diffusor (BAD) panels from RPG Diffusor Systems. These come in 2' by 2' squares, in a variety of patterned and solid-color fabrics. Gateway Mastering, Transparent Audio, and many other critical-listening installations use BAD panels to diffuse problematic early reflections without shortening a room's reverberation time or unduly rolling off high frequencies. (Early reflections are bad, but a totally dead listening room can be worse.)

I stress that, in this case, "expensive" is a relative term. Assuming that your stereo is decent to start with, even if treating your listening room's walls and ceiling with BAD panels (or my favorites, RPG Skylines) were to set you back $2000, no other expenditure will add as much to your musical enjoyment—unless you go to Vienna or Salzburg to hear live music. And many rooms will be transformed for an outlay of less than $1000. To put it another way: Spending big bucks on interconnects and power cords is just plain silly if your room's acoustics seriously need help.

Elemental Reading
RPG's motto is that you don't listen to your stereo, you listen to your room. That's a bit overstated, perhaps; I'd say that you listen to your stereo less than you're usually aware of, and listen to your stereo's interactions with your room more than you're usually aware of.

The same holds true for concert halls. Ever since Paleolithic humans discovered that chanting or drumming takes on a life of its own in a cave, people have sought out environments that provide the elusive but magical sense of acoustical envelopment.

The design of a successful concert hall must take into account not only the physics of sound but also the phenomenology of human perception. Concert-hall design started out based on empirical observation and imitation of what worked well, and quite often did just fine, thank you. Boston's Symphony Hall (1900) was the first hall designed using acoustical theories, and it was a smashing success. But as if to prove that a little (or incomplete) knowledge is a dangerous thing, later "scientific" concert-hall designs that attempted to reduce all perceptual phenomena to one or two measurements or equations went from bad to worse to, as George Szell said of Lincoln Center's Philharmonic (now Avery Fisher) Hall, "tear it down and start over." (That hall's mid-1970s interior reconstruction, which focused on acoustical remediations, went nearly that far.)

Not even God can make a circle with four corners. Architects and acousticians have learned a lot over the past several decades about what works, and what doesn't work because it just can't. That history is told along the way as Leo Beranek's magisterial Concert and Opera Halls: How They Sound goes about its mission of giving the histories, narrative descriptions, plans, photos, and acoustical data—all in a standard format, for ease of comparison—of 76 of the world's most important concert halls. Of particular interest are the Introduction's musings on how the acoustics of their home venues influenced the playing and interpretive styles of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Boston Symphony.

Even a casual flip-through will be rewarding, while hard-core orchestra-sound buffs will mine all the data fields for nuggets. Putting this book together was a large undertaking. Its $50 price reflects both that and its comparatively limited audience, but your public library may have it, or be able to borrow it for you. If not, amazon.com and other outlets carry it.

Elemental Recordings
Continuing with my survey of the first recordings I pull out when it's time to evaluate a new component:

For orchestral fullness and bass foundation, it's Robert Shaw's recording of Brahms' Ein deutsches Requiem, the first three minutes of which should embody profundity and grandeur. (This is the earlier Telarc version, with the Atlanta forces, CD-80092. The more recent Telarc version, sung in English, was just not my cup of tea.)

For just plain sonic size and power (organic, not synthetic), not much can top the "Agincourt Hymn" from Telarc's Michael Murray organ recital from New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine (CD-80169). The reverberation time there is about 5 seconds, compared to a concert hall's usual 1.8-2.2s. Murray plays the pedal line in strict time, so the slight lag you might feel owes to his not having anticipated the bass beats a bit to compensate for the longer time it takes such huge pipes to speak. Sounds good to me!

I give an honorable mention to André Previn's recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (Telarc CD-80126). In addition to the value of the introduction's "musical-instrument petting zoo" snippets, I find that the difference between the acoustical environment and perspective of the spoken narration and the environment and perspective of the orchestral passages is a good indicator of a system's resolving power.

An honorable mention also goes to American Tapestry, a collection of orchestral music by American composers (Dorian DOR-90224). Recorded in Dallas's new Myerson/McDermott symphony hall (profiled in Leo Beranek's Concert and Opera Halls, recommended above), this disc features dynamic bass and excellent hall acoustics.

Finally, as long as I'm focusing on bass, a "Guilty Secret" honorable mention must go to the admittedly synthetic bass of the first track on Jamshied Sharifi's A Prayer for the Soul of Layla (Alula ALU-1005), which must be heard to be believed.

Questions or comments?

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