In the Fall of 1989, Stereophile magazine released its first recording, of Gary Woodward and Brooks Smith playing flute sonatas by Prokofiev and Reinecke, and a work by American composer Griffes that gave the LP its title: Poem (footnote 1). The full story was published in the September 1989 issue (p.66). We wanted to offer our readers an LP of acoustic music made with the minimum of electronics and processing—the sounds of the instruments would be as true to reality as possible. The images of the instruments were also captured with a purist microphone technique so that, with even a halfway decent system, a true soundstage would be created between and behind the loudspeakers when the recording was played back.
The hidden theme of Elgar's Enigma Variations has been sufficiently investigated over the past 90 years to deter all but the most intrepid researcher from tackling the problem yet again. I would not venture to do so unless I were convinced that a well-argued attempt to solve the mystery once and for all had not been unfairly brushed aside, even ignored, a dozen or so years ago.
Why had a high-end hi-fi magazine felt the need to produce a classical LP when the thrust of real record companies in 1989 is almost exclusively toward CD and cassette? Why did the magazine's editors think they had a better chance than most experienced professional engineers in making a record with audiophile sound quality? Were they guilty of hubris in thinking that the many years between them spent practicing the profession of critic would qualify them as record producers?
The electric clocks in my house keep better time than the ones I wind, yet I scarcely look at them. It is the ticking, I think, that comforts me. I like to lean my ear against these various pendulums and, back and forth, gently rock my life away.
When I decided to write a piece on the subject of concert-hall acoustics, I realized that almost all discussion concerning this topic is based on the viewpoint of the listener in the audience. While this is important (since the primary purpose of any hall is to bring audience and performance together), the criteria that musicians employ in concert-hall evaluation address sonic parameters that are probably not obvious to the casual listener, and may often be at odds with conclusions reached from the other side of the footlights. Some readers might feel that any discussion of concert halls has no place in a publication such as Stereophile; they may have a point, especially if their sole aim through audio is to produce sonic spectacle, rather than to recreate an artistic event. I believe, however, that there are some readers who would like to gain some insights into the specific problems and acoustical considerations presented to performing musicians, and possibly come away with some fresh ideas to incorporate in their listening criteria.
Ask most professional symphony musicians for their views concerning recording sessions, and you might be greeted with seemingly nonchalant and cavalier responses. You will probably be told that although recording can be quite lucrative, it is almost always an exercise in futility. If you press further, and inquire as to why these "artists" display such negative attitudes, they would treat you to both a lecture concerning the shortcomings and gross musical distortions usually involved in the recording process, and to a tirade on the incompetence and arrogance of many recording engineers and producers. And once you have opened this can of worms, you will undoubtedly be told about the frustrations of having to deal with inaccurate and distorted representations of their art at the hands of the musically inept.
I have a confession to make: I play contrabassoon . . . for a living. Now to many this may not seem like such a sin, but within the musical community my instrument is viewed with about as much regard as the common garden slug. This perception is not completely unjustified; often being relegated to roles depicting monsters and evil, along with the occasional digestive grunt, helps perpetuate the general disdain for the contra. However, playing the lowest (non-keyboard) instrument in the symphony orchestra gives me a somewhat different perspective on things, not unlike that of a dwarf in a crowded elevator: a view from the bottom up. It's amazing just how much pitch and harmonic coloration there is down in the subbasement. And shoring up the foundation of the wind section, as well as being the true bottom of the orchestral sonority, can be very satisfying. Although playing an instrument with a limited repertoire can sometimes be disconcerting, it also has its advantages. During rehearsals, if I'm not required for a certain work, I can go out into the house for my own private concert, or stay put in the orchestra and get a sonic thrill that makes the IRS and WAMM systems sound like tin cans.
It's the first rule of being a stereophile: sound quality is serious business. Simon Gibson, one of the engineers at Abbey Road Studios who worked on EMI's new Signature Collection of hybrid SACD/CDs, knows the drill: remaster and change the sound of a much-loved classical recording from the label's glorious back catalog and you risk becoming a target of blogs and forums. Gibson's aware that the more hallowed the recording, the more quickly knives come out at the mention of remastering.