Painting Or Photography?

I walked through my local Best Buy recently and didn't see one stereo receiver. Boomboxes, table radios, surround-sound gear, and computer speakers were everywhere. But the hi-fi staple of the 1960s and '70s—the plain-vanilla two-channel receiver—was not to be seen. Even if one or two were lurking there, the fact remains that high-quality two-channel audio is now so disconnected from consumer electronics that it's hardly at the "high end" of anything at all. It's a world unto itself.

But that doesn't mean it's without influence. To those who say high-end audio has a low profile, that may seem true only because other sectors of the home-entertainment industry are absorbing the beliefs and values that we thought were our own. Maybe we just don't stand out as much anymore. No, you'll never see exotic tube amps or moving-coil phono cartridges at Best Buy. And yes, many audio engineers think audiophiles are foolish to endorse tweaks, subjective reviewing, and more. Still, as a subjective audiophile, I find myself at home in the strangest of places.

In the March 1999 issue, I wrote about Jim, the pro-audio guru who made fun of "golden-ear" audiophiles at the very same time he embraced our cardinal rule: trust your ears as much as, if not more than, signal analyzers and SPL meters. Jim would never say he was an audiophile (guffaw, guffaw). But he was close.

My latest déjà vu involves the consumer music industry. Much has changed since my college days, when I made 4-track recordings on open-reel and cassette machines. The biggest change is how inexpensive multitrack recording has become. In the early '80s, machines for recording more than four tracks were way too expensive for me. Even a good reel of half-inch tape for an analog 8-track machine was an investment.

Now, analog machines have largely given way to digital hard-disk recorders and software that converts your PC into essentially the same thing. In the digital domain, the number of tracks available for your masterpiece is limited only by the processing power and memory of your machine. From the musician's point of view, the digital revolution has been a windfall. If you've got a powerful PC, you've got the heart of a big, multitrack recording studio. And reels of tape are no longer necessary—just huge hard drives.

Not surprisingly, home studio (or "project studio") recording is all the rage in the music industry. Alongside the guitars, amplifiers, and saxophones in your local music store you'll find mixers, signal processors, and accessories that let you record, mix, and master your creation without ever leaving your bedroom or basement. If you have the patience, you can manufacture CDs one by one with your PC and a CD burner. Or you can zap your creations around the world in the form of MP3 files.

The digital revolution made this possible, so you might think that this market is far removed from subjective, analog-loving high-end audio. Think again. Project studio products often reflect the tastes and values of audiophiles: They feature minimal, purist circuits; heavy-duty gold-plated connectors are a selling point; and many circuits use vacuum tubes to get a "warm," "classic" tube sound or to imitate the sound of professional equalizers or compressors from the '60s and '70s. This market prizes the power and convenience of digital and the sound of vintage analog equipment. An audiophile sensibility holds it all together.

Tubes are nothing new in the music industry. Audiophiles rediscovered the sound of tube amps in the '70s and '80s, but tubes had never disappeared from music shops. Solid-state guitar amps have always played second fiddle (or rhythm guitar) to tube amps by Fender, Marshall, and others because tube distortion is essential to so many guitar sounds—from warm, jazzy timbres to screaming heavy metal. Still, this distortion traditionally begins and ends in the guitar amp. When an engineer sticks a microphone in front of a Marshall speaker cabinet in a recording studio or a stadium, the goal is to capture that distorted sound cleanly. That's why, after the 1960s, tubes more or less disappeared from music-industry equipment as well as from home hi-fi equipment—from everywhere except guitar amplifiers, that is.

Solid-state recording equipment of the '70s and '80s (by TEAC or Fostex, for example) was reliable and had good specs. Then the market learned a familiar lesson: Good specs don't guarantee good sound. My old TEAC 4-track was prone to sound wiry and brittle (oddly, like badly recorded CDs). Recordings were miles away from the warm, full-bodied sound familiar from so many pop songs of the '50s and '60s. Now, it's understood: You need tubes. Even better, you need tubes in original, vintage equipment.

The music industry is fertile soil for vintage-equipment fetishes. In Wayne's World, Wayne drooled over a vintage Fender Stratocaster locked in a display case. In the actual world, vintage equalizers and preamps can be valued even more, especially if they're from a famous studio like EMI's Abbey Road. (The correlate in audio would be old Leak preamplifiers or early Quad speakers. Even better: Peter Walker's own Quads.) The biggest vintage market is probably in microphones. Neumann tube mikes, sometimes decades old, are extremely desirable. But because they're rare and expensive (easily several grand for a pair), other companies now market new, affordable mikes with Neumann-like features. Some use tubes in their preamplifier circuits.

The point is not only to get a "tube sound" for your vocals, say, but also to get the sound you want at the beginning of the recording process. Different mikes have different sonic characters; you want to choose the right one right away, rather than try to "fix it in the mix" later on. It's what Linnies have been saying since the introduction of the venerable LP12: Get the sound right at the beginning of the signal chain; it will pay off in the end.

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