Getting the Notes Right (Midrange Madness)

Almost 30 years ago, Columbia records issued a unique disc called The Art of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards. Darlene sang and Jonathan played piano, and the jacket notes rhapsodized about the depth of feeling they brought to their duos, despite some imperfections of technique.

Those imperfections, it turned out, amounted to spectacular technical incompetence. Darlene's voice swooped, broke, went falsetto during high passages, and was painfully off-pitch about 60% of the time. Jonathan, who had an impeccable sense of timing and phrasing, on occasion staying precisely in step with Darlene, was the original Mr. Stumblefingers at the keyboard. He played runs with hesitancy and disordered abandon, his chords presaged the coming of aleatoric music, and his arpeggios sounded like pebbles thrown at a set of concert chimes. Their performances may have run as deep with emotion as a Dostoyevsky novel, but no one who heard the record ever noticed anything but that Jonathan and Darlene couldn't get the bloody notes right.

That record did not become an indelible blot on Columbia's recording escutcheon. It was, rather, a historical document of sorts, a roundabout way for two very fine musicians—Paul Weston and Mary Ford (also known as Mr. & Mrs. Weston)—to thumb their noses at what they saw as a distressing trend in pop music: the growing popular appeal of musicians who could emote like crazy but couldn't play music worth a tinker's darn. Of course, the record sank like a lead feather in the marketplace, leaving nary a bubble to mark its watery grave; no one had ever heard of the Edwardses, and American record buyers never have understood anything about good or had performances. (Sure, I can play the piano. How well? Whaddya mean, how well? What's that got to do with anything?)

But The Art of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards became an immediate and lasting hit with cynics, who delighted in burying it amidst a pile of trendy ephemera on the record changer at a party, and waiting to see how long it took their guests to notice that something, anything, was wrong. (The fact that most guests never noticed at all only further fueled the fires of their cynicism.)

Now that some pop instrumentalists have learned to play their instruments pretty well, we can sneer at those early-illiterate rock groups while enjoying today's sophisticated performers through our $10,000 audio systems that reproduce the stage dimensions to within a fraction of an inch, the rumble of the subway three blocks away, and the distress calls of local bats which can recognize aural trauma before people can. But can that super system reproduce music properly? Can it make a clarinet sound like a clarinet, a trumpet like a trumpet, an Amanda McBroom like Amanda McBroom? Can it get the notes right? Chances are, it can't.

It seems, these days, that many of us audiophiles have become so preoccupied with the minutiae of sound reproduction that we haven't even noticed that it doesn't sound like music any more. We marvel at the soundstage presentation, lose our continence over the detail, and climax over our system's ability to rattle the lighting fixtures and scramble our otoliths (footnote 1). But ask your average audiophile if his super system reproduces instrumental sounds realistically and he'll give you a blank stare or, worse, tell you that it must because it's so accurate.

What makes it accurate? Well, listen to that spaciousness, that detail, that seismic bass! How can you doubt?! (How realistic is it? Whaddya mean how realistic? What's that got to do with anything?)

Somewhere along the line we lost track of what audio is all about: the reproduction of music.

That this comes as a surprise to many audiophiles is suggested by the reactions of those with whom I have actually discussed this subject. I have played on this old saw in these pages for so many years that it has turned into a dead saw horse, but somehow the message never seems to get through. There should be no harm done by beating it into the ground a little farther.

Some years ago, Hi-Fi News & Record Review, England's premier audio magazine, published a number of real-time spectrum analyzer curves showing the distribution of energy through the audio range during brief passages of actual recorded music. The thing that was so shocking about those curves was that they revealed, for all to see, that music was comprised mainly of midrange energy! Everything else took a back seat. That in itself should tell you something, but in case it doesn't, I shall spell it out. Since there is more middle range in live music than anything else, it would seem logical to assume that the accuracy of middlerange reproduction is the most important part of music reproduction.

Footnote 1: Otoliths are little bits of sand that float around in our inner ear, and sink to the bottom when gravity tells them we are standing on our feet rather than otherwise. Enough 20Hz sound pressure can agitate them so that, like many other audiophiles, we find it hard to tell which side is up. It's a real turn-on.