Matters of Opinion

Now that audio technology seems to be on the verge of being able to do anything asked of it, it seems only fitting to wonder about what we should be asking it to do. We probably all agree that high fidelity should yield a felicitous reproduction of music, but felicitous to what? Should a system give an accurate replica of what is on the disc, or of the original musical sounds?

Most perfectionists feel that accurate reproduction of the recorded sound, whether this be good, bad or indifferent, is the ultimate goal of high fidelity. (Call it audio if you wish, but fidelity is still the name of the game!) Many others, generally of a less technical leaning, feel that it is the ultimate sound that counts, and that if it is necessary to introduce a mess of euphonic colorations into the system to make the average recording sound as musically realistic as possible, so be it.

In truth, both are building their Castles of Eternal Truth on the proverbial thin ice. Fidelity to the recording is an illusion, because there is no way of knowing what sound is on the recording without playing it back through equipment which has colorations of its own, euphonic or otherwise. The truth of the saying "You can't tell the players without the program" is equally stated "You can't tell the record without the playback equipment". And the playback equipment determines what's on the record. Ergo, dubious trust.

My opinion, for what it's worth (footnote 1), is that the system should, as much as possible, reproduce what's on the recording. If the recording is superb, so should be the sound. If the recording is rotten, then that's the way it should sound: rotten. Somewhere along the line, we have to assume that we have an honest product to work with, and there are enough honest-product recordings available today —from Harmonia Mundi, BIS, Opus 3, Sound Storage, Audiofon, and even (recently) Telarc—to justify owning a system that reproduces what's on the disc with a high degree of accuracy.

The "musical" system, which uses the euphonic colorations of a host of imperfect components to put the musicality back into unmusical discs, may yield superb sound from a limited number of recordings, but it and its entire concept is a dead end. The better the recordings become (and they have been getting progressively better through the years), the worse the system will sound. As Victor Borge used to say, "So much for that."

Okay then, here's another one to toss into the hopper: Where should a loudspeaker system place a voice recorded using a microphone placed at a distance of a foot from a human voice? From your favorite listening position, should that voice appear to be a foot behind the loudspeakers, or a foot in front of your face? My feeling is that it should be a foot in front of your face, if for no better reason than that it would otherwise be impossible to record someone whispering a secret in great confidence. I feel that, ideally, a speaker should be capable of conveying any illusion of recording perspective that it is called upon to reproduce. To me, the holographic, right-in-front-of-your-face perspective should be available to the program producer as a usable perspective, even if it is rarely used.

Let us now deal peremptorily with one of the most popular "puzzlers" in audio. The one that goes "When a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" This one is easy to lay to rest. These days, sound is defined as anything which can or could be heard. The implied tail to that statement is ". . . if anyone or anything were there to hear it". In other words, a sound is a sound, regardless. So, the final answer to that hoary philosophical question is Yes. It does make one helluva sound.

Here's one that is very definitely less clear-cut. If a singer who is usually able to hit a certain high note without effort is unable to do it for a recording session, is it morally ethical to dub in that note from another singer's recording of that number? One's first thought is "Hell, no. I want a recording of that singer's real voice, not a fraudulent representation of it." But think about this one for a moment. If the singer can usually hit that note, no sweat, is it fair to penalize him or her if he or she can't do it on the particular evening that the recording was made? What do you think?

Let's get this even closer to the hairy edge of morality. If you disapprove of inserting someone else's high note, how about editing in that singer's high note from his or her previous recording of that piece? Okay, so I'll go out on a limb again. If recordings were never dated, I would say go for broke. Record an artist at the peak of his or her career, edit the tape as necessary to make that artist sound his/her/(its?) best, and to hell with posterity. But it makes much more sense to date recordings, the way books are, because most people are aware that performers, like authors, change with time.

Okay, fans, here's another: If tape editing can make a performance by the East Podunk Municipal Orchestra sound as note-perfect as the Philadelphia Orchestra, is it fair to edit either performance? Edited recordings spoil the listening public for the real thing, by raising their expectation of precision to above the standard achievable by any group of musicians at an actual performance.

What about this one: Does a record company have the right to withdraw or even destroy the master of a great musical performance because not enough people are buying recordings of it? If the company owns it and refuses to make it available, does someone else have the right to release "pirated" copies of it?

The distinction here is between legal right and moral right. The record company paid the musicians and made the recording, so it has the legal right to do what it pleases with the recording. By refusing to make that recording available, though, it has, relinquished its moral right to it. Anyone who releases pirated versions of that recording has a moral obligation to do so, but must remember that the law (which is an ass) is in some respects very much against morality. If a disagreement over the latter ever ends up in court, it will not be the law's ass which ends up in the proverbial sling.

Should a recording strive to recreate the sound of the musicians in your listening room, or to transport you to the performing hall? If the performing group is a small one, like a string quartet, there is some justification for the recording director trying to achieve an in-the-room sound. But what about a recording of a full orchestra? What about, indeed?

I don't have any pat answers to the last few. If you do, I wouldn't know what do with them. But they are questions which will have to be answered by record buyers and audio enthusiasts before the State of the Art in recordings and record-reproducing equipment can go much farther than it has gone now. I will welcome any comments about any of this, and may even publish letters on the subject.

Footnote 1: It should be worth at least Stereophile's annual subscription price to you, otherwise you're throwing your money away.