On Assessing Sonic Illusions

Recently, I found myself in an email conversation with two colleagues on the nature of reproduced audio. How should we think about it? The conversation was provoked by a "hybrid" (live and online) presentation of the Pacific Northwest section of the Audio Engineering Society called "What Does 'Accurate' Even Mean?" The presenter was James D. "JJ" Johnston, a distinguished researcher in the field of perceptual audio coding and a co-inventor of MP3.

Among many other honors, Johnston was selected to present the Richard Heyser Memorial Lecture at the 2012 AES convention—an honor shared by our own John Atkinson, who had given that lecture the previous year and was one of the participants in this email conversation. The other was Tom Fine—so, it was me and two sound engineers.

In the email that got us started, Tom (who has done a lot of archival work) noted that vintage tape machines were usually better at recording ("better" meaning close to the microphone feed) than they were at playback. Consequently, he wrote, "Playing old tapes on late-era, state-of-the-art tape machines often yields a very different sound profile than original commercial releases." Those commercial releases, Tom wrote, "also went through the Vinyl Black Box and thus were very far from output equals input, with input being what the microphones captured."

"I'm not even talking about fidelity to what sounds occurred in front of the microphone," Tom continued. "That gets lost as soon as the microphone does its thing."

Is he saying that microphones don't accurately capture sound? It depends what you mean by "accurately." Microphones "don't operate or 'hear' like human ears," Tom wrote, "and their placement and use is determined by aesthetic factors." In use, then, a microphone is alien, and the thing it produces—a typically two-channel electrical signal that's preserved as a recording—is subjective.

What about engineers who strive to stay out of the way as much as possible, with so-called minimalist recording methods? Such recordings, Tom said, "are dull and don't hold up in the commercial world." They are admittedly an acquired taste.

JA answered with a related point, quoting Evan Eisenberg's book The Recording Angel: Explorations in Phonography: "In the great majority of cases," JA quoted, "there is no original musical event that a record records or reproduces."

Up to now, we were so focused on the relationship of a recording to what it reproduces that we overlooked the fact that most of the time, it doesn't reproduce anything. Subjectivity aside, very few recordings correspond to an actual performance. Most are studio concoctions with pieced-together instrumental tracks and artificial ambience that document no sonic event that ever occurred. Your average studio album is a whole-cloth creation of musicians and sound engineers.

But that's just rock and pop, right? Aren't they the ones who make those synthetic albums? Not exactly. Even most mainstream commercial recordings of, say, an orchestra or solo piano are spliced together from many takes—perhaps one main take per movement and many short corrections. That's partly because musicians make mistakes, and mistakes aren't acceptable on mainstream commercial recordings. "Perfection" is expected, even if it's fake.

Tom, who has remastered many of the Mercury Living Presence recordings, wrote in a follow-up email, "Some Mercury fans get going about how 'pure' the recordings sound. I tell them, 'It's a minimalist, purist recording technique, but you should see how many splices are in a master tape. It's a produced and edited product, polished to stand up to hundreds of playbacks in the home. The fact that people think it sounds lifelike means the production was done as intended.'"

Finally, the crux of the issue. We audiophiles and serious music listeners are most satisfied (whether we know it or not) not when engineers intervene as little as possible but when they are most successful in pulling the wool over our eyes—when the illusion is complete. Often, that is best achieved with more intervention—more manipulation—not less.

Recording, then, is an act of artistic creation, starting with the earliest and most basic of audio-engineering tasks: positioning the microphones. Tom again: "A spaced-omni setup is probably among the most dependent on the listening aesthetic of the engineer and producer."

Let's return to that Eisenberg quote. Far from being representative of some past real-world event or experience, Eisenberg said, "each playing of a given record is an instance of something timeless. The original musical event never occurred; it exists, if it exists anywhere, outside history." JA wrote about this in this very space in 2010.

It is often said and written, including in this magazine, that a recording can be a time machine, perhaps a teleportation device, moving you through space and time to experience things you couldn't otherwise, like Thelonious Monk playing at the It Club or the Blackhawk. Yet the experience of playing a record is best thought of not as an act of recreation but as an act of original creation. Even a recording of a live event—even if there was an experience in the real world that was captured on tape—what's on the record is so far removed from what happened then and there that it makes sense to think of it as something new.

So this synthetic, whole-cloth creation is what we audiophiles are supposed to compare to "live" sound. Sounds hopeless, doesn't it?

On the contrary. The notion of a (re) produced recording as a performance is, to me, liberating. The irony is striking, but the argument is compelling: Once we've embraced the notion that a recording is a complete fabrication, we get to decide for ourselves how convincing that illusion is without worrying much about whether the connection to live music is real, whatever that might mean.

A comparison to live, though, is just one of many aesthetic choices; we are equally free to judge by other criteria, such as whether we find the soundstage compelling, the images palpable, or instrumental timbres consistently pleasing. Something, though, must constrain our judgments (and designers' choices) if we are to continue to use the word "fidelity" in describing our sonic goals.

joe149's picture

A wonderful piece, and a refreshing recalibration of expectations that I wholly agree with.

When folks use the term 'accurate' with respect to some component or a particular recording, I often cringe. Much better to think of a recording as a recreation of a performance, and to enjoy the degree to which that recreation is convincing - does it make me feel like I'm listening to this music in person and do I enjoy that, rather than is it accurate to what was actually played.

rschryer's picture

It highlights to me how the prime goal of our hobby (aside from being fun) isn't about getting closer to the "real thing". The prime goal is to achieve greater fidelity to the recording. That's the "real thing".

cgh's picture

I am reminded of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. A nice escape from the hyperreality, at least for me, is to hang out with my musician friends as opposed to my audiophile friends; because even though we all talk about music, we are talking about two different types of music.

I wasn't aware of the book referenced, and from amzn [the book] "Examines the ways sound recording has changed the nature of music, discusses the influence of music on human behavior, and tells the stories of musicians and composers who have made sound recording an art form." While always true, I suppose more so today, as compared to, say, the car audio days, in that the level of production and post-production processing is so great. It's post-post-Hegelian: at one time it was about the form of the music, the instruments being concrete. I suppose we're all recordingphiles < audiophiles < musicphiles.

Alex Halberstadt's picture

What a thoughtful and fun piece, Jim! Hi-fi listening is a liberating act of subjectivity, creating something that didn't exist before, and doing it on our own terms. A minor form of artmaking.

The Tinkerer's picture

I am fortunate to be personal friends with more than one successful, professional recording artist. One of whom was a charting, mainstream rock band. I also know several recording engineers from various places (Nashville, LA, NYC, etc).

Though the "event" is often a construct, and can be an abstract one...the goal of that construct is something incredibly authentic. What wasn't mentioned in the article is that mic selection and placement, the decision to iso- vocals, drums, etc....or to record as an ensemble, is driven just as often by physical limitations of the recording facilities, spaces, or equipment as it is by artistic decisions. Example: The Black Keys are a 3-piece band, but the effort put into their recordings is not to betray that reality as much as to flesh it out into what they want the listener to experience. This means, often to defy physics and present things that are not physically possible to arrange or record in their recording spaces.

So, we are talking about how clearly we can perceive a photoshopped image of Swiss Alps and a sunset and that we can't...because of polarization filters, significant editing, splicing of multiple exposures, etc. This is "impossible".

Except, it's not. We can endeavor to hear/experience what the artists (which includes the recording engineer, mastering engineer, and the artists themselves) have intended for us to experience. We can endeavor to enjoy and perceive that beautifully edited photograph with as much fidelity as possible.

The experience that is sent our way on each recording is NOT abstract. It is a tangible thing, even if it never existed in corporeal space. Addressing it as a -mere abstraction- misses the point of the creation and I should think would disappoint MANY artists, as they discovered people are not hearing their art as they created it. No different than hanging tissue paper in front of paintings at a museum.

With that said, I have heard many recordings that have had remarkable fidelity to the experience in a real space. Perhaps better than being there. Again, show me the downside here.

Scintilla's picture

Surprising to see mention of jj and very welcome in these pages. While your article is thoughtful, I think you unwittingly make the case for immersive recordings. Most, by their nature are not designed to accurately reproduce a real space outside of concert hall classical recordings. As evidenced by your recent coverage of Steven Wilson's immersive mixes, the goal is to paint a sonic picture with an artistic brush as much as bring the listener to the recording. Rock and pop recordings are often very much more interesting in immersive mixes and it is definitely about the production as much as the actual music. I think there has been too much focus on "purity" for too long. Give me some AC/DC at 11 and some vibrations coming up from the floor. THRAK! is just stupendous in surround. Thrilling, meaty and so damn satisfying in surround!

jimtavegia's picture

I joined a discussion of this off YouTube concerning this issue. The discussion centered around A DOL pressing of Muddy Waters: Folk Singer. This album was also remastered by another house minus a couple of tracks.

I had never heard of the DOL label so I jumped in a bought the LP off Amazon. I was impressed to say the least as this was nearly a 60 year old recording that sounded so amazing. The room had what seemed to be the right amount of natural reverb and the clarity made it hard to believe this was from an old reel(s) of tape. The instruments and the vocals sounded like they were feet away and very natural.

The others in the conversation had bought the other pressing and returned it as the DOL was so much more real and alive sounding. To them it was no contest.

From the book by the late Al Schmitt he had done a recording of Ray Charles and Betty Carter and in the back of the book he showed the layout and what mics he used in the recording. It is a great recording, well, it was Al Schmitt so, but even though he had panned some instruments hard left and right they still sounded real, not a thin or pale imitation. What was also interesting about this recording was the Early Ray Charles. You can hear in this recording the influence that Nat King Cole had on his singing, as it is nothing like what we have heard from him on his latest works, especially the duet with Tony Bennett on the Art Of Excellence.

Another album I just bought is full of studio trickery and instruments and engineering choices that are just "misses" IMHO, but that is worth 2 cents these days.

Engineers decide, musicians agree, and we get to hear that combination of playing and capturing the event. Sometimes we get real lucky and get to hear it as if we are sitting right there in the room.

Glotz's picture

I think at the apex of a great, live-in-the-studio recording has elicited many cries of "It sounds live!" so many decades ago and it has stuck with us like many of the misnomers of high performance audio.

That being said, I do think many audiophiles do work to a hybrid outcome of 'liveness' added to an 'accurate' recording or playback chain- hence dipolar and bipolar speakers that the market is famous for. I find that totally valid if the approach to building a HiFi is integrated into an effort to 'accuracy'; as in the case of component 'taste-building'.

The essay intent wasn't lost on me but I do believe by constant training of ones' ears to a plethora of equipment and hence 'tastes' can assist us into determining what our ears hear as 'neutral' or accurate. Comparing CD's to LP's and other formats (and live!) allows us to triangulate where accurate exists.

At the very least, live can assist us in understanding what an instrument sounds like in real life. THAT can have a huge impact on how we judge our own components when very large (or even small) deviations from frequency response aberrations are in front of our ears- in our recordings.

Decades ago, hearing those deviations that were sometimes quite large were not so obvious to us. (Test CD1 comes to mine instantly- JGH's mic recordings). Now we find ourselves in era where most listeners can now agree that when an instrument doesn't sound like it should and we can more readily identify what is wrong and should be corrected from our listening experience.

How can we now make less effort to identify where and what those sonic aberrations are, but in the past we struggled? Clearly we have collectively moved to realm of a closer understanding of what accuracy is, despite being unable to communicate exactly what that means, outside of measurements.

I point to my and everyone's experiences of CES or other audio shows of the 90's vs. those audio shows of today, 30 years later.

We move closer to the source of reproduced sound in comparison to years past, but we also have a greater grasp of how to return a bit of live-ness into our rooms like never before, as well.

Glotz's picture

Lol.. Especially since my eyes first saw the words "Explorations in Pornography"... Creepy cover for a audio book. lol. Kidding!

Herb Reichert's picture

Thank you Glotz, "Comparing CD's to LP's and other formats (and live!) allows us to triangulate where accurate exists."


mieswall's picture

Great reading Jim. I often cought myself in these kind of ramblings. Then I installed Bacch4mac in my system and… “life illusions I recall… I really don’t know hifi at all”.

Glotz's picture

I really want to hear this along with the Storm / Genelec system at a show this year. It is so great to see these revolutionary products hitting the market.

I think these editors' creative juices would be well served by a review sample as well. For some reason I am thinking KR, but any of the fine stable of writers would nail it, really.

Could you also lend a bit more perspective to your experiences, mieswall?

Glotz's picture

Great overview of how you use the system. Your system has several similarities to mine, so that was helpful. (PS- Get 2 subs for your 1.7i's if you can.. Stereo subs are unreal here.)

Hopefully the website will release your response soon. It sounds revolutionary! Def something Stereophile should review.

curbfeeler's picture

The parallel of sound recording with photography is germane. Ansel Adams would have told you that the making of a photograph is an act of realization, creation and interpretation. Visualization of a result and the application of technical prowess toward that end are key. Any record we might make of a live event is less than the whole, but if our efforts are successful we get a simulacrum that convinces, suspends disbelief, and transports us to another time and place.

Anton's picture

Well said!

jimtavegia's picture

Many of us loved shooting with Ilford film in monochrome for the effect. I can't help but think of the reversals we see in Video compared to Audio. Now we are at 8K and there will be more to follow. Customers want clearer and clearer pictures, larger screens, better color renditions. In audio it is more about convenience, streaming, multi-channel for some.

It seems odd to me that those paths are like a fork in the road leading to different things. It is still fine, just different. On the classical music front you would never find an upright piano on the stage or the symphony players not wanting the best instruments they could afford. Pop music is often totally different, effects everywhere.

adamdea's picture

All true. Not to mention the fundamental point that stereo is an illusion. The sound waves coming from a real event half way between the speakers are nothing like the soundwaves produced by stereo speakers to represent such an event. The word "verisimilitude" should be used in place of accuracy when applied to real-seeming audio events (especially with stereo).
Of course this fact can lead to all sorts of different conclusions. The least popular one around these parts seems to be to move on from stereo. But Kalman R obviously gets it.

satkinsn's picture

Just a quick recommendation: the book cited in the piece is one of the best things ever written on the nature of recorded sound. I've owned it since it came out in the mid-80s, have probably read it half a dozen times. Absolutely worth the effort.