Dynamics & Dynamic Range Letters

Letters in response appeared in the February and March 2000 issues:

Music & anti-music
Editor: I was very pleased to read John Atkinson's comments on hi-fi and anti-hi-fi recordings in December's "As We See It." But many people with better hi-fi systems, or even so-called "audiophiles," are not always able to distinguish between musical and anti-musical recordings.

For example, a friend of mine with a decent system recently recommended Sting's new Brand New Day CD as a rather good recording. Listen to it, however, and after a few minutes you notice that the recording is similarly compressed and as unsatisfying as Santana's Supernatural.

I guess most people either do not have enough listening experience or have not learned to recognize bad recordings. JA accomplished one of the principal tasks of a high-end magazine: to define and defend real hi-fi sound. If Stereophile didn't do educational work on this subject, who else would?—Matthias Baumgarten, ms.baumgarten@t-online.de

Editor: Excellent—I identified excessive compression as the thing I hate most about pop music a while back, so I read the December "As We See It" with delight. I saw something interesting when I was making a compilation CD-R with my PC-based recorder. I pulled a couple of songs by Green Day off of their album Dookie—no, this is not representative of my normal taste in music—and looked at the waveform in Cool Edit. The result: an almost solid block of noise! Visually, it was very striking—obviously the result of pretty extreme compression, and probably "bit-shaving" techniques. Thus the crisp but crappy sound of the album.

But it made me wonder if you good folks could publish peak/average levels along with record reviews. This would probably be a very telling spec in predicting how one will like a recording, even though it sounds strange to include a technical spec in a record review.—Agim Perolli, agim.perolli@erols.com

Mistakes make the music
Editor: Being a 24-year-old, I should be the perfect candidate to write in with an abundance of negative criticism for John Atkinson's December "As We See It." The fact of the matter is, I couldn't agree with him more. Though I have not heard Santana's Supernatural, I know exactly what he was talking about. I own plenty of modern recordings that could be described in the same manner—I feel his pain.

I have nothing but contempt for the major labels and the majority of popular bands affiliated with them. The labels throw tons of money at a given recording, but after the millions are spent, they have a recording that sounds anything but real—or, more important, human. These recordings remind me of video games. It is obvious what they are portraying, but it is also very evident that they are not the real thing.

A lot of lesser-known musicians, bands, whatever, don't have this kind of money, so their recordings sound rougher and sometimes reveal—dare I say it?—mistakes.

How dare they? A flawed recording? Unheard of! Well, I hate to be the bringer of bad news, but humans have been known to make errors in the past. Right, Mr. Clinton? These errors don't only occur in monogamous, committed relationships, but in music too. What a notion. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a live music event where there wasn't some sort of flaw, especially in comparison to these squeaky-clean recordings we are subjected to these days.

If the point of hi-fi is to bring the live experience into our homes, then don't we want just that?—Thad Aerts, Lincoln, NE

JA's fit of pique?
Editor: It would seem that John Atkinson wrote December's "As We See It" in quite a fit of pique. The assertion that there is nothing to be gained from playing the Supernatural album on anything much better than a boombox is not reasonable. While the dynamics of the recording may be poor, that is only one aspect of the sound. Other factors such as resolution, freedom from tonal coloration, and stereo imaging are at least as important as dynamics.

Don't forget that this is popular music; the very reason for this recording's existence is that vast numbers of cretins with crummy stereo systems enjoy Santana's music, which has allowed him to become popular and continue releasing albums. I wish more of my own favorite recordings sounded better—many are mediocre at best—but I am still able to enjoy them because I like the material.

I'm not suggesting we throw quality out the window, but I think it's good to remember that perfection in anything is not really attainable; enjoyment, however, certainly is.—Todd Spangler, tspangler@plastomeric.com

Crack a smile, John
Editor: Always eager to test my mettle against the learned ears of the Stereophile experts, I took a copy of Santana's Supernatural into my audio room for a spin on my $15k high-end system (never mind the parts list, I like it well enough). It came as a bittersweet "Ah-ha!" to me as I found the same dynamic compression and "loudness" that John Atkinson mentioned in his editorial.

I say "bittersweet" because I believe that Carlos Santana would wish a blissful musical experience for all listeners to his music, and here I was finding disappointment in its sonic characteristics, especially when compared to my 1957 Ben Webster LPs.

Then it came to me: "Think out of the box, stupid!" I put the CD in the Alpine CD changer in the trunk of my 1990 Miata, put the top down, and headed down the highway as fast as those four cylinders would go. Since it was getting pretty cold, I had to put the heater on, which probably detracted from the lower octaves of the bass. Nevertheless, out poured the supernatural strains of Supernatural in all their terrific loudness—played through an Alpine head unit, an Alpine outboard amp, and Boston separates. Musical bliss!

The moral of the story, I think, is "It's the music that matters." C'mon, John—crack a smile!—Michael GuntherMaher, gmaher@softcom.net