The Fifth Element #17 Page 2

Second, becoming better-educated listeners will help us become more astute equipment buyers. Once we learn to recognize the sound of equalization or dynamic compression being applied to a recording, we have a better chance of recognizing, as examples, that a certain loudspeaker may emphasize certain frequencies in order to enhance imaging, or that it trades off dynamic linearity in its quest for high efficiency.

Here's an example of what I mean by becoming more educated. If one were to ask you to guess the frequency of the violin's highest open string, what would you say? 4kHz? 3kHz? 2kHz? After all, the violin is one of the instruments we think of as having a "high" sound.

Well, the perhaps surprising answer is that the violin's open E is tuned to 660Hz. E is the fifth note of the conventional Western scale, which starts at A = 440Hz, so E is 3/2 the frequency of A (440 x 3/2 = 660). Even going up another eight notes on the violin E string, which puts us in the range of Mozart's most celestial utterances and at the center of the action of Mendelssohn's concerto, we are at 1320Hz. Going up another eight notes, we have just about run out of fingerboard, and that E is pitched at 2640Hz. Food for thought!

Certainly, these specified frequencies are just the fundamentals, and the violin does have a lot of energy in its harmonics. But once you can associate the E that comes during the first solo phrase of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor (it's the fifth note the violinist plays) with the pitch 1320Hz, things like tweeter crossover-point specifications begin to become comprehensible in—and applicable to—the real world.

Although commercially available recordings can provide some opportunities for listener audio education, the fundamental limitation of this approach is that it is very difficult to "reverse-engineer" in your mind what the producer or engineer did. I may suspect that a certain pop vocal track is heavily EQ'd, but without access to the undoctored original, that remains only a guess. We may intuit that things sound differently to us in terms of tonal balance at different volume levels, but without calibrated source material, we are groping in the dark.

Fortunately for us all, audio engineer David Moulton and his colleagues have painstakingly and good-humoredly prepared Playback Platinum, a four-volume lecture series that covers the fundamentals of audio, from a popular-music production standpoint. It's available on CDs, with some graphical material in CD-ROM format as well. The 10 Playback Platinum lectures, each about an hour long, cover four major areas with both spoken material and dozens of audio examples, both test tones and music tracks: Vol.1, Loudness, Compression, Distortion; Vol.2, Stereo Miking, Stereo Mixing, Reverb; Vol.3, Equalization; and Vol.4, Digital Audio: Sensory Listening Tests.

Moulton is a respected audio engineer whose clients have included Sonny Rollins, the NRBQ, and Jonathan Edwards, and is a musician graduate of the Juilliard School. He has for many years taught audio engineering at schools such as the Berklee College of Music and the University of Massachusetts. He speaks with admirable clarity and precision. His lectures are carefully prepared, and avoid jargon-driven exercises in definitional circularity.

Each volume is on a separate CD, which comes in a hardbound textbook-sized book that includes about 50 pages of additional text (with explanatory graphs and charts) keyed to each track of each lecture. The four volumes sell for $39.95 each, which means that you could buy all four for less money than most people spend on a pair of interconnect cables. I think you'll get a lot more good out of spending the money on listener education than on more wire.

I'm impressed with how Moulton & Co. take material that has the potential to be dauntingly dry, and make it enjoyable and memorable by adopting at times a "radio drama" approach. My wife has less than zero interest in adding to her mostly involuntary store of audio engineering minutiae, but these discs had her laughing out loud. (I suspect that Moulton is a Firesign Theatre fan. And with a name like Dave, allusions to 2001: A Space Odyssey can't be too far away. "Dave? Dave?") One particularly nice touch is that the narration track often serves as a progressively overstated demonstration of the particular audio technique under discussion. Listen for it.

If you wanted to get your feet wet first rather than plunge into all four volumes, I think that Vol.1 would be the one to start with. What its three lectures ("Loudness," "Compression," and "Distortion") brought home to me afresh is that, in a listening room, the range of usable dynamic range is not as great as we might think it is. The demonstrations of small and large differences in loudness, both test signals and music, are quite eye-opening—or, rather, ear-opening.

Although these lectures were originally intended for students studying audio engineering in college programs, I've found them to be wonderful ear-training material, and hugely educational in general. Anyone with a desire to get more enjoyment from his or her audio system would benefit from repeated listening to these lectures; the added understanding gained of the pop studio recordist's craft would be a diverting bonus.

Even if you have not much interest in hearing lectures about audio phenomena, I'll take this opportunity to exorcise one of my favorite bêtes noirs: excessive playback volume. Playback should have some disciplined relationship to the reality that was recorded. Sure, it's fun to let it rip every now and then, but we often play back music too loud for our own good, let alone for our comprehension of the reality that the recording is supposed to re-create for us.