The Ghost in the Machine

Photo of the Portland State Chamber Choir: John Atkinson

"The crying rain like a trumpet sang
And asked for no applause.
"—Bob Dylan, "Lay Down Your Weary Tune"

I remember as a toddler sitting in the kitchen on a highchair, watching my mother smoke a cigarette, apply red lipstick, and tune a turquoise table radio from one news station to another. Between the strange, nattering voices, the radio emitted a sharp hissing sound. That's my first memory of human voices coming from a little box.

I did not understand how the voices got into the box. But I saw a wire that went from the box to the wall, so I concluded the voices came from somewhere else.

Another memory, a few years later: a hot August day on my father's farm. The sun was bright white, and I was chasing three dogs through a field of thistles and nettles. We were heading to the creek to cool our business in the shallow, fast-running water. Plowing through high weeds, we zigzagged toward the stream's muffled, crackling sounds.

For no conscious reason, I stopped still and looked up at the sun. The dogs' barking faded, telling me they hadn't stopped. I heard loud splashes as they broached the stream. Looking down, I noticed the rhythmic The kric-kric of cricket sounds framed by the ear-piercing 350Hz drone of throbbing cicadas. Insect cries, burning thistles, and blinding sun pierced my body in equal measure.

That moment of hot, noisy awareness was my introduction to the vibrating, sun-and-moon-capped, dome of energy that surrounds me at all times. For the first time, I perceived the outside world as a concert of vibrating forces penetrating my body. I hadn't started school yet.

When I was 15, I spent many August nights standing with my bike just outside Tom Adams' open garage door. I watched in silence as he and my pal Bill Brier (who was 22) worked on their gray-primered Model A Ford hot rod. One night they invited me in and offered me a beer. It was a celebration: They were about to fire up a flathead V8 they'd just finished building. After a long minute of slow cranking, they achieved ignition. Flames shot from backfiring header pipes. Dust squalls and concussive sounds overwhelmed the garage.

Brier urged me closer so I could hear air shrieking into the three carburetors. I felt wind from the four-bladed fan. Then Brier released the throttle and said, "Listen for the valves and lifters—can you hear them clattering?" With a screwdriver, he turned the idle way down, till the engine loped and sputtered spasmodically. Almost whispering, he asked, "Can you hear the pistons moving?" I nodded, pretending I could.

Later, as I was leaving, Bill shouted after me, "You have to learn to listen! To the whole engine, inside and out! When you can do that, you'll be a real mechanic."

Fifteen was a major turning point in my life.

Before loud cars in garages, I spent much of my youth in churches: singing in a choir and praying, but mainly listening distractedly to spoken words reverberating off stone walls. I still regard a church's acoustic volume as a sacred and mystical entity — especially if it has a dome. Even empty and quiet, a church's space is alive with sound. Audio recordists call the sound of a room's quiet emptiness room tone. My brain responds to room tone. Therefore . . .

I have begun collecting high-rez recordings of room tone, to use as tools for comparing components, especially DACs and DAC filters. Room tone makes subtle sonic comparisons easier because it represents what John Atkinson calls "a picture of a room." Imagine an extremely delicate 60-second aural snapshot of a specific moment in a large enclosed space. These savory, nuanced stews of low-level ambience sound revealingly different with every DAC, speaker, or amp I audition.

My best room tone file is a recent recording, by John Atkinson, of an inspirational talk given by the Portland State Chamber Choir's music director, Ethan Sperry. It was spoken to the choir in the moments preceding the final take at the final session for their forthcoming album on Naxos. Listening to it feels like a vivid childhood memory. As the music director speaks, my brain asks, How can a room this big, with that much reverberation, ever be an effective recording venue?

When Sperry finishes, JA's voice startles me with a loud, "Amen!" Obviously John had been sitting right next to the microphone (footnote 1); Ethan Sperry had been about 20 feet away. When the choir begins, the power of their combined voices overwhelms the massive energies of room tone and sends my mind racing backward.

The word audio implies an electromechanically recorded source: a cylinder, a wire, a tape, a disc, or an invisible file. But in my mind the crickets, splashing dogs, and backfiring flatheads are audio sources, too. In my mind all sounds under the Dome of Life are equally real and equally important. Whenever and wherever

I am still, and listen consciously, with tuned awareness, I experience—full spectrum — the mechanizations of life and the vicissitudes of thought. To me, that experience is the only real reality.

In my mind, Ethan Sperry's voice appearing between my speakers is more than just an energized facsimile of those mechanizations and vicissitudes. It's more than a newfangled table radio. It's an important part of my personal reality.

And finally I understand how the voices got in the little box.—Herb Reichert

Footnote 1: My "Amen" came from a talkback speaker on a stand on the right-hand side of the choir. Producer Erick Lichte and I were at the back of the Oregon church, about 100' away from Ethan Sperry and the choir, so I had rigged up a microphone and preamp for us to use, connected to the powered speaker, and I had turned it up too loud!—John Atkinson

michaelavorgna's picture

Beautiful storytelling, Herb.

er1c's picture

to recognize a good storyteller

JRT's picture

I do understand that a real reference is needed, though that is as much a problem of recording as playback, recording being a very lossy process from an information perspective, only a tiny fraction of the information available at the venue being captured in the recording. I also understand the desire for natural sounds to truly sound natural in playback of recorded audio. And I am not a big fan of 21st century recordings mixed and trampled with the synthetic sounds of DAW plugins.

While I understand that you are collecting sample recordings, separate from that, you might also find interesting some of Leo L. Beranek's writing on the subject of the sound of the performance/recording venue.

Music, Acoustics, and Architecture
- (circa 1962)

Concert Halls and Opera Houses: How They Sound
- (circa 1996)

Concert Halls Opera Houses: Music Acoustics, and Architecture
- (circa 2004)

JRT's picture

One of the great recording studios, maybe especially for jazz, had been a church.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Binaural recordings could also be considered for mimicking realistic sound reproduction of some of these venues. Such recordings could also be useful for headphone listening :-) .........

Herb Reichert's picture

my plan is now to make my own "room pictures" using a binaural head


Bogolu Haranath's picture

Excellent idea ...... We miss Jana :-) ........

er1c's picture

she says "I could listen to Herb talk about anything" I agree wholeheartedly

Bogolu Haranath's picture

May be you could also do some binaural recordings of some of the audio shows ........ May be Mr. Fremer could help with the video part :-) .........

Anton's picture

John cage's "4:33" is a perfect example of what Herb was talking about.

Besides the original, Frank Zappa made a cover version that actually runs 5:08, but gets the job done.

But this may be the definitive version...

Talk about room tone!

Another good version....with your eyes closed, you can actually map the room...

ok's picture

..instant and lasting love for my precious cdp was based solely on its inexplicable ability to render surroundings tangible; paying heed to usual audiophile features –let alone measurements– or having second thoughts by asking for third party advice seemed inappropriate bordering to insulting.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

Probably, JA1 may not be quite ready for 'karaoke' singing (see footnote 1) :-) .........'s picture

Sometimes I feel like all this hifi stuff is really our memories tricking us as to try and get that feeling again. I remember when I was about 4 my Mother took us to an "officers wives" meeting during the Vietnam war. I remember someone in authority say, "This is not a good war, but the only one we have now" and my Mother taking us out to our station wagon and throwing up in the parking lot. We went home to our small airforce base housing, and my Mom put a record on Otis Redding "Sitting on the Doc of the Bay" I remember the line "I'm sittin' here restin' my bones,And this loneliness won't leave me alone" and the feeling of not having any power to help my Mother or myself, yet the feeling in that music transported us and helped us deal with that moment. I know my Mom didn't have a fancy hifi, but that music hit me with such fidelity that I have never experienced since.

dc_bruce's picture

Thanks so much!

monetschemist's picture

Michael Lavorgna is 110% right, beautiful story telling. Thank you! Painting pictures with words, I love it.

rockdc's picture

reminds me of the story of Bob Weir asking the engineer to record the sound of "thick air" during the making of Anthem Of The Sun. "that was the last straw for the harried studio producer Dave Hassinger, who reportedly stormed out of the studio shouting “Thick air! He wants thick air!”"

Bogolu Haranath's picture

'Thickfreakness' :-) ........

Cyclotronguy's picture

Yes Herb, yes I can...... and the smell of fresh Permatex: thanks for the imagery! Great story!

Herb Reichert's picture

The "SMELL" of fresh Permatex !!!!!!!. You made it come back to me. And the image of white lead on cams.

I had totally forgotten. And even gasoline wouldn't get that Permatex off my hands!!

thank you Cyclotronguy for the strong memory.