Lights in a Box? Sidebar 2 / JGH

Sidebar 2: Too Much of A Good Thing?
It was probably inevitable, but I still don't have to like it. I'm sure I'm not the only audiophile who has noticed what's happened to bass balance since CD came along. Unanimously praised for bringing us the Best Bass We Ever Had, the CD is now bringing us the most bass we've ever had, to well beyond wretched excess.

It started when a few small audiophile labels discovered that omnidirectional microphones give "great bass" from stereo systems that have always had to struggle to simulate the kind of low-end richness and "bloom" we hear in a good concert hall. That "great bass" made omni miking de rigueur for all audiophile recording, despite its manifest shortcomings (vague center imaging and distorted soundstaging). It also helped convince movie studios that soundtrack recordings should have even more bass than a blockbuster laserdisc release.

But now that CDs are being released for surround reproduction, what was already enough-arready has clearly become too-much-fer-chrissake! Those of us who've been enjoying surround-sound for music recognized a long time ago that one reason it sounds so good is the way it makes large-hall bass as full and rich as it is in a real-world hall. It doesn't need the "help" of omni miking to do this.

These thoughts were prompted by listening to the musical selections on Delos's Surround Spectacular two-CD set, reviewed by Peter W. Mitchell in the September 1995 issue's "Industry Update." The recordings are good in some respects. But despite a long life of listening in many, many concert halls, I've never heard anything like this bass. It's suffocating! After 20 minutes of it, I had to take time out to come up for air. There's even too much of it in stereo.

Is this what audio has come to? Just another medium, like Home Theater, for demonstrating how easily a pair of super subwoofers can dislodge ceiling plaster and amalgam fillings? I had hoped this kind of audio exhibitionism had died out with the demise of the "stereo demonstration disc."

We've had more than enough recordings of worthwhile music ruined by excesses of pandering to marketers' ideas about "what the public wants." We certainly don't need another spate of them in the name of surround-sound.

The fallout from this could even invade the concert hall. Symphony orchestras are already under increasing pressure, from patrons who hear most of their music from FM and records, to make concerts sound "more like records." Some are caving in by installing sound-reinforcement systems to provide higher levels to distant seats; others are using synthetic reverb to make real-world spaces sound bigger and more spacious. The result, of course, is that fewer and fewer people who attend live concerts are actually hearing live, unamplified sound. Electronic bass augmentation would just be the next step toward erasing the quality differences between live and reproduced sound by making the former as bad as the latter.

My advice to the new breed of surround engineers: Let's just let surround-sound do what it does best: Re-produce more music more naturally than we've been able to do it before. Forget about the sonic enhancements; just give us an honest, linear frequency response, and let a good surround system do the rest.---J. Gordon Curmudgeon