Mono, Stereo, Digital: The Three Ages of Man Page 2

Just so was my own introduction to stereo. When I first heard it in my late teens, stereo did not reveal itself as more "natural," more "realistic" than mono; I had to learn to listen to stereophonically recorded music. This may sound strange, because of course I've listened and heard stereophonically all my life—after all, I have two functioning ears. But at first it just sounded all wrong, totally out of proportion, and certainly nothing like what I heard at Philharmonic Hall, the Met, or when playing with my own high school band, orchestra, and woodwind quintet. It sounded weird, artificial, trumped up.

Stereo complicated the situation in more ways than two. I remember how flimsy it sounded: light, floaty, insubstantial, bodiless, and stretched mighty thin. Until I got used to it, I often felt as if watching a particularly breakneck tennis match; it seemed I had to keep moving my head in the direction of whatever sounds most demanded my attention. Rather than a solid, substantial, though narrow beam of concentrated sound, I heard what sounded like a light canopy blowing and flapping in the wind, secured only at right and left extremes. I most definitely did not hear anything resembling a "soundstage"—I heard two distinct sources of sound, but they did not mesh or blend into a whole greater than their sum. Rather, they reached toward each other without touching.

Nor was this phenomenon system-specific; I heard these great flapping foils of sound on all the systems in which my friends' families were then so conspicuously investing. It just took some time before my mind turned itself around, Moebius-wise, and began to fill in the holes and make some sort of musical sense of the mess.

None of this should be construed as a criticism of stereo per se. I certainly don't think mono has any more in common with live music than stereo—or any less—they simply require very different mindsets for informed listening. Nor was stereo the end of the "beaming" effect. After I had made the transition from Mono Listener to Stereo Scanner, the difference now was that the beams of sound were no longer total, no longer entubed all of the music into a concentrated ray of sound. Now various groups of instruments, sometimes even large sections of the orchestra, would beam at me from different directions.

Often, as climaxes approached, I would hear, say, the brasses and celli "lock in" to one another, welded into a tight, solid mass. This solidity did not preclude differentiating the sounds of individual instruments or groups of instruments; but there was no doubt that they were combining in ways I have never heard, nor would want to, in a concert hall but which I find unique to and attractive in recorded music. This is a very sensual appreciation, combining what I consider the best aspects of mono with those of analog stereo: the climactic word of God arrowing down out of diaphanous stereophonic clouds.

Digital recording has changed all that, but, again, not for better or worse. With orchestral recording at least, all beaming is gone, even with uniformly mediocre equipment. I hear now an astounding democratization of sound across the board, regardless of recording, label, player, or playback system. It's possible that, after two years of listening to compact discs, I still do not sufficiently trust the lack of background noise, or have not entirely lost my dread of new or known pops, scratches, and clicks. Whatever the reason, digital still sounds almost unbearably fragile to me, always about to collapse under the strain of its own preciousness. Sometimes the tension is fatiguing; not, I think, because of recording artifacts that actively wear one down, but because of the constant expectation of sonic degradations that never come.

But back to that "democratic" sound: I find digital sound to be almost a schematization of orchestral music. Again, not a criticism per se, but an index of difference; I find it, in most cases, a musical schematization. There is a meticulous specificity in the apportioning of soundspace to any given soloist, choir, or section; I get the impression of the mills of God grinding exceeding fine, allotting to each instrument not a jot nor tittle more or less than its share of the overall sound. This, too, can be wearying—such exactitude is exhausting even to witness. The orchestra, though sounding vaster and deeper than ever before, sounds somehow pinned to the soundstage, laid out against the aural horizon like a patient spread-eagled on a table.

Not a flattering simile, admittedly; here's another: like a large map, a map which, for once, is just as large as the territory it describes; which is, somehow, map and territory in one, carefully unrolled on a sloping plane beginning somewhere on the floor below and in front of my speakers, and ending somewhere behind and above. The map is projected with astounding resolution: the high, far corners are just as legible as the low, near center directly before me. The color, texture, and glare of the paper on which the map is printed drop out entirely; I am reading a transparency through which the territory itself is revealed on a scale of 1:1. Still, there is no getting around the fact that, no matter how closely modeled the territory, I apprehend it through the formalism and conventions of cartography. I am still reading a map: listening to, and through, an abstraction of orchestral sound.

Two years on, and I'm still not sure of all this. I find digital sound endlessly fascinating, and, more often than not, preferable to analog. After this amount of time, however, I think I can safely strike out novelty as the basis of the allure. I simply find what digital does provocative and very, but not exclusively, attractive. I certainly do not, however, think I've made the "right" or "most accurate" choice. These are still, as far as I'm concerned, issues terminally moot, tastes eternally personal.

As the groping metaphors and similes of this article bear witness, I continue to find it difficult to articulate the differences between and among mono and stereo, stereo and digital. Certainly I confuse my categories, insisting on comparing apples and peaches, but such compots can still be, I believe, fruitful. This, I think, can be said: digital stereo is as different from analog stereo as analog stereo is from analog mono, and all three are equidistant from the verbatim transcription of live orchestral music.