"Nothing is Real..."

Watching the Beatles Anthology TV shows last Thanksgiving, I was struck by how good recorded sound quality was in the early to mid-1960s and how bad it had become by the era of Let It Be. Early Beatles recordings may have been primitive in terms of production, but their basic sound quality was excellent, with extended response at the frequency extremes and a natural, clean-sounding midrange. Late Beatles recordings lacked highs and dynamic range, and sounded grainy by comparison. This was partly because, by 1969–70, studios had replaced their simple tubed mixing consoles with the first generation of solid-state desks, and their old tubed two-track Studers and Ampexes with solid-state multitrack recorders. These featured track widths so narrow that only the massive use of Dolby-A noise reduction made it possible to produce recordings that had any dynamic range at all!

Then there was the monitoring equipment, which apparently had to get worse before it got better. In the fall of 1972 I was recording an album at Abbey Road Studio 3, adjacent to Studio 2 where the Beatles had recorded. Every night I would go home with a splitting headache and deepening depression. It was only after a couple of days that I realized that it was the hard-sounding monitoring system that was at fault: three-way JBL monitors, each with a horn-loaded tweeter and a midrange unit loaded with an "acoustic lens," driven by Quad 50E solid-state amplifiers. Who could tell anything about what was going down onto tape with such a system? Who would care?

Of course, there were recordings of demonstrably high quality made in this period. Pink Floyd had no trouble recording their classic Dark Side of the Moon at Abbey Road using the same equipment I've just derided. The point is that it takes artists of genius to overcome the technical limitations of flawed tools. And by the time of Let It Be, the Beatles had lost the essential spark of genius, as evidenced by the Anthology footage from the period.

But here I am, talking about art when surely the issue that concerns audiophiles is one of technical accuracy, about which sounds most closely resemble the real. Harry Pearson based The Abso!ute Sound magazine's philosophy on the idea that the sound of live unamplified music should be the only reference point from which to judge the performance of hi-fi components. But this is incomplete, because it assumes that the sound encoded within the pits or grooves accurately reflects what originally existed in the concert hall. It fails to take note of the fact that there's another quality-affecting, creative stage in the process: the art of the recording engineer.

Without knowing the unknowable—what the engineers and producers have done to change quality throughout the recording process—there is no way of knowing whether an apparently closer approach to the live experience in your listening room reflects true accuracy or mere coincidental euphony.

My own experience producing Stereophile's Festival CD (see pp.134, 185, and 241) brought this truism into sharp focus. Throughout this project I tried very hard to produce an "accurate" representation of the original, the absolute sound. Yet at every stage of the recording process I was conscious that I was having to make purely subjective judgments about which among several choices was the most accurate: Which microphones to use, of what pickup pattern? How to use those mikes? Where to put them? Which cables, mike preamps, A/D converters, and recorder to use? How to mix the four microphone outputs into stereo? How to convert the original 20-bit data to 16-bit? Each one of these choices introduced changes to the absolute sounds of the musicians in the hall; it was my decisions regarding what was "accurate" that decided what the ultimate CD would sound like.

Listen to Festival and tell me if it sounds like a real orchestra playing in a real hall. Certainly I think it does, as does Wes Phillips, who lent me his ears at critical junctures. But note that this is not science. It is art. And where art is concerned, the concept of accuracy is only incidentally relevant.

Isn't it?—John Atkinson