Fine Tunes #18

I had an epiphany the other night. (Hope Rabbi Lichtenstein won't be too upset.) Kathleen and I were watching the Antiques Road Show on PBS, and, during a break, I started channel-surfing. I know, it's obnoxious—but I feel compelled to hop around and keep up the sense- and info-pounding barrage we've come to take for granted and, in fact, rely on. In a way, channel-surfing is a perfect symptom of our information-overload society: click Geraldo, click Robin Byrd, click Jazz Channel, click Weather Channel. We're bombarded, we're inundated, we're . . . let's face it, we're overwhelmed. The Internet, e-mail, phone calls—lots of information, and little time to process it.

I landed on another PBS station and caught a few minutes of Nova—a special on roller coasters. I can't stand roller coasters—I prefer to let music spin my head. But as I was about to thumb the button on my remote, I realized the final segment was on virtual-reality (VR) theaters and rides.

My finger hovered over the next-channel button, my mind momentarily alert as I waited to see if something interesting would develop. Man, and how. They were interviewing a couple of big-money entertainment types who are already spending hundreds of millions of dollars on VR mini-theaters, coming soon to a cyberplex near you. Rows of seats will move around, going bump in the night as the audience is immersed in explosive surround-sound and hoisted into alternative cyber-realities within the embrace of a huge, curved 180-degree screen rife with breathtaking action and color. Don't forget to write.

The gist of their collective message was that audiences, having become "more sophisticated" in their entertainment preferences, are now "ready" for the VR immersion experience. More sophisticated? I don't know. Sorry, I'm not acting the snob; it's just that even these industry moguls were the first to admit that the VR technology available to them is still pretty basic and crude. After all, you can't step out into any of these alternative environments any more than the programmers allow. And I'm not so sure it's because of "sophisticated" tastes that audiences are ready for VR. More like it's the only thing left that can move our jaded, desensitized, late-millennial, been-there-done-that-seen-everything sensibilities.

Then, bonnnnng—the epiphany descended upon me. I realized that in the space of no more than five minutes I'd heard the word "immersive" about 15 times. Talk about a hot-button buzzword with which to define our times! And remember, these people have millions at their disposal, their beady-eyed attentions focused unwaveringly on the entertainment buck in John Q. Public's wallet.

The gears turned slowly in my brain like an old Harley getting a kick-start, thra-BOOM, followed by that lumpy, vibration-rich idle: That's exactly what high-end audio systems offer RIGHT NOW! (And, yes, home-theater systems too; we'll go there in a moment.) Our present level of Musical Immersion Therapy is out there now, and there's nothing at all crude about it. In audio's virtual world, you're the boss, limited only by your imagination—not the machinations of some nerdy programmer in Silicon Valley. The gears in my head were synchro-meshing now. I realized that audiophiles were [gasp] finally hip—ahead of the curve!

Think about it. In the audiophile world of today we can reproduce truly sophisticated virtual worlds in which we can immerse ourselves not only physically but emotionally, even intellectually. What you see is in your imagination. You can travel far and wide in your mind to places you've never seen in the flesh, understanding ideas and concepts you'd never have otherwise. If you've been reading "Fine Tunes" and improving your two-channel setup (on the cheap), you're probably already enjoying this wonderful out-of-speaker/immersed-in-soundfield audio experience. And I suppose that's the quality most audiophiles strive for: that holographic, realistic, involving reproduction of music that allows you—all parts of you—to fall right into it.

This might go a long way toward understanding the groundswell for surround-sound for music. I think recordings for multichannel music playback are still in that steep part of the learning curve that any new technology must go through as it develops. Recall, with some regret perhaps, early Beatles Ping-Pong stereo (see this issue's "Recording of the Month"), or many Rudy Van Gelder Blue Notes and early Atlantic jazz recordings. I don't much care for gee-whiz demos with a tuba over my left shoulder and a trombone blatting over my right. I much prefer the sitting-somewhere-in-the-audience perspective at which most high-end systems are adept at reproducing. But I also immensely enjoy those times when a soundstage wraps around me in the Ribbon Chair to truly enhance my sense of immersion and involvement. And that's where the great potential for surround-for-music lies. Get the immersive acoustic dialed in just right—real ambience, not cheap sound effects—and you might really feel you're there, and the magic might be that much more accessible.

After years of asking recording engineers and audio-equipment designers what they were trying to accomplish, what their goal for Andy Audiophile was—reproduction of real instruments in real space, what appeared at the mikes, what's on the master tape—I finally realized what I'm looking for. Yes, it's that immersive sense when, late on a Saturday night, I'm deep into a listening session, so involved I'm seeing God. The music reaches me in some profound, elemental, totally human way. In fact, I crave that experience.

There are basically two kinds of people. Some like it quiet; others find that a day spent without music is a day completely lost. I get jumpy if it's too quiet. I need to have music playing at all times, much like any other requirement with which to sustain life. Without it, I'd die.

So here's what I suggest. If "immersive" is indeed the buzzword for our overwhelmed millennial times, let's hit on it. Many audiophiles bemoan the general public's lack of awareness of high-end audio. How to explain to those many music lovers out there—who, once exposed, might become "infected"—just what it is we do?

Get out there and share your passion. Plant friends and family in your listening chair. As they look at you aghast, tell 'em that it's all about immersion—in the sound, in the performance, in the meaning and intent of composer and musicians. Tell 'em it's about striving for something bigger, better, more meaningful.

Tell 'em . . . it's about life.