Audio: The View From Outside

I have a confession to make: I play contrabassoon . . . for a living. Now to many this may not seem like such a sin, but within the musical community my instrument is viewed with about as much regard as the common garden slug. This perception is not completely unjustified; often being relegated to roles depicting monsters and evil, along with the occasional digestive grunt, helps perpetuate the general disdain for the contra. However, playing the lowest (non-keyboard) instrument in the symphony orchestra gives me a somewhat different perspective on things, not unlike that of a dwarf in a crowded elevator: a view from the bottom up. It's amazing just how much pitch and harmonic coloration there is down in the subbasement. And shoring up the foundation of the wind section, as well as being the true bottom of the orchestral sonority, can be very satisfying. Although playing an instrument with a limited repertoire can sometimes be disconcerting, it also has its advantages. During rehearsals, if I'm not required for a certain work, I can go out into the house for my own private concert, or stay put in the orchestra and get a sonic thrill that makes the IRS and WAMM systems sound like tin cans.

My next confession---I am an audiophile. Contrabassoonists are rare enough, but the combination of contrabassoonist and burned-out stereo addict must be the result of some sort of mutation. I love all types of music, except for some of that drivel they play at rock concerts, and have even been known to attend bluegrass and country-music festivals. As a professional symphony orchestra musician, I don't claim to have a golden ear, as do some experts in the high fidelity editorial press, nor do I have better hearing than the average (I'm lucky to hear at all after sitting in front of the brass for 16 years), but I do believe that to fully appreciate any musical reproduction, it is essential to have regular exposure to live music.

While I agree with John Atkinson's approach to the matter, in his argument that live music need not be the only criterion for judging the effectiveness of high-fidelity reproduction ("As I See It," Vol.9 No.5), I maintain that in order to credibly evaluate the facsimile, one must first be able to recognize the original. The fact that most musicians own mediocre stereo systems should come as no surprise, since as a group they accept the thesis that live music cannot be accurately reproduced, and are therefore more willing to live with less than the ultimate. As an audiophile, I do not completely subscribe to this philosophy; as a musician, however, I agree with my colleagues in their assertion that, although high resolution reproduction can bring the recorded performance closer to reality, musical honesty often takes a back seat. Many audiophiles, while paying lip-service to their musical goals, use their systems solely as a means to achieve greater heights of sonic spectacle. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, the possibilities of musical abuse and manipulation in the name of high-end audio often result in nothing more than expensive and sophisticated jukeboxes.

It seems to me that if the primary purpose of high-resolution reproduction is to bring the listener closer to the live performance, musical considerations must come before anything else. Any inaccuracies in the reproduction of rhythmic and melodic structures, harmonic textures and character, and dynamic balances, whether created by omission or commission, preclude any further considerations of sonic enhancement. Just as one must first master the rudiments---the proper fingerings, breathing, blowing, or bowing techniques of any instrument or voice---before venturing into more esoteric areas of performance such as style and interpretation, I maintain that the purely sonic parameters of high fidelity, such as soundstage dimensionality, image specificity, grain texture, and midrange clarity, cannot be seriously considered until certain basic musical prerequisites are satisfied.

While many will probably take issue with my opinions, it does appear that almost all editorial comment concerning this subject originates from technical circles. Perhaps there should be more musical discussion, which would expose the reader to a vantage point usually not considered in this type of publication. While I'm not suggesting that we totally ignore the various facets of audio necessary to the accurate mechanical reproduction of sound (the audiophile in me would never let this happen), I would like to see a bit more concentration on the item we are attempting to reproduce, and less on the route by which we arrive.

Note about the author: Lewis Lipnick is the Principal Contrabassoonist for the National Symphony Orchestra.