Recording of December 1989: Sonic Booms

Sonic Booms
Steam Locomotives, Jet Fighter Aircraft, Military Exercise (with live ammunition), WWII Aircraft, Comic Relief I & II, West Mountain Inn, Diesel Train, Steam Train with Rain & Thunder
Bainbridge BCD6276 (CD only). Produced & mixed by Brad S. Miller. DDD. TT: 58:00

While we will all acknowledge that music is the raison d'etre of high fidelity, serious audiophiles have known for years that the only real challenge for a no-holds-barred system is nonmusical sounds. Like noise. Loud noise. Ungodly racket, in fact.

Things like thunder, trains, pile drivers, jet planes, explosions, earthquakes, insurrections, and rocket launchings have infinitely more dynamic range, frequency range, and potential for system destruction than a mere Mahler Eighth Symphony. This is why every new, improved recording medium through the years has spawned a spate of so-called "sound-effects" recordings, most of which have only succeeded in proving (as if anyone had lingering doubts) that an even better recording medium was needed to do justice to the sounds. In fact, ever since the LP extended the audio bandwidth to an incredible 40Hz–10kHz, the popular press has delighted in portraying audiophiles as wild-eyed crazies who force casual guests to submit to the kinds of ear-shredding sounds that most sensible people expend considerable effort and expense trying to avoid.

The introduction of the CD has done it again, but this time it's done it right. Unlike previous recording systems, digital audio has the S/N ratio, dynamic range, and frequency extension to actually do justice to the world's most cacophonous noisemakers. And a digital recording like Sonic Booms has the added attraction of demonstrating that a lot of ostensibly "digital-ready" loudspeakers and power amps are not quite "sound-effects–ready." No one really knows how many loudspeakers have gone to voice-coil heaven as a result of digital sound-effects, but I know personally of five people whose seemingly unflappable monster loudspeakers were reduced to smoking rubble by the first cannon blast of Telarc's legendary 1812 CD.

Like all of Brad Miller's previous digital releases, Sonic Booms was recorded on the Colossus system, and whether you believe Colossus to be a design breakthrough or a couple of Sony PCM-F1s in drag, these are superb recordings, guaranteed to give any system a real workout or, if you aren't careful, a ruptured cone or two. But this isn't just another run-of-the-mill noise recording; besides showcasing some of the real world's most violently bombastic sounds, it also contains some tracks which are very long on quietude and atmosphere—more like the "ambience" tapes of natural environments that are sold as new-age meditation/relaxation aids.

Much of the effectiveness of these cuts stems from their immense dynamic range. Virtual silence builds to an awesome crescendo, then fades out to nothing, as in the railroad train cuts. Or a peaceful, pastoral soundscape is ripped apart by something obscenely loud and ugly, sorely testing the listener's bladder control. The distant sound of firearms is shattered by some low-flying jet fighters; the gentle murmur of rain and a nearby stream are rent asunder by a near-miss lightning strike. Only digital audio can startle the daylights out of you like this, because, unlike LP, the CD gives you no pre-echo to warn you that all hell is going to break loose 1/33 of a minute later.

The military "exercise" track is spooky. Recorded from a distance of maybe a quarter mile—the perspective of a citizen whose village is under siege—it makes lethal weapons, capable of killing and maiming, sound like those cute little Ladyfinger firecrackers you used to be able to buy for the Fourth, which could go off in your hand without leaving more than a buzzing sensation and a mild burn. But as far as I'm concerned, the most captivating cut on Sonic Booms is the quietest: "West Mountain Inn." It also has the best stereo.

Recorded at a rural New England hotel in mid-autumn, it chronicles the sounds of an unseasonally heavy, wet snowfall. Above the muted hush of a windless, dark-gray day, there is the constant crackle (and occasional crash) of tree limbs breaking under the weight of the snow, coming first from this direction, then that, then another. Apart from some conversation concerning a hose, the background silence of the recording is almost palpable, if anything absent can be felt, and there are times when you would swear you can hear individual snowflakes landing on a nearby branch. As for the feeling of space...well, I mentioned the stereo.

All of Brad Miller's recordings are mastered in four channels, with a special four-quadrant condenser microphone. Because Brad considers rear sounds as important as front sounds, he normally mixes the rears into the fronts for conventional two-channel stereo release. This preserves the rear-coming sounds, but it has a side effect which I do not like at all: It completely kills any possibility of imaging beyond the loudspeakers. You can hear this clearly in his recordings of trains, which approach us from behind one loudspeaker, do a sharp bend as they traverse the intervening space, then another sharp bend as they recede behind the other speaker. But my ears tell me this was not done to "West Mountain Inn," and, if so, I shall remain forever appreciative of the oversight: the sonic panorama extends all the way from sidewall to sidewall. It really sounds like outdoor space, which of course it is. (I have not tried it with a surround system, but headphone listening suggests that the "soundstage" might extend for some distance behind the listener.)

The two cuts entitled "Comic Relief," featuring mixdowns of a car screeching around corners, an appreciative audience, and an unappreciative train engineer, were amusing the first time around, but are hardly knee-slappers. I skipped them on subsequent listens. All in all, though, I found Sonic Booms a refreshing diversion from my usual audiophile fare of Ocarina Sonatas and the rollicking ditties of Trappist monks. The sound is amazingly good, although these days I listen to most of SB's cuts only when I want to entertain and amaze unsuspecting guests. But I've listened to "West Mountain Inn" at least a dozen times, and still do occasionally. Brad, how about an hour of this as a new-age–type environmental recording?

A final word about the thunder on the last cut. It has disappointingly little low-bass content, which cannot be construed as a serious criticism because no other digital recording of thunder that I've heard had any either. The fact is that, even in real life, thunder is often relatively bassless because its LF content depends on where you hear it from. From a mountain or high hill, it will rarely have that earthshuddering foundation which is the reason people record thunder in the first place. The best location for listening and recording—take note, outdoor recordists—is a broad, shallow valley, which acts to confine deep-bass energy the way a rigid-walled listening room does. Unfortunately, thunder usually elects to strike high places, which is why recordists usually hightail it for the hills when the thunderheads gather. Close strikes, however, don't go boom; they go crack. You can have your strike transient or you can have your low end, but getting both at once may be impossible without using two mikes and one very, very long cable.—J. Gordon Holt