Audio Minimalism

Five or six years ago I wrote a breezy, introductory-type piece on mid-fi "knob-surfing," winding up with a reprise on the old line that the number of the knobs, lights, and tattoos on the faceplate is often inversely proportional to the quality behind them.

A few weeks ago my store got in a knob-surfer's dream of a signal processor, and it reminded me, disturbingly, of that long-forgotten article. You see, after I'd listened to it carefully for a couple days, I began to question the no-knobs-is-good-knobs philosophy that underpins high-end audio---and what I have been calling audio verite for these last eight or nine years. Based loosely on its cousin in the film world (footnote 1), the central premise of audio verite is a familiar one to Stereophile readers, viz, that playback hardware is properly judged by how little it does to the signal rather than how much; that nothing you can do to "enhance" a signal will be as musically compelling as just getting out of its way and letting it unfurl itself, unhindered by "enhancers" and unsmudged by the latest "miracle processor." In short, it is only through a steadfast commitment to minimalism that we can glimpse the fullness and magic of the real thing---live music. Although my audio verite is not yet 10 years old, the minimalist ethic itself has been around for decades: Indeed, for the last 30 years or so the preferred audiophile system has pretty much revolved around a simple manual turntable, a straight-line preamp, no-frills power amp, and a single pair of speakers.

That's a far cry indeed from those now-ubiquitous rack systems whose faceplates threaten to buckle from the knobs, levers, lights, and joysticks riddling their surfaces. Closer in spirit to the penny arcade than to the concert hall, these silkscreened monuments to electronic jiggery-pokery offer a nearly limitless scope for sonic mischief: Consider that out there in countless department stores, stereo chains, and living rooms lurks a veritable arsenal of analog equalizers, filters, expanders, compressors, sonic hologram generators, autocorrelators, aural rototillers, and sonic bilge pumps---all just waiting to sink a steely hook or a turgid hose into some nice fresh music.

The rather clear distinction between audiophile and nonaudiophile ethics is reflected in our separateness from the mid-fi culture. While hardly monolithic, we are our own "community," replete with creed (call it minimalism, noninterventionism, purism, or audio verite), vocabulary (soundstaging, grain, transparency), established icons (old Mercurys and shaded-dog RCAs; Goldmunds, WAMMs, and glowing tubes), disseminators (select salons and a handful of magazines), and at least an implied roster of who's who and who's not.

Oh, my, but how the times are a-changing! Our growing acceptance of digital technology portends a wrenching rethink of what we mean when we say we're "audiophiles." Within a few years the dividing line between "us" and "them" may well be blurred to the point where it could unravel us, at least as we are presently constituted. I am not leading up to a dat-ol'-debbil-CD tirade here: I did that five or six years ago, before the first wave of CD players darkened these shores, in what was part of the opening salvo that heaped obloquy on CD's "perfect sound forever" (footnote 2). What I'm here to say now is that the most salient feature of a digitized audio signal---to wit, the fact that it can be processed, equalized, expanded, compressed, filtered, stored, delayed, recirculated, and so on with utter sonic impunity---means that the relevance of minimalism will soon be, well, minimal. I think we're going to be twiddling a lot more knobs---and without guilt.

Let's back up. The notion that you can manipulate a signal without somehow mangling it is a hard one for most of us to swallow, accustomed as we are to a world in which we can't even pass a signal down three feet of good wire without somehow losing precious musical information along the way. In analog, there is a price to be paid for each of our little detours through ancillary components, or even a single capacitor or connector. That price is exacted in the form of increasing the background noise, blurring transients, skewing tonal balance, smudging the rich silent spaces between notes, warping dynamic scaling, bleaching out harmonic structures, coarsening instrumental textures, disrupting imaging, collapsing soundstages, bludgeoning the hall's delicate reverberant tail, and so on---and all of it moves us further from, not closer to, the immediacy and tactility of the real thing. That you-are-there freshness is soon displaced by a good-gawd-it's-gone vagueness. In short, there's no such thing as a free ride in the analog world: Every time you want to try the roller coaster or the merry-go-round, you dig into your musical pocket again, and often deeply.

Note about the author: Keith Yates was a founder-owner of both Keith Yates Audio, a high-end retail store in Sacramento, California, and Audio Vaeritae Recordings, a small classical record label, from March 1981 through April 1991. He now designs Home Concert Halls and advanced Home Theater systems and works as a consultant to high-end audio/video retailers and manufacturers nationwide. His writing has appeared in Stereophile, Audio, and many other magazines.

Footnote 1: A French translation of the Russian Kino-Pravda "cinema truth," cinema verite originated with Dziga Vertov and others in the 1920s. It is based on the notion that the filmmaker's proper role is to record life in its rawest, freshest state---exactly as it exists and happens--without editorial packaging or manipulation. The cinema verite "trademark" is the hand-held camera and the absence of scripts, writers, stage, professional actors, "directors," or retakes. Cinema verite was an element of the American avant-garde film movement in the 1950s.

Footnote 2: See my "Slipped Discs," Sacramento Magazine, May 1983; "Digital Discontent," Rolling Stone, September 15, 1983; and "Digital Digs In," Gentlemen's Quarterly, May 1984.