Reactions to "Sound Quality vs. Musical Quality"


I am lucky enough to know some very smart, articulate people who usually can make sense of whatever I'm currently ranting about. Here, two of them (Eric Wallack and Hyam Sosnow) react to the piece you've just read. While they both agreed with most of what I had to say (with examples of their own), both brought up a similar point which I neglected to cover. They do it very well and I thought rather than revising my piece, I'd let them make the point in their original words. After, I reply to them.

from Eric Wallack:


You really hit the nail on the head with this one! Like you, the only recorded music I heard was on radio (the small, portable battery-powered mono job with the hearing-aid earphone) or on poorly dubbed cassettes, aquired and played on the ol' mono Philco tape player/recorder with the mic with the remote control on/off switch... My dad had a mono record player, but my brother and I weren't allowed to touch - only listen to his stuff when he wanted to play his stuff - more on that later...

I distincly remember being shocked the first time I heard the actual vinyl lp versions of my fav. cassettes . "In the Court of the Crimson King" and "Fragile" seemed to leap out of the speakers of my friend's good (read: stereo) record system with an immediacy that sort of horrified me - like accidental public nudity. Of course, I liked the improvement in clarity and detail, but I felt like it wasn't MY King Crimson - the King Crimson I had a passionate, personal releationship with (I slept with it, you know - there IS a psycho/sexual relationship with the music we fall in love with while hiding under the sheets in our beds...)

As you say, after all it's the music that's important, not the playback medium. There is a balance point though - listeners should be allowed to hear the work as intended (I know, dangerous word) by the artist. That is, if there's a subtle-but-important nuance that's lost due to poor quality equipment or faulty media (crinkled cassette tape), the listener is robbed of something crucial - like looking at Dali's "Hallucinogenic Toreador" through sunglasses. I think of the first time I noticed Steve Howe's acoustic guitar harmonics waaaay in the background underneath everything else in the 1st verse of "Roundabout" (under Squire's clanking Ricky). It was a late revelation to me only possible with good earphones at that time. I aleady loved the album before I heard everything that was there, but my relationship with the record was more meaningful when I could appreciate everything that's actually there.

Mindless, additional riffing on the subject:

1. Gotta laugh at the "Lo-fi" settings on newer digital processors and recording gear. The Roland digital workstations have effects presets that sound like your mix is being played on an old, scratchy turntable or on a poorly received AM radio station.

2. Digital modeling of any sort - the "I have a 6-foot rack of gear to get the sound of a Strat plugged directly into a Marshall" syndrome. Just get the Strat and Marshall moron!

3. The first pressings of the first cd's sounded terrible - many still do. People just don't know what good sound is (admittedly, it is highly subjective), but I know people just said those cd's sounded great because they were TOLD they would sound great. "This way to the gas chambers, ladies and gentlemen..."

My dad's record player was an icon of great importance in my house - the forbidden fruit. His taste was pretty eclectic despite having a record collection made up mostly of classical and folk records. My brother and I couldn't touch the thing or even buy records to play on the thing (odd, I know). We couldn't even ask him to play one of his records for us - he had to decide when we would listen to records and what records would be played...(maybe I do need therapy...). Anyway, my dad was cool enough (despite what implications my story has already alluded to) to own the ENTIRE Takoma records catalog - you know, the John Fahey label with himself, Kottke, Basho, etc... Without listening to those records, I can safely say I never would have picked up a musical instrument. The warbled, popping, sounds of those records - played under conditions of bizzare ritual in my house - made me who I am as a human being today.



from Hyam Sosnow:

(note: I'd asked Hyam, who works in the audio industry, not to take any of the article personally.)


Don't worry - I understand completely and agree mostly. One of the most moving musical experiences I've ever had was hearing Moussorgsky's "Pictures At An Exhibition" on the shitty AM radio in our band's equipment truck while driving through some god-forsaken place to a gig with our roadies. I had played percussion on that piece in college around 3 years earlier, and hearing it in the truck made a direct emotional connection with my feelings from playing it (which was one of the 3 or 4 best musical experiences I've ever had in my life). I had chills, goose-bumps and tears the whole time it played on that radio, in spite of the whole orchestra being crammed through a 4" speaker (the roadies thought I was quite mad). It didn't matter that much of the music was completely missing: I automatically filled-in the blanks where necessary.

It goes to prove that sound in general and music in particular have a uniquely direct path to our emotions that is shared by no other art form. All the others require some sort of conscious interperetation, but not music - it cuts directly through. I think that a lot of what your article talks about can be summed up by saying that this direct connection can be short-circuited by concentrating too much on how music sounds to the exclusion of what music says. This is unfortunate learned behavior, and is discussed often in audiophile publications.

The flip side of this is that if a listener hasn't short-circuited their direct emotional connection to music, the more completely they can hear a piece of music the stronger the emotional connection it can make. Think about all those recordings of big bands made in the 1930s andd 1940s. Although they easily convey the essence of the music (music is so powerful it really doesn't take very much to convey its essence), they don't tell the whole story, not by a long shot. I've heard many big bands play live (un-miked and un-amplified), and can tell you that even the best of today's recordings don't come close to conveying the emotional power of hearing one live, never mind the recordings made 60+ years ago. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to have been in the front row of Carnegie Hall the night Benny Goodman's band played there in 1938. I have every note of that concert memorized (I first heard the records when I was 12), but there's no way that listening to that 1938 vintage sound conveys all the emotions the music has to offer. How much more the music would say to us if that recording were up to today's standards. The same goes for orchestral recordings. I firmly believe that the reason many people don't like (or even appreciate) classical music is that the experience of hearing it via recordings is so much less emotionally-involving than hearing it live. The more complex the music, the more difficult it is for those unfamiliar with it to fill-in the details on their own.

When you can hear more of the music there's more opportunity for it to make an emotional connection, even if it's a type of music you are completely unfamiliar with. In this respect, good sound quality is the best friend good music can have. Listening to J2K (Jugalbandi 2000) through a crappy boom box doesn't convey nearly as much of what we were saying as listening to it through a good system does. The essence remains, but there's so much more there than just its essence; so much more that you and I want our listeners to hear (otherwise we wouldn't have played it). Now, if someone were to listen to J2K through a crappy boom box and didn't 'get it', hearing it through my system won't win them over. But for someone who did 'get it' when listening to J2K through the boom box, I guarantee that hearing it through my system would be a revelation for them: they'll hear aspects of the music that will forever alter their connections to the music, and they'll retain those connections even when listening to it afterwards on the boom box. That's what more accurate sound can do: it can increase our connection with music.

Yes, there are snobs who refuse to listen to worthwhile music that has been recorded in less than a state-of-the-art manner, and their lives are much more barren for it. Too fuckin' bad for them: life's too short for me to worry much (or at all) about them. However, I don't agree with you that this describes most people. ["When the hell did we get so spoiled that this kind of simple enjoyment became impossible for most people?"]. For most of the people I know, good sound isn't a prerequsite to musical enjoyment, but it certainly does improve it. I can tell you that listening to Live Cream on my rig now gets me a lot closer to standing on the floor at Winterland and The Fillmore in 1968 than listening to it on my cheesy close'n'play did back in 1970.

The larger issue (the one that really involves people's lack of imagination) is the unwillingness of most people with a Euro-centric culture to accept music that isn't derived from that culture. This really has nothing to do with the sound quality issue, so I'll leave it for now.



What they both get across, that I missed covering, is the idea that you want a good medium to get across the music as it was intended to be heard; not " looking at Dali's "Hallucinogenic Toreador" through sunglasses" or "listening to J2K through a crappy boom box" so that it "doesn't convey nearly as much of what we were saying". This is a point that should have been obvious to me, it's a personally important one. It's why I try for the best sound quality I can under whatever circumstances I'm recording in. Of course those circumstances aren't always optimal, for me or anyone else, which shouldn't devalue the music, which was the main point I was trying to make. It was never my intention to knock good sound quality or its importance to the transmission of art. It would be wonderful if all music could be recorded and/or played back under the best circumstances. But in the absence of that- at least half of which you can't control, whatever side of the speakers you're on- you do what you can, and hope the message gets through.

GS, 11/2/02


A few days later, Hyam was back with some more thoughts, which work very well as a correlary to those last two sentences. A reminder: Hyam has worked in the audio field for many years. His knowledge of THX systems, as described below, isn't something he read in a book- he was sent by his company to Skywalker Ranch to learn them inside out.



thanks for posting my response to the sound quality article. Eric covered a point I meant to make with his "looking at Dali's Hallucinogenic Toreador through sunglasses" comment. Although the noise and audio haze through which you heard many albums when you were younger may have added a dimension that enhanced the experience for you (an enhancement that you emotionally associate with the music forever after, which causes you to miss hearing the audio schmutz when it's absent), it changed the artist's intent, something that is to be avoided as much as possible. As you can imagine, this is an issue that is covered very extensively in audiophile and videophile publications. Most audiophiles simply want to get as close to what the artists wanted us to hear (a quest that has lead many to become audio snobs). However, this is nigh-on impossible with music. Read on to find out why, and for an interesting comparison between music and film sound recording/reproduction.

Ideally, if we listen to recorded sound through the exact same speakers and physical setup as was in the recording studio where the final mixdown was performed, we would get the closest to what the artists wanted us to hear when they created their art. However, since there are no standards for recording studio speakers and control room layouts, this is not possible: there are just too many variables to be able to assemble a single system that will duplicate multiple studio setups. (And most recording studios have multiple sets of speakers to enable the artist to "check the mix", making sure that it translates well to less sophisticated equipment.) Consequently, unless you have access to information about how a specific recording was made, it is a crapshoot as to whether you're hearing what the artist wanted you to hear or not. (I'm purposely avoiding the issue of whether these speakers accurately reproduce the sound of a live acoustic event, since most music records are not simple reproductions of acoustic events, but are rather, creations that don't even exist as sound until they are played through the studio's speakers. Let's assume for now, that the "absolute sound" we want to reproduce is what the artist heard through the speakers when they created the final mix of the recording, which covers the vast majority of music made over the past 50 years or so.)

Obviously extraneous crap like distortion, noise, and haze aren't part of the equation no matter where the music was recorded, so any playback system that adds them is taking us farther away from the artist's vision. But beyond those obvious defects, without an absolute standard, every audiophile is free to assemble a playback system that stacks the performance compromises in a way that they personally feel gets them closer to the 'truth'. Although there's no way to know 100% if System A is more "honest" than System B, if you listen to enough recordings on enough different audio components you can begin to tell what's on the record and what's being added/subtracted by the reproduction system, and can therefore make reasonably accurate judgements about the inherent performance of an audio system or component. (Honing this psychoacoustic skill takes years of experience.) But ultimately, assembling an accurate music playback system is still just a crapshoot, and the best most people can hope for is to assemble a system that does a good job of enabling an emotional connection between the listener and the music. Film sound, however, is completely different.

Unlike music recording studios, there are objective standards (established by SMPTE-the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) for the audio performance of dubbing stages-the rooms (mini theaters) where film soundtracks are produced. All of the good dubbing stages stick to these standards and sound pretty much the same. This enables film sound engineers to work on a film in many different dubbing stages (which often happens) and be confident that what they're hearing is the soundtrack itself and not the playback system/studio, so they can make accurate judgements about the sound. What this means for us at home is that there IS an objective standard for how a film soundtrack is supposed to sound that we can strive to reproduce at home. This is where the THX audio system comes in. It was designed to (when properly set up and calibrated) closely reproduce the sound of a professional dubbing stage in the home. (Lucasfilm has built some of the best dubbing stages in the world and knows as much about how they're supposed to sound as anyone on Earth.) This is a concept that riles most audiophiles, since they feel it somehow infringes on their freedom to assemble a system more in accordance with their own personal audio prejudices. And although there are many home theaters that sound good, the chances are that if they're not using THX-approved components they aren't as accurate as systems that do.

The same can be said for volume: there's no objective standard for how loud music is supposed to be listened to. Everyone has a volume control and is free to use it. However, when you go to a movie theater to watch a film there's no volume control on your seat. The SMPTE standards also require precise calibration of listening level in the theater (and of course, in the dubbing stage as well). This gives the filmmaker control of just how loud (or quiet) their film is supposed to sound. THX home theater systems all have a method of establishing the SMPTE reference volume level (using a simple sound pressure level meter), so that if you want, you can listen to a film at the volume the filmmaker wanted you to hear it at. One (important) step closer to what the artist wanted you to experience.

Feel free to post this if you feel it adds to the discussion.


And here it is- likely to be the end of the discussion.

GS, 11/10/02



writing corner