I tend to enjoy home improvement shows. I particularly like the ones showing the construction phase and how homes are built. Builders on these shows always talk about “minimum code requirement,” or what the building codes mandate as a basic standard.
Building codes exist for a reason. From the foundation, framing and roof trusses to electrical, plumbing, and HVAC, a minimum application of the building codes must be met for one reason – safety. We all want to be not only comfortable in our homes but also, and equally important, safe from catastrophe.
I was watching TV one day and was failing to be captivated by any program – even the home renovation program I was watching. In those situations, I generally make my way upstairs to the audio room to listen to music. I was about nine steps up the eighteen steps to my second floor when a crazy idea struck. What if music and audio were bound by a regulated, governed, minimum acceptable standard like the building codes?
By the time I got to step eighteen, ideas were swirling around in my head. When I sat down to listen to my system, which is arguably very detailed and neutral, I heard what I always hear, differences in recording quality. This ramped up my imagination even more.
Think about it, having music recorded to a definable, minimum standard would ensure consistent quality. By establishing standards in recording techniques and processes, we could listen to music with a reasonable expectation of what we would hear. Music would be certified by a licensed inspector as meeting all applicable regulations. Gone would be the disappointment of a terrible recording – at least in theory.
We could have a cogent presentation of dynamics, soundstage, imaging, clarity, timbral accuracy and all those metrics audiophiles so cherish. While this would be nice for streamed music, it would be absolutely wonderful for purchased music. I have no idea how much music I have bought over the years only to discover I despised the sound. More times than I would like, for sure.
A minimum recording standard, like the minimum code requirement used in construction, would eliminate all that – at least on paper. But would it be good for music?
Musicians are called artists for a reason. Just like a painter or sculptor, they create something that did not exist before. Music is far more than notes on a page, how those notes are arranged determines what music ultimately becomes.
Looking beyond musical composition is the recording process itself. Artists and recording engineers work to create something not only unique, but a work satisfying an artistic goal. I dare say most all musicians are as concerned about recording quality as notes on a page. Suppose those artistic freedoms clash with a minimum recording quality standard?
This could manifest in many ways. Suppose the goal was a very “small” presentation such as a single musician in a confined space. Imaging would need not realistically be much beyond the center. It should sound small and confined. If a recording standard mandated imaging be recorded to enable a predetermined distance to the left and right, would this not clash with the artist’s intent?
Suppose a minimum standard of attack and decay on a cymbal was established. How would that work with a drummer using brushes rather than drumsticks? If there were two standards, would that not complicate and compromise artistic freedoms?
Another problem is the equipment itself. Face it, some systems do a vastly better job than others in how recorded music is presented. On the other hand, the recording could be held to a minimum standard and the playback equipment would not matter. Just like minimum code requirements for plumbing or electrical does not determine what type of plumbing fixtures and electrical devices are in the home. It’s a “you get what you give” prospect.
Speaking of equipment, how would that ever be regulated? Distortion, for example, is commonly higher for SET tube amps than solid state, class AB amps. Yet both can sound magnificent, albeit slightly different. Each presentation has advocates as well as detractors.
How could a minimum amount of power ever be assigned? I’ve heard 2-watt SET amps, paired with the right type of speaker, play obscenely loud. I’ve also heard purportedly powerful solid state amps, again paired with a certain speaker, display almost no dynamic energy whatsoever. How would a minimum standard ever work in those situations? Would one standard for solid state and a separate one for tubes work in systems with both designs?
Could a comprehensive fair and equitable minimum tolerance for audio specifications be reasonably established? If they were established, would the cost of equipment rise because meeting required sonic criteria meant increased manufacturing costs?
Another problem is the wide discrepancy in personal preferences. Suppose I liked, in regard to imaging, a very narrow presentation. Would I really appreciate some unseen governing body tell me my preferred standard for imaging was wrong and I should like things presented differently?
Building codes don’t mandate what types of faucets and light fixtures are used – only that they perform to certain standards. Of course, our expectations for turning on a light or a water faucet are materially different from what we like and expect from recorded music. Faucets and lights either work or they don’t. Unlike music which can sound different based on the recording or the system itself.
In the end, I decided my notions of a minimum standard for recorded music were little more than a flight of fancy. It was an interesting idea to be considered and summarily dismissed.
We all like certain types of music. We all like that music to sound a particular way. Music is a personal thing, an intrepertation of an artist’s work. Not all artists creations, be they music, paintings or a sculpture will be admired. Each of us has our own unique likes and dislikes, and those preferences equally exist for music.
However, I must admit, I would really appreciate knowing the new album, CD or download I recently purchased would unequivocally knock my socks off – made possible by a minimum recording standard.
As it stands now, that just ain’t happening. Ya gets what ya get…