It’s the time of year for saving money!
When Edison made his first test recordings his goal was simple and yet to be achieved – duplicate the sounds of live events on a re-playable medium. Obviously, we have advanced since the days of cylinder players, but also, obviously, we haven’t gotten there yet. Only on rare occasions have I been convinced, even for a few seconds, that a recording was identical to a live event.
Why aren’t we there yet?
The reasons that high-fidelity has not reached the level of live sound are myriad, and depending upon which experts’ screeds you’ve read, the reasons can be as different as black and white. My own take on the matter is that not only are we not there yet, but at the current rate and direction of future sonic development, we may never get there, but we must keep trying…
The problem, as I see it, is that too much vital information is lost during the conventional recording process to recreate or fool a human with normal hearing capabilities. It starts with the microphone and proceeds through the various components in the recording and reproduction chain until it comes out, altered in subtle but pervasive ways that deviate from what we would have heard if we had been at a live musical event.
Going back to the microphone – the placement, coverage pattern, intrinsic frequency response, and microphone amplifier it is attached to all have an effect on the sound. And along with the subtractive effects of the signal chain are the added ones that are a results of that signal chain. For DI’d (direct input) instruments, the colorations come from the problems with their interfaces and the lack of spatial information (that is usually added artificially – panning mono sources to spots in the soundstage).
Moving along the signal chain we come to the recording medium – analog or digital – both have issues that their detractors have made all audiophiles quite aware of. Wow and flutter plague tape recorders; time domain, filter issues, and over processing cripples digital’s fidelity. On the playback side LPs add their own colorations as do the digital filters and analog circuits on digital playback devices.
So far, the closest to live recordings I’ve heard are from either solo or duo acoustic instrument recordings or recordings made directly from a sound engineer’s house-mix board. I have some Solo piano recordings that on a good system can fool you for a short period of time. I also have some recordings I’ve made, using one stereo pair of microphones, placed correctly, that sound almost real. But I must admit that no system, in all my time on earth, has ever been as real sounding as the sound of a marching band, ten blocks away up Michigan Avenue, heard through a closed hotel room window at the last Chicago Summer CES. Nothing…
I have come across some pessimistic future scenarios that indicate that reproduced sound may NEVER get much better than it is today. That would be sad. It would also mean that we audiophiles have lost the war for great sound, let alone “perfect sound forever.”
Perhaps I’ve been entirely off-base for all these years in believing that the goal of sound reproduction is to reproduce the live music event…Perhaps the audiophile road will lead to a dead end?
Whenever someone writes or says that our current state-of-the-art is “as good as it gets” I despair. Perhaps it already is good enough for 95% of humans, but they are not us, and any audiophile who feels that our current state is good enough can immediately shred their audiophile card, because they are part of the problem, not the solution…
But, it’s obvious to anyone with ears that we still have a long way to go before we achieve the goal of recordings sounding like a live event, but the innovators in our industry are still progressing, still making gear that is gets us closer to that goal.
I sure hope we get there, someday…
What’s your take on binaural? To me, the first Camille Thurman album on Chesky gets pretty close to a real live performance sound — at least spatially, although the tonal colorations of whatever headphones you’re using keep it from sounding truly real.
Also, I wonder how many people really care if the music they listen to through their system sounds live. I’d guess that 98 percent of what most people listen to is studio recordings.
Given the percentage of audiophiles in the general population, your percentages may be right, so only some of us humans care. But I see “live” music reproduction as a “higher bar” for verismillitude and performance than a studio session. Sort of like what happens when the Ferrari is pushed above 100 MPH versus when it’s only going 60…
It’d be interesting to do a poll to see what percentage of the recordings audiophiles listen to are live. Out of 268 albums in my Spotify library, 10 are live, and all but two of those were done with multiple close mics plus direct feeds, with who-knows-what added in the mix. Although much of my classical queue was probably recorded with stereo mics, maybe with a couple of direct mics, and no audience — so, sort of live.
I just thought to chime in with my current quest. When I attend a symphony with time and attention I drift into another state of consciousness. That, I find, can be recreated with an audio system when I shut my mind down and experience the moment. Perhaps this sounds a little to transcendental for many but I find this is a great way for me to decide if a system, and the recording being played, are imitating reality.
I agree we are not close to reproducing a live performance. We may be closing in on 75% there but even that is still in the distance. I have a lot confidence that we will get close to a live recording, but it will come from those outside the high-end audio industry not from it.
The audiophile road is not a dead end but your Ferrari going 100 or more mile per hour on State Highway 302 in Loving County Texas. It will break down and nobody will notice.
I agree that “within the high-end” few in terms of absolute numbers make recordings, especially live performance of acoustic instruments, but there are notable exceptions. Blue Coast Records and Ray Kimber in the U.S. and probably scores around the world I’m not aware of are making the kind of recordings that keep “scaling up” the near-reality pole. Maybe you’re right, but some very good pairs of ears and musical brains are working to prove you wrong…
Steven, Great article, thought provoking. Please give Eric Alexander a call at Tekton because he just announced a breakthrough in recording/playback that he thinks will bridge the gap you’re talking about between live and playback much closer.
He issued a press release. Yawn
That “someday” is getting pretty close: https://www.tektondesign.com/irl-announcement.html
Didn’t Bob Stuart basically say the same thing?
That “someday” is getting pretty close… https://www.tektondesign.com/irl-announcement.html
Many years ago in the 1960’s as a high school or music student at Indiana University I went to a high fi show in Chicago. At the show Acoustic Research was doing a demo with the Fine Arts Quartet and a pair of their AR 3a speakers. They had recorded the quartet in an anechoic (sp?) room. Some of the music was live. Some was recorded with the musicians “faking it” and not actually playing. Then the musicians would lift up their arms and the music would continue on. It was amazing.
Fact-check time – the recording was made OUTSIDE. Ed Vilchur had to fire off a gun every couple of minutes between takes to keep the birds quiet. And not everyone was fooled at the demos…
Thanks for remembering better than I did.