Many years ago, shortly after he founded The Absolute Sound Harry Pearson delivered one of the most powerful audiophile metaphors of all time, which I’ll refer to as “looking through a pane of glass.” For those too young to have grokked it first time around it goes like this – imagine a live musical scene or event that you are viewing through a pane of glass. Depending on the quality of the reproduction, the glass could be almost clear, or it could be very dirty. The dirtier it is, the less successfully you can view the scene. This “dirt” is all the stuff that is added and subtracted from the actual aural event by the recording process. A good recording is a clear piece of glass while a bad recording is a very dirty one.
For many audiophiles and recording engineers this metaphor has held up, unchallenged, for decades. But is it really complete? Perhaps not.
Let’s say, for the sake of my metaphor, that you are viewing a live acoustic musical event in a room and there is no glass at all in the window between you and the event. It’s just the event, in the room, and your two ears. The recording process adds the piece of glass, but it’s not a clear piece of glass as in the original metaphor, but one with a darkening or neutral density filter (all the photographers will understand this term) that always darkens the image. To compensate more lights are added, but while every light improves definition and lightens the scene, it also adds a second, and as a third light is added, a third set of shadows. That confuses things.
Now imagine that each “light” is a microphone or sound receiving device. When there is no glass in the window, at a real-time musical event, we have only our two ears triangulating the location and phase of each sound, which we humans can do with great accuracy; but after even one additional light (or microphone) after a stereo pair is added, the phase information is no longer as easy to decode, and when we close-mic and multi-mic, as usually the case in a multichannel studio recording, all the original phase information or picture has been changed so drastically that it bears little or no resemblance to the phase or lighting of the original scene.
There’s a good reason why many old-school subjective audiophiles tend to use certain kinds of recordings for their critical listening sessions. They are often the recordings that were done in the purest way and retain the most amount of unpolluted phase information and the clearest view of the original musical event.
While I enjoy a wide range of music, when I’m doing critical listening sessions I lean on and rely on my own purist, stereo-pair location recordings. Why? Because they have the most amount of correct phase information. Also, I know exactly where and how far apart each player was, so I can tell if a playback chain is placing them correctly in the soundstage. I can’t do that with someone else’s recordings, no matter how good they may be.
J. Gordon Holt never, to my knowledge, had a list of commercial reference recordings because he always used his own recordings for his critical listening sessions. Harry Pearson, never, during the time I knew him, made his own recordings, which was perhaps why he developed and cultivated a list of commercial recordings to use for reference.
But, in the words of Billie Holliday, “God bless the child that’s got his own” reference recordings…because if you made them you know what the that room without the glass really looked like…
Sometimes I think I have an unfair advantage over those who don’t make their own recordings because I did produce my own reference recordings (and had the opportunity to assist and learn from not one but two great field recording engineers J. Gordon Holt and Micha Shatner), while most audiophiles have to guess or approximate how a recording chain was set up and what the original musical event sounded like.
So, what’s my intended takeaway from this?
Make your own recordings!
I encourage you to make at least one live field recording during your lifetime of almost anything with no more than one stereo pair of microphones and listen to the results…it will tell you more about your stereo than anything you will buy in a store, I promise…