Written by 5:00 am Audiophile

Have We Been Kidding Ourselves All This Time?

Roger Skoff takes another look at audio perfection.

Something truly remarkable happened to me the other day: I went to the Facebook page of the recording studio owned by Bill Roberts, a mastering engineer friend of mine, and clicked on a rehearsal recording that had been posted there of the four Mulligan Brothers singing and playing fiddle, guitar, what looked like a homemade bass, plus what looked like a beer bottle and comb (sic) in the studio’s practice room.

audio.jpgBecause my friend, Bill, is a brilliant engineer — who has done, among a great many other things, the spectacular Touch album by Yello — the sound, even with no equalization, no reverb, and no other diddling of any kind, was absolutely realistic, and sounded exactly like four guys singing and playing their instruments in a not very big, not-acoustically-treated room. It was, in short, exactly what most audiophiles (including me) have always claimed to be our holy grail.

And, to my genuinely great surprise, it was, IMHO, not what I would have wanted to hear, either for my own enjoyment or to demonstrate the wonders and glories of my system to a friend or to one of the uninitiated who I was trying to introduce to the joys of audiophilia. It didn’t image as well as I would have liked; the soundstage, although accurately presented, wasn’t what I would have wanted to hear if I were going to buy that recording; the instruments lacked both a “black” background and the kind of pinpoint definition I would have liked, and the instruments and voices all wound-up “stepping on” each other in the jumble of untreated room sound.

It was, in short, exactly the same kind of disappointing reality that I experienced as a kid when I, with my own Ampex tape recorder and even some RCA and other “good stuff” studio microphones, recorded my girlfriend singing and playing her guitar in my family’s living room and got — no matter what I did, including rigging my own improvised echo chamber (with a speaker and a microphone in and outside the shower stall of one of our bathrooms, fed-back in real time and mixed with the “live” signal) — a recording that was not at all “commercial”-sounding but, instead, just sounded like a girl singing and playing a guitar in a living room.

With my own recording, I could just dismiss the sound I got because of my age (16 or 17), because of my lack of experience, or because I had good, but not sufficient equipment (no elaborate mixing console and “effects” capability). But with Bill Roberts, no such excuses were possible: He isn’t a kid; he has huge amounts of experience; and there were no equipment shortcomings of any kind — whatever he didn’t use, he didn’t use by choice! That left me to come to only one possible and not at all pleasing conclusion:

There are times when I don’t prefer natural-sounding sound!

Think of it; after more than 60 years as an active Hi-Fi Crazy, loudly and publicly eschewing any form of signal processing; proudly joining hordes of others in looking down my nose at preamps with tone controls and any other such artificial means of making my music sound better; and counseling others to do the same; I finally find myself on the other side of the fence entirely, thinking that a little “dick and diddle,” judiciously applied, couldn’t hurt and might even make things more to my liking!

I have more than once complained in these articles about the modern multitrack “split-session” (artists and musicians recorded separately) recording technique that seems — except for “live” and classical music recordings — to be used almost ubiquitously, arguing that it puts us, the audiophile buyers of recordings made that way, in the weird position of trying to get our systems to accurately reproduce a musical event that never really happened. I’ve also spouted-off in technical terms about the evils of multi-mic recording, where different arrival times for the same sound at different microphones in the same channel (right or left) makes for potential (almost certain) phase problems, or single stereo mic techniques (X-Y or Blumlein) that can lose phase information altogether.

Always my quest has been — as it has for so many of us — for sound that would put us RIGHT THERE!, smack-dab in the middle of the recording venue with the artists, able to hear the music exactly as an actual on-site listener might have heard it. What I neglected to consider was that there are venues that simply don’t sound good — or at least not as good as they could with a little inspired tweaking by a master engineer, and that without it, even the most perfectly accurate recording might just sound like a girl singing and playing guitar in a living room or four guys making music in the crowded practice room of a recording studio.

As a technological feat those last might really be something to be proud of, but like those recordings in days of yore of railroad trains running through your listening room, marching bands, ping-pong games or even (gasp!) an atomic bomb going off 20 miles away — sonic accuracy is no longer enough to make them something that I would want to add to my regular listening diet.

Maybe I’ve been kidding myself all these years. Maybe what I really want is the illusion of sonic perfection, delivered to me in a package I can thoroughly enjoy.

How about you?

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