Monday, February 6, 2012

A Different Source of Material

Source material is easy to find but quality source material is not. Anyone can cobble together a recording of something, process it, mix it down, and call it a recording but few understand what it takes to faithfully preserve a performance, and fewer will buy it if one does. This is the catch 22 of the industry and known as the GIGO principle (garbage in, garbage out) as it applies to audiophiles.

While going to engineering school at Oklahoma State, I met A.P. Van Meter after cruising through the yellow pages looking for high-end audio stores in Oklahoma City. AP was head of McIntosh Labs R&D some time prior to the great Roger Russel and AP designed several pieces of their first generation solid state gear. It was 1972 and I was in AP's "Store of Sound," an audio salon that featured all high end gear. After becoming friends, he invited me to a recording session he was to do for the OK City Symphony. As an aspiring audiophile, I took him up on his offer and one Saturday summer night, I took time off from the books and my wife and I joined him under the stage of the concert hall. What a thrill!

AP is the kind of guy who loved to take a good idea and run with it, so he built his own tape recorder using a Tandberg transport and electronics of his own design. Mastering from Neuman mics, his own mixer, onto a 1/4" tape running at 15 IPS, AP let me listen to the feed as it was being recorded describing what to listen for at each moment. What an education! AP used either two or three microphones, depending upon the performance and never more than three.  We talked about the benefits and compromises of this approach but in the end he convinced me that less is more. His "Spartan" approach is something many purists of the time attempted to use in the grand climb of technology during the 1970s and early 1980s.

The issue is simple: the fewer things added between the microphone and the recording media, the better. AP used his mixer with phantom power built into the base of the Tandberg that had one control: volume. This fed directly into the front end of his recording electronics and eventually to the stock recording head. Everything was plugged into one electrical bus strip and the output of the tape deck fed headphones and a small pair of monitor speakers used only to know when the recording needed to be paused or the tape changed.

This is a far cry from what recording studios do today, so my first tip would be to stay away from all mass media productions. A few popular artists are concerned about this issue however they are not the ones calling the final shots. Musicians themselves often do not listen to accuracy but rather emotion and most prefer not to spend the money and waste time in trying to pursue the audio grail since accurate reproduction it truly is an oxymoron as produced by such studios.

So what to do? Good question since if the source you are trying to recreate is recorded poorly, how can any audiophile ever hope to make such a recording sound real (GIGO)? I hope now you are beginning to understand the depth of this problem. The best any audiophile can do is to get the performance sound the same as the recording engineer had in mind when creating the master, which is not the same as how faithful the nuances and detail of the instrument are preserved.

In my personal repertoire of  recordings, I have a few that I use as a reference whose approach was similar. Know this now: I know of no recordings made from major record labels since the mid 1980s that use this minimalist approach, barring a solo performance here and there. So to get quality source material produced today that sounds reasonably faithful to the instrument being played, one must search for solo performances at a minimum and even then you cannot be certain how many microphones were used (much less understand how much processing was added along the way).

Jazz and classical are the two categories that come to mind since solo performances abound therein.  Older analog recordings on vinyl also have similar challenges but there are a few that stand out. My personal preferences are those I recordings I made myself using a similar approach to AP's.  I have taken the time to connect with local musicians, drag my own equipment down to concert halls, and take hours to place my two spartan microphones in just the right place. I would not advise you to do the same since commercially available equipment used in this part of the chain is a whole other issue, one that generally runs contrary to the purist approach of an audiophile.

But in general, look for source material that focuses on one instrument alone. Recording engineers take this opportunity in such venues to capture and preserve everything they can without getting flack from other members of the orchestra or band, or the producer. Know that pianos are incredibly difficult instruments to record and if you ask any pianist, they too typically divert their ears to the emotion of the performance rather than the integrity of the recorded piano.

As an audiophile, you must be satisfied in recreating the nuances that, despite the efforts of trying to make a production sound better, still make it through this recording process. If you can, align yourself with a musician or a band and see if you can get access to their personal recordings. A partnership can  result whose synergy will benefit both. Talk with these people and discuss what they like and dislike about their recording and focus on reproducing that as faithfully as possible. 

There are more artists out there, especially those in schools of music and colleges that are trying to hone their skills to which you can catch a ride and learn more about music and the sound of instruments from their perspective. Most are willing to share and grow providing you do not try to take advantage of their work and do something stupid like sell their recordings without their permission.

Think of what is possible with access to such pristine source material and how different it will sound on your system. Think for a moment of what steps in the recording process can be eliminated when you play such a recording on your gear and know that with such source material you can truly understand your system's strong and weak points.  Think of what value that will bring as opposed to dishing out thousands for tidbits passed on by reviewers who themselves may or may not have ever heard an instrument or performance in real life with their own ears.

For those reading this blog, I hope you can suggest sources and methods you have found in getting to purist recordings. As time goes on, I will tabulate what I find in hopes of sharing it with others.

Train your own ears by going to live performances and instead of leaving the concert after the performance is over, try to go backstage and talk with the conductor and musicians. Get to know your local musical community and talk about how instruments sound with the artists themselves. If possible, set up meetings or attend rehearsals where they can show you what they are talking about.

The point is this: since you have already been bitten by the audiophile bug, take a fresh approach to listening. You know what you like in the way your system sounds, now wouldn't it be nice to get it to sound real?

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

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