Thursday, January 23, 2014

How to Listen - Part 1

In my seven-part series on "High-end Soundstages" I touched briefly on listening through your equipment and to the details of a performance. Audiophiles often make the mistake of listening to what "sounds good" as opposed to what "sounds real" and end up with a conglomeration of gear that gives a certain WOW factor. To each is his/her own preference, but for me personally that is not what the high-end is all about.

It never ceases to amaze me how strikingly different high-end systems sound in the homes I have visited. Some sound bass heavy, others who have twelve 15" woofers in custom enclosures sound bass thin. Most sound "good" but only few sound "real." And when asking an audiophile about a new piece of gear that just entered their system, “So what differences did you hear?” a long delay of utter silence results in the inability to describe clearly what one’s emotions feel. Most people know what they like when they hear it but have a difficult time putting that into words. With patience and time you will be able to clearly enunciate and accurately convey exactly what you hear and what you do not in any system.

Most often, people will respond by saying something like, “I never heard that before…” or “Did you hear that?” or “Wow! That was amazing!” but they still have a hard time identifying exactly what it is that changed that they like (or dislike). When plopping down $25,000 for an amplifier and then NOT being able to articulate such details is in my humble opinion a distinct disadvantage, one that can be easily rectified if you just take the time to listen.

The most important thing to do is to clear your mind of biases, something easier said than done. We all have our biases and by visiting an audiophile-friend's home you can hear theirs. There are things about their system you like and things you dislike. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said, "[paraphrased: I can't tell you what pornography is] but I know it when I see it!" Properly articulating what you like and dislike about a high-end system falls much into this same court. Often it is a lack of words or the right word to express the things you hear. Putting it another way, you have a limited high-end vocabulary.

Take for example your absolutely most favorite track. When you hear it in your car, there are things that are missing, lacking, or completely absent as opposed to when you hear this same piece on your home high-end system. Specifically, what are those "things?" Is the bass less smooth? Do the vocals seem exaggerated or unnatural? Does the guitar sound strange or are the tinkles of the cymbals tizzy or just plain absent? What is it that offends you the MOST and what does it do "right?" All of these questions and their answers put you on the right track for starting to develop your high-end vocabulary.

What this series should accomplish is for you to begin to properly articulate how you perceive the sound you hear. What we are going to do is some rather unusual exercises in light of bringing you back to reality - sort of a CTRL+ALT+DEL to reboot your perceptions and flush all of the infused marketing hype and propaganda. With an open mind, you will find how to retrain your ears and learn how to listen.

To learn you must do and the first thing I want you to do is to go to an indoor live performance of non-amplified instruments. One of the simplest things to do is to go to a church – any church – and listen to the choir (not the organ). The human voice is one of the most amazing instruments you will ever hear and listening to a good vocal performance is truly any audiophile's thrill. Jazz concerts in basements or small venues is another good source for retraining your ears as long as there is not a PA system involved. The point is for you to listen to the instrument as if it were for the first time.

If you play your own instrument, you have a distinct advantage over the rest of us who can only play the radio. Listen to the inner detailing of every part of our instrument. If playing your instrument is a burden, get over it and start listening to how it sounds. As a youth I was forced to learn to play the accordion and hated every minute of it. It was big, bulky, and with my Czechoslovakian heritage at least one showed up at every wedding or celebration my folks ever attended. I was not fond of this instrument and never became accomplished at playing it. But this torturous experience of my childhood did teach me how to read music and helped my right-and-left brain halves work together. For this I am eternally grateful.

Let's take my personal aversion to the accordion as an example of how to listen with an open mind. Accordions use bellows to blow air through tuned reeds. Pressing down on a key opens the airway to the reed for the note you wish to play. Your other arm moves the bellows in and out supplying air pressure for these tuned reeds. Without even hearing an accordion live, you can probably guess at what faint mechanical sounds exist beyond the notes these reeds the accordion itself makes. Think about it.

Anything mechanical makes a sound, some sounds are fainter than others, and instruments are finely tuned pieces of machinery. The bellows of an accordion faintly wheeze as the seams of the bellows expand and contract. The keys themselves make a slight ticking sound as they are pressed and sometimes you can hear the musicians tapping their feet or turning over sheet music. Some vocalize a grunt or muffled exhalation in unison with a deliberate emphasis to exaggerate the sound and change its contour. All of these clues are embedded in the notes to give a performance a quality characteristic to that musician's style, even in the lowly accordion.

If I were to name a well-known singer or popular jazz saxophonist, your mind immediately accesses that part of their style and reminds you of the pleasantness you experienced while listening to a particular song. You may have a favorite song of that artist and have memorized the words or anticipate the notes when you hear it played again. You already do this mental gymnastics for things of which you are aware, all I want you to do is to expand this awareness for things to which you may be unaware.

When learning to critically listen, one must get beyond the notes, measures, and bars and reach into the mind of the performer. Interpretation comes in all art forms and music is no exception. Conductors interpret the music of the masters and every performance sounds different – but yet every performance sounds the same. If you listen to the Richard Straus tone poem "Also sprach Zarathustra" with Maestro Klaus Tennstedt conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it will sound different when this same orchestra is conducted by Maestro Seiji Ozawa. The tempo will be different, some instruments will be louder, others will hang on a note slightly longer, an still others will drift more quickly into the background. All of these techniques create a different sound and feel to the same piece of music performed by the same musicians – if you just listen.

These techniques – and many more – are used by performers create a mood or a feeling they wish to convey making it their own style and their own expression of that piece. In other words, this is how they choose to invoke their art. Another great example is the national anthem performed at the beginning of sporting events. How many times have you heard your country's anthem sung in a way you liked less than someone else's performance? Why was this so? What is it about that interpretation that caused this judgment?

Analyzing your biases can help you understand what you prefer and what you do not. While in any performance your nature is to focus on the things you like, doing so will cause you to gloss over the other more hidden and nonetheless magical details that makes it enjoyable.

So in Part one, your assignment is to listen to as many unamplified live performances as you can and take notes about what you hear beyond the melody. Do you prefer the emotion of the hall ambience or is it too dead and lifeless? Are you sitting in a spot that only reveals the double bass and causes the string section to be less loud than you prefer? Is the guitar in tune? What facial expressions accompany certain passages and what do you hear coinciding with those facial expressions? Can you hear sheet music turning? Do the strings buzz against the frets? Can you hear someone's foot tapping? Can you hear the guitarist lightly slide his or her fingers along the strings between notes? Can you hear the artist take a deep breath just prior to bringing his or her lips to the reed of a trumpet? Can you hear the breathy whooshing sounds inside a clarinet the moment before its reed vibrates?

Similar subtle details are constantly going on in any live performance. Listen for these little details and expand your awareness of music. Appreciate one interpretation not only on the merits you already know but also on the merits you have just learned. In the next part of this series, I will show you where such details crop up in common recordings so you can see if your system is refined enough to reveal these subtle details. Understand more clearly about a performance you like and one you dislike and learn more about who you really are deep down inside. Until next time, listen carefully to these live performances, take notes, and enjoy the music!

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.

My other titles include:

·  Extreme Audio 1: House Wiring ·  Build an Extreme Green Hot Water Solar Collector
·  Extreme Audio 2: Line Filtering ·  The Extreme Green Guide to Wind Turbines
·  Extreme Audio 3: Chassis Leakage ·  The Extreme Green Guide to Solar Electricity
·  Extreme Audio 4: Interconnect Cables ·  Meditation for Geeks (and other left-brained people)
·  Extreme Audio 5: Speaker Wires ·  Althea: A Story of Love
·  Extreme Green Guide to Improving Mileage ·  Build an Extreme Green Raised Bed Garden
·  Extreme Green Organic Gardening ·  Build an Extreme Green Rain Barrel
·  Extreme Green Organic Gardening 2012 ·  Build an Extreme Green Squirrel-Proof Bird Feeder
·  Build an Extreme Green Composter ·  Extreme Green Appliance Buying Guide

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