Wednesday, February 12, 2014

How to Listen - Part 2

In part 1 of this series, you were given a homework assignment to go out and listen to unamplified music. If you have not already done so, I strongly suggest that you do this at least once in some venue of your choosing and musical preference before proceeding. Remember to take good notes about what you hear focusing primarily on your favorite instrument. In summary, it would be best to listen live and then read this posting as soon as possible with your acoustic memory in tact.
Now is the time for you to take those notes you made about what you heard at these performances and apply your experience to your personal listening habits. For this part, I will reference specific recordings that should help you to develop your “new” ears and fine tune them into those of gold (a.k.a. golden ears). It takes a lot of practice to develop golden ears and with a little perseverance, you too can claim these unusual ears as your own. So, let’s get started by listening to a 2006 Grammy nominated piano performance by the great Peter Kater.

In his album Fire, track 2 "Afterglow" begins with a very nice recording of Peter’s fingering finesse on the keys of a piano. The first few seconds of its opening is what I want you to acoustically scrutinize. Play this opening until you slow down enough in your audio feasting to hear the silence between the notes for it is in the silence that magical details of both instrument and artist hide.

Focus initially on the sound of each string resonating on the sound board rather than the sound of the note it plays. Start the track and see if you can hear the key hammer striking the string just before it begins to resonate. For example, you would normally listen to the melody created during the performance but now you shift your attention to the “attack” ability of your system (its ability to resolve quick musical transients). If your system has good attack, you will be able to clearly hear this hammer striking the string. If your system has excellent attack, you may even hear the felt of the hammer dampen the initial blow to that string.

One of my personal favorite guitarists is Eric Bibb. Eric not only plays music but is in love with his own ears and understands the sonic signatures of various guitars. His hand movements on an instrument coaxes sounds from it of which other artist cannot because of this intimacy. In his “Diamond Days” album on track 1 “Tall Cotton,” the song begins with the sound of an analog record needle dropping into the groove. Noise from the spinning disc and the dust in the grooves makes you suspect that you are listening to a vinyl album, something intentionally done in an attempt to convey to the listener his personal love of sound itself. But the melodic fingering of the strings prior to the harmonica joining in is where the real love of his instrument can be heard. Listen to how firmly he plucks the strings and how this firmness rises and fades at different notes. Listen to the different resonances not only when he changes from one string to the next but also one note to the next on the same string. The magic of musical art lies in its details and Eric is one of the masters of sonic details.

On the other end of the spectrum where silence is not valued but sonic subtleties are is Eddy Van Halen. Eddy constantly coaxed different sounds from electric guitars in an attempt to make them sound different. In his album “1984” track 4 “Top Jimmy” starts with a slow serenade of plucked strings with effects that emphasize the merits of that guitar. Listening to the way he alternately strums the string with a pick and his finger, moving up and down the neck tells you that he is trying to give you as a listener an experience he personally finds acoustically interesting. In other words, he is able to make a sound from a guitar that few others can imitate, especially at the same speed and the same amount of intricacy that he does.

So what did you hear? Take notes again about what you did and did not perceive. Try to slow down your mind and think only about one element of an instrument at a time. After you master that element, move onto the next. The trick is to know what to listen for and how to quickly identify that characteristic in all types of program material, not just this one.

If you have another – any other – solo-instrument recording with which you are already intimately familiar, you can scrutinize that solo instrument in the same manner. Listen to the moment just prior to the note itself and identify what sounds occur. For example, a saxophone may have the artist breathe just prior to pressing his/her lips to the reed. A guitar may have a faint squeak of a hand moving across the sound board or a finger deliberately resting on a plucked string. Fingers sliding on wire-wound guitar strings are easy for most systems to resolve but the better systems will reveal more of the character of that wire-wound string disclosing where on the length of that string the fingers slide (near the neck or closer to the bridge).

At the end of a note is the other sonic-rich content. Again solo recordings are best to use to hear these subtleties but small groups also can be very revealing. For example, any studio recording consists of individual tracks for each musician. In a highly refined system, you should be able to somewhat discern the size each of the rooms in which the artist was recorded. Some well-damped rooms will have their own characteristic dead sound and other larger studios will have a different sonic signature to that decay. An accomplished listener can hear a vocalist and listen through the artificial reverberation into the acoustic clues that hide at the end of the notes. This is called the decay portion of a note and it is where reverberant clues hide. Such subtle echoes tell you how long it takes for sound to bounce from one wall of that room to another, even when damped. Regardless of hearing the actual size of the room, you should at least be able to hear that the rooms were indeed different.

With highly-resolved playback systems, even dead small booths can give up their unique sonic signatures. Learning to listen for these subtleties will increase not only your awareness of a performance but also the limitations imposed by your own playback system. It is a good idea once you become intimately familiar with a performance to take that recording to a friend’s system and listen with the same level of scrutiny on it as you did yours. Again, take notes and compare what you heard on that system that you did not on yours.

Each time you do this, you will hear things that you overlooked before. Then, go back to your system and see if what you heard was also there and you just did not notice it before. Most of the time, these nuances are more forward in one system and more laid back in another. Which is correct is a matter of personal preference and the amount of coloration –if any – a system introduces in order to make that nuance come forward.

Similar subtle details are constantly going on in any live performance. Listen for these little attack/decay details and expand your awareness of music. Appreciate a musician’s 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 nuances 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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