True to the source – some thoughts

If we discuss the reproduction quality of a given High End system there are basically two philosophies present: One group argues such a reproduction system hast to be true to the source. Furthermore there is always a big claim that the result has to sound real – sometimes those people talk about “live sound”…. The other group is not so much interested in technical data, neutrality and equipment wich is “true to the source” – they want something which make them believe that what they hear trough their HiFi setup brings the music to live. It does not matter if the gear overstates some aspects to achieve this “believable” sound reproduction. Who is right????

Is there something like the real thing banned on any sound storage medium?? 

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Lets analyse a very simple situation which takes place nearly every day in a recording studio….the recording of an acoustic guitar and a voice. If you think about the guitar and its pattern to send sound waves into the room, you will be aware of a tremendous complexity in which that happens. On the other hand we engineers stand there in a desolate fashion with our microphones and it is absolutely not possible to record the guitar as we can hear the instrument performing in our recording room. We have to choose a directional microphone characteristic because the guitar player wants to play guitar and while he is doing that he also sings the song – one take with two signal sources – sounds easy but it is not. If we would choose an omnidirectional microphone, we have not enough separation between the voice of the musician and the guitar – later in the mix there would be rather no possibility to level guitar versus vocals. We call this  crosstalk. So we have to chose a directional microphone to minimise crosstalk. Normally we would opt for a cardioid characteristic. With this choice we have not anymore the chance to capture the guitar in its holistic gestalt – we start to interprete the sound. Think about using a wide angle lens to portray a given scene versus using a telephoto lens….with the tele lens the photographer interpretes the situation – with the use of a the wide angle lens we, as an observer have to separate the important information in the picture from the surrounding atmospheric details. And be aware….. it gets much worse….because with a cardioid characteristic we face a phenomena called proximity effect….as close we would position the microphone towards the sound source as much the low frequencies will be featured. It happens in a way were it is everything else than an easy task to get rid of that bass emphasis later on with our  parametric equaliser during the mixing process. If we place the microphone within a greater distance we will get too much crosstalk again…

Why is crosstalk something we do not want?

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Lets assume that we found the optimal mic position for the guitar at the spot right behind the guitar bridge with a sharp angle in which the microphone is placed….the guitar will sound good…. Now we record at the same time the voice of the guitar player – and therefor we use a large membrane cardioid microphone – lets say a Neumann U87. We “fly” the microphone so that the capsule will point at the section around the nose of our singer….the vocal sounds now also pretty good…

 

BUT….if we listen carefully to both tracks of the recording we will detect crosstalk from the voice on the guitar track and vice versa. This crosstalk signals have a different phase characteristic because of the running time of sound waves and much worse – because of the different angles we put our microphones towards the sound sources….. If we listen to the vocal track solo it sounds very, very good – now we fade up the guitar track and the vocal starts to gain some strange colouration – some frequencies are extinguished by the additional vocal crosstalk on the guitar track. And the same is also true with the guitar itself – the crosstalk from the vocal microphone damage the pure guitar signal also with a good portion of phase anomalies.

It seems to be such a simple task – a voice and a guitar both performed by the same musician at the same time but we face a tremendous amount of technical problems to achieve a clean and natural sound, and we are far away from the real sound event which we are able to hear in the recording room.

What to do??

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A good recording engineer will find a compromise between the perfect guitar sound and the vocal sound – and he always will assess the vocal sound over the guitar sound aesthetic – because everyone can detect any little amount of colouration in the human voice were nobody is able to tell later on how the real guitar sounded.

The guitar itself has basically 3 spots were we can get some characteristic sound aesthetics from. There is the position behind or at the bridge of the instrument, a position were we get al lot of percussive and rich tonal colours from the wooden guitar top. Than we have the sound hole in the middle of the guitars wooden top – there we can get a lot of deep frequencies which reacts much slower that the percussive performance near the bridge – and last but not least there is the neck of the instrument were the left hand is playing the different notes or chords – at this position there is a the largest amount of overtones and harmonics. If you opt for three microphones, than you are in for a real fight against phase anomalies later on in the mix…so you have to listen carefully to the specific instrument and you have to decide at which position  you will get the most of the holistic sound you can hear at some distance in the recording room.

Now lets change the situation – you are not anymore recording a guitar with a vocal performance in one single take – you have now a whole band or an orchestra…..And what I explained till this point is just a basic entry in the much more complicated  field of recording technology and procedere.

The real thing

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As you might realise now – the real thing is already messed up in that moment were the recording took place – and it is not the incompetence of the recording engineer it is the nature of the whole game. Sometimes there is also a complete different situation coming up – the musician has a spontaneous idea – he grabs the guitar and shouts at me – Ekki – start the tape….in such a situation you have no second chance nor time to adjust anything to get the best sound….you just press the damn red button….and – as a matter of fact – this piece of music will make it on the final record you later can buy in the shops…because in was a good atmosphere in the studio and the artist had an amazing  creative moment….you get the picture.

Later in the mixing process we have to correct things like the proximity effect, we have to shape the sound to match  the aesthetic approach of the artist or his producer. And sometimes it is not the technical best piece of music wich is released – because the technical aspect of the music is not as important as the artistic content – yes, dear High End fan….the musical intensity is always more important than a perfect sound – and not infrequently an overly “anal” engineer will kill all the creative atmosphere in the studio – that is, why so many well recorded High End music is boring in terms of  vividness and musical gestalt….( I cannot stand one single track of artists like Rebecca Pidgeon or Diana Krall to name just a few….)

The truth

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As you might see the truth is something rarely existing in music recording…and often the truth is not representable….imagine Michael Jacksons song “Bad” – does the bass sound, which introduces the title have a sort of original??? It is generated by a synthesizer and went through many manipulation stages to sound like it does…This sound does not have an original source – and the bass harmonies of Kraftwerks “Aerodynamic” does not either – are they less important than the string sound of Beethovens Eroica???

NO Hifi, High End or whatever stereo reproduction system – no matter how big, how expensive – made by Western Electric or Wilson Audio is able to reproduce the damn real thing – because we already loose the game in the recording process just to mention the least! It is a sort of unfulfilled dream of the High End scene to reach something like the live event – they spent tons of money, suffer from GAS and “Uprgaditis” to come closer to the real thing – and guess what – the majority of the serious High End freaks had their last life experience 5 years ago… If the real thing can not reproduced – what do we talk about in all the test magazines and online articles???? – Please spent a serious amount of money to get you and your beloved ones into a concert hall, if you will spent just a fraction of the money you already invested in your stereo – you can do that on a monthly base – and guess what – it will make you happy – it will reduce the damn High End System to what it is – just a reproduction system….!!!!

Can you believe it???

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If you sit in front of a full Shindo system you will have a very special experience – this stuff is not true to the source – it is not linear – nor is it the best in technical aspects like sheer power or THD to name just a few parameters….BUT – you will get something your brain is able to process to something you can believe – something which sounds damn real to you. Another piece of audio jewellery from CH precision or Wilson Audio may not able to feed your brain with enough of that stuff which makes you feel, that the listening experience has something to do with the real thing….Technical parameters means nearly nothing – or to be more precise – at a certain level of technical perfection we are not able to justify a given piece of gear just with their technical abilities….! Imagine you sit at your couch to relax and dive into some great music – lets say it is 5pm – the street in front of your house is occupied by the guys from the garbage collection, in the neighbourhood a child is crying and you hear the TV set fron the deaf guy in the floor above your flat…your turntable is spinning Radiohead “In Rainbows” and you try to dive into Thom Yorkes world of sounds and lyrics. I will guess that a system which overdoes the things a little bit in a magical way – might be helpful – it is like a good pantomime – it has to characterise the special mood in a bold way to make your brain and your heart follow the gestalt of the music instead of listeing to the TV set a floor above. This is an art in which Ken Shindo was a magician – and Dan d´ Agostino of Krell was not….

At the end….

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…it does not matter how big your speakers are – how expensive the amplifiers or how perfect the source components – at the end the whole business comes down to arrange a well balanced system, which can deliver the stuff your brain needs to accept the reproduction as something authentic – something real. If your stereo can do that – do not touch it anymore – stay away from audio fairs and High End shops – buy more music – discover new things – try to be open to new insights – and you will be richly rewarded.

Stay tuned

 

E. Strauss

 

 

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