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Is High Fidelity Still Possible?

 

Since the earliest days of hi-fi, the goal of an audiophile stereo was to recreate a live musical performance as accurately as possible in your home. You couldn't listen to John Coltrane or the Vienna Philharmonic every night even if you lived in a big city. The magic of a great hi-fi system was that you could escape to a different world just by putting on your favourite record.

I try to go to as many live concerts as I can - everything from rock to jazz to hip hop to classical - but over the past 10 years there's a disturbing trend in live performances towards bad amplified sound. Two recent cases have underscored just how far we've come in the wrong direction. 

Let me first take you back...

For thousands of years all concerts were unamplified (except perhaps from the room itself). What you heard when you went to a show was the direct vibrations of air that the performers made with their instruments. 

People naturally wanted to "capture" these events and eventually recording technology was developed to do so. It was crude and relied only on acoustic technologies with playback devices such as gramophones and cylinders. Fidelity was terrible but you could at least hear the music at home.

With the introduction of electricity and microphones a huge jump forward occurred in both recoding and playback systems. By the 50s, technology had reached a point of very high resolution and people like Les Paul and Mercury records developed machines and subsequent recordings that have not really been bettered to this day. On the playback side, things were a little slower to materialize. 

We got "full-range" stereo in the mid-60s and companies like Quad proclaimed their speakers were "the closest approach to the original sound." Many companies created demos where a live orchestra would play, it would be recorded and then played back right after on a very good stereo. A couple companies (usually tied to broadcasting or professional recording) still do this today and the degree of fidelity can be truly astonishing. Achieving this kind of closed feedback loop is the reason most serious audiophiles are constantly improving their systems and it's the reason why we started Planet of Sound - because high fidelity is not impossible and most people are hooked once they hear it.

However, somewhere along the line of performed and recorded music, things changed. Audiences got larger, instruments were electrified and musicians started experimenting with a whole range of non-acoustic effects and ideas. You couldn't fill a stadium with an acoustic guitar after all! Engineers added electronic effects to recordings to "enhance" real sounds. By the 70s, people like Phil Spector and others began to seriously influence how popular (and even classical) music was recorded by creating more character to the music than even the musicians. There was a lot of cross-pollination between live, recorded and reproduced sound because there were so many new choices available. It was an electronic free-for-all.

As a result, both technically and sociologically, we moved away from natural acoustic music and today most people don't even know what un-amplified music sounds like. Most MANUFACTURERS don't know what un-amplified music sounds like! 

Why is this a problem? Well, generally with any professional pursuit, it is essential on having a common standard of quality or at least a language to describe the types of criteria one is trying to perfect. When there is no single or agreed reference point, it is very difficult for anyone to fundamentally move forward. In essence, we may have many different flavours of "fidelity", but fidelity to what? 

If the original goal of high fidelity reproduction was to create a "closed loop" between the real concert and the home hi-fi, then we are seriously off path. 

Getting back to those two concerts I was mentioning earlier... 

Recently I went to see jazz icon Ornette Coleman at the War Museum here in Ottawa, Canada. There are many excellent Coleman recordings from the 60s which are both great music and also great recordings. The recordings were often simple 2 track stereo, or even mono, with good microphones direct to tape. Having heard these, it's easy to expect that a very good facsimile of Ornette Coleman could be heard in your living room via a good stereo. You'd expect that the real thing live in concert would be even better! Wrong!

The show took place in a large open area-- not a well-damped studio for sure-- but sitting only 20 feet away from the band I was convinced that the room would play little part in the main sound. The sound of the band however quickly proved secondary to that coming from the "PA" system which was a magnitude louder than the real instruments right in front of me. Cymbals floated 30 feet above my head from roof mounted speakers creating a wall of noise. Indistinct bass boomed from all over the room drowning out the saxophone and snare drum. It was a monstrosity. 

I couldn't stop thinking about how songs from his recent Sound Grammar album sounded so much better at my home and the whole time I was praying that the power would go out so that we could hear the unmolested sound from the band's instruments. The engineer obviously wanted this jazz quartet to sound like Pink Floyd and had no concept musically or technically which parts of the performance were important. It's perhaps too much to ask for jazz to still be heard acoustically in 2009.

The second concert-- the Yeah Yeah Yeahs-- happened a few days later at the main Bluesfest stage. This young and innovative 3-piece rock band has a really powerful live show with a wild female singer. They're all consummate musicians with great catchy songs and a unique sound. What happened at this show? Again, the live mix was totally disjointed. The guitarist was nearly silent against the rest of the band. It should have been turned up 10dB while the bass drum was about 15dB too high. The entire midrange drive and melody of the band was lost. 5000 adoring fans stood there bored and confused. 

It was a completely neutered version of a band that with NO sound reinforcement would have got even the most jaded, old rock fan up and dancing. I can understand why older clients moaned about how the new music at the festival sucked. If I didn't know what this band could sound like live I would totally agree. 

It seems that professional sound engineers have lost a sense of responsibility to the artist and to the audience. Like any profession, one must start with the rudiments before developing "style" and it seems like the latest generations have skipped any and all education about the building blocks of music and live sound. Somewhere along the line they got so arrogant that they thought their superior skills of reproduction were better than what the band (or instruments) naturally sounded like. It is now a rare occasion where I go to a show and a sound man follows the philosophy of "do no harm". Even solo guitar performances in small rooms invariably have a PA. 

As professionals we owe it to our craft to expose ourselves to the essence of sound and organic music. In doing this, one gains an appreciation for the balance and harmony these performances naturally attain and it informs the choices we make with the technology. Otherwise what are we conditioning the public to consider normal? Is that the reason why so many people have come to expect fatiguing technicolor recordings, bass drums that sound like snare drums or nylon stringed guitars that sound like jangling keys? We are to a large degree the taste-makers for the public but we've lost all the original reference points.

As audience members, please stand up for good live sound and try to hear unamplified performances so you know when things are wrong. When the sound man has massacred your favourite band, write letters and complain. 

As audiophiles, realize that high fidelity is a self-fulfilling prophecy. What ends up in your living room starts with the live event. High fidelity is still possible and we must continue to strive for it from the beginning of the chain to the end.X

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