Wednesday, June 03, 2009

On Music

One of my favorite blogs, Gizmodo, is running what it calls The Listening Test. It's a week-long tribute to all things audio that ended on April 19th.

There are a couple of posts about audiophiles, and a couple more about the hardware that gets these guys hard. Now, aside from the fact that I think most ultra-high-end audio equipment is bullshit, I don't think it serves a point at all.

I've mentioned how I think aesthetics is an important ponderable to ponder, and what constitutes music is a big part of that. Think about it. With every generation of audio technology, we've reached the ultimate in realism. It's like you're there. Well, what the hell does it mean to be there?

For example, lots of audiophiles like to say that vinyl is superior to CD. Apparently, with a good album press and a half-million dollars in audio equipment, it's just like being there.

Only you're not there. You're not even close. If the goal is to sound like you're right there, why not actually be right there and pay to see live music? And if the goal is to be right there with Led Zeppelin, well too bad. Even on the magic of an album, all that can exist is one or two sound waveforms. Unless you can get ahold of each individual channel and play them on their own speakers, you're at the mercy of the master.

How do you think the musician masters his music? With headphones. We can even see them do this in behind-the-scenes videos. What does the audiophile think they're going to hear? Do they think they'll hear something that not even the original musician knew was there? Well I sure as hell don't want that. Music is an art which means its an expression. I want to know what the expression is, which means my ideal is to hear the album as the artist heard it while making it.

Recorded music can never sound like the original and it shouldn't. A recording is a musical production in its own right. The goal shouldn't be to make it sound like you're there, because think about all of the limitations of being there. You can never be in the perfect listening position for each instrument. The angle of your head, or the angle of the stage all have subtly negative and positive effects on each part of the performance. A recording is a mic placed in the perfect listening post by each instrument, resulting in an experience that is, in many ways, superior to being there.

And music by people like Brian Eno is nothing but production. You can not possibly be there. There is a soundscape, in which you can place yourself and have sounds emanate from "locations" within the sound, but if you want that, buy a $1,000 pair of studio-level headphones. There. You just spent more on headphones than many people spend on a refrigerator.

I think ignoring that produced, mixed, and re-mixed music is an artistic production and should be recognized as such and shouldn't be subject to some fruitless quest to achieve a perfection that doesn't exist.

Even audiophiles will admit this, in an indirect way. Many of them prefer vinyl records to digital or CD. I'd imagine that most people willingly gave up those for the clear sound available on CD's. You can't possibly get that on vinyl. You'll have cracks, pops, and constant hiss. But audiophiles love that.

I'm not here to attack the validity of that position. In fact, I completely understand. I too don't think someone has heard Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds until they've heard it on vinyl. What I'm pointing out is that these are, at least theoretically, faults in the recording. Yet, somehow, it makes them better. Because it's about the recording and not specifically what's being recorded. The recording itself is part of the artistic process that can augment, and even completely change the final music. The fact that so many vinyl-lovers are also older, meaning they grew up in the age of vinyl, is not surprising. If this article is to be believed, once those old audiophiles pass on, we may end up with a new generation of audio fanatics who prefer compressed digital music. Is it just because their ears are used to the sound? Perhaps. Is it better or worse? That's impossible to answer. What if a producer takes a symphony and purposely jacks up the volume and adds a thundering bassline, then piles on some distortion. Is that inferior to the original? How is the clarity better than the distortion? Is No-Fi music by the Wavves inferior to the Rolling Stones?

The quest for perfection has no end because its baked into the concept. It's not that people would never be satisfied, it's because there is no end to even reach towards. It's people with lots of money grabbing out into an existential darkness, trying to find what they think they want.

A recording shouldn't even try to be like you're there. The way to do that is set up two microphones on either side of a mannequin's head, then place it somewhere in the studio. But then you'll get people complaining that the guitar is muffled, and the drums are too loud, and you can't really hear the singer of the piano. The last thing we would want is to be like we're there. I certainly don't. If I want that, I'll buy some live versions (which certainly have their own appeal). Otherwise, I want each instrument mic'd up to the hilt so I can hear something superior to the original product.

Fidelity means accuracy or exactness... and sexual faithfullness, but regardless, accuracy of what? How can something that at any stage is legitimate, be accurate? As an audiophile, the goal is to draw out as much as possible from the music. To hear it as the musician and producer heard it, because it's art. I want to know what the artist wanted me to know. They created an end product from a performance that, truly, does have details to be drawn out. But the refrain from audiophiles is that many high-end pieces of hardware aren't better or worse, they're "different," which is the most limp argument I've ever heard.

I don't want different. I don't want to turn my living room into a personal, electronic piece of art that reinterprets the music over and over again for ever-increasing amounts of money. I want to get as close to what the intent of the product was as possible, and then stop phutzing around. Anything beyond that, I think, damages the end product.

In this response to a Boing Boing article about Michael Fremer, a famous audiophile, Mr. Fremer points out how many audio engineers are serious audiophiles. And how many of them prefer vinyl because it sounds closer to the original tapes.

While I agree with the quest for fidelity to the original tapes, this isn't a good argument. What the original engineers and producers are saying is that it sounds closer to the original MASTER. Which of course they're going to like the most, they made it. They obviously liked it the most, or they would have made it different. When they say that they dislike the CD, they're saying they dislike the different master of the audio. Now I'm not saying there aren't large differences between CD's and records, but the bulk of the difference between versions is what audio engineer mastered the tapes.

Moreover, there's a big difference between an audio engineer and some general engineer. I would certainly expect audio engineers to be audiophiles. They are not engineers in the hardest sense.

As this article from Rolling Stone discusses, the primary cause of a drop in quality and fidelity in today's music has nothing to do with the medium on which its transferred, but the actual masters. It has to do with the art and not the canvas. In it, they specifically mention The Arctic Monkeys, which makes me happy. I bought the CD and had high quality FLAC files of their other works and it all sounded like crap. It was the master.

I am also not attacking audiophiles insofar as they are audiophiles. Trust me, they have a point. Music played on a $50,000 setup sounds fucking amazing. I myself have spent thousands on various audio setups through the years. I'm also not arguing the idea of diminishing returns, where fifty thousand dollars can get you 95% of the way there, but you need one hundred and fifty thousand dollars to get 96% of the way there. I'm arguing that returns stop at a certain point. As in, you can go no farther. All you can do is phutz around at the limit. It is there where things sound "different" and not "better." I find that silly. I have an entirely different goal as opposed to different or better. I want to achieve fidelity to what the producer originally heard. For example, Brian Wilson was deaf in one ear. He only ever worked in mono. As such, a stereo mix of Good Vibrations would be pointless. I want to hear what Wilson heard, because it is his art. I would even argue that I would want to hear the song through only one ear.

Sound weird? Yeah, a little. But I consider it better to have a strange end than have no end at all. The actual music is only part of the product. Every step of the way affects what I hear. The room, the instrument, the producer, and the medium. It is ALL part of the art.

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