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July 2017
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
If Everything Keeps On Improving, How Come Nothing Ever Gets Better?
Roger Skoff writes about an old saying.
Article By Roger Skoff

 

 

  There's an old French saying that "The more things change, the more they stay the same" (plus ็a change, plus c'est la m๊me chose). Although it seems to apply to almost everything, it seems particularly applicable to music and Hi-Fi.

I was introduced, once, to a guy named Al, who seemed to be militantly Luddite in his Hi-Fi tastes and preferences. You know the type – anything old is automatically better than anything new. That's why he, of course, preferred analog to digital; insisted that tubes were far superior to solid-state; and declared unflinchingly that anything at all made by Western Electric was automatically and incontrovertibly better than anything modern. Needless to say, he also believed horn speakers to be obviously better than any more recent design and —perhaps not so obviously – believed that monophonic sound was far superior to stereo, especially in terms of imaging, soundstaging, and ambience retrieval.

Although Al was certainly an extreme example, he's not alone in his beliefs: There are any number of other people out there who share, if not all, at least a good many of Al's preferences and will gleefully defend them against all comers.

Some of it is undoubtedly (and please remember that this is coming from me, a long-time self-styled Hi-Fi Crazy) just nuttiness, "wishful hearing", or audiophile retrophilia, but that still leaves a significant portion of it based in undeniable fact: Tube electronics, for example, can – at least when they're at peak performance -- certainly claim advantages over solid-state. Because, however, almost all tubes are almost always in the process of either getting better (burning-in) or getting worse (burning-out), tube devices, at least for me, don't have the stability of performance that I require in a long-term professional reference. Most solid state devices, on the other hand, once properly burned-in can be relied upon for years of unchanging trouble-free service. (If, on still another hand, however, Kevin Hayes' patented "Amplifier Bias Control" for VAC [Valve Amplification Company] really works as well as I've heard, the solid-state stability advantage may be a thing of the past).

 

 

Horns, although limited in other areas, absolutely do blow the doors off other speaker types in terms of sheer dynamics and output power per Watt of input. Analog does, certainly sound – to my ears and to many thousands or even millions of others – significantly more "right" than does digital, and, for low-level (quiet) signals, it can even be proven, both mathematically and by actual measurement, to have less distortion. And Western Electric had a pretty logo.

A great many of the things that have been touted to us as "improvements" and that may even have actually been better than their predecessor products in some way, have, however, not been better – except incidentally – in terms of the music they produce. CDs, for example, at least to many people's ears actually sounded pretty bad when they first came out in 1982 – despite their claim of "perfect sound forever". What really guaranteed their success was not so much their sound as that retailers could display far more CDs in far less space than LP records. In short, they were good money makers. Consumers liked them, too, because they were convenient and less hassle to play than vinyl. In short, they were improvements to things that both business and customers could like, even though they – at best – didn't, at least initially, fulfill their sonic claims.

It had been the same thing in the early 1960s, when transistors were first gaining popularity: both manufacturers and the buying public liked them – even though those first germanium transistors were "hissy" and not all that great-sounding – because they were small and cheap and allowed for small and cheap products that people wanted to buy. Can you imagine a shirt-pocket portable radio or a Walkman made without transistors? Even though it might have sounded better with tubes, could you really have carried it around with you? And could you have afforded it, even if that were so?

That was discreet transistors, of course, in the beginning, but then along came integrated circuits, which, once again allowed for smaller and cheaper products that everybody liked for their price and their convenience, but – again, at least in the beginning – not necessarily for their exemplary sonics.

Changes have also happened in the way our music is recorded: No, not just the facts that recording has gone from, originally, mono direct-to-disc, to mono tape, to stereo tape, and seems now to be back to where direct-to-disc (but in stereo) is again being touted by many as "the State Of The Art". Not because mic'ing, too – at least for "audiophile" recordings – has gone through its own cycle of changes. Editing has also changed in the process -- from "not possible" (for direct-to-disc), to a mechanical process of either cutting and pasting snippets of tape (Does anybody still remember the EdiTall block?) or using two or more machines to do a sound-on-sound edit equivalent (either of which was limited by the skill and precision of the editor, and was still more an art or a craft than a science), to modern editing in the digital domain (where absolute precision is commonplace, but art and talent still reign), to, once again, direct-to-disc and no editing at all.

And why is editing a good thing? Certainly it can be used to piece together more artistically perfect performances, but, on the whole, it seems more likely to be there to save money by fixing, instead of having to throw away, otherwise perfect "takes". Even for stereo recording, the process has changed. Going from just two channels and everything recorded either live or by a sound-on-sound process to, at first, three channels, so a vocalist or other solo performer could be recorded separately from the rest of the players, to, taking advantage of the opportunity that presented, recording, first the soloist and eventually, all of the performing sections separately – even at different times or places – on as many as 64 channels (two "ganged" 32 channel machines) became the norm for pop music or other "studio" recordings, and left the old two or three-channel techniques as a curiosity or for classical music recording.

 

 

The original purpose for all those additional channels ('tracks") had to do, not with the music or the sound, but with cost control: It's far cheaper (and safer) to record everything separately and be able to fix or replace one track at a time than it is to have everybody all together in the same place at the same time, ticking away at whatever union or studio hourly or contract rate, and have a cough, an instrumental "clam", or a mic or machine failure, ruin or require fixing an entire "take" for the whole group.

That new type of recording also ushered-in another new phenomenon: the Mastering Engineer. And what's that? Well, once you've got all those separate tracks, you've got to put them together, add whatever equalization, reverb and other effects may be necessary, and set the levels so everything has the "right" balance and presentation. Maybe one could argue that that's about the music, but to me it just seems to be a least costly solution to the problems created by taking advantage of the economic benefits of multi-track recording.

 

 

From its earliest and most primitive beginnings, audio seems to have been a search for advantage; Sometimes, as with the progression from wax cylinders to stereo and from the least to the most sophisticated gear – both for recording and playback -- real sonic advantage and higher fidelity to the original performance must certainly have been the goal and, to whatever degree, the thing achieved. Much of the rest of the time, though, the purpose seems to have had little if anything to do with either the music or the sound, but with cost, size, ease of manufacture, portability (as with the current boom in personal listening gear) convenience and ubiquity (as with streaming audio, for example), ease of use, or other things not directly related to either the sound or the music.

That's just fine with me. I like low cost and convenience and ease of use and all the rest of it, just as I like great sound and a great performance of a great score. Most of all, though – and this will never change – I like to put on my favorite disc, turn on the system, sit back, close my eyes, and...

 

Enjoy the music.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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