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The Absolute Sound

From The Editor...
June / July 2002
By Robert Harley

  The downturn in the economy has fostered a most unexpected consequence—a renaissance in classical-music recording quality. Why would an economic slowdown result in better-sounding classical records?

The answer, ironically, is that to cut production costs classical labels have returned to much simpler recording techniques. Where labels once used 48-track digital machines, massive consoles, and more than a dozen microphones, they now employ just two mikes, with perhaps a spot pair to highlight certain instruments or sections.

The unintended result is that today’s classical recordings from the major labels sound vastly better than they did just five years ago. in the liner notes to a recording of a prominent artist, the engineers of one major label even explained how surprised they were to discover that their coincident microphone technique produced a more realistic sound than their previous multi-miking approach. You’d think they would have figured that out long ago.

This pleasant turn of events is the mirror image of what happened during the late 1960s. In the 1940s and ‘50s, musicians were recorded with an all-tube signal path, as few microphones as possible, and little or no electronic gadgetry. Then came the transistor; and its unwelcome cousin the operational amplifier. Recording-equipment designers gave engineers staggering control capabilities with these tiny op-amps; signal paths with as many as 80 such devices were not unusual. The result was a “Dark Ages” of recording that began in earnest in the early l970s.

This step backward in recording quality was thrown into sharp relief for me during a visit by my brother, who’s a composer/performer and a music lover, but not an audiophile. He’d brought some CDs to listen to on my reference playback system, but after auditioning a few of his discs (all of which were recorded between 1975 and 1990), he grew disgusted with the lousy sound. He’d never realized these recordings were poorly recorded until my high-resolution system revealed just how bad they were. In fact, he was convinced that my system was the culprit. Then I put on Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West (recorded in 1957 and remastered on JVC XRCD). and his jaw dropped. What had been a procession of flat, hard, bright, compressed, and utterly inexpressive recordings gave way to a palpable sense of Rollins’ tenor in my listening room—the feeling of air moving through his instrument, of the positions of the other musicians, of the real space in which the music was being performed. We were captivated by the way Rollins explored melodies and harmonies, in a fascinating journey of discovery that epitomizes why jazz is such a great art form. The recording—and the playback system—did what it was supposed to do: convey the musicians’ expression.

There’s something to be learned from all of this besides the decline and resurrection of recording technique and technology over the past 50 years. And that’s the effect of what happens at the microphone on what you hear at home. If it’s not right at the microphone, it can never be right at your loudspeakers. Following this train of thought, we as music lovers and audiophiles should be more concerned about fundamental differences in recording technique than, for example, whether SACD or DVD-Audio delivers better performance. They both have the potential to sound vastly better than CD, but given the choice between a poor recording on SACD or DVD-A and a great recording played back on CD, I’ll take the great recording any day.


  Robert Harley



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