Welcome again to our bimonthly meeting. I know it has been monthly for the past five years now, but due to an increased workload in my primary profession I've had to decrease the frequency. It was a choice between lowering my time spent enjoying my system and writing this column, and guess what won out. Anyway, the month off has given me several topics to discuss.
First, you'll remember that I brought up an observation last article that my system seemed to sound much better in the middle of a snow storm a couple of months ago. Well, I received several letters from readers with comments aplenty, which is heartening as I sometimes wonder whether anybody reads my columns. On the other hand, one discussed my proclivities to possible psychological problems, and another discussed how lucky we are in America to have perfect AC power. Not one of them suggested that indeed the filthy power entering our homes may be one of the major causes of the variability of the sound quality of our audio and video systems, and that meteorological phenomena may affect it. Also, not one even thought of experimenting to see if I had a viable proposition. They're probably the same individuals that feel all amplifiers and wire sound the same, but have never compared them.
Happily, since then, we've had three more large snow storms in New Hampshire, all beginning in the afternoon, with 6 to 12 inches dropped during the late evening to night, and each producing the same "quieting" effect on my system. By that I mean a decrease in the electrical noise that comes across as an elevation of the noise floor and subtle distortions of the sound. Maybe I'm hearing things, but I do wish somebody else from the North would at least evaluate my finding, and possibly come up with an explanation why snow, but not rain has this positive effect. The effect also extends to video, as the picture off my Electrohome 9500LC projector onto a 10 foot diagonal screen also looked superb on those evenings.
If you think this is voodoo stuff, wait till my next column. Hint: Its a device that supposedly improves digital sound without directly contacting the player or CD.
Two weeks ago, after being tempted by a web site that offered a reduced rate on a new hotel, I finally took a weekend off and the wife and I went down to Boston for an overnight. This is my annual visit to Symphony Hall for a Boston Symphony concert. They played two pieces, De Falla's Master Peter's Puppet Show and Strauss' Don Quixote with Fruhbeck de Burgos conducting. Steven Isserliss was playing cello and Steven Ansell the viola.
As I called two days before the concert, there weren't many seats available, but there were two in the second row of the floor dead center directly under the conductor. While having played French horn in several orchestras in my youth, including one concert in Symphony Hall with the Boston Youth Orchestra, the sound in the back of the orchestra is completely different from sitting directly in front of them. This is the closest I've ever sat to a full symphony orchestra, as in my youth I would be up in the second balcony in the cheap seats where 90 percent of the sound is reflected rather than direct. Over the years I graduated to the expensive middle of hall area where the sound is balanced between the direct and reflected. I must say sitting so close to the orchestra certainly gives a completely different sound compared to mid or back hall, and really is the "absolute sound" that one needs to compare to recordings as that's where most microphones are.
I'd say that 95 percent of the sound was directly from the orchestra, with minimal reinforcement from the hall. The difference was educational for an audiophile and previous horn player. The first thing I noticed was that I was almost directly under the main two of some 10 microphones used at Symphony Hall, probably about equally below the orchestra as the microphones were above. The second was that most of the orchestra had fine tuxedo's, but very unpolished shoes. Third, like many other conductors including Bernstein, De Burgos can't be much over 5'2" (although like most conductors, while conducting, looks 6 feet tall from the back of the hall).
Be that as it may, these seats were actually ideal for this concert as the Don Quixote is actually a double concerto for viola and cello and my perspective would match what is usually recorded. Also, the orchestra was pushed to the left of the stage for the DeFalla so that they could do a puppet show on the right as the piece was based on Don Quixote's visit to one. This gave me several insights and I now understand some of the quirks of orchestral recordings.
Thus all of the attributes we ascribe to high-end audio systems and digital may only be secondary to our system's being able to reproduce what the microphone is actually hearing from its position above the conductor compared to where the vast majority of persons sit in the concert hall. As an audiophile, try sitting in the center of the first two or three rows of a live unamplified concert and see what I mean. You'll feel like you're in your home listening seat. This also has the advantage that these usually are the least expensive seats on the floor, which saves funds for further audiophile purchases.
During the intermission, I went to the Symphony Store to evaluate their CD collection and was rather disappointed. While they had just about every CD produced by the BSO and Pops, and a couple of DVD-Videos, there wasn't one SACD or DVD-Audio. Even worse, the help persons didn't even know what I was talking about. Also, the BSO has 75 years at least of concert recordings that are sitting in their vaults. Why haven't they gotten smart enough to release them? There was one set of 10 CD's of their concert recordings, with one piece each by the various conductors, and that was it. It would only cost them for the transcription and disc reproduction. They'd make a fortune if they did.
In addition, there wasn't one recent BSO recording. American orchestras have priced themselves out of the recording business, except for Atlanta with Telarc, and San Francisco with their own house label doing some great Mahler live concerts with Tillson-Thomas. The London Symphony began this trend several years ago, releasing CD's from their regular concert schedule. They have also started releasing them on 5.1 SACDs and I have several on order and will let you know how they sound. Maybe I'm asking too much of the American orchestras. Most if not all are in financial difficulties, as ticket sales don't come close to the costs associated with the performance even at $60 to $120 each. While this Friday afternoon performance was pretty full, I've been to other BSO concerts that were 1/3rd empty in a hall holding 2000 people in a city with suburbs totaling 1 million plus persons. As a kid, I remember having to stand in line Friday mornings for the 200 rush seats available as all regular tickets were sold out. At $2 each they were a steal. The Red Sox and Pats sell all 30,000 to 40,000 seats for each game.
The cause is the lack of classical music training in the public schools these days. Many schools have dropped the bottom out of their music programs while keeping the sports programs well funded. Then, the average person these days doesn't even listen to any live unamplified music, with the musicians relying on amplification to get their puny voices out above the din of their electric guitars, when they're not lip-syncing.
This was brought home to me while waiting for a subway train after the concert. An elderly well dressed woman was standing next to me with her 30 something son, and were having a conversation about the concert. They were probably sitting toward the back of the hall, as he was complaining that he couldn't hear the cello and viola stand out against the orchestra in the Don Quixote. He suggested, and not in jest, that they should have put microphones on the solo instruments and played them through loudspeakers spread throughout the hall. This was a fairly intelligent, well-dressed seemingly well-educated individual. No wonder most American recording labels have practically dumped classical recording. Can we, as audiophiles, do something to reverse the downward trend for great music (be it classical, jazz, folk, etc.)? Yes!
First support your local public schools. I have donated my old French Horn and close to a thousand records and CD's to my town's library and high school, a couple of air conditioners to a local music hall, and some stereo equipment to the local grammar school. I'm sure each of us has large collections of recordings, of which many will never be played again. Open up some space in your music room and donate them to a worthy cause.
Second, go to the annual budget hearings and town meetings and fight for music education. Every time a sports program is going to be cut, the yahoos come out in droves to demand their continuation. This never happens when the local music program is being cut.
Third, go to local amateur and school music programs and suffer a little bit for the arts. The kids may not be of a professional level, but you'll be sometimes surprised at the talent. If you have the equipment, volunteer to record the program and maybe make up some CD's to give to the artists. You'll gain some engineering experience, they'll get some idea of how they sound, and you may even get into the concert for free.
A simple digital audiotape machine or computer with good sound card or even a CD or DVD recorder with a set of microphones will do the trick. I use a pair of over-the-ear microphones that attach to my glasses with a DAT machine, which are also perfect for surreptitious recordings and produce excellent binaural recordings. One could also use a home theater computer with an eight input sound card to do 8-track surround recording if one desires. Except for the microphone I bet most of us are already set up to do this. You'll be surprised how good they'll sound after a few tries. I have a few of various professional groups, which will go nameless for now, that I'd put up against many of the professionally recorded CD's.