Paul Carmody's Audio Manifesto

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What type of music do you listen to?

Seriously, list it out. Don't be ashamed; no one's judging you. Music is art, and taste in music is completely subjective and is pretty much guaranteed to vary from person to person. Do we all listen to Diana Krall's "Live in Paris" and Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms" and the Telarc recording of "The 1812 Overture"? No? Then why do audiophiles spend so much time and money in making those particular recordings sound perfect?

Shouldn't the purpose of investing time and money into fancy sound equipment enhance your enjoyment of your favorite music? Shouldn't it make you feel like you are immersed in your favorite recordings, whether by covering the entire audible spectrum, bringing out details you'd never heard before, or even just by playing the music especially loud? You already love the music, the equipment is just there to get you "closer" to it.

At least, that makes sense to me.

What doesn't make sense to me are audiophiles raving about the "superb dynamics" and "precise imaging" on a recording of some acoustic performance that they pretty much only listen to when auditioning a system because it "really puts a system to the test." What about the music they normally enjoy? What's wrong with that? That's when audiophiles get all grumbly, and complain that modern recordings are s--t and use terrible recording and mastering techniques. Well if that's so, then why do we still like music that's "recorded all wrong"? And who says it's wrong, anyway?

Recorded music is a very modern phenomenon, when you think about it. It's only been around for about 100 years, and the ways we have used it have evolved quickly over that time. And as recording itself evolved, so has our music! In case that wasn't clear, I'll repeat it: our music has changed due to recording.

Originally, sound was recorded straight from the source; you placed all the performers in a room with a microphone and everything was permanent. If a performer made a mistake, you either left it in or the group had to start the song over. This, of course, is an audiophile's utopia. It's as close as one could think of getting to a real, genuine performance.

But even with such primitive recordings, recording engineers started figuring out ways to edit performances. An act as simple as using a razor blade and tape to splice a mistake out of a recording became an art, and even recordings of highly-respected ensembles were using it. Already, at this early stage, a recording was no longer a true performance, but a sort of "super performance," devoid of mistakes.

Then in the 1950's, Les Paul began experimenting with synchronizing tape recording machines to record multiple performances on top of one another. This was the birth of multitrack recording, and this changed everything. Now, performers no longer had to be in the same room, building, or even country as the other performers. One performer could record performances of himself playing every instrument, simulating the sound of a full ensemble. And most importantly to the performers, if one did not like his performance on a song--or a section of a song--he could re-record it without affecting the sound of the other instruments.

Meanwhile during the 20th century, people were listening to less and less classical music, or folk music for that matter. We could speculate all day as to why this happened, however it needs to be noted that since Les Paul's invention, "popular music" was, by and large, recorded using multitracking. In case it isn't obvious at this point, this means that the job of the "conductor" had moved into the hands of the mix engineer. Instead of using hand gestures to cue performers and change dynamic levels as a traditional conductor, he was using faders and "punch-ins." In addition, the mix engineer could completely change the timbre of any and all sounds in the mix using EQ and various outboard gear (compression, chorus, flange, delay, gate, vibrato, ring modulation, pitch-shifting, and so on). And as if that wasn't enough, mix engineers figured out how to simulate the sound of a performance in almost any size room using reverb (first using analog techniques, such as a metal plate, mic'ing the recording in an empty room, and eventually using digital synthesis).

Could we still call these "artificial" productions music? Why not? It still used the normal scales and harmonies and rhythmic subdivisions of music of the past 300 years. What was changing was that the performances were more perfect, the mix engineer was now the conductor, and the performance hall was whatever place the music was being played back, be it a radio in car, a living room hifi, or a jukebox at a bar.

This is music now. As long most of us have been alive, these techniques have been used on pretty much every recording we hear. And seeing that there's still something magical and ephemeral to music that draws us to it, we've adapted to hearing it this way. No, it's not the same as a live performance--and I still believe that the true test of most any musician or group of musicians is whether or not they can pull off something that sounds as good (hopefully better) than their recordings in a live performance. But even though recorded music is not a live performance, I argue that it is a performance in and of itself, just as a movie is not a stage play, but still tells a story using actors, scripts, sets, lighting, direction, and music.

This is where the job of your stereo equipment comes into play. Musicians and recording engineers spend countless hours at a mixing console listening, adjusting, reviewing, and adjusting again in order to get a mix that sounds right to them. So really, if you think about it, our playback equipment would be at its best if it were reproducing the mix they heard in the studio. In reality, however, your equipment can do even more. You can use your equipment to listen to the recordings in ways the performers and engineers never thought of (or wished they'd thought of). And if that makes the music more enjoyable to you, then that's terrific! Music is here to make our lives more enjoyable!

And the truth is, most of us spend most of our listening time enjoying CDs that are produced, and perhaps even over-produced. So why do so many audiophiles pour so much time and money trying to re-create a particular recording in a concert hall if that's not really the music they listen to the vast majority of the time? If they really love the sound of a particular classical piece, they owe it to themselves to go hear a live ensemble play it; I've yet to hear a recording and sound system that sounded or felt anything like a live wind band or orchestra.

I'm not ashamed to admit it. Even though I am a performing musician, I grew up on recorded music. And yes, it has EQ, and overdubs, and fancy effects, and is nowhere near a "real" performance. But it is still a performance in itself--it is still art--and listening to it can drastically affect my emotions. So if I design a speaker, I will treat its sound as an art also. If you are looking for speakers with razor-flat response and complete absence from distortion, you may want to look elsewhere. Because it's one thing to listen to a speaker (or look at its graphs), stroke your chin and say, "Hmm. That system has really low non-linear distortion." It's another thing altogether to hear a speaker that takes recorded music and plays it in such a way that you grin from ear to ear, and makes you want to jump up out of your chair and say, "That's awesome!"

That isn't to discredit all the necessary knowledge in acoustics, electronics, and algebra one must understand and use to design a loudspeaker. To believe that one could even design a speaker without these scientific and mathematical concepts is very ignorant. (Although I was "ignorant" myself, many years ago, I admit it.)

The science of speaker design is only half the battle, in my opinion; the other half is art. And taste in art is subjective. Since I treat my speaker designs as compositions, I don't expect everyone to like them. I do, however, believe that more people will prefer my designs to something that's textbook perfect because I design with a musical ear. What I mean by that is that I have been playing live music with groups and ensembles of all shapes and genres for 2/3 of my life, and I still do on a weekly basis; so I know what live music sounds like. I also know what sorts of musical sounds people tend to find pleasing and displeasing. That is what matters to me. If a speaker measures perfectly but doesn't sound "right," I believe you'll have a hard time getting people to want to buy, build, or listen to it.

So in the end, I can't hope to win over any scientists and engineers with numbers and graphs; I confident, however that I can give your ears (and maybe your heart) something they will truly enjoy listening to.

“Beauty must appeal to the senses, must provide us with immediate enjoyment, must impress us or insinuate itself into us without any effort on our part." -Claude Debussy

or, more succinctly: "If it sounds good, it is good." -Duke Ellington

(c) 2009 by Paul Carmody