Audio, Etc. (Oct. 1977)

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Some of our readers would like more audio in our record reviews.

Predictably, that sets me off. I'm all for it-but with reservations, which I can put in very few words. In 99 percent of published recordings audio is but a part of the whole and not necessarily the primary intent. And there are also many aspects of audio.

I don't care whether a record is a disc or a tape, a classic, or jazz, pop, corn, even a sound effect-like the superbly artistic steam railroad recordings of the 1960s-every published recording embodies a composite of intentions, representing different sub-disciplines in the recording art and often enough, many different people, including the performers (or the synthesizer operators). Everybody is there to plug his own interest and specialty in the recording process. And yet in the final product all their efforts are frozen together into one result, in the singular--THE record. Inseparable-you get one aspect, you get them all.

That's what a record is.

Of course you can write about the separate aspects, the various intentions, one at a time. They are there, and they are good or bad, work together or swear at each other, depending. But you cannot forget that each element depends on the others, and the whole, the sum, is what counts-because that is the idea in the first place. Even a purely "audio" recording--short of a test record--must have some audio signal to work on, and the better the software, the more effective the audio.

I don't count the true test record as among normal published recordings.

It is a basic audio tool, extremely useful, but it is not a record in the usual sense, which means a recording meant for listening. Listening pain, listening pleasure, listening boredom, you name it! But listening is the name of the recording game.

Phew-a hi-fi sine wave! How interesting to hear. That ubiquitous 1-kHz tone. Or those dreadful warbles and howls they use to set up CD-4 balances and adjustments. Some listening! Fine tool, if you can take the sonics. And how about those ultra clean supersonics? Fine, too, if you enjoy meter listening. You'll remember that CBS Labs launched its line of direct-to-disc test records a good many years back and since then they have sold a comfortable number of these tools but, I suspect, have acquired remarkably few listeners, even though the CBS fi is astonishingly hi.

Really, we do NOT want to listen to pure fi, minus anything else! It bores us to death. Even when useful. This just isn't what we mean by recording.

What we often call a "hi-fi test record" is an altogether different thing, though occasionally useful as a tool. It is for listening, even if the auditor fancies he is hearing pure fi and not, say, music. Wrong! He hears the fi because the music is there and well chosen, if all too often in bits and pieces. Like all recordings, these "test discs" (and tapes) represent the telltale composite of interest and intentions which the true nature of the published record of every kind. Different aspects working or NOT working together.

Evaluating Records

So when we evaluate a recording, we have three aims, as I see it. First, we must be aware of the sum, the whole, the end result in all its aspects, whether musical or audio. Second, we should know what the record as a whole thinks it is doing-what are its aims, and whether it hits its apparent target, or whatever. Third, we must write not for one special group of listeners-even in our magazine--but far we can for all who might be variously interested. With priorities, depending, from one type of record to another and one reviewer to the next. And this because on the far side of the playback stylus and the magnetic head we have a sort of mirror image of the recording studio.

Many different listening interests, and highly trained ears to match.

Our best reviews, I think, are those which "get over the message" even to people who disagree, or who are negatively interested in some particular aspect. You want to find out what so-and-so record is like? So you read Canby, he says it's good and you know instantly that it's not for you.

OK-that's one you don't have to bother about. Useful info. Neither one of us is flatly wrong, we are just interested in different things.

There are so many subdivisions! Recording (for listening) combines two major arts plus a technology, the audio chain from start to finish. Two arts? One, of course, is the art of music, enormous in its scope; history, and present activity. The other is the art of recording, now also enormous in its complexity and subtlety, from the most straight-forwardly beautiful ambience techniques for classical music-mikes, balance, acoustic surround-through all the immense complications of pop mix-down and synthetics. And the one science, audio, makes the whole thing go. Talk of composites! Each of these vast areas is full of different specialties and different people pushing their own, towards that one final end result.

Wonder there aren't a million cat and-dog fights in every studio. There are a few. And a lot of bad records.

Most are due to lack of knowledge and/or skill in one or more departments; but many more simply represent internal warfare. The music at cross purposes with the mike setting and balance. The audio fighting the music it is supposed to represent. The musicians ignoring the necessities of the medium, or failing to take advantage of its special virtues. They will do that. The producers caught somewhere in between.

STOP, yells Audio through his squawk box. You're ruining my signal--I can't take that much dynamic range. I'm going to compress.

NO, SIR, says Producer, not at the expense of our music you won't! Well then, says Audio, tell 'em to play softer.

WHAT? Desecrate our sacred art? say the musicians, overhearing.

Never! (But they often do, resignedly, even so.) Too much bass, says Audio. Not enough piccolo, says Producer. I can't hear the violins, says Cello. What, not that same passage AGAIN? says conductor, to himself, of course, smiling cooperatively. By that time the musicians just look sodden. They're getting paid.

STOP! Right in the middle of a climax. That's the Musician in charge.

Break. You CAN'T stop the music right there, we'll have to do it all over, says Producer, inaudibly to self. Oh yes, you can, says Musician. And so they do. Everybody has his rights, after all.

Direct Disc Dilemma

Let's go direct-to-disc, says the Exec. NO! shrieks the Producer, whose life depends on the re-take, whose art, nurtured over a quarter century and more, is about to be junked. YES! shout the buyers out there, the listeners-some of them. More fi in the music! Isn't that what we want? NO! shout a few listeners and a lot of studio men. Not, please, at the expense of recording flexibility. For a tiny bit of sonic improvement you want us to go through all that jazz, no repeats, no mistakes, no coughs, "live" band separations in real time, the perfect performance every time, LP-long-and, of course, the perfect disc cut? Phew-it's more than human beings can stand. Musicians and technicians alike.

That is, unless that is the aim of a given recording, and people really feel it is worth the effort. If so-fine. A lot of buyers (not having gone through the agony) are avid for the stuff. It sounds good, very good. The musicians, also, can rise to the occasion and do their sweating best. But this is a very limited medium, however you look at it, and I don't think anyone expects it to supercede the conventional tapings. Keep improving the tape, I say.

Incidentally, speaking of reviews, you will note that Bert Whyte thought the first Umbrella direct-to-disc was technically superb, but he didn't much like the music. I thought it was technically superb but I did like the music. OK? You take it from there.

But remember those subdivisions. If you like big bass, stay away from Umbrella II. It just isn't that kind of music.

No thump, no bang-bang. Just super fi in the upperworks.

To sum up direct-to-disc, just think figuratively. In the old days, that system required musicians (and technicians), so to speak, to hold their breaths a maximum of four minutes.

Now, everybody holds his breath for up to a half hour and can you imagine the strain of those last five minutes, when the goal is ALMOST achieved and one single, tiny fault ruins the whole shebang? No, this is for heroes only! We do have them, I'll have to admit.

Sound Reviews

So you want more audio in our record reviews. OK, you understand what we are up against. All those different aspects, and so many records for so little space! We all of us have to economize, in every magazine. Have to use best judgment as to which element to plug at the expense of most of the others. We mustn't get too carried away by our own specialties, and thus forget the guy whose ears are mainly tuned to record scratch, or to fi in the bottom regions, as above, or cleanliness in the upper. But if we continue to think composite-not only what's there or isn't there but how each aspect affects the others we'll come out with useful evaluations for all concerned. Except for the test record, the test tool, the composite review is the only one that makes sense at all. It simply reflects reality.

Yeah. I was going to add two or three typical reviews, specific examples from my own department, to round out these observations. On second thought, I think I'll put them back where they belong. So I have only one more pertinent thought to purvey. In record reviews, a complete listing of ALL the separate factors, for each record, is a literary no-no. Bore you stiff. Too many music minded reviewers put down such essentially useless terms as "recording: satisfactory," over and over again. To me, that just sounds snippy. The readers deserve better.

Better, I have long since decided, is to assume a lot, save space, and take it for granted that you get the idea: if the record is technically average in its audio-that is, OK for the music, perfectly good and useful, up to normal standards, acceptable though not especially stunning, easily hi fi but not superbly super fi, adequately balanced but nothing unusual to write home about good or bad, if the dynamics are normal, not too high, not too low, the surfaces at least moderately silent, if the thing is minus noticeable warps and woofs and flutters and groove-jumps, lacking bubbles, gouges, swishes, reasonably cut and cleanish in the peaks, clear in the valleys, sharp in the transients, and so on etc.-then I just say nothing. And go on to discuss the music, which is the primary message on most discs.

That is the situation a lot of the time. And do we save space! How many times do you want me to write "recording: satisfactory"?

(Source: Audio magazine, Oct. 1977; Edward Tatnall Canby )

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