Playing It Softly

The event that we held in our demo room at the recent AXPONA show in Chicago was a first…and very informative. Unfortunately, the number of bloggers or press that bothered to attend was disappointingly low. I know there are lots of rooms to visit and experience, but I can’t help but feel that audio writers are not actually that interested in new and innovative approaches to audio recording and reproduction. They’re comfortable writing about two channel rooms equipped with turntables, tubes and thick cables.

And it’s especially troubling to see a prominent editor of one of the biggest audiophile trade publications come to the session, get a drink ticket, stand at the bar, get a drink and then immediately exit the room before the demonstration started!

But for those that were present, it was a tremendous success and clearly demonstrated that a properly made high-resolution recording can compete with a live performance…at least within the parameters that we established. Chief among them was the choice to play the recorded audio at the same level as the live performer, which was reasonably quiet.

If you’ve ever visited an audio trade show or experienced a demo in a hifi shop, the presenter will usually play their systems loud. The basic rule of thumb is that anything sounds better when it’s played loud. Forget about the subtle details captured in a good recording, if it’s louder it’s better. And I must admit that when I played the Respighi “Pines of Rome” last movement, I cranked up the volume to match the actual or approximate level of the orchestra as experienced by the conductor on his podium. It was very exciting.

But John Gorka and Antje Duvekot stood in from of the assembled group in the Madison ballroom and performed without a PA system. The entire experience did not involve technology of any kind…how rare is that? It’s like those times when a musician that you know picks up a guitar and plays a song at a party or at the beach. It’s pure music. A great song, a guitar and an expressive voice can deliver a great musical experience (I’ve also heard lots of terrible performances…so talent has a lot to do with it!).

When they finished a couple of tunes, they stepped aside. I navigated to the same tracks on the Blu-ray disc that we recorded with John about 7 years ago and hit the play button. And I set the volume of the Bryston SP-3 preamplifier lower than any at any time during the previous day. It was glorious. The room reflections were no longer a factor and everyone present had to listen carefully…just as they had when John was performing live.

The comparison worked because the volume as low as it was. A couple of individuals suggested that it would have been a better comparison if I had provided them with microphones and amplified the sound. I disagree. That would have been a very different comparison. My concept was to see if a recording could stand eye to eye with an acoustic performance. I think everyone in attendance would agree that a well-done recording COULD deliver an experience that is virtually identical to a live acoustic presentation. Would it work with a rock band or a Hip Hop artist? Probably not.

Dynamic range is one of the most critical aspects to music and reproduced music. If every piece of music played in the demonstration rooms at the AXPONA was played loud to be impressive, how are we supposed to be able to detect musical subtleties and “low level details”?

The lesson I learned while at the AXPONA show was to turn the volume down. But I think I was pretty much the only one that did…all the rooms I visited had the volume turned up to 11.


Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

3 thoughts on “Playing It Softly

  • Joe Whip

    Personally, I have just about given up on high end journalists, who seem want their you know what kissed all the time and get their hands on as much free stuff as they can. Not all, just too many. I still read the mags but mostly for news, not their insights as to what sounds good. a clue, the more money it costs, the better it sounds. Looking forward to watching you with Scott Mark once I get back from CA.

  • Dave Griffin

    I would really have liked to have been in one of those acoustic vs hi-fi sessions. I listen to live music every weekend, and try to avoid the PA, ie I stand right beside the stage (often being mistaken for a groupie or member of the band coterie). Even listening through planar headphones and using a high end headphone amp and medium to high end DACs, it’s still easy to differentiate between the real and the reproduced. The differences between real and reproduced, in my opinion, are in the subtitles of timing and dynamic range.

    Of course the quality of the recording is paramount, but I have very good quality live acoustic recordings (available from AudioCirce, if you ask nicely), but there is still a difference.

    Is there a chance you may be bringing your demos to the UK; if not I may come to the US as I am curious when someone says they can electronically reproduce live music.

    • David, This was probably a one time thing…and of course, there were differences. But they were not as obvious as you might expect. Did any readers visit the room for this shoot out?


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