There is something absolutely entrancing about the sound of a fine instrument in the hands of a talented musician. One of the reasons that I love to record in Zipper Auditorium at the Colburn School for Performing Arts is the quality of sound that is produced by their Steinway Model D 9-foot grand piano. Sitting at that instrument and simply playing a few chords brings forth a rich and complex combination of interacting pitches, harmonics, and sympathetic resonances that can literally overwhelm this listener.
The same holds true when Laurence Juber plays a few notes on his DADGAD tuned, signature series Martin guitars. There is magic in the tones even before they are crafted into a composition and realized for an audience. If the experience of listening to music were only about receiving a sequence of notes played in structured rhythms at varying loudness levels, then we wouldn’t bother with the differences between a Stradivarius violin and a cheap copy. And we wouldn’t have to concern ourselves with the subtle “enhancements” attributed to audiophile tweaks or even the path signals take through our systems when we listen to music.
Hearing music is a delicate balance between the composition, the performance, the instrumental color, the acoustic space, your proximity to the sound, and the ambient sound around you…if you’re at a live event. If you listen to a recording, then there are lots of other things that impact the experience including, the microphones, the preamps, the recording format (lacquer, vinyl, analog tape, standard definition digital, high-res digital, PCM, DSD, and the entire signal path from the source.
Some musicians and music fans think that the realization of a musical composition need only deliver the notes as written on the printed page. The composition exists independently of the actual performance. The intellectual and emotional stimulation provided by a Bach fugue can even be accomplished regardless of who’s playing it. The “Art of Fugue”, Bach’s ultimate expression of contrapuntal music, lacks any indication of the instruments that should play each of the 4 lines. I’ve heard recordings of that work played on an organ, by a string quartet, saxophone quartet, electronic synthesizer, and even a kazoo band! The piece is always present but I prefer certain instrumental versions to others.
Maybe the actual quality of the sound is secondary to the composition?
It’s not that way for me. As much as I love Bach’s counterpoint, hearing only the notes is insufficient to deliver the full impact of his genius. Hearing Bach performed on a glorious pipe organ by a terrific player elevates the music experience. And if that same performance is captured in a great recording and reproduced through a great playback system, then the overall musical experience is better. After all, isn’t that why we’re all so passionate about music and the reproduction of music?
I know it’s why I’m so fussy about the process of recording music. The sound of a recording is a major component of my listening pleasure. In fact, I would rather listen to a great sounding recording of a good performance than a poor recording of a great performance (Tomorrow, I’ll be writing about the Elvis acetate coming out on Record Store Day…with all of the clicks and pops left in!). I know that may sound idiotic and of course, I’m not going to sit through a hack performance but I would rather hear my recordings of the “Bolero” or “The Pines of Rome” in high-resolution, “stage” perspective surround than sit through the best stereo vinyl LP of those works by the Berlin Philharmonic. The lack of details, the compromised low end, the flatness of the stereo mix, and the lack of “presence” in the tracks are unforgiveable compromises that destroy the presentation.
Give me a great piece of music, a great performance, great instruments, and a great high-resolution, immersive surround mix and I’m happy.