I keep coming back to the same question whenever I start thinking about music reproduction. If something sounds good, then is it good? No, this isn’t a philosophical test of some kind. It is really the core of the audiophile addiction. If you’re sitting down and listening to a great song played through a great system and reveling in the music, does it really matter what the specifications are? Isn’t it more about the ability of the singer, the band, the fidelity, the emotional and/or intellectual connection we make with that particular piece of music in that particular moment what’s important? Of course it is.
Recently, I heard a recording of a live concert of Joni Mitchell that an engineer friend of mine had recorded way back in the 1970s. While I’m not usually a fan of live concerts, this one was just incredible! Joni Mitchell could captivate and hold an entire audience with just her voice, her songs accompanied by a dulcimer, acoustic guitar or piano. Amazing! I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan and saw a couple of her shows from that era. This was the time of her fourth album “Blue”. It was the soundtrack of my life at the time and was carried me alternately up and down. My desert island list of favorite albums definitely includes this one!
The recording that Ken made was done straight to 2-channel analog tape. No fancy post production or even mild tweaking…he supplied a straight transfer in standard definition PCM digital. The sound was wonderful. It was warm and balanced. Her vocals were clear and dynamic. And the instruments properly place in the mix and level. As you might expect, listening to that concert was not a background activity. It took over the 90 minutes that it lasted and nothing else could distract me. Imagine listening to music as the primary activity…not so much these days.
As wonderful as that recording is, could it be better if it was captured with today’s equipment? Would better mikes, better preamps, state-of-the-art ADCs and DACs, HD PCM digital recording and reproduction, 5.1 surround sound and the best speakers enhance the experience. As a recording engineer and producer of projects just like this (check out Lisbeth Scott or John Gorka on AIX Records), I would have to say yes…especially for the music of talented singer/songwriters.
A real HD-Audio recording of Joni Mitchell would have reduced levels of noise, much wider dynamic range for vocals and instruments, a more focused and crisper high end for the acoustic guitar and piano and a sound that would more closely represent the actual sound coming into the microphones. If I was engineering a live project of Joni, I would use a Brauner VM-1 condenser microphone and a stereo pairs of mikes for the guitar and dulcimer. For the piano, I would place two stereo pairs close to the harp of the instrument. It would be necessary to capture the sound of the hall as well. A couple of Sennheiser or B&K omnis would capture the ambience of the space and perhaps an ORTF pair would be used at the edge of the stage for a mid-hall sound.
I would mix the whole thing in 5.1 surround from a fairly aggressive perspective. The resultant sound would be that of Joni Mitchel in my own listening room singing and playing a private performance just for me. It would sound so great! That’s what HD-Audio can accomplish…if the goal is to deliver that kind of experience to the end user.