Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why I Am Not An "Audiophile"

I usually preface these seemingly music-centered posts with this disclaimer (or something like it): Stick with me. It is about music, sort of, but there is a universal punch-line. There's a point made for all of us at the end....

When I was a teenager and had just started picking up the drum sticks and making noise on a little kit in my bedroom, I would often get very frustrated. I'd listen to recordings of other drummers (I specifically remember one being Steve Smith, of Journey) and then I would play my own drums. Constantly, I'd find myself disappointed in my sound (compared to his) and wonder why I couldn't get my drums to sound as "big".

Of course, at the time (at fourteen), I had no idea as to the electronic processing those drums went through in the studio: reverbs, compression, sound "exciters"  name it. This was the 80s. The recording studio had become the extra member in the band. The digital age was coming about, taking the hand-off from the recently perfected analog age...

Some years later, I got a "four track" cassette recorder. Same results. I was meticulous in getting the right levels. I was obsessive with microphone positioning. I tried sound patch after sound patch on the synthesizer... It never really sounded "right."

"Right," as you may imagine, was an equivalent to the results that could only be obtained from a multi-million dollar sound studio in New York or LA. By then, I knew this was the case. All I could do was shrug and listen to my work, lowering my sound standards, half-heartedly convinced I had done my best.

Now, every musician can have a digital studio in his bedroom. The results all depend on what you know. You can get "big studio" quality if you have good mic's, good instruments and a solid  knowledge of the recording process. But the range is huge -- in terms of the kinds of recordings you get -- from lousy to phenomenal. The fact remains, your average post-simian mug can get a hiss-free, reasonably good-sounding recording with a laptop and a hundred-dollar SM57.

But, this morning, I heard a feature on NPR about MP3s vs. high-def audio and one engineer's crusade to make better sound available to the masses...blah, blah...

Here we go again. Hyper analysis. Like we do for everything else in the modern world.

I have a discerning ear, but it is tuned to the blend of a horn and cello. It's connected to textures and tones and harmonies, not to whether a recording is sampled at a 456 shmigglewatt bit rate as opposed to a 550 shmigglewatt bit rate. Can I hear the difference? Sometimes. I admit it: my own CD (having been professionally mastered outside my little studio) sounds better than the MP3 version you can download from iTunes...

...but what happens is that my ear adjusts past the sound and its limitations and focuses on the music after
awhile. In a lot of ways "audiophiles" are the worst music appreciators. Many care more about the paint job than about what's under the hood, as it were. (There are always exceptions, of course, but I find this to be true about those I have known.) Analysis of the sound takes one's ear off of the music, itself.

I see people all around me trying to analyze everything. If a kid misbehaves, there are scientists out there studying the effects of breakfast cereals on behavior. You can take that data and throw it in the bin with the 550 shmigigglewatt bit rates.What we need back are dads and moms who learn to run the show with common sense, interpersonal intelligence and a firm, loving hand. I'll put that up against the chemical breakdown of Cap'n Crunch any day.

Wordsworth talked about those times during which we can "see into the life of things."  These were moments of feeling, not of analysis; it was the result of immersing one's self in the world (in his case in "Nature") and opening one's self up to the lessons it had to teach. If we spend all of our time looking under rocks, we can't see the mountainous clouds towering over the mountains.

Do I want good quality sound? Of course. But I would rather hear a second-rate recording of good music than a first-rate recording of bad music. I'll take harmonically interesting chords over the absolute perfect sparkle gained after a +9dB treble boost.

In listening to music, one should forget the mechanics and keep the direct line to the soul uncluttered; in life, we should, more often, be part of the flow (okay, I'll say it: Tao). We shouldn't research ourselves into being eternal diggers and sorters.

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