A Pandora’s Box for audiophiles

My realization that Jack Renner had miked Ahmad Jamal’s Chicago Revisited from the audience perspective proved to be very serendipitous indeed. A piece to provoke healthy discussion among the many avid supporters of this publication was long overdue.

Renner’s statement was astounding because I had always assumed that pianos were miked from the performers’ perspective. So with my curiosity aroused, I spent days listening to nearly every piano recording in my library and contemplating the intrinsic sonic characteristics of today’s modern high-resolution recordings and audiophile playback systems. An audiophile’s Pandora’s Box had been inadvertently opened.

The main ingredients

Perspective relates to the way our senses perceive events. When we close our eyes and listen to recorded music, there should be spatial cues that allow the brain to reconstruct events accurately. We should see the performers. For clarification, players’ perspective refers to musicians onstage facing an audience, while audience perspective refers to an audience facing the performers.

Realism in audio reproduction pertains to the delineation of a soundstage into a facsimile of an original recording, without embellishment or interpretation. The term relates directly to nuances and detail, phenomena that are inextricably linked to the resolving power of audiophile playback systems.

Many factors influence perspective and realism. Some of the more commonly used industry terms are:

Atmosphere -- The ability of a recording to recreate an accurate sense of the original recital and reveal cues about the performing environment

Balance -- The relative acoustic levels of performers within a soundstage as well as their placement, to ensure an aesthetically pleasing aural result

Delineation -- The accurate separation of instruments and voices within a soundstage

Focus (imaging) -- The ability of an audio playback system to pinpoint performers in the space defined by the soundstage

Intimacy -- The ability of a recording to create an illusion of drawing the listener closer into the performing space

Layering -- The ability of a recording to reveal different rows of performers within a soundstage, as in a large choir, a symphony orchestra or a steel orchestra

Nuances -- Very subtle details captured in a recording

Palpability -- The sense of realism in a live recording

Sibilance -- The ability of an audio playback system to faithfully reproduce the S and similar sounds emanating from the human voice

Soundstage presentation -- The ability of a recording to accurately replicate a performance in three dimensions

Transient response -- The ability of an audio playback system to respond accurately to music with sharp attack times, such as the clash of cymbals

Transparency -- The ability of an audio playback system to reveal all the subtleties contained in a recording

Audiophile recordings

Audiophile recordings are usually created in natural acoustic spaces such as concert halls, churches and panyards. Recording engineers make every effort to capture events faithfully with true perspective and realism.

The objective is always to recreate riveting sonics that draw listeners into the original performance space. Audiophile recording engineers always focus on optimizing the sound of the song rather than succumbing to the imposing confines of a budget.

Audiophile playback systems

Most components in the audio playback chain have been optimized over time, but the loudspeaker remains the one elusive item that’s subject to much heated debate. Apart from driver design and matching, choice of crossover points and slopes, and rigidity and shape of cabinet construction, the loudspeaker/room interface presents the greatest challenge to manufacturers and enthusiasts alike. How do we get it right?

The recording engineer’s dilemma

Recording engineers usually present a symphony orchestra from the conductor’s (listener’s) perspective. This doesn’t present a problem for most instruments and voices whose spread is narrow enough to be captured as point sources. With a violin or clarinet, for example, I doubt most listeners would be able to tell whether a microphone or stereo pair was placed in front of or behind the instrument. Perception of microphone placement on more narrow instruments is thus relatively simple, giving birth to the well-known audiophile term image specificity.

The main technical issue relates to the recording perspective for idiophones that have many resonators on the same instrument, such as the piano. With a full range of seven and a quarter octaves, a normal concert grand cannot be confined to one position within a soundstage. More often than not, it covers the entire width of the reproducing space.


The question is therefore whether recording engineers should present the piano, harpsichord, or marimba from the player’s perspective or from that of the listener, or from both. Personally, I prefer to listen to these instruments from the player’s perspective, since I believe that it adds a great deal of realism to performances, especially with live recordings.

I like to feel like I’m the one playing that piano! The treble register appears on the right loudspeaker and bass on the left. The instrument should span the entire width of one’s listening environment, wall to wall. But again, how should a recording engineer present a huge pipe organ that’s firmly entrenched against one wall of a cathedral or a concert hall?

According to Dr. Mark Waldrep, president of AIX Records, "Musicians and composers have experimented with physical placement of choirs, instrumentalists, and electronic sounds for hundreds of years . . . it’s time we brought surround music to home listening environments. The music on our DVDs is a deliberate departure from the purist two-channel standard for recorded music.

"At every stage of the process, we have challenged convention in an attempt to bring music of all types to new audiences. Sitting on the stage with a symphony orchestra or jazz ensemble may be a radically different point of view for some consumers, but it is still be a valid creative expression involving the composer, performers, engineers and producers.

"We approach each project with one goal: to maximize the quality of the recorded sound. Rather than try to recreate a concert hall or club in your living room, AIX Records believes that high-resolution recording and 5.1-channel surround mixing can be used creatively to enhance any musical experience."

Homework for listeners

Whose perspective should listeners prefer? Should it be audience, performer, or both, seeing as technology could easily make this happen? At the end of the day, what really matters is that listeners enjoy the music. Many audiophiles tend to forget their basics. A high-resolution playback system is assembled for the enjoyment of music. It should not be used to sample bits and pieces or listen to specifications and reviewer hype.

How much technical savvy should enthusiasts have in order to be fully appreciative of a playback experience? They should at least have some knowledge of the pitch, timbre, and range of individual instruments that comprise a symphony orchestra.

The ability to identify instruments that are part of the same family is essential. This holds true especially for woodwinds, where the untrained ear can easily mistake one instrument for another. Knowledge of preferred orchestral seating plans would be useful. Familiarity with live recordings is also an obvious asset, as it will help to unveil whatever perspective the recording engineer chooses to take.

Perspective and realism in the flesh

201010_pierremonteuxPierre Monteux Conducts Tchaikovsky at the Vienna Festival (Vanguard Classics OVC8031/2)

Romeo and Juliet, Piano Concerto No.1 in B-Flat minor, Op.23, and Symphony No.5 in E-Minor, Op. 64, were recorded live on May 31, 1968, at the 11th Vienna Festival. The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the 88-year-old Pierre Monteux, is accompanied by John Ogdon on piano.

The recording is so quiet that you realize it’s live only after the performances, when the audience bursts into spontaneous applause. There was absolutely no fidgeting, premature applause, or coughing during the performance. After each movement, there was understandably some level of relaxation on stage, but transition was swift. It’s as though every patron had to be thoroughly screened before being allowed entry to the Grosser Konzerthaus Saal on that memorable evening.

201010_alltogetherWe’re All Together Again for the First Time (MFSL UDCD 627)

This masterpiece was produced and distributed in 1973 by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, under licence from Atlantic Recording Corporation. It’s skilfully compiled and remixed by engineer Ilhan Mimaroglu from live European performances during October and November, 1972, at the Berlin Philharmonie, the Olympia Theatre in Paris, and at De Doelen in Rotterdam.

The musicians are Dave Brubeck, piano; Paul Desmond, alto sax; Gerry Mulligan, baritone sax; Jack Six, bass; and Alan Dawson, drums. This album has been out of print for more than a decade. When I leave Earth, I am definitely taking this music with me into the next life. The brilliant engineering presents a real challenge in detecting that the recordings were compiled from different performance venues.

Dave Brubeck’s signature is easily identified among the league of legendary jazz pianists. He is inherently lyrical, especially when soloing. I was truly engrossed when someone knocked over an empty bottle right in the middle of Brubeck’s silky smooth solo on "Koto Song" at around 4:07. The venue was the Olympia Theatre in Paris on October 26, 1972.

From the hollow, resonant sound, it seemed to me that the bottle made two somersaults down a slope before being retrieved. Whoever salvaged that bottle had lightning-fast reflexes. On the other hand, the bottle may have just fallen off the stage. From a listener’s perspective, the incident appeared to have occurred just left of center stage. Perhaps one day we may be privileged to hear the true story from Mr. Bruebeck himself! 

201010_perchancetodreamPerchance to Dream: A Lullaby Album for Children and Adults (Delos DE 3079)

I recently introduced my four-year-old grandson to gentle night music by explaining that one needs some quiet time before going to bed. Late one Saturday evening, we put two pillows on the rug in my living room, switched off the lights, and played this album, given to me by director Carol Rosenberger of the classical audiophile label Delos International.

Carol plays an eight-octave Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand on this album, and we listened to the simultaneous grandeur and finesse of the majestic instrument. Even at a low volume, the pleasant sound of the huge piano permeated the darkness in a powerful yet serene manner. The listening perspective was awesome, unforgettable, enthralling, and real with a complex interplay of harmonics and beat frequencies from the soundboard.

I remembered Mark Waldrep’s comment: "After having spent almost four hours lying underneath a 9' grand piano listening to a performance of a Morton Feldman composition, I came to the realization that a listening experience could be completely detached from the physicality of a performance.

"Just because it’s necessary for a pianist to play their instrument from a single position shouldn't mean that the sound should be limited to a single point source. Why not place multiple stereo pairs of microphones close to the strings of the piano and then surround the listener with a very wide meta-piano sound. The Chopin Ballades DVD is an example of that recording/mixing philosophy."

After fidgeting for about 25 minutes, Matthew said, "Pappy, can you tell me what is happening? I am enjoying this music, but it is making me sleepy." I did not answer, pretending to be asleep, and soon so was he.

. . . Simeon Louis Sandiford