Saturday, February 28, 2009

FFW02: Learning to listen

My initiation into audiophilia! After spending a night listening to some serious audiophile recordings through my high quality ATC reference monitors, I was somewhat impressed by the vocabulary used by audiophiles to describe subjective aspects of sound. I was also somewhat concerned that I had never thought to listen for those things, let alone assign words to describe them. I learnt a lot about the art of listening that night; stuff that has affected my approach to recording, mixing and mastering ever since. [In fact, my quest for realism in recordings morphed into a search for reality in recordings - a search that took me to the Himalaya and, ultimately, into the arms of my beautiful Nepalese wife Punam!]

Issue 02 of AudioTechnology contained interviews I'd done with David Chesky and Bob Katz regarding a CD released on Chesky Records called 'I Ching: Of the Marsh and the Moon'. Chesky Records are a well-known audiophile label, and I thought it prudent to write a First Word that provided a subtle linked to the interview and also put across an audiophile point of view.

The Chesky/Katz interviews went beyond the engineering/recording technique and ventured into the design and circuitry of the recording equipment itself, which sat nicely alongside part two of my three-part interview with Rupert Neve (further discussions of sound quality from a designer's point of view). As an editor, I was always on the look-out for an emerging theme within an issue, and this one was staring me right in the face!

Learning to listen
A couple of guys I know are building a D/A converter. While most readers will think that’s a pretty impressive feat, those familiar with digital electronics won’t be so impressed. Any half smart technician can knock together a ‘quick and dirty’ D/A converter with a small collection of LSI chips, a handful of op amps and a late night session with the soldering iron. Given the right chips, it’s a bit like Lego blocks…

But these guys, Terry and Craig, have spent most of their spare time over the last three years working on this converter. Why spend so long building something that can be thrown together in an evening? Because Terry and Craig are serious high fidelity listeners, and their converter is designed for audiophiles who demand a high standard of sound quality. That means lots of designing, redesigning, building and listening. And that’s how I got involved…

While planning the first issue of AudioTechnology, I got the following phone call. “Hello, Greg? Terry here, mate. We’ve built a D/A converter and need to borrow some super accurate studio monitors for our listening tests. Still got your 20s?” He was referring to my trusty old ATC SCM20 passive monitors, which I had sworn by for years. Little did he know that I was, at that very moment, reviewing ATC’s new SCM20A PRO active monitors, but finding the sonic quality of my ‘pro’ studio equipment to be hopelessly under-specified. Knowing Terry and Craig’s hi-fi leanings, this was the perfect win/win opportunity – they get to hear their D/A converter through a pair of very accurate studio monitors, and I get to connect said monitors to some very good audiophile equipment. I bundled the ATCs in the car, grabbed a pile of my favourite reference discs, and hit the highway.

The evening that followed was surreal, to say the least. In an earlier draft of this column I wrote 600 words describing what we did and what we heard that night – listening to the differences between silver and copper interconnect cables, hearing the detrimental effects of placing little wooden cones under the D/A converter, and so on. Then I deleted it all because you probably wouldn’t believe it anyway, especially if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool sound engineer who thinks hi-fi guys are nuts and everything is hunky-dory in studio land. Let me tell you, it isn’t.

My collection of reference discs contains the same discs you’ll find in other engineers’ collections, all representing good sound engineering. But against some of the audiophile standard discs we played that night, my discs were embarrassingly inadequate. The ATCs, on the other hand, were superlative and easily rose to the audiophile challenge. As did Terry and Craig’s D/A converter.

The biggest revelation of the night, however, was not what we were listening to, but how we were listening to it. Sound engineers in the studio have the luxury of soloing a channel to get a fix on a particular instrument. Once your ear/brain system gets a lock on that instrument in isolation, it’s much easier to identify it within a complex mix. Audiophiles, on the other hand, never have that luxury because they only have access to finished and mastered stereo mixes. By necessity, they develop very different listening skills and a different vocabulary – a broader language evolved to describe and ‘isolate’ individual aspects of a recording in the absence of a solo button.

The sound engineer’s vocabulary contains a handful of simple words for describing the sonic qualities of individual tracks, such as warm, cold, bright, and dull. It also contains words for describing the mix, such as clarity, separation, width, and depth, plus terms like dynamic range and signal-to-noise.

The audiophile’s vocabulary extends to phrases like midrange purity, visceral impact, focus, rhythm and pace, blackness, and holographic imaging. These aren’t just fancy ways of saying simple things, they represent intangible and unmeasurable aspects of sound quality - aspects you may not even consider if your understanding of sound quality is limited to the sound engineer’s ‘track by track’ vocabulary.

So there I was, alone with my sound engineer’s vocabulary, flanked by two well-versed audiophiles. I don’t know if they heard the qualities I enjoyed on my reference discs, but I had certainly never noticed the aspects they were criticising, until they pointed them out to me in the vocabulary of the audiophile. Like so many subjective things, you often can’t hear something in a recording until someone brings it to your attention. From then on, you know what to listen for and you’ll always hear it.

In his book ‘Word Power’, Edward de Bono explains how words represent concepts. When you understand a word, you understand the concept. Like many concepts, the subjective aspects of sound quality are intangible. Without the right word, you have no way of communicating what you’re hearing. In fact, you may not even know what to listen for. As a sound engineer or recording musician, if you can’t communicate what you’re hearing or don’t know what you’re listening for, you’re in trouble.

There’s a layer of sound quality beyond that which most sound engineers, recording musicians and equipment designers are aware of, because we don’t have the concepts to explain it or the equipment to reveal it. But it’s real and not hard to demonstrate. All you need is access to a proper audiophile hi-fi system and the right reference discs. I’d highly recommend ‘The Ultimate Demonstration Disc’ from Chesky Records. It contains a selection of tracks demonstrating the audiophile’s vocabulary, with narration between tracks describing what to listen for. If you buy this CD and don’t notice the sound qualities they’re demonstrating, get a better playback system!

The audiophile point of view will become increasingly important as we enter this era of larger word sizes and higher sampling rates. When you hear a recording that satisfies both the sound engineer and the audiophile, you’ll also hear a level of musicality rarely found on commercial CDs. And isn’t ‘musicality’ what it’s all about? The more musicality we can get into our recordings, the better. But first, we have to learn to listen.

My association with Terry and Craig continues. Most notably, from 2000 to 2003 Terry designed, built and continually refined a beautiful two-channel microphone preamplifier for use with my Royer SF12 stereo ribbon microphone. As part of that process he became a keen mountain biker (it's a long story) and enjoyed some serious air time on the trails around the Royal National Park. In 2003 the two of them joined forces to design and build a number of precision digital clock generator/distributors, to my specifications, for use at the Sydney Opera House.

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