Where does our music come from, and why does it matter?

Sources are hotly debated among audiophiles, but it seems that regardless of the format it’s presented on (be it tape, vinyl, CD or hi-resolution file streaming), one thing that can be universally agreed upon is that the quality of the source material itself is of paramount importance. While we may spend hundreds or even thousands of pounds on system tweaks (cables, connectors, mains conditioners and so on), as far as the source material is concerned, the age-old rule still stands: “Garbage in, garbage out”.

While the aforementioned tweaks have the potential to make significant improvements to the performance of a high-end audio system, enhancing the sense of imaging and bringing more lifelike details and textures to our attention, a poor quality recording replayed through an accurate system will be represented faithfully as just that. Spending disproportionately on system upgrades to improve the experience of listening to poor recordings is not a solution that will ultimately work, as it doesn’t address the route of the problem. A transparent and revealing audio system will however, in most cases, allow us to analyse the qualities and shortcomings of a given recording in more detail, which is where accuracy and resolution come into play (particularly in the case of studio monitoring).

It makes sense that hi-fi consumers who willingly invest time and finance into a dedicated audio playback system should have a basic appreciation for the quality of the recordings they consume, after all, they are fundamental and centric to our hobby. Without the composers to write, the musicians to perform, and the engineers to capture and mix the material itself there would be nothing to enjoy on our luxurious hi-fi systems. Sometimes I wonder if as music consumers, we occasionally need reminding of just how important the processes are on the other side of the recording desk, and that the signal chain begins long before our own source device. Granted there’s not a lot we can do to modify a recording once it’s in our library, but through experience we can seek out exceptional recordings for our systems to faithfully bring to life.

As I imagine is the case for many audiophiles, my ultimate goal when listening for pleasure is to achieve a state of total musical immersion, entering a stasis where I can suspend disbelief that the players are right there in front of me. A telling sign is being able to totally ‘switch off’ from critiquing any elements of the recording or playback system, the credentials and specifications of the components suddenly becoming wholly non-relevant. Instead, full focus falls on the expression and emotion that the musicians are conveying through their performances, in the studio or concert hall. This only truly happens for me when I am listening to outstanding recordings, where the energy created by the musicians has been diligently captured and respectfully handled throughout all of the various stages between performer and listener. There are numerous albums that I love for their musical quality, but that I cannot fully enjoy on an accurate system due to their coarse production and curtailed dynamic range. These remain tucked away on the iPod for long train journeys or for blasting on a bedroom system, the addition of tonal colour masking the imperfections and adding ‘fun’ and character at the expense of accuracy and realism.

As some may know, a large part of my background is in professional audio, and I have been fortunate to have spent a great deal of time working in various recording studios in the UK, both as an engineer and as a musician. Having the experience of working in these two contrasting roles has been deeply enlightening as a music consumer, and very beneficial to my understanding of the physical processes involved in creating music. As is often the case, when skills are gained in one area it helps to broaden our general understanding of the bigger picture, strengthening and contextualizing our knowledge and skills in other areas. I feel that there are several parallels to be drawn here between those who create and produce music and those who consume it on systems designed to extract and recreate every nuance and detail from the recordings. I would personally love to see a stronger bridge of communication built between these parties, in an effort to increase learning and to strengthen the case for high quality recordings through community activity.

My first love is music, which spurred all subsequent interest in the associated technologies. Spending time in studio environments helped tremendously to train my ears to listen in a disciplined and objective manner, which is a crucial skill for loudspeaker design. It also helped me to understand that not all recordings are created equal, and that there are numerous factors that determine how a recording will eventually sound when you cue it up and hit play on your system. There’s a misconception I occasionally encounter that all official releases come with an invisible badge of quality, authenticating them as having the sonic standard required for hi-fi playback, and that if they don’t sound right then the playback system is to blame. In reality we all know that this is far from the truth, and that the disparity in recording quality can be dramatic.

Speaking beyond basic characteristics (such as genre, production style, level of ambience etc), there are many factors that govern recording quality on a level that directly impacts our enjoyment of the end product. These include the control of room acoustics, microphone choice and positioning, gain staging, capture medium, use of post-processing, track summing method, mastering technique and use of compression, just to list some of the crucial elements that determine the quality of the end product when combined. These stages all require skill to execute effectively, which also extends to the engineer’s ability to make the musicians themselves feel relaxed and comfortable when performing. Some of these factors may be steered by the label or producer, say there is a particular aim or target demographic for the release. There may be certain criteria to fulfil other than just the outright sonic quality of the recording, and this will have subsequent knock-on effects to the mix. In particular, the dynamic range of a given release can be very dependant on the producer’s objectives and target destination for the track.

Considerations may include; is it being mixed primarily for radio play? In which case, the producer may voluntarily trade dynamics in exchange for a louder overall mix that will ‘pop’ more raucously than competing chart hits. Is the track most likely to be listened to on cheap headphones via an mp3 streaming service, or played through a dynamically capable system in an acoustically treated listening room? Will the transients be preserved in order to maintain a healthy dynamic range, or does it need to be heavily compressed in order to compensate for the weak output stage and poor noise floor characteristics of a mobile phone? Will panning be used moderately to re-create a natural live stereo soundstage, or will it be unrealistically exaggerated for effect? Is the producer intent on capturing and recreating every fine detail, or does it just need to ‘bang’ in a club? These are all factors that will influence and drive the numerous important decisions made throughout the production process, dramatically affecting the end product that we listen to.   

Whilst at the North West Audio Show in Cranage last month, I had the pleasure of visiting many excellent rooms which had some truly world-class equipment on demo. One of the very few rooms however to completely stop me in my tracks was hosted by Chasing The Dragon Audiophile Recordings. Entering the room on the recommendation of a friend, I instantly felt at home spotting a familiar pair of active monitors and a Studer A810 tape machine. Listening to Mike Valentine talking about some of the extraordinary recording projects he’s undertaken and coordinated was fascinating, and he played a series of comparison recordings which were utterly transporting.

What struck me most was how one of his direct-to-disc recordings seemed to convey some emotional subtleties in the musicians’ playing that it’s tape-captured counterpart had somehow missed. Whilst the tape recording was excellent in it’s own right, the sense of speed and transient delivery in the direct-to-disc vinyl cut was simply jaw dropping, and conveyed a sense of ‘being there’ quite unlike I’ve experienced before. The playback system was by no means the most expensive in the building, but the experience it delivered put me straight into that golden headspace of feeling like I was in the presence of the performers. The neutral and accurate audio components were serving simply as a window through which to view these vivid and engaging recordings, which was an important reminder of just how important it is to get things right at the very beginning. I could not only hear emotional subtleties in the musicians’ playing, but I could also sense the passion of the producers and engineers responsible for creating the recording, which was every bit as important to me as the listener.

This is perhaps an outside-of-the-box suggestion, but if hi-fi is a serious passion, let one of your next investments be booking a short session at a recording studio with some likeminded friends, to learn more about how your music is created. See and hear the spaces where these recordings are captured, listen to the differences between microphone types, learn what effect different post-processing tools have, individually and the overall effect when combined. Equally, if you’re an artist, engineer or music producer, visit an audio show or hi-fi dealership to listen to some high-end systems designed for compromise-free high-resolution audio playback. You may just be surprised how much new detail you hear in recordings that you thought you knew inside out.

When we buy a piece of music, via whichever medium we choose, we’re essentially obtaining a piece of a performer’s energy frozen in time. From there on, it’s up to our audio systems to do the rest of the work. Asking a series of electronic components and electromagnetic field coil systems to faithfully reproduce the energy and emotional passion of a musical performance is a steep task, and so the very least we can do is to make sure that we’re feeding them the very best source material right from the start. There is no more effective method to guarantee you'll spend less time tweaking and more time listening.