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Beatnik ponders Sound of Live Music

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If you got into audio around the time I did, the two most influential people in this hobby were J. Gordon Holt and Harry Pearson. Both Holt’s Stereophile, and then Pearson’s The Absolute Sound, were journals that you would subscribe to for four issues, not a year. That was because sometimes it took eighteen months to two years to get the four issues. HP’s The Absolute Sound magazine was built around the concept that live unamplified music was the absolute that all stereos should try to sound like.

From the start this was a highly debated concept, at the time I totally bought into this idea though. I think because I found so much of equipment HP liked to be the same sound that I liked when listening to my stereo. I no longer buy into this concept, but I think it’s not just that I have changed, but that the sound of live music has changed drastically.

During my twenties, which was about the same time that HPs writings were really coming on strong, it was fairly easy to hear live, unamplified music. I heard it weekly at church, I heard in the student union building at Baylor. I heard it all the time in Waco Hall, and the chapel in Tidwell Building. If you went to the symphony, ballet, or opera, it was all unamplified. So, it was much easier to compare live music to recorded music, then.

Well, I’m not in my twenties anymore but in my fifties, and trying to hear unamplified live music is much more difficult. Even the smallest protestant churches use amplified system, and I might add, often poorly amplified music. In fact, singers are often accompanied by CDs instead of live instruments. When I go to hear jazz at Yoshi’s, or performances at Davies Hall in San Francisco, the music is at the least electronically reinforced and most often just completely amplified. The most unbelievable of all, is that even operas are often amplified.

Now, I need to point out this has a mixed result on going to live music. At Yoshi’s and Davies I seldom notice the amplification, because it is done so well. Still, when it’s done poorly it is really hard to enjoy the performance as much. What I find more amazing though is that most musicians do not. I have talked to many musicians at many different levels, and few of them find something as basic as hum to be much of a big deal. I’ve asked singers at church who have beautiful big voices why they don’t sing with live accompaniment instead of a CD, or even worse a cassette tape. I’ve decided that musicians, like most people I have worked with in the last 20 years, have a bit of a tunnel vision. The result is they only hear and see their own performance, not the whole performance.

I think there are at least two lessons to be learned from this change in how live music is communicated. First, ninety percent of the time I still enjoy live music significantly more than the best audio systems I have ever heard. Second, it’s more about the emotional experience than it is the auditory experience. I think this also helps explain how musicians react to sound systems. So the question has to be not which system of components comes closest to allowing you to hear what it sounded like live, but which comes closest to giving you the same emotionally experience you would have had if you were listening to the performance live.

I often refer to this quality as the ability of a given component to make my system sound more alive or more like real music. This should never be confused with the often-used term that a component sounds musical. Somehow, this term has come to mean almost the opposite of alive; it most often means warm and forgiving. Now live music sometimes is warm, and sometimes is quite biting and aggressive. Even a non-amplified trumpet can run the range from warm to biting, even stringent at times. A system that sounds like music will be able to reproduce all those sounds and sound alive while doing it. This system will breathe and have natural space.

I often hear systems that are overly warm because the listener cannot stand for their system to ever sound bright or have ear shattering bite. This tells me that they seldom hear live music. For example, when a jazz trumpet player steps forward during his solo and puts the bell of the trumpet right over the mic, it cuts right through everything, including your ears. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but it’s still how the live music sounded. And if you compensate for it, the music that isn’t like this will sound lifeless.

What often happens is that in attempt to compensate for momentary irritations on the recording or in the performance, we end up with a sound that is powerful, full bodied, and still somehow not at all emotionally involving. There are several ways to voice your system. You can buy what the reviewers or dealers tell you is the best, you can buy a system that is very polite and always sounds nice, or you can be bold and go for a system that sounds very lifelike and thus sometimes very irritating. You know which one I prefer, but you have to choose for yourself, because you’re the one who has to listen to your system.

Let me encourage you to at least ask yourself the right questions. Don’t ask how deep does it go, how deep and wide is the soundstage, or how extended is the treble. Instead, ask if it is moving, if it draws me in and makes me want to put down what I’m doing. Does it sound great from other rooms in the house, does it make me want to cry, or dance. Those are the questions that matter, in my opinion.

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