Rebirth of Reason


In Praise of Live Music
by Adam Reed

People who have not discovered the difference between music on CDs, and music played live by an instrument or an orchestra, often wonder if my wife and I are sane. Sometime on nearly every weekend, we spend half an hour or an hour or two hours in traffic, pay for parking and tickets, and spend a couple of hours sitting and listening, without beer or snacks, to music we could have played at home on the stereo. And we could have listened to the same music played by great historical masters, like maybe Gilels or von Karajan, instead of some untried soloist or student conductor. What gives?

What they don't know is that the human ears are exquisitely sensitive not only to the amplitude and balance and frequency of sound, which are faithfully reproduced on stereo recordings, but also to phase, which isn't. Phase is the difference between the waveforms that hit the two ears from the same source. One may, of course, build a pair of microphones into the earholes of a sculpted dummy, and record music with everything that the ears would hear. And then it would sound just as if it were live, as long as it was played directly into the two ears by headphones or earphones. Back when high fidelity recording was first invented in the 1950s, some studios made phase-fidelity recordings this way. And they didn't sell.

The problem with selling phase-fidelity recordings is the headphones. Headphones need to be plugged in, which usually means that you can't walk around to re-fill your glass. Or walk around to a different armchair to be closer to a different friend. Or even leave the room. People, at least in company, strongly prefer being able to move about. So recordings need to be played through speakers, not headphones. And without headphones, phase-fidelity recordings cannot create the illusion of space. To do that with speakers, you need to record music with approximately the same separation as the speakers in your home. Then you can move around, and friends can listen together, but the phase information isn't there. And a big part of what makes the sound penetrate the soulis lost.

One recent weekend, Yoon and I drove through two hours of rain to hear a young Russian-trained Kazakh pianist play the Russian romantics on a Steinway concert grand. Through speakers, one piano sounds pretty much like another. You will never know why the masters prefer Yamaha for Chopin and Bechstein for Beethoven. Live, you know. Hear Rachmaninov on a Steinway, and you understand exactly why Emil Gilels, on his first visit to America, went straight to the Seinway store on Fifth Avenue and plunked down twenty-five grand in cash to take a Steinway concert grand home with him to Russia.

And when you hear a violin live, or a bassoon, you know exactly what the composer and the player meant you to hear, not the shadows of ghosts into which the music is turned by stereo-separated microphones and speakers.

Someday soon, we hope, some entrepreneur will notice that one no longer needs to be attached to a fixed spot with wires to listen to music with earphones. And mint a pile of money by recording in phase-fidelity again. Until then, Yoon and I will keep driving to the concert hall, through rain or through sunshine.
Sanctions: 8Sanctions: 8 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (1 message)