Behind The Scenes (May 1978)

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On any given Sunday, you can look at the "entertainment" or "cultural" sections of newspapers across the country, and you will see page after page of advertisements for the sale of audio equipment, or "stereo," to use their catch-all terminology. For the most part, what is advertised are "beginners packages," which consist of low- to medium-powered receivers from such well-known manufacturers as Pioneer, Kenwood, Sansui, Marantz, Harman-Kardon, Sony, Technics, etc.; low-end models of turntables from the likes of BIC, Garrard, Dual, BSR, Technics, etc., and magnetic phono cartridges from Pickering, Stanton, Shure, Empire, etc. The packages are completed with loudspeakers, which may be low-end models from the full line manufacturers themselves, or from Advent, AR, KLH, JBL, or the "private label" speakers of a particular retailer. Most of the packages are attractively low-priced at less than the cost of the individual components.

Generally, whatever combination of components a store puts together gives the customer a fairly well-balanced stereo system at that particular level of quality. It must be said, however, that far too often the low price of the package is achieved by the inclusion of the "private label" speakers, many of which are of extremely poor quality.

Allowing for that unfortunate situation, in a world of shrinking values, shoddy merchandise, almost non-existent quality control, and indifferent service, these stereo packages represent a level of quality and integrity of fabrication that makes them an incredible bargain in today's market. For an average of $500.00, these stereo systems offer low levels of distortion and other performance specifications well beyond what was available for twice the money just 10 years ago.

That, in itself, is quite unique in this inflationary world.

The point I am making is that for a relatively modest outlay, even the fledgling stereo enthusiast gets a system of remarkably good quality. A good many people are content with the quality of this kind of system and do not have that personal commitment to music to justify expansion of their system beyond this level. Fortunately for the hi-fi industry, quite a number of people have become "smitten" with the audio "virus," and it is remarkable how quickly they develop a considerable degree of aural discrimination.

Their growing sophistication usually manifests itself in an awareness of the sonic deficiencies of their loudspeakers. So they tie themselves to their local audio emporium, resolutely plow through a myriad of AFB speaker comparisons, and ultimately bring home some better sounding loudspeakers.

For a while, they revel in the superior sound the new speakers afford, only to discover discrepancies in the new speakers or anomalies in the rest of the system revealed by the new speakers ... or a combination of both! Thus, the cycle begins all over again, as it has since the dawn of hi-fi; that is how audiophiles are born, and that is why we have today's huge audio component market with all of its infinite permutations.

The audio component market is unique in that it has a broad base of relatively good-quality stereo systems, plus a fairly substantial percentage of the market which is continually upgrading the quality levels of their systems. Needless to say, whatever the quality level of the stereo systems, the raison d'etre for these systems is the enjoyment and appreciation of music, and this is largely done through the medium of phonograph records, plus pre-recorded cassettes, cartridges, and open-reel tapes. Very early on in his involvement with these various types of "software," the discerning audiophile learns that he must embark on a never-ending quest for high-quality, technically superior records and tapes that will do justice to the stereo system he has assembled. As everyone knows, this can be a maddening and highly frustrating experience. Let us take a look at the "state of the software" in today's market.

Software Synopsis

In any discussion about the quality of the modern long-playing phonograph record, a distinction must be made between the physical characteristics of the record, i.e. does it exhibit dish warp, pinch warp, or any other kind of warp ... is the record eccentric, causing wow ... is the record "hissy," full of "pops" and "ticks" ... are the surfaces "grainy" and cause a continual "crackling" sound, etc. ... and what are the sonic characteristics of the recording itself? Does the recording have full-spectrum frequency response ... wide dynamic range ... good signal-to-noise ratio ... clarity, brilliance, and good transient response ... good instrumental and musical balances ... is the acoustic perspective proper for the particular type of music? A further distinction must be made between pop and classical recordings. In fact, for the purposes of this discussion, I am really relating the subject of recording quality to the classical genre. Pop recordings certainly do suffer from the physical defects outlined above, but the quality of their recorded sound is subject to so many variables, the sound itself is a contrived product ... really an "art form" unto itself, and the music usually is of such a transitory nature, that the quality per se cannot be related to some "idealized" standard. Quite the contrary is true with classical recordings, which of course do have an "ideal standard" ... the live concert hall sound. For comparative purposes, I will restrict my discussion to classical, large-scale recordings. As a rule, the major American record companies record their orchestras via the multitrack/multi-mike technique. Now please don't get me wrong ... I don't condemn this technique out of hand ... I've heard some fine recordings made with this method. But, in the opinion of many people, this type of recording is too contrived and artificial. One of the principal complaints is that the recordings lack depth ... instruments sound like they are strung on a line across the stage ... the acoustic perspective is fore-shortened, there is artificial "spotlighting" of various instruments, wherein they sound larger than life ... for example, a clarinet or oboe producing more sound than the entire orchestra. There is another problem inherent in the multi-mike technique in that, by the nature of the pickup, cardioid-pattern mikes must be used and they have a tendency to start rolling off early in the bass spectrum, usually having little response below 40-45 Hz. While there isn't too much musical energy at those frequencies, there are circumstances when this could be detrimental.

Multi-Miking

It should be understood there are several variations on the multi-mike technique, and I suppose some of these variations shouldn't be called "multi-mike" in the strictest sense of the word. For example, Marc Aubort of Elite Recording generally uses two omnidirectional microphones to pick up better than 95 percent of the musical information, with a minimum of other mikes to "touch up" sections of the orchestra or specific instruments. No recording hall is perfect, and Marc uses the "touch-up" mikes when the score indicates certain instruments are not of sufficient amplitude in the overall recording. With his technique, Marc produces recordings of outstanding realism. Another successful practitioner of the multi-mike technique is Bob Auger, who operates out of London, and his fine work can be heard on the Unicorn and other labels. Bob uses more of the "traditional" multi-mike technique, including use of an 8-track recorder, but he pays very close attention to the avoidance of instrumental spotlighting. It may surprise many of you, who equate DGG, Philips, and London/ Decca sound with "purist" minimum number-of-mikes technique, that they quite often use some variation on the multi-mike technique, according to the acoustic characteristics of a particular hall. For recordings made with the "purist" minimum-number-of-mikes technique, the companies most often opting for this are EMI-HMV in England and German Electrola. The recordings made this way have a very natural acoustic perspective, devoid of any spotlighting. The sense of orchestral depth is splendidly achieved and instrumental positioning is very accurate, while bass response is very extended and has great power without being obtrusive in perspective. Unfortunately, these recordings are released in this country (at least the EMI/HMV) through Angel Records, and far too often they have different equalization and other parameters when re mastered from the original tapes, so many of the desirable attributes of the original recordings are missing.

The answer to this is that you must buy the EMI/HMV recordings, and they are not easy to come by. A fair stock of them are carried by the King Karol record store in New York and by Rose's in Chicago. Without question, Philips produces records with the most consistently quiet surfaces, and they prove beyond any doubt that it can be done! On an overall basis, I must sadly report that one is forced to turn to imported recordings for the most consistently satisfying and realistic sound and for records with the least number of physical blemishes.

Those who hunger for new quadraphonic recordings will get little encouragement from the CD-4 camp, which is at a very low ebb at the moment, with just an occasional release from RCA. There is also a reduced release program of SQ from Columbia.

Here again you must turn to the imports, especially EMI and HMV, which have an ever-growing catalog of classical SQ recordings, mostly of the ambient variety, and the examples I have heard have been superb.

As to direct disc recordings ... yes, they are the highest quality sound you can buy ... but by no means all of them. Direct disc recording is not a panacea for all recording ills. In fact, the direct disc medium is so revealing that many sonic deficiencies are glaringly spotlighted. In many I have listened to, I can hear distortions due to mikes and recording consoles, and high frequency distortion from the tendency to pile on as much level as possible on the record, up to and including overcutting! As to the tape mediums, the quality picture here is somewhat different from the discs, since it is a matter of duplicating existing sound qualities with a minimum of operational difficulties. Nonetheless, compression is often used, along with weird equalization in American cassettes, with lamentable results. Cassettes from DGG, Philips, and London/Decca have approached their counterpart discs in quality and are of consistently good processing. Open-reel tape is making a dramatic comeback with the superb processing by Barclay-Crocker in New York, with staples from the Musical Heritage Society, Vanguard, Desmar, Unicorn, and other labels, while Stereotape in Los Angeles is a bit variable in its output from the RCA, DGG, and London catalogs, but nevertheless has many fine sounding examples.

In summing up, high-quality recordings are made with many different techniques ... you've got to pick and choose ... and in this context, the pickings are best among the imports.

(Source: Audio magazine, May 1978; Bert Whyte)

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