Recordings for Critical Listening (Jan. 1978)

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A relatively small number of disc recordings are now available that come close to providing the illusion of the live performance, when properly played back through a good system.

While an illusion of "realism" is not necessarily the goal of every audiophile, the pursuit of this illusion is often both pleasurable and technically enlightening. Using realism as the focal point, the present article will discuss a group of records which are unusually successful in aiming towards that goal.

By comparison with these, the majority of modern discs are so much poorer in quality that the recording itself is usually seen as the weakest link in the playback chain. Regarding the poorer records for a moment, some audiophiles ardently seek the illusion of the concert hall or night club performance in their home listening rooms by assembling new chains of ever more elaborate components, but it is a pity that too many of these people are using discs which simply do not contain the "good vibrations" being sought. A great deal of attention is focused on the phono pick-up cartridge, the preamp, etc., and this brings only slight changes in the sound, but not a convincing illusion of reality. On the other hand, playing the recordings listed on the following pages can sometimes provide both an immediate and a great improvement over the more commonly heard sounds, even if only medium-priced playback components are used.

There are, of course, many excellent recordings which are not on the list, and this article is only meant to be used as a starting point. New recordings of good quality are becoming available every week or so, although they tend to become buried among myriads of sonically poor ones.

I am hopeful that some of the records on this list will satisfy the readers' artistic tastes, in which case the subtleties of timbre made available through technical excellence can enhance the overall musical pleasure.

In addition, these discs can help one to fine-tune the rest of the record playback chain and show which components need improvement. However, the reader should be warned that most systems will sound rather good when spectacularly good recordings are being played. Therefore, when evaluating new components, the listener should play a few old-favorite discs also, since those are the types of recordings that will be used most of the time after a component has been added.

An additional use for the recordings listed in this article is in demonstration. Taking a string of short selections from these discs and dubbing them one after the other onto a single tape can make an impressive sound show.

Characteristics of Realism

What distinguishes these recordings from other, less realistic ones? The main characteristic seems, to me, to be a special sort of transient response which allows a minimum of blurring.

The important thing that must not be blurred is a kind of very fast vibrato or tremolo. (Vibrato is quick variation of the frequency, while tremolo is a quick variation in the amplitude.)

Musical instruments provide not only fundamental sine waves and complex harmonics, but also beat frequencies and interference effects which cause the sound to be modulated, with very fast variations and perturbations of the tones. It is this which imparts "stringy," "brassy," "reedy," and "woody" sounds and quickly distinguishes natural music from synthesized electronic music, even when the steady-state frequency distributions are nearly the same.

Close miking has been used to make many realistic recordings. But not all such recordings are made that way, and not all close-miked recordings are realistic. There still seems to be a great deal of art (and, occasionally, sheer luck) mixed into acoustical engineering. No record company which makes a large number of discs is completely consistent in attaining realism.

Considerable personal taste is involved in evaluating the total record playback system, and it must be emphasized again that realism is simply a good illusion, and this involves several highly subjective and even emotional factors. An interesting way to shed some light on this aspect is to attend a live performance and focus your attention on the crystal clarity of the sound.

Stare at the musicians with a sort of conjured-up intensity, and at the same time, out of the corners of your eyes, make yourself aware of the great space around you in the concert hall, night club, or whatever. Then suddenly close your eyes. The great space collapses, the sound gets somehow flattened, and the whole image is degraded. It is true that some details of the sound can often be heard more clearly with your eyes closed, but the spaciousness feeling is much diminished. The eyes-closed sound is all that you can ordinarily reproduce in your home listening room, since there are neither big spaces nor musicians to see. It is remarkable how quickly we tend to forget that much of the spaciousness feeling at the live concert is derived from other-than-sonic clues.

To compensate for this, a slightly exaggerated set of purely sonic clues would appear to be philosophically permissible. In other words, a little bit of extra reverb, a little bit of extra up-closeness, and a little bit of anything else that's legal should really be OK, if it provides the illusion of the concert.

At a live performance in most concert halls or night clubs, in most of the audience seating area, the "stringiness" (very fast tremolo or vibrato) is only audible at the beginning of each note. Immediately after that, the reflected sounds usually overwhelm the direct sound and cause some blurring. (Editor's Note: To me, this "blurring" results from the inability of any large group of musicians to continue to play a vibrato or tremolo in strict unison, and the later, reflected sounds contribute to the sense of hall or ambient space. -E.P.) But we know we are in the presence of the live performers, and we tend to focus the mind's ears on the good things which go along with reality, not on the later blurring. At home, in the listening room, we need a little extra continuation of the clearest sounds to compensate for negative visual clues which tell us we are not "there" after all.

Another aspect of up-close sound is a frequency response which is rich from about 800 Hz to about 6 kHz. Distant sounds tend to be weak within this range because furniture, clothing, human bodies, and even grass and shrubbery, all absorb reflected sound strongly in the 800 Hz to 6 kHz range (see Fig. 1). Therefore, the ear and brain train themselves to recognize that distant sound sources are deficient in this range. Any time you want to fool your ear into thinking that a recorded sound is coming from a great distance, borrow or buy รก graphic equalizer and cut the midrange and mid-treble response by about 4 dB; the source will seem to recede to great distances. In the opposite direction, increasing the response in that frequency range above the normal levels makes the source seem unusually close.

The illusion of extreme closeness is not necessarily a good thing in itself.

European record companies, such as Philips and Deutsche Grammophon, tend to avoid it, and European record reviewers tend to criticize relatively close sound while American companies tend to use it for recording classical music. Since most of the seats in a concert hall or night club are not up close, the optimum illusion in your listening room is that the virtual image of the performers is somewhere on the other side of the listening room's front wall, as far as distance is concerned.

This illusion takes your attention away from the loudspeakers, and it also corresponds to the most probable distance between you and the stage at a performance. The ideal apparent distance should be reasonably, but not conspicuously far away. (Of course, the clarity of the sound should be such that the wall itself does not seem to be there at all.)

Thus, we have examined two characteristics which are at least responsible for a feeling of realism, (1) an unblurred transient response, and (2) just the right amount of midrange and mid-treble in the frequency response. The superb-sounding discs on the accompanying list almost all have a lot of number one, often somewhat more than a live performance. Poorer-sounding discs, especially some of those made by American record companies, show a tendency to exhibit too much of number two, giving an extreme up close feeling, but not really giving much clarity. In fact, too much mid treble can cause a harshness or sonic glare when the disc is played back on average-quality equipment.

Fig. 1--Frequency spectrum of flat response sound after it has been reflected from the surfaces of a typical room with carpet, sofa, plaster walls, and curtains. (Dashed line shows spectrum at original sound source.)

Optimized Playback

Getting the best results from a recording can be dependent on a few subtle points of great potential value.

Foremost is the need for a strong hand on the tone controls. While American records often have accentuated response in the 800 Hz to 6 kHz range for exaggerated "presence," as mentioned above, many of the newer European discs have strong treble at about 9 kHz to 12 kHz, which can sound strident on systems that are not adjusted for this. If the treble is cut somewhat, the resulting sound is quite smooth, and the high frequency background noise is much reduced also, as an extra bonus. (A graphic equalizer is useful for fine-tuning the frequency response, and this is often best done by ear rather than by meter.) In other words, a few records might sound good on a given system, but judicious adjustments can make a wider selection of discs sound just as good or better.

Similarly with dynamic range, a few discs are excellent in this respect, but some of the new noise reduction devices (including simple expanders) can bring life to many other discs.

Various methods for adding in a certain amount of reflected sound can help to provide a realistic sense of distance and spaciousness, particularly if delayed sound is also added at the back of the room. (For a simple but effective method, see Fig. 3 of my article in Audio, Nov. 1975, pg. 50). Taken all together, a first-class recording on an optimized playback system is able to simulate the eyes closed sound of the live performance to a high degree, indeed.

------ TABLE 1--Technically Excellent Recordings.

Deep Frequency Range

Deep Bass Frequency Range

Organ Music from Westminster. Edward D. Berryman. Ark 10251-S, stereo, $6.95 postpaid (Fulton Electronics, 4428 Zane Ave. North, Minneapolis, Minn. 55422). Side 2, Band 4.

Played by an organist whose technique includes a heavy foot on the bass pedals. Too many notes at around 32 Hz for good taste, but wonderful for rattling large picture frames and somehow tickling the air spaces in your chest. Unusually pure fundamental and first few harmonics of the lowest musical notes, which are only rarely recorded on disc. (If your playback system can not reproduce the fundamental, you can still hear the harmonics.)

Holst: The Planets Bernstein. Columbia 31125, MQ SQ/quadraphonic, $7.98. Side 2, Band 2, at 95% of the band. Very loud, very low notes, for a demonstration of the kind of bass that can be (but usually is not) recorded.

Dark Side of the Moon: Pink Floyd. Harvest SMAS-11163, stereo, $6.98. Side 1, at 60% of the side. Powerful heartbeats at low frequencies build up to a loud climax. The recording also contains realistic clock chimes and bells, at 55% of Side 1.

The Sound of Musical Instruments. AR 1, stereo, $5.00 postpaid (Acoustic Research, 10 American Drive, Norwood, Mass. 02062). Side 2, Band 2.

The low frequencies here are in subtle "hall sounds," which provide a feeling of being inside a large night club. In addition, a Dixieland jazz band is recorded with truly sensational high fidelity. (See also the comments at the end of this list.)

Mid Bass

Percussion Music. DesRoches, New Jersey Percussion Ensemble. Nonesuch H-71291, stereo, $3.96. Side 2, Band 2, at 15% of band.

The drum has a particularly membrane-like sound which is lost if the loudspeakers used for playback do not have good transient response.

Pig's Eye Jazz; Fidelity First, Vol. 2, stereo, $10.95 postpaid (Insight Records, 7726 Morgan Ave. South, Minneapolis, Minn. 55423). That Side, Band 2.

A woody, reedy bass clarinet is the main feature of a Dixieland jazz band, and the other instruments such as the drums and trumpets are also superbly recorded. The trombone is unusually good on the next band, too.

Young and Rich: The Tubes. A&M 4580 stereo, $6.98. Side 2, Band 1.

Excellent drums. Also, excellent piano on the next band, and realistic guitar on the last band of Side 2.

Bach: Cello Suites. Starker. Mercury SRI 3-77002, stereo, 3 disc set, $20.00. The cello sound is very "stringy" on this recording, which was made several years ago and has been reissued and stamped in Europe from old American master tapes. Judging from discussions at recent meetings of the Audio Engineering Society, nobody really knows why the old Mercury tapes are so good. Some engineers speculate that it was the simple microphone techniques (no "mikes mix tricks"). But others disagree, since modern multi-miking procedures can sound just as good.

This One's for Blanton: Duke Ellington and Ray Brown. Pablo 2310-721, stereo, $7.98.

Another reissued oldie, with "squeaky clean" bass violin sounds in a group of swing era duets. The piano is also very good. Tone controls should be adjusted to suit the listener's tastes.

The disc contains a great deal of treble, and too much will sound raspy, while too little will sound dull. If a graphic equalizer is available, a 4-dB cut in the mid-treble might be tried.

Low Midrange

The following three records have all caught the woodiness and stringiness of the piano.

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 2.

Sviatoslav Richter; Warsaw Philharmonic, Stanislaw Wislocki.

Deutsche Grammophon 138 076, stereo, $7.98.

Beethoven: Bagatelles, Op. 33, 119, and 126. Stephen Bishop. Philips 6500 930, stereo, $7.98.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1. Rubinstein; Israel Philharmonic, Mehta. London CS 7018, stereo, $6.98.


When playing back these two popular vocal selections, the listener should attempt to adjust the frequency response to eliminate any chesty, boxy sound. It will probably not seem as though the performer is in your listening room, but it might sound quite a lot like a live performance in a small night club, if everything is done right.

Tea for the Tillerman: Cat Stevens.

A&M SP 4280, stereo, $6.98. Side 1, Band 5.

Judith: Judy Collins. Elektra 7E-1032, stereo, $6.98. Side 1, Band 1.

High Midrange Organ Recital.

Earl Barr. Sound Environment TR-1003, stereo, $8.55 postpaid (Sound Environment, 100 North Sixth St., Minneapolis, Minn. 55403).

Realistic organ pipes.

Stravinsky: Pulcinella. Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Neville Marriner. Argo ZRG 575, stereo, $6.98. Side 1, at 70% of the side.

Realistic woodwinds.


Trilogy: Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Cotillion SD 9903, stereo, $6.98. Side 1, Band 4. Stringy, woody acoustic guitar. (The vocals are not particularly well recorded.)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 5. Vienna Philharmonic, Carlos Kleiber. Deutsche Grammophon 2530 516, stereo, $7.98. Side 2, at 5% of the side.

A stunningly metallic group of horns is followed by a clear group of cellos (at 17% of the side). Many other types of full-orchestra delights have been caught here, with wide dynamic range and plenty of reverberation from the concert hall. On most systems, the treble needs to be cut somewhat.

Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5. Concertgebouw Orchestra, Haitink. Philips 6500 922, stereo, $7.98. Side 1, at 15% of the side.

Essentially the same comments apply to this record as were made immediately above. The strings can be used to illustrate "definition," as contrasted with the more commonly heard "stereo separation." The listener should perceive a group of violins, quite near to each other, but clearly a plurality and not a homogeneous blend.

Direct from Cleveland: The Cleveland Orchestra, Maazel. Telarc 5020, stereo, $16.00 postpaid. (Telarc Records, 4150 Mayfield Rd., Cleveland, OH 44121.) Classical selections from Berlioz, Bizet, Falla, and Tchaikovsky recorded by the direct-to-disc method. Violins, horns, and other instruments are sharply defined against a very quiet background.

High Treble

Bach: The Goldberg Variations. Gustav Leonhardt. Telefunken SAWT 9494-A, stereo, $6.98.

This recording has apparently been pre-equalized for playback in an average home listening room, since much of the mid-bass response has been reduced. Therefore, if a graphic equalizer is ordinarily used in the system, the listener should try switching the equalizer out, to provide an optimal rich harpsichord sound.

Lincoln Mayorga and Distinguished Colleagues, Volume Ill. Sheffield LAB-1, stereo, $10.00, postpaid. ( Sheffield Records, P.O. Box 5332, Santa Barbara, Cal. 93108.)

Side 1, Band 2.

This is a direct-to-disc recording with an extremely wide dynamic range. The surface noise is at a state-of-the-art low level, and the cymbals come on very strong with harmonics measured at up to 20 kHz. On other bands of the disc, a variety of instruments is also recorded spectacularly and realistically.

Various Sequences of Individual Musical Instruments (Cello, Drum, Violin, etc.)

The Sound of Musical Instruments.

AR-1, stereo, $5.00 postpaid (Acoustic Research, 10 American Drive, Norwood, Mass. 02062). Short music pieces of uniformly excellent quality, each emphasizing one type of instrument.

Sessions. Stereo, $3.00 postpaid (James B. Lansing Sound, Inc., 3249 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles, Calif., 90039), 2 discs.

Solo instruments, and also an interesting series of rehearsal takes, mixes, equalizations, etc., with explanations by a narrator. Uniformly excellent quality.


Editor's Note:

Here are some additional discs which have appeared on the market since this article was written, which we feel have many of the fine qualities exhibited by the author's selection:

Sheffield Lab, Inc., P.O. Box 5332, Santa Barbara, CA 93108. Comin' From A Good Place: Harry James. Lab-6 (SL23ISL24). Discovered Again: Dave Grusin, Lab-5 ( S L19IS L20). A-Train Ltd., 8719 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211.

Firebird: Kenji Mori Quartet, TBM3003.

Mozart String Quartet: Mari Iwamoto String Quartet, ALC-1038.

Beethoven Funeral Sonata op. 26: Hans Kann pf., ALC-1024.

Decibel Records, Dept. 2, P.O. Box 631, Lexington, MA 02173.

This Is the One: Dick Wellstood, Audiophile AP-120,$15.00. Direkt To Disk, Sonic Arts Corp., 665 Harrison St., San Francisco, CA 94107.

Piano Fireworks: Russell Stepan, DTD-01.

The Piano: David Montgomery, DTD-02.

Gasparo Co., P.O. Box 90574, Nashville, TN 37209.

J.S. Bach Suite No. 1 in G Major: Roy Christensen, Cello, GS-102.

James B. Lansing Sound, Inc., 8500 Balboa Blvd., Northridge, CA 91329.

The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, CSO 1010.

Crystal Clear Records, Inc., 225 Kearney St., San Francisco, CA 94108.

Charlie Byrd, CCS-8002.

Reference Recordings, P.O. Box 77907, San Francisco, CA 94107.

Viola and ... James Carter Chamber Ensemble, RR-4.

Finnadar Records, Atlantic Recording Corp., 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.

Chopin Prokofiev Scriabin: Idil Biret, pf.Finnadar SR125, $12.98.

Umbrella, Audio-Technica U.S., 33 Shiawassee Ave., Fairlawn, OH 44313.

Sold through local dealers.

Rough Trade Live: Rough Trade, Umbrella DD-1.

Big Band Jazz: Rob McConnell & the Boss Brass, Umbrella DD4


(adapted from Audio magazine, Jan. 1978; Daniel Shanefield)

Also see:

Wags and Tales That Started A Revolution--The Edison Cylinder (Dec. 1977)

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