Audio Etc. (March 1977)

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Two spaces in one? That weird binaural/stereo double space from JVC I described last month in only the beginning of what's new. DA you read Len Feldman, in Audio last December, on two of the new home synthesizers, delay/reverb makers that create synthetic halls within our living rooms? If anyone could get me to understand the inner technicalities of these devices, it had to be Len, but what interests me comes beyond where he left off, and where I have to start, being an audio musician.

What do these gadgets do to the sound of recorded music, already well endowed with space? Some astonishing things. See Feldman's last paragraph.

The new devices take your present audio signal, from tape, disc or broadcast and out of it fashion a new and variable surround, produced artificially--a concert hall, a church, gymnasium, Olympic swimming pool or even a sedate front parlor, all to choice and taste via pushbuttons.

And not one bit of it is in the recording itself. Amazing how we can trick the ears into hearing what isn't there--but isn't that the art of sound reproduction? These illusions, of course, can't be had out of your stereo pair. They need surround sound-how else are you going to get all four walls and yourself inside? And so the same old story in a new twist; we tailor the sound of music so as to make one space out of another, your living room. Only now this is Space No. 3. The recording already has its own built-in space, doesn't it? We've had room sound, liveness, in our records ever since ca. 1929 and for just this reason, to give the music a place to exist in.

Liveness, I remind you, was one of the great discoveries in the history of recording though it was surely an accidental one at the beginning. Electrical recording had suddenly made it possible to take down sound in large places, at a distance, at low levels; whereas the earlier acoustic-powered horn required ultra-close-up performance-or else. Liveness as such had never been recorded before.

Now, oddly, you will find that the earliest electric recordings, much like the old acoustics, are remarkably dead in sound, if louder and wider in tonal range. Apparently the engineers took it for granted that we still wanted direct sound, free from any smearing and blurring by room reflections. A reasonable thought and it still held sway a decade later in the New York NBC Studio 8-H, where Toscanini put forth symphonic music in an all but anechoic surround, including silk programs that wouldn't rustle. Dead was good, or so they thought.

But by the mid-thirties all had changed. Perceptive ears had heard, and recording engineers came to understand, that this very smearing and blurring, if recorded, could in fact bring a suggestion of place, of surroundings, to a recording and so into the home. Thus, we left behind that drastic acoustic vacuum in which earlier performers had to exist, like it or not. Play an old Caruso and you will hear it. A voice disembodied, without space or distance. Like trying to talk naturally in an anechoic chamber-- ever try it? Under the circumstances Caruso et al. did remarkably well.

Sonic Symbiosis

Well, you know the rest. Much later we began to add extra reverb from outside sources, first naturally via echo chambers (that famous indoor fire stairway at CBS), then via the various synthetic analogs, from wire springs and metal plates to digital delay lines.

But mind you, this was all a part of record production; every last bit was built into the final product, which was delivered to you complete and ready to play. And in truth, aside from volume levels and tone control plus maybe a bit of contouring, we have not really done much to alter that package in our homes, if we discount the urge to push speakers around, to add drapes, throw out rugs and, of course, to buy new equipment, all to help the recorded message do its thing. No longer! Now we can use that message as so much raw material for an entirely new space, right on top of the built-in recorded space and the space of your living room. Triple exposure, I'd call it.

Is there going to be any reason, you may ask, why we should continue to build space into our recordings--which is the whole art? A point for engineers to ponder! Of course you must have some concert space, in classical, at least, because the musicians require it; but in theory it isn't necessary, or won't be once we all have inexpensive space makers in our lovely living rooms. We may! As they say, it is within the realm of probability.

And so the art of recording becomes semi-redundant? We may soon be receiving the product like a sonic kit, partly finished. We add the rest.

Either that, or we have the sonic redundancy of all time, this triple spacing thing.

Well, no. Those two words sum up my recent long and fruitful session with the thing itself, the one that caught up with me--Audio Pulse. No, it is not redundant at all, unless pushed to extremes. I wouldn't have believed.

No, not in my own home was my reaction. For it instantly struck me when I first heard the enthusiasm for Audio Pulse (a catchy name) that as a record reviewer I had no business adding new synthetic spaces to those already recorded and intended. Neat point of ethics. I still want to know what the recording engineer had in mind, within the permissible vagaries of my own equipment and listening room. So I am not using Audio Pulse or any other synthesizer at my home.

And this even though I do use quadraphonic enhancements, as well as QS and SQ decoders, to doctor up my stereo, because all of these make use of spatial clues already in the recording. See what I mean? So one engineer friend raved about Audio Pulse for the entire AES convention last fall; he had bought it as part of a modest $15,000 equipment update. I was invited, but he lives thousands of miles away. When I later ran into still another young enthusiast (this concept definitely appeals to hi-fi youth), I moved fast; he was only a mile or two from my weekly commuter route out of New York. So in no time you would have found me walking into a strange place and a brand-new listening room, to hear what I could hear.

Aural Reorientation

Now when I first enter such a room, with reproduced music playing, I hear just one thing, the room itself. Strange, indefinable, confusing, different. I am at sea. I have lost my sonic bearings. I cannot judge anything in the way of sound until this initial confusion is sorted out, and that takes time--listening time. It should, of course, for anybody who listens to more than audio machinery. Half an hour, maybe, preferably a lot more. Then, in all due time, the room just fades away and you can hear what is in it.

I climbed a flight of suburban stairs and landed in the center of a sidewise oblong space full of equipment and roaring with music. Jargon! Held my ears. I couldn't even see which way was front-I was helpless until I got that straight-front speakers to my left (as I entered the room), back to my right, and a third pair right in the middle. Audio Pulse goes beyond four when you have the stuff to do it.

Loud music, very clean, from Phase Linears and such, and from decoders, demodulators, enhancers, and on top of it all-Audio Pulse. Phew--it was a sonic mess, at least as I heard it. Ta-ta- ta-ta! Was that a built-in, intended echo, in the music, or had Audio Pulse done it? I didn't ask. I would not even look at the unit for the first half hour or so, and I fear my friend got a bit discouraged. I was simply listening to that room. All sorts of music, classical, pop, direct, Pulsed, SQ'd, or several combined.

But patience is rewarded. After a sandwich, I began to hear. The room was going away, the music emerging.

It happens. So we could go to work.

My first thought, of course, was redundancy. Three spaces? My second thought was to play records I already knew well. Best test you can imagine, for a safe listening anchor. Give you only one example-what better than the test pressing of my own forth-coming disc, the Canby Singers (Josquin Des Prez, Melchior Franck), recorded in a gorgeous big church acoustic with great bass and inspiring reverb. Add more space to that? Well, you'd never guess. To my astonishment, Audio Pulse produced no redundancy at all that I could hear, nor any sense of several super-imposed spaces. Not even in this extremely reverberant recording, a tough test. Nor any confusion, added distance, loss of pre-sense. You could of course achieve extremes via the controls, maximum slow decay and longest delay. The Olympic pool sound. But you don't have to. There are choices, shorter delay (i.e. a smaller synthetic room), quicker decay (i.e. not so live). I very quickly found a right and tasteful combination, which left the musical effect unchanged and unblurred but the sense of present space startlingly enhanced. Like the original! After all, I had set up the mikes and conducted the music myself, right on the spot. And so I went on to other records, with similar results, including the deadest recordings I could find and even some in mono. Audio Pulse takes care of that with ease, thanks to crosswise random intermix as well as back-to-front delay. Surround space out of mono! That's really something. Note well, you collectors.

Quadraphonic Quandary

Now all this was a serious revelation to me. Not only does the synthetic space work, but it goes beyond anything I have heard in quadraphonic recording, any system. Specifically, there was that elusively quick, wide, instant sense of space, of being there, which is a phenomenon I treasure above all sounds, having learned to hear it in the flesh at a thousand real concerts. I have waited and waited for this to appear on discs, as decoded or demodulated. It is present, fleetingly, in a few rare four-channel discs when everything is going just right. Period.

Too subtle, too quick, too mercurial, for present disc.

Don't jump too far. At least 95 percent of the spatial impression we need does get through on disc via the various systems including stereo. Many people can't even hear that last elusive five percent. I myself am devoted to my four channels and the various decode, enhance, demodulate subtleties that do in fact make my music highly listenable. But what a marvelous five percent, for those lucky enough to hear it! The ultimate reality, and it is the Audio Pulse clincher--all synthetic.

The finest thing I can say, then, is that unlike synthetic grape-juice or genuine vinyl leather, Audio Pulse is neither oversimplified nor crude, but in some respects can do even better than the normal packaged product.

Take that, you recording engineers. A very sophisticated and carefully thought-out device, both in the operating parameters (semi-randomized) and the ingenious translation of these into analog-digital-analog circuitry. I do not think life will be quite the same for me, even if I don't use a synthetic space maker for record reviews.

Well, not yet, anyhow.

(Source: Audio magazine, March 1977; Edward Tatnall Canby)

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