Audio, Etc. (Nov. 1982)

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There's always something new for me at the Oregon Bach Festival, where I've been taking myself each year after the long Eastern winters. In 1981, you may recall, I discovered an interesting array of PZM microphones, two pairs mounted in four large rectangles of clear, heavy plastic, set out to pick up many of the Bach Festival concerts for broadcast. That was one of the early uses of the PZMs (Crown now has the trademark) for a full series of large scale classical concerts. This year, I was glad to find that KWAX FM ("Kaywax") at the University of Oregon in Eugene was still using the PZMs for Bach, but with some differences worth noting.

In 1981, a set of PZMs was placed on the floor just below the edge of the stage and tilted diagonally, to pick up a line of from one to five Bach solo voices, off to one side of the conductor. The two mikes were joined in mono and the result mixed down to locate the singers in the stereo-broadcast center. This arrangement took advantage of the flat response of the PZM out to wide angles, "half omni," for a very clear sound image of all the singers in the row. This year, somewhat to my surprise, the PZMs occupied different positions; the main miking was standard.

The reason, I suspect, was circumstantial or, should I say, logistic. This time we had a lot of varying solo positions on stage including the complete double array of the "St. Matthew Passion" with soloists on each side of the stage to match. The PZMs in plastic are easy to look at and through but not so easily moved. Big and bulky. So the little mikes took over again, while the smaller pair of PZMs took on the hanging job, at half stage, facing backwards to pick up the chorus which sang on risers directly behind the orchestra. These mikes cope beautifully with the severe transients generated by loud choral forces; the wrong-side, non-response of the half-omni pattern cuts down audience noise and the flat response out to wide angles gives a sharp, clear definition in stereo. I suspect there is no better microphone anywhere for chorus.

I discovered the larger pair of PZM squares in a brand-new location, hung far apart a few feet out from the rear balcony. So-PZMs for ambience? Good idea. Very wide angle, low distortion at the ambient sides and, again, minimum audience pickup from the rear. In one concert I got to sit about 10 feet behind one of these and found myself viewing the entire concert straight through the mike, like a large, edgeless plate glass window. Do the larger squares, used here for ambience, afford any significantly lower bass? I wondered, and thought, no.

More likely, the engineers were getting around troublesome low-bass resonances in the hall.

I quickly put the PZMs aside and went on to other things. This year, thanks to a lecture I gave as part of the Festival, I got very much into what we used to call "live vs. recorded" though not in the sense of hi-fi quality. A whole series of musical challenges came up, very neatly highlighting the remarkable differences between the impact of live music, all around us at the Festival, and recorded or broadcast music, often stemming from the very same sources on stage.

At my lecture on the musical values of recording as compared with live, I really felt a fish out of water. Live music in every direction, rehearsals, scurrying performers, students carrying instruments, practice rooms emitting scales and assorted blats-and I was plonked right in the middle, to promote OUR kind of classical hi-fi. Never did it seem less important. I almost cringed as the first hi-fi sounds emerged from my borrowed equipment.

Live musicians, as we know, tend to deprecate our noble efforts to perpetuate their art on tape or disc or what have-you. For them, the incomparable sound of living music, of actual performance, is simply beyond any mere recorded (or broadcast) experience.

True, true! How could I disagree? And yet-well, you've heard the arguments before. The bugaboo of tape editing-desecration of a high art! The loss of "spontaneity." (I might suggest that this includes spontaneous mistakes. Right?) The dampening of inspiration. Such a string of negatives. Can anything compare to the pure art of music in the very ACT of creation? Well, yes, something can, and that is recorded music at its best. Though it is, to be sure, different.

I've been saying for a good part of my life that recorded music is now an alternative and equal means by which-no, not the best seat in the concert hall-the original score, the music itself, as left to us in notation by the composer, is made into sound once again. Live and recorded. Equals.

Our musicians, no doubt, must provide the manpower for both types and in all truth recording is not the easiest of their chores. But that's life. Musicians, like painters and sculptors and movie actors, must endure what the medium demands of them. And make the best of it.

One can argue this till kingdom come but a more objective approach is simply to point out WHY recorded music (classical) is so different as an equal alternative. That was the burden of my lecture (not hi-fi as such), and I did my best to illustrate a few of the basic differences, hoping maybe to dramatize things. The Oregon Typewriter Co. of Eugene, which has a "stereo loft" upstairs, helped me wonderfully in this via a pair of Heresy speakers (Klipsch), a top-line Yamaha table with Signet cartridge, and an equally good Yamaha preamp and control center, models not noted (things were a bit hectic at that point). Lovely stuff! But set up in a busy rehearsal auditorium which I had hoped would be deadish in the sound for reasonable stereo. Instead, it was shiny-live, hard as nails and just awful for hi-fi-not one record I had brought with me sounded remotely like itself.

Do you have any idea of the impact on good hi-fi of such a space? If not, please take your gear to room 198, the School of Music at the University of Oregon and see what happens. No offense, I hope, to the music school.

Room 198 was set up for live-music rehearsals, not hi-fi.

That, alas, was my first point, negatively speaking. We were in a very wrong place for recorded music--none worse. One of those differences.

But I had the sense to realize, before we started, that with a good roomful of sound-deadening audience, the sound would not be quite as bad, and so indeed it turned out.

Recordings, I insisted, are designed to bring music, large and small, into small spaces, not into auditoriums or concert halls. The built-in liveness--one of the great discoveries of the art of recording--brings to our living rooms, automobiles, headphones, a remarkably good illusion of a much bigger space. But TWO big spaces, one built into the recording, the other in the playback, is sonic redundancy. I call it double liveness and it is destructive. It never works.

All of which I patiently explained to the nice ladies with blue-gray hair who go to lectures like mine. Not easy to tell them the sound was poor, the effect lousy! But what could I do? Did my best. I fear that most of my illustrations went above the heads of the audience (but hit home with a minority of real enthusiasts). Blank reactions to my jokes-could anything be worse? People exiting because the music was "too loud" (where have I heard that before? Alas, those who most often attend lectures (and concerts) are generally bewildered by any unsettling new ideas, I've observed. Not their fault. Can't really put blame. Those who do enjoy really make up for the problem.

You can play a recording in any hall you want, if it is an "absolute" recording, that is, recorded with no liveness of its own, like most early acoustics and many of the first electric 78s. Then the recorded sound takes on the characteristics of the playback space, whatever it may be.

Another major point of difference between live and recorded music, maybe the most important of all, is repetition. Live, a musical performance is heard once-and is gone. In concert, small mistakes, bits of insecure playing, even external interruptions like planes and buses and coughs, are transitory and harmless. We never hear them again. But the essence of recording is repetition, the whole intent of a recording determines the shape of recorded music. Repetition affects the wanted and the unwanted. If we respect the recording for what it is, we will tolerate no unwanted sounds that can become hideously repetitive, worse and worse as we learn to expect them, to hear them ahead of time. And so we have to achieve an unusual, even painstaking perfection in recorded music if the music is to be effective.

Why object? The medium demands it.

We can do no less.

Thus tape editing, when done with artistry, is one of the greatest boons imaginable for the all-too-human musician who understands this. If you can be "spontaneous" for the length of a whole LP side without fluffs, with no disturbances, everything perfect-OK, then by all means be spontaneous. But few musicians can make that grade, as witness the ordeals (and non-spontaneity) of direct-to-disc recording. My book also says that direct-to-disc is contrary to nature--the musicians's nature. If you can repair an entire marvelous performance by intercutting between takes, avoiding some fatal tiny flaw, then by all means DO it. And praise the Lord for such blessings.

To show repetition's effect, I spoke a casual sentence to the nice ladies, something like "Now that was a really good recording." Then suddenly I put on a cassette on which I had recorded precisely those words 50 times over, never varying a trace. (I can do that after years of retakes on my edited radio programs.) Repetition gone berserk. I sounded like an idiot, which was my intention. I fear the good ladies were baffled, but no matter. Then I brought up another major aspect of recorded sound, the relativity of volume levels, as contrasted to the absolute level of any live sound. To make an orchestra louder on stage, you must ask them to play louder. To do the same in your living room, you merely tweak the volume control. In recorded music there IS no absolute level for any sound.

Commonplace. We live with this every day. And yet the very sense of recorded music and of our listening depends on this relative volume. Not only in the overall but in the relative volume of sounds within the recording.

All very different from the sound of live music, if we make the comparison.

And there is another pervasive factor-time. Time moves differently in recorded form. A second of unwanted silence seems a minute. Long stretches of non-music in concerts do not bother us at all but in recording they are endless, and the extraneous noises seem 10 times as prominent.

So we edit. If the sound is taped. Or we talk, talk, talk, to fill up the holes in a live broadcast. If I am right, KWAX at Eugene discreetly edits out a lot of "hash" from their supposedly "live" rebroadcasts of Bach concerts, a day after the performance itself. Performers and student conductors (a whole class of them) walking on and off stage at every pause, heels going clack-clack. Vast quantities of general noise, dreadfully loud and long on the air, no problem at the actual concert.

So different! Editing is the saving grace.

I had a bright idea for illustrating the absolute volume level of live music, as compared with the same recorded. I snared a young harpsichordist, a student at the music school, who went along with my idea immediately. First, I played a recording of a Bach "English Suite" performed on the clavichord, a very intimate and personal instrument for home use. Then, with some drama.

I turned to one side and there was-a clavichord. My young friend stepped up and proceeded to play the very same music on it live, note for note.

She was a good sport! For, as we intended, those in the front audience rows heard only a tiny tingle of barely audible sound; those behind heard nothing at all. The live clavichord in that auditorium was out of its element, to put it mildly. But in the recording, it did very well.

I thought it was a provocative demo, but the ladies (and the gents) were really at sea by this time. How could I treat Bach to such an indignity as total silence-not to mention the harpsichordist, whose own concert had been just the day before? But she understood! She loved it.

Oh, well, a lecture is a lecture.

by Edward Tatnall Canby (adapted from Audio magazine, Nov. 1982)

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