Audio Etc. by Edward Tatnall Canby (Dec. 1976)

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Live vs. recorded? The biggest thing in audio, now, tomorrow, and back in the past. For most of our history and even before, I've always placed this as the first interest, clearly beyond all others, in terms of the signal significance of our art, if not its commercial sales figures.

Live vs. recorded is the ultimate, the inevitable, the always-present comparison. Those numerous A/B audio events which dot our history and have been big drawing cards every time, ever since the good Mr. Bell said, "Dr. Watson, come here..." (he had accidentally spilled something, and just said it, unlike Samuel F. B. Morse, who carefully planned out his "What hath God wrought?" deal) and the time, in this century, when early vintage opera stars appeared in public, live, in competition with the acoustic phono and were adjudged to be no more life-like than the mechanical machine which reproduced their voices (according to accounts, few in the audience could tell any difference), all the way forward to Edgar Vilchur's sophisticated live vs. recorded hi-fi show demos--the string quartet which stopped playing while the music went right on (rather, they mocked at playing music which, in fact, came from loudspeakers right behind them)and so onward to our latest and maybe final contradiction, the "live on tape" broadcast now the rule in the U.S.--all these have fascinated me as points of crucial interest, turning points, if you want, in what is really a smooth continuum of expansion in the understanding of audio's always improving message. The very word reproduce gives us the clue. We use it today, and use it even incongruously for the "reproduction" of electronic music that has no previous message existence, either in sound or on paper, in the form which reaches us.

We count on this duality, we take it for granted, and we find it extremely difficult-all of us, audio engineers included, not to mention musicians-to think of audio as, so to speak, a mono art, not dual. Just itself. The only true "mono" sounds in audio are test tones. They are themselves. They are a virgin, original messages, signals, with a purpose, a meaning and use. There are only two other major audio categories. Music and speech. Both are dual, even if we must somehow manufacture an original in our minds like, say, a performance in a concert hall, to satisfy the matrix of our thinking.

Audio, as we know it, started as speech, if you will discount the measured clicks (later beeps) of the telegraph language. Did I hear someone say digital? But yes. The rendering of an audio "original," from a "score," a written-down message, into discrete on-off digital units. That was where Morse was a genius, while numerous other telegraph inventors of his time merely plodded along familiar and fruitless analog paths, like the several systems with a separate wire for each letter of the alphabet.

The telegraph did not reproduce speech, though it did transmit it. That was for the telephone. "My God, it speaks!" exclaimed the astounded Emperor of Brazil, I think in Philadelphia at the Centennial. There was such an Emperor at the time and he had a magnificent beard. The very idea that a machine could talk actual words was as difficult to conceive, at that moment, as was the later thought that messages might travel from point to point through-nothing-or the insubstantial "ether," whatever that was, minus any sort of visible and tangible connection. Speech came first in audio for excellent reasons, as did opera when we got to music. The good Lord plus Darwin and Wallace saw to it that human speech makes, for the human ear, the most efficient use of sound that we can know, a maximum of content on a minimum of signal shape. "Mary had a little lamb," said Edison, and played it back, intelligibly, from tin foil.


Musical Limits

But music, though the ear can take it in very nicely, is enormously less efficient and, of course, stretches the audible medium to its very limits-perhaps the best reason for music's existence. The Mount Everest of the ear. Music of any sort requires a vastly more capable transmission medium than does the basic speech, which came through the early telephone and the first phonographs, whose fidelity by any parameters you choose was measurably just above zero, i.e., sheer noise. Music via the first phonograph, or gramophone, was funny as all get-out because of the matter of pitch, which was one of those unexpected and overwhelming natural obstacles to audio sense, and one which had never existed before.

Astonishing discovery, how rock-like, how faithful, the reproduced pitch level had to be if musical reproduction was to be accepted as intelligible! And how difficult to achieve. So many big things came along in the 1870s and 80s that the electric motor wasn't even around in practical form when the phono appeared, except via bulky battery power. Something much simpler had to be latched onto, and was.

You turned a crank. Hand power. Just try it on your own 1976 turntable and judge the result. Acceptable, at least then, for basic speech. Not for music, once you got tired of giggling at the fire-siren horrors that came out via hand cranking.

Thus, one of the very great inventions in our audio field was the clockwork motor that didn't run down. Not at least for some minutes.

That was by Eldridge Gerry, the mechanic who turned into the Victor company soon afterwards. He solved the insoluble problem, how to persuade a spring to unwind itself at an even speed, even though its stored power fell off continuously. A matter for a governor, and we all know that governors, even electronic (feed-back type) tend to oscillate; music does not appreciate any sort of oscillation unless it's part of the "original." Nor any sagging in pitch. The Gerry motor kept right on for as much as four minutes, more if necessary, before it gave up. Yes, true, the chronometer, the household clock, the watch, had solved the unchanging speed problem long since, back in the 17th century; but that was via a mechanical square wave, the escapement, or a hung weight plus sine wave, the pendulum. Neither would do for an unchanging continuous motion. So count clockwork as a part of audio, a basic invention. It was inventions such as these which brought us the possibility of a useful dual role for audio, live sound reflected in sound that was reproduced.

Odd how the basic difference between the telegraph, invented in the 1830s, or the speaking telegraph of the 1870s, and the far more revolutionary phonograph, the first machine to record and reproduce actual sonic intelligence, is still directly reflected in a basic difference today between broadcasting and recording. What seems to me most significant in our entire industry at this time is that, at last, even this basic distinction is beginning to blur and fade, though nature continues to be implacable in its distinctions between NOW and any other moment. Live on tape! We postpone time and think nothing of it.

Don't suppose, either, that this is exclusively the province of audio. Far from it! How about those speeches which the President or the Secretary of State will make, of which somehow or other we always get to know the entire contents before they are so much as uttered. It is the way of our day, a lot more than just politics. We think that way. We move about in time.

Sonic Memorabilia

When a great figure dies, these days, the very first thing we hear is the incessant sound of his voice, hale and hearty, hour after hour in memoriam.

Poor old LBJ! I think I heard more of him the day he died than in all his presidential years. Live vs. recorded.

Yes, and the chilling way in which a man's past utterances are brought back to mock him with contradiction, live on tape! The impact of the living sound of what he once said is far more powerful than the mere reflection of the printed word. You might say that this is Audio for Truth (and Consistency) in Politics, a telling use of our developed time-displacement sense.

Will the Bill of Rights catch up-the segment which says that a man may not be compelled to testify against himself? I am not aware that a test case has yet appeared. It will. For we now take the recorded sound as virtually equivalent to the live, and isn't a man's testimony normally live, in the flesh? Just wait and see.

I know that these thoughts of mine do not exactly reflect the normal day and-night concerns of the audio fraternity. That's why I write them down, to remind, and to titillate perhaps. If not, then you may turn to the rest of our admirable magazine. (We do cover the field, if I say so myself; ain't it the truth, Editor?) (Editor's Note: No, Ed, I'm afraid it ain't; there are more things in this field remaining yet uncovered than those to which we have barely begun to give coverage. It's like having too small a blanket on a cold night; there's always some part which sticks out.) As for me, I can never get away. I am always involved, even out in what some call the field, the general field. So I conclude with merely a bit of the sort of thing which brings so forcibly to mind this business of the essential audio comparison, live vs. recorded.

Number one. I went to Yerp last summer, just to get away for a bit of perspective. Always helps. I was off for three whole weeks in a VW Polo (a smaller Rabbit) just moseying around in traffic, Belgian, Swiss, French. En route, I stopped in at friends on the Loire, who have bought themselves a peasant farm house, approximately dating back to 1200-and-something, the norm for the region. Three big stone rooms on end, each with an enormous three-foot, solid, 13th century beam across the top and assorted crazy-curve rafters, natural tree shapes. I lived in the "living room" with walk-in stone fireplace; we sat there in the evening. Irrelevant? Oh no. Out comes, on the first evening, the traveling cassette, GE model, four or five years back. My hosts wanted to play me their "record collection," taped and handily transported on the plane-the airline didn't even weigh the cassette player. Probably thought it was a camera.

So off we go, into a batch of flute and harpsichord music (the husband once built a Zuckerman harpsichord from a kit) and then on to an orchestra. The cassette was on a table to one side and in the stone-and-plaster room the sound was astonishingly good. Was it GE? Could be. I was amazed at how effective the music was, minus just about everything except the essentials (never forget them), which do not include either stereo or quadraphonic, much as I love these last. Not the basic essentials, which do include the same old ones of steady pitch and an intelligible frequency response, neither of which the first phonograph had.

Bass in absentia

But one semi-basic parameter was weak and you know what. Bass. NO bass. Low notes in the harmony. Totally absent, and the ear had to work against shrill highs in order mentally to reconstruct them. Well, boys, I do know my audio. The old corner horn trick. I said hey, put that thing over there, right down in the far corner, on the floor, facing out diagonally and up diagonally, in the center of a horn-not exponential but still very much a horn. Wow! Even I was surprised. There was at least a full octave more bass, immediately audible. My friends were astonished and maybe, like the Emperor of Brazil, astounded.

Of course, this was an unusually neat case, net as the French would say. No rugs, very little furniture, but enough distant dispersal via a few chairs and those splendid overhead beams and joists to spread the reinforced sound evenly out. A solid bass. You could hear it. As any good listener knows, a better bass makes any treble sound better.

Live vs. recorded? For several years I have listened to the splendid series of choral recordings by the Oxford based Christ Church Cathedral Choir of England. I was in Oxford again last summer and by a miracle (in the summer months) there was a major musical event scheduled by that very same choir, which sings all of a mile or so away from where I was staying. This was special. A Palestrina Mass, Ascendit Maria Virgo in Caelum, sung as part of a full Anglican service with communion. So we went.

I almost wept, so beautiful was the music and so superbly done; I had myself sung in the same work, in concert form. But imagine the scene-this was the live scene and what an extraordinary contrast to the recorded playback in my home living room!

Musical Prayers

Now I probably knew that music as well as all but a handful in that cathedral full of worshippers; but, alas, I did not know the Service. Phew! The Kyrie began and I belatedly struggled to my knees along with my neighbors-this was no concert, this was a prayer, in music. Phew again. Comes the Gloria, and everybody stands up.

Same here, if a bit late. Two lovely English girls on each side of me took compassion at my obvious plight and began to coach me. A bit like that first time you tried skis on a ski slope full of experts. Or skates on a public rink.

There were intervening hymns and I was fumbling for the right hymn long after they got to verse 3; the ladies to left and right pointed and whispered and I found the page-words only! No music. You are supposed to know the tune, and I am no expert on hymns, except maybe Bach chorales.

Wish I had a private recording of my brave attempts to fake the hymn tunes; along about verse 8 (they sing them all), I would begin to get the drift but the rest was pure agony. And those girls were so nice. They went off at the end to join the long lines taking communion, while I stayed on in my place, not even daring to get up and disappear, politely....

So, you see, there still exist immense differences between live music and that which is recorded. A matter of situation and of function. Very little of our musical heritage, in the large, is so-called "concert hall" music. A great deal of it, with no thought whatsoever for audio, was very much part of some current event not reproducible via any audio on earth, and mostly not even via TV. What I say, to end with, is what I have always said: when we deal with Live vs. Recorded, we must always give the two forms separate billing, separate and equal, each in its own context. Not too many musicians, understandably, are yet willing to think in these terms, but we in audio know what immense subtleties of technique we have ourselves developed, and are developing, in the transference of common information from one to the other, live into recorded. I myself do not think there has been any more important art than ours can be, in our world today.

(Source: Audio magazine, )

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