May 30, 2011

Is there a lo-fi gene in every musician's DNA?

Over the years I've come to know a few professional musicians, and not one of them (including those making really good money as studio musicians in Hollywood) owned anything like a decent sound system.   In most cases their sound reproduction preferences were downright indecent.  One listened to recorded music only on his (standard) Toyota car stereo.  Another was quite happy with a boombox in a distant corner of the living room (partially obscured by heavy furniture).  Still another was fully satisfied with a tiny clock-radio-cum-CD-player in the bedroom.  And these are the better cases!  Toward the bottom of the scale there was a musician who listened to recorded music in the form of fuzzy Youtube streams, using giveaway airline headphones.  And then there was a fellow who simply never listened to music at all (recorded or otherwise) unless he was performing, rehearsing, or practicing.
      I should note that this group is well distributed across different instruments (piano, strings, woodwinds, brass), forms of employment (symphony orchestras, Hollywood studios, private and college teaching), age groups (from the late 20s to the mid-50s), and levels of musical talent (from the average to the prodigious).  Moreover, these musicians were acutely aware of sound quality when it came to their instruments.  They could go on for hours discussing the sonic characteristics of strings, bows, reeds, and valves.  And choosing the right-sounding instrument seemed to be far more torturous for them than choosing a house live in or a person to marry.
These observations bring me to the fundamental question which lies at the heart of every intellectual inquiry: What the fuck is going on here?

Alas, I have no answers, only speculations.  Here are some of them:

1.  Musicians have little interest in listening to recorded music for the same reason that gynecologists have little interest in looking at the photo spreads in Hustler magazine.  People don't like to bring their work home.

2.  For musicians the difference between lo-fi and hi-fi playback equipment is insignificant because all recorded music sounds "lo-fi" compared to actual performances.  (Celibidache is said to have compared listening to recorded music to fornicating with a photograph of Brigitte Bardot.)

3.  When listening to recorded music, musicians automatically use their refined aural memory of instrumental timbres to compensate for sonic shortcomings of any recording or playback equipment.  (Some, admittedly not many, can "listen" to music by reading scores!)

Then again, perhaps the musicians of my acquaintance were a statistically weird group.  For example, they were all men.  So I have no idea if women musicians are heavily into Krell amplifiers and Apogee electrostatic speakers.   Then there is the geographical bias, in that (with one exception) I met all these musicians while living in California.  So again, I don't know if musicians in Boston or Philadelphia routinely mortgage their Bergonzi violins and Guarneri cellos to buy the latest tube preamplifier from Audio Research.....


john schott said...

Good post. Yes, this is largely my experience too. I read your post having just finished listening to Walter's Bruckner 9 on my Radio Shack clock radio. In my case, it's largely about lack of money. But that can't be the whole story, because I have certainly bought enough CDs, records, guitars, and guitar amplifiers to pay for many a stero upgrade. But recently I thought I'd buy a better CD player. I read a bunch of Sterophile magazines from the library and came to the conclusion that I was never going to spend more than $300 on a CD player, and that pretty much anything at the price or lower was more or less the same. And that I didn't care - as long as it was decent, it was good enough for me. I've gone through several phases where so much of what I've listed to was recorded in the 1920's or earlier, and that pretty much renders these issues moot. Thanks for your blog!

Boom said...

Good to hear from you, John!

Speaking of money, by "decent sound system" I mean something that is affordable to most musicians with steady employment. Say a pair of monitor speakers and an amplifier with the combined cost of around $1000-1500. (I don't think CD players mean as much, and many folks would use a laptop or iPod as a source anyway.)

But as I saw it, it wasn't so much lack of money as lack on interest/concern. In fact, even without much money, one could find better equipment at thrift stores for next to nothing. Not long ago I picked up a mint pair of British Celestion bookshelf speakers (Ditton 100, their cheapest model from 1980s) at a thrift store for $5. They don't convey much below 80 hz, but are amazingly accurate and natural in the rest of the range. (And I've seen similar bargains frequently before and after.)

And going outside my personal experiences, I've read that Karajan (who wasn't struggling financially :)) routinely approved final mixdowns of his recordings by listening to a cassette copy on his Sony Walkman portable player! (Maybe that's why most of his recordings sound so bad on decent equipment...)

I really suspect that, when listening to recordings, musicians hear what their brains "reconstruct" rather than what actually reaches their ears from speakers or headphones - at least to a much higher degree than average musicl lovers do.

Anonymous said...

Hilarious post and nice blog. I have not known many professional musicians, but I shared an appartment for a year with a woman professional pianist many years ago when I was still a student. I had personally invested a lot of my limited money on a fairly decent sound system and was amazed to find, when I moved in with her, that she had one of those cheap all-in-one plastic component systems that included amp, speakers, turntable, radio, tape and cd player for the price of a decent turntable. It sounded so bad to my ears that I could hardly believe she could appreciate it. There is no question that she could hear the difference, however, for she commented with admiration on the sound quality of mine when she heard it ! This was not the only bizarrerie (to me) that I observed with her, though: she also owned a Kawai baby grand piano (one can understand that she had preferred putting her money on this rather than on a sound system), but the piano was crammed into a square room barely large enough to contain it plus a chair--a room with a window and a door to a balcony with no drapes--instead of in the comparatively large and sonically interesting living room. I sat in this piano room once to listen to her playing Bartok's Suite opus 14 and I swear that I came out deaf and remained so for an hour afterward! She played the piano in this room for at least an hour every day, plus gave piano lessons. Can you imagine the state of her hearing ? Maybe a large number of musicians are also partly deaf?

However, I also have personal experience to share: More recently, I have listened to a lot of ripped music (mostly in lossless) through an old 100$ plastic Sony portable that's connected to my computer (because it is located at the other end of the house from my living-room). Although I can of course hear the difference in sound quality, I nevertheless enjoy listening to music this way while at the computer, and, perhaps more surprisingly (it was surprising to me anyway), I can detect the sound quality of a recording even on this lo-fi system and can most definitely appreciate the interpretation. In fact, when you think about it, if what you care about is interpretation, then recorded sound quality cannot be as major an obstacle as hi-fi types like to think, otherwise no one could ever appreciate the value of old mono lo-fi recordings by exceptional musicians--and some (even I, on occasion) obviously can appreciate them! I remember when, in my early twenties and knowing that I hated opera, I heard for the first time in my life a broadcast of Casta Diva on a cheap car radio (on which I usually enjoyed Aretha Franklin or Cat Stevens): I was absolutely flabbergasted, not by the aria itself, which I did find beautiful, but most especially by the interpretation... which was eventually announced to be by Maria Callas. I had heard of, but never heard Callas before and even though I began appreciating opera only several decades later, I remember then saying to my boyfriend 'So THAT is Callas ? Now I understand why she is so famous and so loved as an opera singer--she is extraordinary, the emotion she conveys is amazing!' This, perceived from a 70's radio broadcast on a 1970 car radio. So maybe when musicians listen to recorded music, the only thing they care about is interpretation ?

The truth is, listening to a recording of an opus right after coming out of a concert--to the same opus you just heard, by the same musician and on the best possible hi-fi system-- has a tremendously sobering effect on your evaluation of 'hi-fi' recordings and systems... I've tried it, only once, and it was just solo piano (Krystian Zimerman), not orchestra or string quartet... So very very very sobering... I attend maybe 12-20 concerts a year, but professional musicians hear concert-quality sound every day, so maybe it's no wonder they cannot be impressed with hi-fi electronic systems ?

Jan(e) Dismas

Boom said...

Jan(e) wrote:
>> if what you care about is interpretation, then recorded sound quality cannot be as major an obstacle as hi-fi types like to think, otherwise no one could ever appreciate the value of old mono lo-fi recordings by exceptional musicians <<

I could not agree more! For me, Furtwangler's 1943 recording of Mozart E-flat major symphony and Toscanini/Dorfmann 1945 recording of Beethoven C-major piano concerto are so overwhelming that no modern stereo recording ever came close to replicating their impact.
But I still think that playing these old recordings on a decent sound system gives a significantly better (if still largely inferred) idea about orchestral balances and textures than what can be heard from a boombox or a clock-radio-CD-player.

max said...

I dunno.

I used to be the sort who was completely content listening to 8 track tapes of the bee gees that had partially melted on the dashboard before my composer friend introduced me to Webern and Donatoni run through Graaf Modena monoblocks and floorstanding Proac Response speakers connected with intimidating cables furnished by the Nordost corporation.

These days, I have come to prefer recordings to live performance in much the same way that going outside makes me want to adjust the saturation levels of the sky and surrounding environs.

Boom said...

Max wrote:
>> These days, I have come to prefer recordings to live performance <<

So did Glenn Gould, so you are in good company :))

jackalope said...

Sobering? How about ageing hearing? Thaaats sobering! When I was young in the 70's and 80's I worked in stereo repair and was constantly tweaking my audio equipment with some anxiety. Listening closely to the mix and sound quality of records, tapes, and broadcasts. I also got involved with live mixing and recording. Talk about anxiety! Here I am in my 50's now having not purchased any home audio equipment since the 90's and then only when something either went bad or I wanted a convenience (I purchased a receiver simply to have a remote control). I spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen enjoying music on a computer speaker system by Altec Lansing (2 satellites and a small sub) that I purchased 10 years ago for $35. I still have the “Big” system set up in my living room, and listen to it when spending time there, but at this point I don't really care where I listen. It's true, tympani's, acoustic bass, and other low frequency instruments sound better out there, and sometimes I find myself appreciating the “air” around a saxophone or higher frequency sounds (marimba, vibes, cymbals, etc.) but I can hear them just fine on a basic system and have no issue listening that way until you get to something that actually distorts when making the attempt (a buzz, rattle, or break up type sound) and my little computer speakers don't do that so they are enjoyable to me. I find that since I stopped focusing on “fidelity” and more on the music that my time is spent more enjoyably. I sing in a choir and sometimes seek a recorded version to practice with on line – usually youtube and often find such an inferior recording that it is nerve racking. But otherwise almost any “decent” recording is just fine with me (with some unbalanced mixes and incredibly bad remasters still irking me at times). So I suppose my point is that you can become so focused with reproducing sound that you are eating up quite a lot of the emotional energy you could be using to focus on the music. It's a personal decision I realize, but you have to ask yourself which is more important and how do you want to spend your time. Time runs out, hearing ages. Opportunities to go to concerts, be involved musically, etc. come and go. I suggest you find ways to spend your time wisely. I am not attempting to admonish anyone who finds the equipment side fascinating as I once did, just to try to keep your eye on the ball so to speak.