I Know What I Like and I Like What I Know



by John Zielinski

su·per·sti·tion \ˌsü-pər-ˈsti-shən\ n : a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary

fe·tish \ˈfe-tish also ˈfē-\ n : 1. a material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence 2 : an object of irrational reverence or obsessive devotion

How long? How long are we going to need to put up with the harping and bickering? How long before people will accept the evidence and stop relying on superstitions and give up their attachment to a fetish? How long?

I’m speaking, of course, about disagreements concerning the sound of recorded music. What did you think that I was talking about?

Once upon a time the purpose of audio recordings may have been to accurately reproduce the sound of a performance whether live for an audience or in the recording studio. That, however, hasn’t been true for a very long time. Instead of listeners wanting a highly accurate representation of the original sound (once referred to as “high fidelity” or “hi fi”), they instead became interested in sound that matched that which they had come to believe was the original sound. That’s right, I said “believe.”

Think about the sound of your favorite performer. It can be a soloist or an ensemble. The genre is irrelevant. Close your eyes and imagine the sound. Let it wash over and envelope you. Got it? Good. Now, here’s a very important question for you. Is that sound an accurate representation of reality? Forget for a moment the issues of memory versus real time perception. Forget the philosophical questions concerning the nature of reality. When and how did you hear that performer and how did that form a basis for the aural image that you just constructed?

I’m willing to wager that you don’t actually know what your favorite performer sounds like. I’m fairly certain that the sound with which you’re familiar is the sound of something coming out of loudspeakers at the end of a fairly complex signal chain on the recording side and possibly on the playback side as well. In most cases people haven’t heard the sound of their favorite performer purely as a pressure wave moving from a singer’s mouth or an instrument’s resonator directly to their ear. This applies to both recordings of all manner and live performances. (The last time that I, personally, heard a major artist perform without any electronics in play was a well known opera performer in recital in a small room for an audience of about 50 people. It was just him and a piano. No microphones, amplifiers, processing equipment or speakers.) As a result, most people have formed an aural memory based on an artificial reality. That artificial reality colors what a person considers an accurate representation of a sonic event.

When digital sound recording and delivery first came about there were a variety of criticisms. The most frequent was that the sound was “unnatural,” “brittle” or “cold.” Some of these criticisms persist to this day. What was the frame of reference for the assessments? Why, the vinyl record or analog audio tape, of course. Vinyl records and, to a lesser extent, tape were the things with which people were familiar, so they became the standards for comparison. The question at the time – still valid today as vinyl records are seeing a bit of a resurgence – was whether that standard was reasonable.

The evolution of sound carrying media has largely been about improving the fidelity of the final playback so that what comes out of the listener’s speakers most accurately represents what was captured on the master recording. Each generation of sound carrier supposedly got closer to that goal. Of course, unless you were the person responsible for the creation of the master recording (the mastering engineer) you had no way to know that, so you were working from expectations. Until the 1980s the carriers for consumers were all analog. On top of that, records and their playback are mechanical. The groove in the record causes a needle to move back and forth and that movement is translated into an electronic signal that is ultimately passed through the signal chain and played back. There are a number of limitations introduced by that physical process. The introduction of digital media changed the rules. The mechanical limitations that applied to vinyl records suddenly disappeared. This gave rise to a variety of what might be best called superstitions.

In the first decade of the 21st century a colleague told me that vinyl LPs were superior to CDs because the CD was technically incapable of reproducing the sound captured on an LP. I asked how he knew this. He replied that it was “common knowledge.” Hmm. I asked whether he was up to a challenge. Better still. Was he up to a wager? I would prove that his assertion was balderdash. The deal was done.

My colleague selected a specific vinyl record with which he was very familiar and that he was willing to loan to me for the wager. I took that record, played it and captured that playback into my digital recording system. No tweaks. No modification to the sound that was transferred. Just the sound of the vinyl record with its inherent limitations intact. Next, I transferred that recording to a CD-R. The stage was set for the acid test.

The final step of the test was to allow my colleague to determine which recording – the original LP or the CD that I had made from the LP – was which. He could hear the playback, but he couldn’t see the source. In the end, and not surprisingly, he couldn’t tell the difference. He had been the victim of his prejudices and superstitions. The difference between what he heard on digital recordings and vinyl LPs wasn’t a limitation of the digital technology. It was something other than the technology. More importantly, it was a reflection of his conditioned preferences. As a youth he had become accustomed to the sound of vinyl records with their predominant midrange presence and decreased high and low frequencies. This is not what one hears when listening to the sound produced by a voice or instrument in a real space. It’s also not typical of well engineered digital recordings.

Today there are people whose frames of reference are a specific version of digital sound carrier. It’s no longer the CD for many. Instead, it’s some form of carrier that implements lossy compression. “Lossy compression” means that data are thrown away to make a digital file smaller. The data that are thrown away are supposedly inaudible, so their absence shouldn’t matter. The technical process, however, can and often does introduce audible artifacts. The final sound is actually further away from the original material and the original master. Why does this matter?

If you’re a person for whom digital audio sporting lossy compression is the norm, the vinyl record may well sound better to you than your other recordings. The same is true if your tastes in recorded music developed prior to the advent of digital audio regardless of the digital format. More faithful to the original? Hardly. The vinyl record may have become a fetish for you.

Now that we’ve visited how our biases and beliefs affect our preferences in sound carriers I’d like to ask you to take a step back. Much as I did when I asked you to think about the sound of your favorite performer, I would now like to ask you to think about your social, political, religious and other preferences. How much is based on what can be demonstrated to be true and how much is based on that to which you’ve become accustomed? It’s an easy question that many find difficult to answer. It forces one to consider things that they perhaps would rather not consider. Sometimes it forces us to acknowledge things that we’d rather not acknowledge. It’s in that consideration and acknowledgement that we see ourselves as we are, evaluate that against who we would like to be, and grow as persons.