The Art & Science of Sound


Starting in the late 1950s, the recording studio became a significant part of the art of making music. This might seem like the most obtusely obvious thesis statement ever but hear me out. In all of history prior to World War Two, there were precisely 70 years (from 1877 to 1947) where music was recorded in any usable large-scale fashion. For the twenty years from about the mid-1920s until after the War, some people had access to pre-recorded music, but not many. The technological advances in recording in the ten years starting in 1947 were about as exponential as what we experienced with the streaming boom on of the mid-twenty-one-teens. Everything changed, and by the time producers like Phil Spector, Les Paul and Rudy Van Gelder changed the way we listen to music, the artform had become a cultural force – one that was not even imaginable a half century before.

Over the years, as technology advanced, so did the quality of recorded music, but to this day some of the early recordings of the “Hi-Fi Era” stand toe-to-toe with anything being recorded today. In fact, there are several reasons why a lot of older music may be considered sonically better, but that’s a discussion for another time.

One of the most enjoyable things about listening to music is how unique each and (almost) every recording sounds. Every bit of recorded art features a component that separates it from every other piece. While this uniqueness makes music special, it can also be quite maddening when you’re trying to assess the performance of your audio gear (and your own ears).

The problem is that – to this day – the quality of a recorded piece is just not very quantifiable.

With video, there are standards for broadcast and playback quality divided into things we can objectively measure and port from one device to another without a lot of deviation. Video is a replication of what you can see, while audio, and most specifically music in this context, is a generally replication of what someone imagined. When you look at it that way, there’s a lot of room for interpretation and opinion.

With video, there are fewer variables to interfere with what we see. Of course, you can completely mess up settings like white or color balance, intensity, and brightness to name a few, but other than room lighting there aren’t a lot of things that interfere with a television’s performance. On the other hand, positioning of even a few degrees or inches, the room décor and size, the materials the room is made of and where you sit all have a tremendous effect on what you hear. That’s before we even consider our individual tastes.

This problem is further complicated by the fact that outside of THX for movies, there really are no standards for replicating music. Each artist, producer and mix engineer have their own vision for how they want the want their finished recording to sound. Side note – there is no correct word in English to describe the concept for how someone wants something to sound that works as well as the word “vision.” If you know of one let me know and I’ll get a couple of KEF tee-shirts out to you straight away. Now back to our story…

The very essence of a recording translates the artistic vision, but has that been lost in a world controlled by algorithms and rigid concepts of art? Audiophile forums and groups are filled with people seeking the answer to the question what sounds best. It’s an impossible quest. A hip-hop recording needs to sound a certain way to convey the artist’s vision, much like a jazz trio with piano, bass, drums and vocalist needs to sound a certain way. The Ramones would have simply been another pop band if they recorded their first album at Abbey Road like they orginally wanted to. There is a delicate art to making the sound of a recording convey the emotional context of a song but pity the woeful audio enthusiast who isn’t sure that what they are hearing sounds good

Famed producer Phil Ramone (Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Elton John and about fifty other artists you have most definitely heard of) insisted a track wasn’t right unless his foot tapped reflexively, and if a track made his whole leg bounce up and down? He knew he had a hit on his hands. There was no mention about how the track sounded – it was all about how it felt.

That might seem a bit off the mark coming from a speaker manufacturer’s blog, but here’s the point – our job is to uncover as much of the magic of a recorded piece as possible while staying completely out of the way of that magic. If what you’re hearing is making your foot tap, your heart beat faster or your eyes well-up, well, then we’ve done our job – and as the person who set your system up, so have you.

There is no algorithm to make every recording sound like magic. Music is far too subjective and emotional to leave to some indifferent computer. Furthermore, audio is not really a great place to keep up with the Jones’s. Mr. and Mrs. Jones might have a narrow idea of what sounds good that might not have anything to do with what sounds good to you. All algorithms, or the Jones’, can do is offer some advice, a nice baseline (not bassline) and their opinion (yes, with a few scientific exceptions the algorithm is generally the result of the coders’ opinion). The Jones’s might also have a ton more money to throw around on audio gear than you, so enjoy their system when they invite you over but don’t’ let that stop you from enjoying music on your own terms. I’ve heard some amazing systems in my time, but not once has that stopped me from welling-up or bouncing my leg when my own humble system hits me just right.

You’ve got to hear what you are hearing and if it’s making your foot tap or your heart race. If you follow that criterion, the magic of music is easily uncovered. Of course, it all becomes a journey though, doesn’t it? What sounds good today eventually gets overshadowed by what sounds good as your ears become accustomed to great sound. Your ears are greedy little buggers, always wanting something better. That’s one of the great joys of audio!

Tomorrow, in Part Two, we’ll take a look at some audio standards that do exist, but they really won’t help you in your quest for perfect sound (but there are a couple of things worth knowing anyway).   

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