THE NECESSITY FOR A RE-EVALUATION OF ALL RECORD CRITICISM
by Mark B. Anstendig
©1985 The Anstendig Institute
New research and developments in the sound-reproduction process have made clear that, although recording processes, with the exception of digital and cassette recorders, have been successful in preserving all essential musical information, previous playback systems have been unable to reproduce that information. The most important inaccuracy is in the reproduction of the fine nuances which are the substance of musical interpretation and which make one performance different from another. The newest, most advanced record-playing equipment reveals information not heard before and brings out a completely different expressive content than that heard with previously available equipment. These developments clearly necessitate a thorough rethinking and reorganization of the record-reviewing process and a complete re-evaluation of all previously reviewed recordings1 using accurate sound-systems and EQ correction in the playback.
Clearly stated, the two conclusions most pertinent to the problem are:
1) that the world, including reviewers, has not yet heard the contents of its records because pick-up cartridges have been unable to get the most important information out of the grooves--that missing information being the true dynamic modulation of the signal, i.e., the expressive content. That lost expressive content is what makes up the important differences in the quality of a performance, and
2) that live performance has already been so compromised- -by poor acoustics in most halls and by the musicians themselves listening to and imitating faulty record reproduction without the original expressive content--that it no longer is a trustworthy object to which the fidelity of recorded sound and performance can be compared. The comparison of one distortion of otherwise familiar sounds to a different distortion of the same type of sounds is not within the dependable capacities of hearing.
While the pick-up cartridge is the weakest link in most systems, other components, especially loudspeakers, also compromise the sound if they do not possess certain very special qualities.
The Anstendig Institute, after long searching and testing, was introduced to a new pick-up cartridge, the Win-Jewel Cartridge, made with radically advanced new techniques developed for the government by Dr. Sao Win, which reveals interpretive as well as purely sonic details which previously could not be retrieved from the record grooves. Also, very new developments in essentially friction-free, vibrationless tone-arms, in the institute’s case the Eminent Technology Air-Bearing Tone Arm, caused a big improvement in the amount of information that even the Win cartridge could extract from the grooves.
Using records by performers whose music-making Mr. Anstendig is personally familiar with--among them, his own teachers, Jean Morel and Herbert van Karajan--Mr. Anstendig has found that this new cartridge essentially duplicates the nuance of their music-making where previous cartridges did not.
If, in late 1984, a new pick-up cartridge reveals expressive content in the interpretation that other cartridges were not able to reproduce, the conclusion must be drawn that none of the great recorded performances of the past have as yet been heard by those without access to that cartridge. The public has not yet heard the content of its records.2
But, more disturbingly, if it is the finest expressive subtleties that other cartridges have not been able to reproduce, it follows that the finest performances suffer the most. With previous cartridges and most playback systems, those extremely subtly and delicately nuanced performances sound little different from and communicate no more than other, less finely nuanced ones. That is the real tragedy of the technical deficiencies of today’s sound-reproduction and that of the past: the finest performances have seldom been recognized as such, but are lumped together with many inferior recordings because their “magic”--that which truly moves the listener--lies in those finer nuances which are not reproduced.3
Further findings of our institute’s research in hearing also place doubt on the efficacy of many record reviewer’s listening procedures, since we have found that our hearing, especially our hearing of delicate nuance, changes in relation to our surrounding circumstances and the physical states we go through in the course of a day. We have also found that, since the record listener is not part of the actual vibrational influences affecting the performance (as is the case when one is a member of the audience), his body needs time to settle into the vibrational flow and take on the characteristics of the vibrational refinement of a recorded performance before he will be able to truly experience the expressive-emotional content. It is therefore impossible to go directly from one recorded performance to another of quite different vibrational quality and immediately experience the expressive content of the second.4
In fact, hearing a coarse, unrefined performance before a truly fine one can completely obscure the merits of the second performance. Since we hear the vibrating of our own bodies (the hearing mechanism as well as the whole body), not the vibrating of the sound-source, the body cannot reproduce any nuances that are finer and more delicate than the way that body itself is vibrating. The finer performances are usually more delicate in their vibrational flow. It can, therefore, take quite a long time before the body sheds the vibrational influences of the first performance and becomes fine enough to allow the listener to “get into” and begin experiencing the emotion of the more delicate performance. It is also impossible to hear fine nuances in a vibrational environment that is vibrating more coarsely than those nuances or after being in such a vibrational environment. For example, after riding in an unevenly idling automobile or visiting a raucous pub or restaurant, it can take a very long time before the body calms down enough to reproduce the fine nuances of a great musical recording. And an unevenly, coarsely vibrating refrigerator or air-conditioner in the apartment can ruin everything. The Anstendig Institute has spent a great deal of time investigating these phenomena.5
The failings of digital recordings demand special mention. With all the controversy about digital, and probably not even noticed by most people who try to evaluate digital sound, is that the truly tragic problem of digital does not lie in what the various instruments sound like. Single, steady tones can be reproduced extremely well via digital and the tonal-qualities of instruments, etc., can be reproduced well, probably even better than with most pick-up cartridges. But it is the finer, subtle modulations of the sounds that digital is incapable of reproducing. In other words, one can hear beautiful sound-quality, but because the sounds are not undulating in time in the same way as the original performance, much of the nuance is simply left out. The expressive content is, of course, what is changed, i.e., degraded. The only reason that many people feel that digital sounds better than analog records is that those people have not yet heard all the information on their records. On a good sound-system, the difference is readily apparent, especially the difference in the frequencies above 1000 Hz. On truly accurate record-reproducing equipment with the Win cartridge, the failings of today’s digital recordings are pointedly clear.6
Even when the technical aspects of sound-reproduction are ideal, as with the Win Cartridge and suitably high-quality other components, the sound still needs to be equalized, i.e., the frequency-ranges have to be rebalanced by means of a type of more complex tone-control, if the full content of the original performance is to come through. This is because of unavoidable distortions in the relative volume of the various frequency ranges due to the reproducing process, due to distortions in the hearing process, and due to physical hypersensitivity to certain crucial frequency ranges.7
These new developments and insights place record reviewers in an undeservedly unpleasant situation in which they essentially have to start all over again with what is at present extremely costly equipment and with new listening procedures designed around a better understanding of the personal physical problems involved in hearing finely differentiated expressive nuances when listening to recordings. These procedures must include an understanding that there is a big difference in being able to hear the nuances of live performance and those of a recording: that hearing a live performance demands less physical preparation because the performance is directly influenced by and takes place in relation to the physical vibrations set up by the audience, of which the listener is a part, while, with a recording, the body of the listener has to first adapt itself to the vibrational flow of the recording before the nuances can be heard.
Over a period of time, the author has noticed many record evaluations by honest reviewers with excellent ears, in which the merits of a finer performance have not been recognized. He has also noticed that, when comparisons with previously released recordings are made, many performances which should be among those mentioned are ignored in favor of less fine ones. Since these critics would certainly have noticed the differences had they been in evidence, the mention of decidedly lesser performances indicates that the felicities of the finer performances were not reproduced by the reviewing equipment, and thus were not able to be heard. In fact, many first-rate recordings have undeservedly disappeared from the record catalog. In music-making, real, heartfelt expression needs more time to develop, i.e., the tempi often are somewhat slower. When the nuances of a highly expressive performance are not reproduced, the chief interest-holding element is lost, tempi can seem wrong, and, although some hints of greatness may be in evidence, the trained listener finds the performances strangely irritating. The disappearance of these recordings is a major tragedy. For example, many of them contain interpretations by musicians who personally knew the composers and knew the musical-traditions first hand. Many of these interpretations, developed by the greatest of the world’s musicians over the course of long lives, should be carefully studied by musician and music-lover alike. But not in degraded sound-reproduction.
Excellent examples of recordings that suffer from the degrading of the expressive nuances are those of the great conductor, Otto Klemperer. His recordings generally contain a superbly fine expressivity which is simply not brought out with less-than perfect reproduction. Since he also was very diligent about re-examining the music he performed and eliminating much of the patina of bad interpretive practices that has accumulated on most of the popular masterworks, his performances, though usually more accurate textually, are often different from what we are used to. Without the expressiveness that gives them their meaning, these performances lose their point and are readily disliked.
In evaluating the quality of sound-reproduction, the emphasis has wrongly been placed on the static qualities of sound, i.e., on whether a clarinet sounds like a clarinet, on dynamic range, on the reproduction of directionality (soundstage, height, depth, etc.). The dynamic modulation of the sounds in time has been neglected. The reason for this is that it is relatively easy to compare the sound of a live clarinet or a voice to that of a recording to see if they match; it is also relatively easy for anyone to notice the difference between the loudest and softest passages, to notice whether or not there is background noise, and to recognize what direction the sounds might be coming from. Fine nuance, which is a flow in time, is more difficult to hear as it places more demands on the listener’s memory and on the listener’s physical discipline. But, even more important, while the listener can always be relatively sure of what an instrument or voice should sound like, it is impossible to know what the nuances of the original performance were until one hears them. Therefore, there is no way for most reviewers, or other listeners, to know that the finer nuances of a performance are missing because of the deficiencies of their equipment, until they finally hear them reproduced, or unless the listener is extremely familiar with the performing artist’s work in that particular repertoire.
When heard under suitably fine circumstances, the great recordings of the past become epitomes of human communication. It is important that this heritage not be lost to future generations. Being the authority upon which the bulk of the record-buying public depends, the music critic today has an exceptional, unprecedented responsibility to recognize the deficiencies of sound-reproduction of the past, to correct them in his own listening to new recordings and to begin reevaluating the recordings of the past. Most importantly, the critics have the responsibility to educate the public in the need to improve the quality of sound-reproduction and in the need for everyone to re-evaluate their record preferences. It must be understood that no one single critical opinion made so far under previous circumstances can be trusted and that many will have to be changed.
1 These researches and technical developments are documented in The Anstendig Institute’s papers on sound-reproduction, hearing, and acoustics.
2 This point, as well as further important ramifications of the deficiencies of recorded sound for the last century, is dealt with in detail in our paper “The Deterioration of the Quality of Music Interpretation Due to the Deficiencies of Recorded Sound or The World Has Not Yet Heard the Contents of its Records.”
3 Page 7 of “The Crucial Role of the Quality of the Musical Experience in Our Lives” gives some examples.
4 Material on these problems of hearing is scattered throughout the institute’s papers on sound-reproduction, hearing, and acoustics. We will be glad to send the pertinent papers if requested. All points about the problems of hearing records apply, of course, to all record-listeners.
5 See the institute’s papers dealing with the effects of the vibrational influences of our lives.
6 Our paper, “The Truth About CD and Digital or The Tragedy of the Missing Information” explains that CD should become the best recording medium, but that manufacturers prematurely decided on a standard sampling rate that is too slow to reproduce an accurate flow of sounds in time.
7 See our papers on sound equalization for detailed explanations of why all recorded sound should be equalized.
The Anstendig Institute is a non-profit, tax-exempt, research institute that was founded to investigate the vibrational influences in our lives and to pursue research in the fields of sight and sound; to provide material designed to help the public become aware of and understand vibrational influences; to instruct the public in how to improve the quality of those influences in their lives; and to provide the research and explanations that are necessary for an understanding of how we see and hear.