“High-end” is dead

      “High-end” is dead, say hello to “hi-end”

by Anatoliy M. Likhnitskiy, translated from Russian

2001

 

There’s no difficulty whatsoever for an intuitive person to determine the thoughts of the cook based on the food that he was offered

Khazrat Inayat Khan, Mysticism of sound

 

Lately you can hear from audio analysts – “high-end” is dead and home theaters are here to replace it instead. An opinion that was caused by the decline in demand on high cost audio systems are much like a claim that the cook is dead that is why you have to go and take a walk instead of having lunch.

This poses the question – why audio analysts cannot grasp the fact that even though the cook is dead we would not stop wanting to eat, all the more so after having a walk.

This desire also cannot be stopped by the fact that for the last forty years we have been fed a horrifying musical ballad [1]. It can be explained pretty easily: in essence passion for real music cannot disappear since it is a physiological need. Furthermore, it is only related to the aural perception and is not related to viewing movies in any way.

Then why does the “high-end” market die off?

I think that we should search for the reasons for the existing situation not in present time but way before that – at the end of 1920s when Berliner left vinyl business and retired. That is specifically when the spiritual beginning that unified music and audio equipment disappeared, which lead almost to Babel-like disorder: musicians were still jabbering their gibberish (with which, by the way musicologists jabber), when sound-engineers appeared in recording studios instead of intelligent technicians [2].
[1] This refers to the stranglehold of mediocrity of popular music, which survived due to the fact that it turned out to be less sensitive to the “devastating effect” of modern recording and playback equipment, then the present music.

[2] I call sound-engineers those that develop and operate recording equipment, in contrast to audio engineers, which are mostly involved in development of home playback equipment.

 

Not showing any interest to the music and especially to its unconscious content they relied on synthetic signals, using such notions such as amplitude-frequency response, impulsive reaction, harmonic coefficient etc.

Technical terms which sound engineers spread around were hypnotizing musicians. Almost like shaman spells they were suggesting to trust audio equipment wholly, which also highly developed imagination of musicians was promoting.  Specifically thanks to it the servers of the muse were subconsciously making up the losses of music that were brought over by recording equipment, and that is why there were not noticing it. Due to daily listening of live singing voices and instruments as well as due to regular music making the imagination of musicians is developed pretty well and even better than imagination of music lovers. It is widely known that Herbert von Karajan is unusually particular to the way his orchestra sounds, he didn’t pay attention to the “loss” of music in the audio equipment. Note that you never hear from musicians such words as: “Gentlemen sound-engineers, I think you went astray!”

Maybe no one is lost? It’s the simple fact of equipment not being able to present music the way it appears before us at a live concert?

Answering this question would have been a pretty difficult thing to do if during first 30 years of XX century we didn’t have a gramophonic paradise. By the way this paradise existed only because real lords worked as technicians for the head Berliner [3].

That was specifically when millions of music lovers listened to acoustic (meaning, recordings made without the usage of electronics) recordings of great artists: F. Shalyapin, E.Karuzo, T. Ruffo, M. Battistini, N. Melba, A. Patti and other – and got true enjoyment. Gramophone records were making noise, their frequency range was narrow, and nevertheless this equipment that right now seems flawed truly engaged listeners into the music.  Surprisingly, it allowed to feel all of the nuances of vocal artistry which are right now only available at a live concert! Such became only available because the signal path from musician-performer to the listener through the auditory path of recording-playback was the shortest throughout the entire recording history. Thank English lords for this!

Record player had only one drawback: it wasn’t able to deliver the sounding of big collectives well. It turned out that is very difficult to seat artists at an even distance from the sound intercepting tube. It seems as though the tube almost gave a preference to solo artists. It seems that it was possible to get over this, but as it is known the tempter does not sleep.

Revolution in audio recording occurred rapidly. In 1925 practically all recording companies turned to electrical recording. Simple mechanical means of sound transmission from the intercepting megaphone to the recording cutter was replaced by electronics and with it revolutionary components: microphone, electrical amplifier and electrical mechanical recorder. Although in comparison with the current standards this revolution was smooth and only affected the process of recording of records. Their playback approximately up to 1930 remained acoustic, that is was done through the phonograph.
[3]. For example, Fred Haisberg  was working as one of Berliner’s  sound recording technicians (lord Chamberlen). He was responsible for recording most of acoustic recordings of F. Shalyapin.

 

 

While investigating this history, I came to the conclusion that a switch to electrical recording was initiated by musical unions: in addition to this, a certain role was paid by the striving of leaders of left political parties (that mostly came out of proletarians) to level off the musicians that are participating in the recording in terms of sound, that is to achieve a musical balance between them.

Microphone was providing a necessary balance, but this had to be paid for: weak signal from a microphone had to be considerably increased, for this however an electronic amplifier was needed, that included a circuit of lamp cascades connected in sequence.

Upon switching to electrical recording the amplifier considerably increased the musical signal path.

What’s so bad about it? – The reader will object. Imagine a window frame, which has not two glass panes inserted and not one but 20 or 30 in a row. How will the world look through this window if the glass panes won’t be ideally transparent? Each amplification stage on the way between a musician and a listener turns out to be such a glass pane. When there is a lot of them, expressiveness of music, its colors fade and no ultra-high parameters that are contributing in the transference of sound of electronic components won’t help. From this point of view the passages of recording and playback act together, forming a solid “double glass pane”, which separates live music from the listeners.

However, when switching to electrical recording neither sound engineers nor the musicians noticed and couldn’t even notice the losses of music.  First of all, from the technical perspectives, engineers of a priori considered electrical amplifier the most transparent part of the chain. Back then they were not far from the truth, since first amplifiers were still pretty simple. Secondly, you can’t disregard the fact that in the beginning of the XX century everyone genuinely believed in impeccability of scientific-technological progress. Its achievements were evident. For example, when switching to electrical recording the expansion of amplitude-frequency response in the area of low frequencies was truly palpable.

 

Sound engineers elated with success and with increased eagerness set about to improve the electrical recording.  It is not difficult to guess that it was achieved at the price of making the recording equipment more complicated. By the way, readers should note this very simple method of inventing things, regardless of which field it is.

But even mice know that: if the cheese if offered for free – something isn’t right here. As a result of numerous improvements of studio equipment musical garbage was starting to form, which was unnoticeably creeping into the recorded music.

But let’s get back to the time when the recording path included from one to three microphones, tube amplifier, more often than not on four lamp cascades, and electrical magnet recorder. No type of gimmicks such as reversed feedback was used back then; there wasn’t any transitory recording on the tape recorder either. Recording was made directly on wax and later on lacquer disk, from which matrixes for distribution of records were manufactured using electroforming method.

Here’s where everything should have stopped, but unfortunately, enhancers of recording equipment were pulled into the unknown by an ardent desire to obtain patents of invention.

First global catastrophe broke out in 1948, when the biggest company-manufacturer of recordings

 

 

 

 

“Columbia” (UK), after being instigated by audio engineers, switched to microgroove recording, that nowadays is knows as LP (Long Play). By the way, this year also became the year of legalization AES [4], that before that existed in the underground.

I remember that a lot of music lovers liked the switch to LP. From now on they didn’t have to change records every four minutes. However, for musicians this switch became a time bomb. It turned out that most of them were not able to play without any errors 25 minutes in a row. Intermediate magnetic recording had to be introduced to the technology of producing gramophone records in order to avoid the difficult situation. This is how sound editing came into existence, that gave the musicians a heaven-sent opportunity to fix mistakes in a newly made recording with the help of cutting-out scissors and glue. Magnet tape that was edited this way was dubbed original master-tape.

But the tape that was glued from different pieces wasn’t preserved well, was breaking and in addition to this sound falling out occurred in places where gluing was made during the process of rerecording on the lacquer disk. Because of this reason original master-tape was rerecorded on a one-piece tape, that was later called production master.

As a result of innovations, especially due to the complex electronics of tape recorders, the recording channel of LP increased in comparison to the channel of disc recording to 78 rotations per minute approximately five times more. A bit later, due to the widespread occurrence of trade rights for audio tracks the distribution of the number of technologic re-recordings grew from two to six.

By the start of 1950s another improvement of phonograph recording arrived in time: recorder of recording machine was overtaken by electromechanical reverse feedback. The fact that reverse feedback is vicious and kills the music audiophiles realized almost at once, however the members of AES didn’t understand it back then and still don’t understand this.

That being said first long playing phonograph records were for the most part bearable. Heinous degradation followed when sound engineers were allowed the process of production of master tapes [5]. He decides what and how to record and which take to leave, which one should be rejected. In our country – appearance of sound engineers is a regular event. This position, as it is not hard to guess was introduced in a staffing structure of studios by the order of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs of USSR.

 

There weren’t any higher education institutions that prepared sound engineers back then, that is why for the most part musicians-non-achievers were invited to this position. It is clear that with rare exceptions these figures had very narrow musical understanding, were not versed in architectural acoustics and electronics, that is why they didn’t have a clear understanding of how to position microphones in the studio, how to use consoles with a huge number of knobs, etc.

And there is one more important fact: no money were allocated for the construction of good studios. Churches were presented to state studios that were previously used as warehouses. Naturally they were in quite a neglected state and were not fit for sound recording without extensive reconstruction.
[4]  AES – Audio Engineering Society.

[5] In foreign sound recording companies musicians and musical editors are responsible for the quality of music performance, while sound engineer is responsible for the technical quality of the recording.

 

 

Due to this reason, or possibly due to their incompetence Soviet sound engineers were the first in the world to refuse using natural reverberation [6] during recording and switched to a more simple natural one. Back then an idea of having low number of microphones had to be rejected and instead the so-called poly-microphone equipment [7] had to be employed. This experience that was important for the future of sound recording was adopted and developed by the company “Deutsche Grammophon”, and after that by other companies.

That being said I think that the greatest damage to music was made by recording “for editing” and not technological innovations.

Not all music lovers know that musical playback with this method splits to two-three minute fragments,  at that each of them is recorded separately three-four times in a row. Sometimes for technological reasons the recording is started from the final part of the playback or its middle section. Afterwards from the received scraps (called session tape) sound engineer, equipped with dressmaking scissors and duct tape secludes himself in the control room and finally mixes the musical thread. This begs the question who are we listening to on the phonograph record as a result of this: famed musician, whose name can be seen on the label or his immediate superior, audio engineer. By the way, it still boggles my mind how it could occur to anyone to glue together two-three minute musical fragments, or to put it in another way – feelings of a musician that he experienced at a different time?

During the process of recording even musicians of the highest rank lose inspiration after a certain take. Their playing becomes boring, essentially a mechanical execution of sheet music. However sound engineers fly into a rage. They yell at musicians through a sound-amplifying installation, stop their playing during climatic moments etc.

What I just told you is a sad reality which I had to observe more than once. As a result of this exceptionally artistic atmosphere the music that is recorded in the studio becomes entirely devoid of aesthetic content.

However this wasn’t enough for the ideologists of the sound recording industry either. In 1958 this time another transnational revolution was made by them.  Revolution that based on the scale can be compared to transition to micro-recording. What I am referring to is the widespread introduction of stereophonics, to make matters worse under the guise of International Electrotechnical Commission (see IEEC 98). An interesting detail: stereophonic recording was invented in 1931 by Alan Blumlein from “EMI”, moreover there was no technical difficulties in implementation of stereo recording on gramophone records with a rotation speed of 78 rev./min  at that time. The only thing is that due to the shenanigans of recording companies this invention was left under the radar for 25 years.

 

I shall remind of its original idea: the groove of the gramophone record is able to carry two independent
[6] In the western world during this time poly-microphone equipment was used in addition to artificial reverberation, however only during recording of popular music (see E. Nisbett, Sound studio.M., 1979, p. 172).

[7] Read my article in “AM” No. 4 (5) 95, p. 66-73 – About alternative microphone techniques

 

 

 

signals at once, due to the cutting on the sides of the groove with the angle ration of 45/45.

Most of audiophiles consider that the advantages of stereo sound over mono sound are undeniable. I as many others was wandering across the stereo desert and only recently have it dawned on me that I was wrong all of this time. I realized that stereophonics only slightly opened the tenuous and ultimately rigged musical scene, by stealing the soul of the music. I have the proof that the theft has been made and I am ready to publish them in one of the nearest magazine editions.

Based on my observations, big or small revolutions in sound recording which eventually brought it to a dead-lock happened regularly with the frequency of approximately 10 years [8]. By the end of 1960s universal transistorization of recording equipment became a new revolutionary overthrow. Complex, entangled in negative feedbacks transistor amplifiers, sound control rooms, tape recorders, effect devices, including maximally artificial” reverberators and others replaced relatively simple tube equipment. In comparison with electrical recording channel of 78 rotations/ min the musical signal path through new equipment increased approximately by a factor of 50.  As a result, in my opinion, sound recording, or, more precisely music that was recorded on records received a blow of such force that all subsequent impacts, I am referring to digitalization and others, couldn’t play any role in the “earthly” sound of the sound recording.  It is clear since no one yet was able to inflict pain to the deceased.

Why are we talking about this just now, when serious problems with implementation of high costing audio equipment have occurred? Since everything that I am writing about have occurred for many years before the very eyes of employees (or more precisely – “in front of ears”) of sound recording studios.

There are two main reasons here: one of it is psychophysiological, the other one is likely political one.

1. A well-known sound-engineer Gerhardt Tses once told me: “If I was experiencing music every time with its performer I would have died of heart-attack long time ago”.

For reference. Apart from clear distortions and interferences only three subjective quality indicators of recording is controlled in professional studios: clarity of musical instrument sounding, volume balance of their sounding and matching of musicians playing to the sheet music. Music editor and sound engineer keep a strict watch over the matching of these indicators to the “norms”, the latter one later on removes the discovered inaccuracies using the method of gluing together and rerecording of takes. Furthermore, before starting of the recording process the sound editor arrays the musical instruments on the stereo stage with the usage of panoramic regulators and in the end of the working process satiates the audio record with “air” based on his own taste using the artificial reverberator. Now, the “musical dish” is ready to be served, and the next one is on the way.
[8] In 1878 first recording of a musical composition was performed on Edison phonograph.

In 1888 Berliner made a first phonorecord – copy from celluloid.

In 1898 Valdemar Poulsen from Denmark created his own first tape recorder that he named “telegraphone”

In 1908 mass production of vacuum triode started that was invented by Lee de Forest

In 1918 “Gomon” company taken out a patent on “reading of audio recordings by electrical magnet reader”, that is electromagnetic pickup.

In 1928 Harold Blake from “Bell Labs” files an application for a patent on the amplifier with negative feedback that was developed by him.

In 1938 Edward Shuller in Germany patents the double track magnetic head for stereo recording and etc.

Doesn’t this periodicity seem regular to you? Based on it I assume that 2008 will become a year of reincarnation of “high-end”.

 

 

Production of audio recordings that was similar to a conveyor belt turned the work of recording participants into a painful routine. Possibly for this reason some of them did not notice the disappearance of intricacies of musical interpretation in studio equipment. However there is a more solid reason for it. As I have written in the beginning of the article – none of the musicians that listened to the live sound and after that the recording professionally were able to notice this disappearance due to filling up of losses with imagination.  I have faced this on its face extraordinary effect more than once myself when I was performing studio recording.

2. Scientific-technological progress cannot be turned around. Everyone knows this. That’s why there’s a rule: complex technology cannot be overly simplified so that you don’t have to sit in front of your management and feel ashamed, explaining them why it was complicated before that. Due to this fact big-eared sound engineers kept in secret the fact that due to the shortness of the musical signal route you can achieve a more high quality recording with simple equipment than with the complex equipment.

Later this secret became trademarked, since it provided economic prosperity to the company but more on that later.

Admit it, not everyone believed my tale about the steadfast deterioration of sound recording quality during more than half a century. I also wouldn’t have taken someone’s word for it, that is why I offer everyone to see for yourself. Find at least a few phonograph recordings which were produced during the reviewed period and compare them between each other: you will most definitely find all the proofs that were named by me, since they are “written” and haven’t been destroyed yet.

 

The question arises. Why is it that consumers of recordings were still silent even though they had an opportunity to carry out such a comparison?

I account it for the cunning policy of record companies. Let’s start with the fact that everything that is happening suits them perfectly well. The complexity of the used equipment by you and as in turn its great cost instead of the drawback turned into the ace of trumps in fighting competition, something in the vein of “star wars program”. Such policy simply does not give an opportunity to give a start to new companies that do not have big capital. Due to this reason “seasoned” companies do not stake on notorious quality of recording (romantic indicator of market competition) and not on patents, which you can easily “avoid”, but on presentability, and essentially on huge money that are invested in the goodwill [9] and in the equipment.

 

Technical data of sound recording equipment on disks and in advertising prospects are as it is known not indicated. This gap is non-casual. The absence of this specific information, as it is thought-out by marketing experts should suggest to a consumer: “Our equipment costs a lot of money, and that is why its parameters are perfect. Let the manufacturers of music equipment take care about the quality of sound. Since if something does not sound as good as you would like it to be – then let them be the ones that are responsible.”

It remains a mystery why consumers believed in a fairy-tale that the playback equipment can bring back the soul of the music that was stolen during the recording. The answer here can be only one: impact on the consumer through the subconscious is always more efficient than through the mind. Maybe that is the reason why through the unconscious belief in the quality of sounding (as we all know still don’t have an explanation) first “hi-fi” has grown, and then “high-end”.

I wonder what was the fate of the playback equipment in those conditions?
[9] Goodwill – authority, public image of the company

 

At first, namely in 1930s-40s German scientists created an electroacoustic paradise; the company that was the head of the pack was “Telefunken” [10]. Despite the fact that the paradise equipment didn’t have a special name back then, receivers, amplifiers, radio gramophones of that time surprised and keep on surprising music lovers with its sound. Most of their mysteries weren’t unraveled, even though one of them relatively not too long ago nonetheless became the legacy of humanity [11]. I am referring to the usage of shortest route of musical signal by German scientists in the audio equipment. Germans designed their amplifiers exclusively on two, in exceptional cases on three, electronic tubes and what is even more important without negative feedback. However, as everyone knows earthly heaven cannot last for very long. Day of death of electrical acoustic paradise is known to everyone – 9th of May 1945. That is exactly the time when the Allies-winners started consecutively bringing into force the policy of “audio revolutions”

Harmful consequences of revolutions became: audio equipment that is build based on building-block concept; loudspeaker in enclosed casing; rubber mounting of the diffuser; split-speaker system; tone arm of acoustic pick-up with the counter-weight; belt-drive of the turntable and spring suspension of its board; tone control of Baxandall (thank God people abandoned it) etc.

 

Now let’s see in which ratio the transparency of musical signal during audio recording and during audio-reproduction was before and during the audio revolutions that are mentioned by me.

 

In 1930s-40s these sections correlated as one to two. In the 1950s-60s (inception period of “hi-fi”) home amplifiers were manufactured at least on six lamps, and the entire channel, inclusive of the tape recording already included 25-30 lamps. The ratio that interested us was already one to five.

 

1970s, meaning the period of awakening of interest to “high-end” coincided with the universal transistorization of sound recording. Even as a conservative estimate musical signal in the studios had to by now overcome from 300 to 400 transistors. But the playback equipment was also not falling behind. Some legislators of the “high-end”, for example the company “Electrocompaniet”, were proudly pointing out in their flyers that they use not a smaller number of transistors in their amplifiers. First one to refuse from overcapacities were designers of vacuum-tube amplifiers. They noticed the advantages of simple electrical circuits, that is why they started to come back to “antiquarian” circuit engineering. But the time was wasted, the return gave an inconsiderable effect. Essentially, it only increased the gap between the musical transparency of sound recording equipment and home playback equipment. Consider the paradox of the situation: consumer equipment, thanks to the simplicity of applied technical solutions turned out to be more transparent for the music than the newest overly high costing studio equipment, provided that those transparencies by the 1980s already correlated as 1 to 100.
[10} You can read about the electrical acoustic paradise in pre-war Germany in “AM” No. 2 (31) 2000. P. 121-124.

[11] About the main secret of German scientists – on the usage of randomization of phases of the musical signal by them – see in “AM” No. 3 (32) 2000, p. 107-111 and in “AM” No. 4 (33) 2000, p. 151-155.

This poses the question; can you drastically improve the sounding quality of record-and-playback channel by upgrading only its tail end, which contains only 1% from the total number of involved audio components in the channel?! Perhaps someone might still have some delusions that special “musically-transparent” components are used during sound recording. I must disappoint anyone that believe this. The most regular plastic transistors and micro circuits are used in the professional equipment; cables also cost not 1000 but 2 dollars per meter.

 

After thinking over the abovementioned information it is hard to escape the conclusion that: the present day “high-end” is a pure scam, and its manufacturers have been for a long time playing the role of the schemer from Academy in Lagado [12] – I am referring to the scientist that was involved in turning human excrements into nutritious substances, from which they were formed.

 

I think that the manufacturers of “high-end” know perfectly well what they were doing this whole time and that is why they quietly but deliberately direct all of their intellectual powers not to the root but the tops – to the design of the product. In his wonderful article (“AM” No. 5 (34) 2000, p. 87) Roman Ilyich Pasharin provided a photograph of the player “Thorens TD-520” with a tone arm “SME 3012R” that is supplied with MC-monohead at 78 rot/min. of the company “Ortofon” (it seems like a modern replica but I am not sure of this – there is no comments to the photos). Components that are provided on the photographs of the total cost of over 3000$ present to us the spellbinding image of high-accuracy machine for processing of diamonds, however during a detached analysis of its structure – failure of many technical decisions is found. The mentioned equipment is only one example of an unsuccessful design. From my point of view, rough technical blunders in the “high-end” equipment can be found almost at every turn.

The most wonderful thing is that both successful and unsuccessful projects of “high-end” were generously financed by audiophiles. All audio absurdities and bells and whistles, machines for processing of diamonds, cables that cost 1000 dollars per meters were meekly paid by them. And only on the brink of third         millennium it seems that the patience of even the most hardcore audio fans has come to an end.

That is the only way I can explain the reason for the death of “high-end” that is already admitted by many people.

 

What do you do then with a physiological drive towards music? Where did it go? It is likely that, in the last decades this drive is lethargy and this means that there is still a hope to bring it back to the listeners but this time in the new body of “high-end”. I personally believe in its reincarnation and even in the fact that eventually there will be people that will invest money into it.

 

This affair unfortunately will have to get started almost from scratch. I am not urging anyone to refuse from electronics and focus on gramophone record-and-playback. I think that it would have been the right thing to gradually move from the end to the beginning. Something like reverse scrolling of the movie. And in this way, to get closer to earlier, simpler technical decisions step by step. Initially, new methods of audio expertise will be needed for this, which is able to catch not only the recognized losses in the sounding, but also those that are perceived only on the subconscious level.  Only then you would be able to not lose sight of and make sense of everything valuable that was found at the dawn of sound equipment development.
[12] Character from the book by Jonathan Swift “The Adventures of Gulliver”. M., 1996, p. 291.

 

You have to start with the recording process. Intuition tells me that eventually we will arrive at the mono phonorecord at 45 rotations/min; to direct recording on the lacquer disk (without the intermediate recording on the tape recorder); to the low number of microphones and to natural acoustics of premises for sound recording, or to acoustically calibrated studios; to a fairly simple “short” electronics. I also hope that the sound engineers will finally take a well-deserved rest and be replaced by highly educated both technically and musically engineers. Chances are, they would have to be picked from real British lords, but what an ill luck: where do you find them these days in sufficient amount?

 

Home audio equipment will also become considerably simpler (at least twice). Acoustic systems will contain one – at most two loud speakers. Bodies will be open and manufactured from “musical” wood, and not from wood chipboard as it is done nowadays. Sound cables won’t have to save the reputation of the audio system and they will become considerably cheaper…

 

Of course, I see certain difficulties in the implementation of this project, however not quite technical ones. Since those that will participate in this will have to become true hackers, in other words they will have to be involved in breaking of stereotypes of both equipment manufacturers as well as their consumers. For this purpose the entire force of audio news media will be needed, but more importantly audio authorities and gurus should be involved in this undertaking. I also assume that aggressively obedient audiophile majority will have to be faced head-on, which as it happens, with the help of intrigues and machinations would want to prevent the implementation of the project of my dream.

 

 

AM No. 1(36) 2001

 

Are You on the Road to Audio Hell?

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