The Sound of Music [Hi-Fi, Shakespeare, and Stanley]

Written by: Laurie Watt

April 2011: Laurie Watt – inspired by Shakespeare, and his friend Stanley – reflects on the nature of sound and its true relationship with music…

I have an old friend and neighbour by the name of Stanley. Stanley is a noisily enthusiastic hi-fi fanatic – with a passing interest in music. He is also a man of great humour and a touch eccentric.

The other day I wandered down the road to Stanley’s home. His front door being ajar, I entered to find him, in his drawing room, standing on a three-legged stool, which in turn rested precariously on the arms of an ornate armchair (“Regency, my dear!”). With one leg outstretched against the wall, he was trying to balance two coils of silver-clad, solid, oxygen-free, linear crystal, fully ‘argon gas annealed’, copper loudspeaker cable (about £10,000 worth I gathered) in one hand which was linked, somewhat arthritically to one of three – yes, three – 20-kilo, £25,000, 450-watt monobloc power amplifiers, in the other. This was bi-wiring and tri-amping!

At that point he was very much, as the Grand Old Duke of York would have it, “neither up nor down”; however, I spotted three sturdy new shelves, cut into his ornate cornice, very close to his 15-foot ceiling, two in a corner and one in the middle. On one of these already reposed a twin of the amplifier he was carrying. Vertically below each shelf, he had riveted his two £1,000 bookshelf loudspeakers to their stands, which were bolted in turn to the floor and spaced at either side of a massive, acoustic gold-foil-covered, concrete-enclosed, subwoofer, with steel reinforcing into the foundations of his house.

This was all an “experiment”, I was assured, when Stan had reached the safety of his acoustically treated, washed Chinese carpet. He had been persuaded, apparently, that his loudspeaker cables, positioned thus, would not only make the most of their sensational “tight bass and well produced transparency, ambience and stereo depth” (he quoted) but would enable the gravitational effect of the vertical placement of the correctly polarised cables to counteract the “slight hint of dynamic loss” to which this cable was supposed to be susceptible. He was troubled, though, as he was not sure whether this effect would be cancelled by the opposite gravitational effect of a full-moon on a clear night. He had accordingly equipped himself with the Thames tidal charts to predict the best times to listen.

Whether or not vertical wires had the desired effect, Stanley later praised “the separation and precise placing of the instruments” in Heinrich Schiff’s recording of the cello suites by Bach (I tell no lie!) that I lent him to test the system. It must have been high tide.

Shakespeare started it all. The Duke of Illyria, in Twelfth Night, opens the play, in a room in the Duke’s Palace – with the immortal words “If music be the food of love, play on”. However, it was that fine comedienne, pianist and singer Anna Russell who, entertaining a packed audience in the Town Hall, in New York, on 23 April 1953, succinctly remarked, among other things, “on what, he didn’t say, but I think it is a marvellous idea”.

Things have come a long way since the days when to hear an orchestra in the drawing-room meant that the drawing-room was precisely where it had to be put. Indeed, had the Guinness Book of Records existed then, its pages would have glowed with the heat of rival claims of generations of affluent music-lovers, not least the Duke, who vied with each other to out-cram their parlours with musicians of varying shapes, sizes and ability – “You are invited to a performance of Berlioz’s Grande messe des morts in the summer house – bring a bottle.”

The day will no doubt come when we can project audio-holograms of the bored old Troubadours to whom the good Duke’s remark was undoubtedly addressed; but, until then, the “on what?”, more often than not, divorced, sadly, from “love”, will no doubt continue to inspire more earthbound but, nonetheless, increasingly ingenious solutions to the problems which must arise when seeking the conjunction of this particular mountain and Mohamet.

During these pre-historic times the Duke’s provocative lines lay confined to the stage. However, the worm turned and in 1877, the germ of an idea, conceived 20 years earlier, flowered – typically – in France and America simultaneously. It was Thomas Edison, in the United States of America, who, no doubt unable to compete with his neighbours’ stentorian soirées, heeded the siren song and whose genius and inspiration subsequently set in motion the steadily evolving main stream of technical advance in the quest for the end of the great aural rainbow.

However, recent years have also seen the daily proliferation of increasingly esoteric novelties designed, regardless of expense, for a small band of dedicated enthusiasts, who have gone so far down the road in their search for ‘perfection’ that, like Beachcomber’s character pushing the pea up Mount Snowdon with his nose, they have forgotten the underlying purpose of their quest; and furthermore, like the Emperor with his new suit of clothes, they find themselves shying away, in the end, from acknowledging any difficulty in assessing the subtle quality of one absurdly extravagant combination over another – a difficulty which must frequently derive from the simple fact, ultimately, of an inability to hear at all that which is being described.

An analogy could also be drawn with the tale I once heard of a certain Professor of Music who, on being asked about the influence of a composer by the name of Virelli (invented by his student study group) on the compositional style of Mozart, he was so concerned about the consequences of his ignorance of this mythical mentor that he launched into a long analysis of the man’s life and ‘music’ which he made up on the spot. Shades of the Czar and Lieutenant Kijé.

It is in vain that I try to persuade Stanley (known to my children as ‘Uncle Cole’) that according to an article which appeared in Wireless World there is not “a shred of evidence” to substantiate the case that cables of any sort introduce any scientifically detectable degradation to the sound – this was in the 1970s and I have to concede in 2011 that this is not absolutely correct. The point, nonetheless, is a good one.

Nor can I persuade Stanley that sophisticated tone controls, unfashionable as they may be, are fundamentally essential to cope with the vagaries of ‘difficult’ (through age or incompetence) recordings and tricky acoustics. He insists that they degrade the sound, despite assurance, on the best authority, that in ‘cancel’ mode they cause no detectable deterioration to the sound.

However, that is precisely the problem; in the real world we live in, the proportion of recordings which really do justice, not only to the musical experience which they encapsulate, but also the esoteric equipment that, in our innocence, we are enticed to acquire, is relatively small. My experience may be unrepresentative, but the more ‘grown up’ the reproducing medium, the more the shortcomings of recordings are exposed, particularly where multi-microphone techniques are involved.

Soon after the opening of the digital Pandora’s Box in the early 1980s, various record companies took extreme advantage of the so-called super technology, but, fabulous as the potential technical quality might have been, even then, with the appropriate digital processing, engineers still used too many microphones and recorded too closely, so there was nothing new in certain quarters. Even there all was not lost, because although It has taken three decades for the technology to be refined, thankfully there was enough information in the ‘numbers’ box to re-issue most of these aberrant recordings in reasonably convincing sound.

In the last third or so of the last century, when analogue recordings of supreme quality were still being made by some companies, it was demonstrated that such quality could enhance the appreciation of an orchestra which might otherwise have been written off as less than world class. Look what Decca achieved in the 1950s and 1960s for L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and in the 1970s and 1980s with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra – and, for example, in recent years by

Telarc with the Cincinnati Symphony and Chandos with the Scottish National and the regional BBC orchestras.

In the intervening years, the heyday of the large recording companies with huge budgets has, to all intents and purposes, ended. They have combined and, in some cases, merged and they live off the rich pickings of their back-catalogues, very occasionally venturing into some major recording project. During the time of their decline there rose the highly successful smaller independent family companies like Chandos, Hyperion, Nimbus (only to disappear), Lyrita – the same but with their wonderful catalogue re-appearing – to name but four who have survived the vicissitudes of an uncertain age.

Conversely to all this, however great the Orchestra, a rotten recording can hinder appreciation of its quality very considerably – for me anyway. Writing as an enthusiastic amateur performer, what I seek of ‘hi-fi’ is to reproduce in as realistic a form as is reasonably possible, the experience of a performance within a Hall of suitable acoustic where that performance takes place. Hi-fi should always be in the service of music, not the other way round, the key object being the music itself rather than the sound it makes.

It seems to me to be reasonable to ask “what is the sound that music makes?” Up until very recently when vast sums were spent on improving the acoustics, every September at the start of the new concert season in London, I used to find I had to adjust to the relatively lifeless, one-dimensional acoustic of the Royal Festival Hall. I have tended, even now, to avoid the Barbican Hall as well, for similar reasons (no reflection on the LSO). The best listening spots in the Royal Albert Hall are occupied by the BBC microphones, just in front of the Orchestra and fifteen feet immediately above it, perhaps by no coincidence, exactly the same height as Stanley’s audio central heating!

I have, since the mid-eighties, been lucky enough to travel with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on a few of its tours, some of which I helped set up (such as Australia in 1985 and South Africa in 1993). Despite attending most of its concerts at the Royal Festival Hall, I truly believe that I had never heard that Orchestra properly until in halls with truly great acoustics in Vienna, China, the USA and Australia. The power, subtlety, warmth, and, at the same time, the clarity of this great ensemble in the right acoustic environment was a physical shock after what I had been used to in London. Although, it has to be said that the Royal Festival Hall has improved quite a lot although it will never equate to our lovely halls in Manchester and Birmingham.

This was the real sound of music which will always ultimately ensure that the finest recording of such an experience reproduced through the finest equipment (even at low tide, and with vertical loudspeaker cables) can only be second-best.

In a sense, the worm has turned, again, and in the last few years the contraction of the recording companies has resulted in a major fall in recording work for orchestras. As a result, they have taken matters in their own hands and have been issuing own-label recordings from the halls in which they perform. The BBC has licensed recordings from its archive on a variety of labels, notable BBC Legends. The LSO, then the LPO, the Hallé and more recently the Philharmonia Orchestra have started their own labels, often including archive releases (LPO and Hallé) using licensed tapes of BBC broadcasts. Of course, these are representations, sometimes quite good ones, of the real thing being, usually, if not always, from “a Hall of suitable acoustic where that performance takes place.”

All this, in no way takes away from what I say above, although many of these recordings are very good – well, at least they are natural – they often need a touch of reverse engineering. By this, I mean that normally engineers, making recordings or relaying broadcasts, limit, or compress, the dynamic range of the recordings within defined characteristics, which often makes them less than satisfactory, technically, for commercial release. I have been able, in my small way, in a position to restore (i.e. reverse engineering) the dynamic range in a couple of dozen BBC Legends and LPO Label recordings, which derive from my own archive, to a more realistic range for commercial release.

This is the real thing and light-years from the harsh reality of the glittering hi-fi world with multi-microphones, anechoic chambers and compression algorithms. Forget about hearing into the daring harmonies encapsulated in the revolution represented within Mozart’s last three symphonies, or the miracle of Beethoven’s last string quartets, or, feeling the electric stillness before the storm in Richard Strauss’s An Alpine Symphony. I wonder how many of those of the ‘experts’, to whom I refer above, who swear they can detect the objectively undetectable, would be able to leave any of these ‘blind’ tests we read about for ten minutes and then be able to tell whether what they were hearing on their return was what they were hearing before. I suppose it is the comfort of the assumption flowing from the outlay of the extra thousands, and that an indefinable ‘something’ must be there, even if it is undetectable without a comparison to hand (or to ear). I am not sure where an analogy with UFO’s comes in, but I am sure it does somewhere. Music certainly does not.

In any event, Shakespeare had some good advice and, maybe, even, the last word. Another of his noble aristocrats, in Love’s Labours Lost earnestly assures us that “A lover’s ear will hear the lowest sound”. Forget about KEF’s KUBE bass technology and reach for the oysters, Stan.

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