Friday, September 19, 2008

The absolute, in reality, sound

I sat for a few minutes last night listening to an excellent string quartet (from UT Austin's School of Music) playing in an acoustically engineered conference room -- just me and them in a venue designed to allow a person in the back to speak in a normal voice and be heard by another person at the front. Yes, lots of money was spent on creating this space, part of the new AT&T conference center on campus. That aside, I confirmed in this listening what I have experienced on other occasions when I have had the chance to really listen to live playing of acoustic instruments in a public space: soundstaging is not what you imagine. Here, the quartet did sound like four players, but the music was not etched in space with clear delineation between instruments. I could hear four players, and follow individual lines, but in combination the quartet produced a ball of sound that sat over and around the players. There was no wider-than- placement soundstage, beyond the edge of the soundmakers, there was no great height to the music, it just sounded like four instrument combining in a world of sonics that fleshed out but did not unaturally expand beyond the placement of the instrumentalists on the stage. I closed my eyes and tried to invoke my set-up's reproduction, finding that the ultimate test is not detail or placement, but timbre. Real strings, played by real people, in a real room, have a palpability that makes it obvious you are listening to the real thing. My system is good in comparison, but it's clear now to me that soundstaging is not that important if you want to approach realistic reproduction, a cello sounds like a cello because of the auditory sensations it manifests when a bow is placed in physical contact with a string bound at both ends to the wood. Sound should be in the middle, not tied to location of each speaker but anything more might be recording artifice, not high fidelity.

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