Can modern music be high-end?

January 28, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

If our definition of high-end is lifted from The Absolute Sound Magazine's tenet: "the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space" then does it make sense that modern electronic or multitracked music can ever be considered high-end?

I believe it can, but not before broadening our definition. Perhaps it makes more sense to say "the uncolored reproduction of music without loss." I think this quick stab at defining that which we strive to achieve might make more sense than the flag waived by TAS founder, HP.

I remember asking Harry this very question and found his answer illuminating. Though I do not recall his exact words I do remember their essence. He suggested that any system capable of "the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space" would accurately render any recording without loss or coloration, even recordings that did not fit the definition of live. It was HP, after all, that played for me on his reference system Kraftwerk's Autobahn, a track most definitely not live, certainly not unamplified, and most definitely not heard in a natural, acoustic space.

So yes, I believe modern music can be considered high-end. I've put together a short video on the subject if you're interested. You can watch it here (as well as watch me get the crap scared out when I fire up the Tesla coil).

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41 comments on “Can modern music be high-end?”

    1. Dammit I have to read these posts more often rather than save them for a binge of audio wizardry. There's a lot of great points made by the readers and I suspect that the not quite quoted quote “the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space” is what initially drove many people to respond. The amount of time I spend doing weird shit with electric guitars, pedals and amps to get the tone I want, or something new, is only matched by the time I spend attempting lower the room noise , fiddling with room acoustics and treatments, editing and admittedly ridiculous number of retakes due to "musician overemphasis". Whichever one of you pointed out that whoever's quote that was only appreciated music composed by dead guys was 192% correct in my opinion I no longer have time to deal with the pops clicks and especially rumble associated with turntables and vinyl nor do I want to. There's so many ways to achieve the kind of fidelity from our audio systems than I/we ever dreamed of being able to get let alone afford. That said, some of the problems that plagued the quality of audio "back in the day" are still a pain in the ass to solve and or expensive as hell to tame. I have no doubt that will draw fire but not my intent

  1. Seldom the antagonist, if you’d like to view one of the primary factors contributing to the apparent downtrend of interest in high end audio, other than perhaps Chord, Rega and Sennheiser (if one considers chord portable dacs, rega & sennheiser high end) tune in this evening and see how long you get through this broadcast of modern music.

    Got a hunch Wednesday’s Super blue blood full moon & total lunar eclipse will be more interesting. What a crazy and turbulent cycle it’s been since the August 21st solar eclipse.

    Houston, Antigua, Barbuda, St Martin, St Barthelemy, Virgin Islands, Cuba, Mexico, Florida, Puerto Rico, Central America, Sonoma County, Napa County, Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, Montecito.

    1. The stuff nominated for the Grammys isn’t intended for most of us here any more than Hendrix was intended for our parents in the 60’s.

      Once I had played Sgt. Pepper’s and Tommy hundreds of times though, my mom started to see what I saw in it. Though she found some of the themes in Tommy disturbing.

      One sorta “old school” Grammy nominee is Bruno Mars, who just had a “Live from the Apollo” show on CBS the other night where he showed his Prince/MJ influence with a very tight, funky set.

      1. Well in terms of market demographic today you’re probably right, though decades past the music of the Grammy’s did cross over. George Harrison’s ‘Something’ was covered by everyone from Elvis to Sinatra. Methinks the highlight tonight will be the appearance of Antonio Benedetto. Lady Gaga crosses over, Alicia Keys, U2 and there’s umm ... Every industry depends on new growth, and the growth of today’s Hi-Fi industry is upside down when compared to the 70s, which was almost entirely driven by music enthusiasts.

        We scraped enough money to find a good deal on a used car, got a pad, bought a bed and a music system, and hopefully gifted a used sofa by friends along with the ubiquitous wire spool table. Today, priorities have changed with the cost of living and the center of the human universe being the hand held device.

        Introduced to Tommy in 8th grade enjoying the 5 or 6 melodious and snappy tunes on that double LP not really paying attention to the dark underlying story. By 1973 however, there was a divide between Quadrophenia and Tommy fans with Who’s Next being common ground. Much to my chagrin, the tale told on Tommy was ridiculed, i didn’t give a damn and had a “best of” copy on my Teac reel to reel.

        I can still smell the air from the summer and fall of 1973,
        great year, great times 🙂

      2. "The stuff nominated for the Grammy’s isn’t intended for most of us here"

        If you read the complete list of 84 categories and several hundred nominees ranging from americana, bluegrass, classical, and jazz there's some good music here for all of us.

        The depth of categories is somewhat impressive, it's the broadcast that's targeted to the youthful and under 50 set, the bulk of download generations as deemed the target demographic by the advertisers. The Grammy television audience ratings are also on a continual slide.

        1. Yes - I was talking about the show/awards presented on the show more than the entire year’s awards. I have in fact read the lists and voted for a couple of decades and just burned out on the process. 600+ nominees in a lot of categories, etc.

  2. The definition of high-end audio could be even broader: “the accurate recording and reproduction of sound” to include all forms of music, speech and non-musical sounds.

  3. I actually loved this post. ‘Modern” music is 90% of what I listen to and like. Over the years, I’ve worked to “confirm” whether a given component works well with modern music in terms of improving its auditory consumption experience. Fortunately, generally more resolving equipment that doesn’t overly color to favor some genres also provide more engaging experiences with modern music. DSD is the only other general exception I’ve found, but I now suspect this is bec all post production is in PCM.

    But I do find the community’s snobbish attitude towards modern music offputting. I sometimes refer to myself as the fake audiophile / music lover who wants better music at home. The forums are horrible with folks bashing the value of modern music. Art connoisseurs don’t do the same to modern art — which In fact as defined by stepping out of the box of needing to resemble an actual scene...

    1. >>>>> Art connoisseurs don’t do the same to modern art — which In fact as defined by stepping out of the box of needing to resemble an actual scene… <<<<<<<

      With modern art? That's because of the kind of tyranny of political correctness as found in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes." Even Picasso admitted he was a charlatan because that's what they elitists wanted to see. It confounded him that the more bizarre he made his work, the more approval he received... from art snobs. I believe Picasso's biographical book was called "Mi Libra."

      Picasso's Confession

      "When I was young, like all the young, art, great art, was my religion; but with the years, I came to see that art, as it was understood until 1800; was henceforth finished, on its last legs, doomed, and that so called artistic activity with all its abundance is only the many formed manifestation of its agony. Men are detached from and more and more disinterested in painting, sculpture and poetry; appearances to the contrary, men today have put their hearts into everything else; the machine, scientific discoveries, wealth, the domination of natural forces and immense territories. We no longer feel art as a vital need, as a spiritual necessity, as was the case in centuries past.

      Many of us continue to be artists and to be occupied with art for reasons which have little in common with true art, but rather through a spirit of imitation, through nostalgia for tradition, through mere inertia, through love of ostentation, of prodigality, of intellectual curiosity, through fashion or through calculation. They live still through force of habit and snobbery in a recent past, but the great majority in all places no longer have any sincere passion for art, which they consider at most as a diversion, a hobby and a decoration. Little by little, new generations with a predilection for mechanics and sports, more sincere, more cynical and brutal, will leave art to the museums and libraries as an incomprehensible and useless relic of the past.

      From the moment that art is no longer the sustenance that nourishes the best, the artist may exteriorize his talent in all sorts of experiments with new formulas, in endless caprices and fancy, in all the expedients of intellectual charlatanism. In the arts, people no longer seek consolation, nor exaltation. But the refined, the rich, the indolent, distillers of quintessence seek the new, the unusual, the original, the extravagant, the shocking. And I, since cubism and beyond, I have satisfied these gentlemen and these critics with all the various whims which have entered my head, and the less they understood them, the more they admired. By amusing myself at these games, at all these tomfooleries, at all these brain-busters, riddles and arabesques, I became famous quite rapidly. And celebrity means for a painter: sales increment, money, wealth.

      Today, as you know, I am famous and very rich. But when completely alone with myself, I haven't the nerve to consider myself an artist in the great and ancient sense of the word. There have been great painters like Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt and Goya. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his time. This is a bitter confession, mine, more painful indeed than it may seem, but it has the merit of being sincere."

    2. Childish Gambino killed it tonight! Overall, it’s a mixed bag. I agree that high-end is misapplied to music. Authentic, creative, soul-stirring, meaningful, masterful, jamming...pick your favorite adjective. “Ain’t no rules, ain’t no vows, we can do it anyhow”.

  4. To the extent that it can be achieved, “the sound of unamplified instruments and/or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space”, as Dr Goodears, suggests, can be achieved with a Chord FPGA DAC, Rega integrated amplifier and a pair of Harbeth speakers.

    This seems like a standard definition of "High-Fidelity", which is why we call it hi-fi and is what audio has been the world over for perhaps the last 50 years.

    "High-end" is an American term coined in Stereophile, a USA publication, which I'd never heard of before reading Paul's Posts. According to wiki, "The distinction between the terms high-end and high-fidelity (hi-fi) is not well defined.[3] According to one industry commentator, high-end could be defined as "gear below which’s price and performance one could not go without compromising the music and the sound".[4] Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound magazine, is widely acknowledged to have coined the term "high-end audio".[5]

    So it seems Paul has used a definition of "High-Fidelity", not "High-End". Cynics like me would say that "High-End" is purely a marketing device about money, because the definition quoted from wiki can be used to argue that a system is "compromised" unless you spend $50,000 or whatever on cables, so it really only boils down to money. Even the definition assumes the more you spend the better it gets, which many would disagree with.

    The system I suggested above, and which is a very popular combination, would unquestionably be considered "high-fidelity" and at UK prices costs about the same as a PS Audio DSD DAC. Ironically, the wiki definition of High-End was stated in a review of the Rega P3 turntable, also high-fidelity, vastly popular, and costs well under $1,000.

    So the problem seems to be that High-Fidelity is a long-established idea, but High-End was invented as an alternative never-ending pursuit that involves spending more and more to achieve something that High-Enders probably don't believe is achievable, namely a totally uncompromised system.

    Autobahn was originally released on tape and vinyl in about 1973. I have a slightly ragged original on Vertigo (it was jointly released on Phillips) and the vinyl is rather more lively than the 2009 digital remaster. It does include some acoustic instruments. I wouldn't even start to worry which is more high-fidelity. It's electronic music and purely subjectively I prefer the vinyl version and that's all that really matters.

    1. I totally agree. As far as I know in Germany there even existed a standard (Hifi-DIN-Norm) defining the minimum quality parameters for hifi equipment. If Highend is not a synonym for HiFi it only could describe “cutting edge technology” or “most expensive gear”. Seeing the products claiming to belong to the realm of highend I think the latter definition is correct. I rarely find cutting edge technology in highend devices - just see these old fashioned vacuum tube designs based on antique audio circuits.

  5. Indeed one of the things I think that may hold back the “high end” in the minds of potential new customers is a snobbish insistence on “real music” being viewed as only live and unamplified (usually by dead composers of various centuries), and the reproduction of same is the only thing worthy of consideration (the occasional guilty pleasure aside....but...Kraftwerk?!?) - though of course in any case - the recreation of the live event cannot be attained! How tortured can it get?

    Contrast this with studio-produced music, which is made on and for systems such as those we have at home.

    1. Kraftwerk performed all their albums live in the Tate Modern Turbine Hall a few years ago. Tickets were like gold dust. Apparently a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

      The Turbine Hall, and here are a couple of recent images taken the same day, is a brick and steel structure 500 feet long, 75 feet wide and 115ft high. It feels a lot bigger than it is. The idea that any audio system could replicate the acoustics of such a space is patently absurd.

      Having been to a period instrument concert last night, I note it is often the case that "live" the harpsichord or pianoforte is largely or entirely inaudible to the audience. Often it has the "continuo" role along with the cello, so its primary role is to set the pace of the music and only has to be heard by the players. However, in recordings the harpsichord or pianoforte is invariably close-mic'ed and far more prevalent. So you can argue yourself to death even with acoustic music what is authentic, as the engineer will purposefully mix something that you would not hear live from the audience, possibly only from the keyboardist's seat.

    2. I wholeheartedly agree with you - high end snobs hold back our numbers which in turn hold back sales, which in turns slows innovation.

      I recall one article in AS a number of years back where the author said she refused to listen to any music that originated through amplification. In her mind amplified sound was not music and she went as far as to ridicule people who listened to Rock, electric Blues, or anything that is plugged in. Tin ears I believe she claimed. That opinion really po'd me. Sure Different Strokes for Different Folks, but don't put people down because they like something that you don't. Yes going to Lincoln Center to hear a symphony is a moving experience, but just the same is attending a throbbing rock concert with the whole place swaying in rhythm to me is going to church.

      I still subscribe to AS, but more to keep abreast of the industry and less for some of the stuff they spit out.

      1. One of the tracks on the iPod in my car that pops up from time to time that always strikes me as high end-ish modern music when it comes on (despite being an old tune) is Radiohead’s “Everything in It’s Right Place” from the album Kid A. (and the title tune, for that matter)

        The Tidal version doesn’t sound so good, vs. the CD (or a rip of the CD).

        I think this may be one of those albums they mostly created on a laptop. This does not prevent me from loving Nat King Cole, or Mahler, or whomever. My interest in music did not stop at a given century or decade.

  6. If HP's definition is correct, then I will never know if I have a HIFi system or not. Every concert I go to, from orchestral to acoustic, is amplified in some way. My base for what is what I hear live. Amplified music.

  7. “High-end” is an American term coined in Stereophile, a USA publication, which I’d never heard of before reading Paul’s Posts.
    Yeah right.
    And I never heard of a country called the "USA" before reading Paul's posts.

    1. Why should I have ever heard of Stereophile? I've subscribed to Gramophone for over 30 years and HiFi News and Record Review for a few years a while back. Otherwise I have browsed audio magazines in the newsagent from time to time. I don't even know if there is a print version of Stereophile as I've never seen one. I paid a few $ for a 12 month subscription in 2015 to read a review of my speakers and did not renew it, but they keep on sending me emails.
      There is more than enough audio to choose from in the UK without having to worry about what goes on in the USA. I'd not heard of PS Audio until about 2013, thanks I believe to an excellent new distributor (Signature Systems) who put in a huge effort, but Chord have pretty much got the DAC market stitched up, amps come mostly from Linn or Naim and very few people bother with power products.
      A little bit of research shows that "High-End" is a marketing term, one rarely used in the UK. My dealer calls themselves High-End, but I first bought there as a poor student.

      1. My God, you are so damn BRITISH.
        "I’d not heard of PS Audio until about 2013"
        and "Why should I have ever heard of Stereophile?"
        Well, maybe because you're interested in audio.
        And if you're not, as you like to point out every now and then, then why are you posting on this AUDIO site on an almost daily basis.
        Not that I care, but just wondering.
        I'm not interested at all in photography, SO I don't post comments on whatever photo site.
        I've subscribed to no audio-magazine, but that does not mean I never heard of Stereophile, or TAS, or Hifi News, or Hifi+, or Audio, or Stereo, or... (the list is endless). Because I'm interested in audio.
        But of course, like a real BRIT, you are only aware of BRITISH (audio) products like Chord, Harbeth, Linn, Naim, Kef, B&W etc....
        Please don't make it worse and tell me you never heard of "What Hifi".
        It's British (hooray) in case you didn't know.

        1. One reason is I am actually a PSA customer, having bought two new components, which is two more than most people in the UK. Besides UK brands, other European and Japanese brands minimised the need to look to the USA. The system I used the longest, about 12 years, was Swedish and Danish. Hifi News and Hifi+ were read at the newsagent and occasionally purchased. In the dozen or so years before I married and audio remained static I was within walking distance of about 10 good audio stores, so you could go and listen to most anything than have to read about it.
          The European market is saturated with European audio brands, so there is relatively little interest in US audio, it is expensive due to the exchange rate and generally has poor resale values. Even if I had heard of Stereophile or TAD, I see no point in reading magazines about products I would never likely hear. It's the same with cars, you see lots of European car brands in the USA, but you hardly ever see American cars in Europe.

          Besides being a customer, I read this site because I like Paul's take on things and most of the opinions expressed, it passes the time whilst in the bath or watching Chelsea with my younger son (I have to share his pain, although they got a result today).

  8. Thinking about the difference between consumer and high end gear in other areas like photography, TV, Espresso machines etc., I’d finally say the borderline is defined by the community, media and inaffordability for a majority and describes the effort taken of companies to provide high quality performance, which certainly has a certain price (but doesn’t have to be uber expensive)

  9. With regard to the use of the term High End, why not revive the term High Fidelity? The term "High Fidelity", the reproduction of sound with little distortion, giving a result very similar to the original, pretty much says what we want to convey.

  10. jazznut started out today’s thread indicating his thought that high end related to equipment and surroundings as opposed to the music. I would tend to agree with his position. Regardless of the true definition, I have never set up any system I owned, nor have I strived to duplicate unamplified live music, as that has not “been my thing”! I have always tried to set up my kit to duplicate the sounds in a most accurate way based on my memory of what a certain instrument or sound should be like. For the most part my musical tastes run to electric guitars, studio produced music and live shows of bands of that nature, which by definition amplify their sounds. If the system has been able to do that, then it is high end enough for me.

    I have been a faithful Grammy’s watcher over the years but have to admit that I’m lost in recently with much of the modern music of certain genres. The R&B and rap offerings do little for me, and I don’t understand how artists like SZA get any play time I just don’t get it. I do follow Pink, Ed Sheehan, Joshua Radin and many other modern musicians and enjoy them a lot. I like Haim too, ha, but perhaps because I find Este Haim’s bass face a hoot to watch!

  11. .... "the sound of unamplified instruments and / or voices as heard in a natural, acoustic performance space" ...

    This nothing more and nothing less, describes the lived experience, when you attend a concert of a symphony, opera etc.

    At the time it is added: He suggested that any system capable of "The sound of unamplified ......."

    This constitutes a fallacy, because this is impossible, since we all know that this experience is not possible to transfer it to the house, and it simply is not because it is about, 2 different spaces each with their peculiar characteristics, not to mention the limitations of the recording media, even with DSP artifices.

    The definition apparently attributable to P. McGowan: "the natural, lossless, uncolored, reproduction of recorded music." Makes more sense and is more concordant with current reality.

    Perhaps these reflections are outside the topic of today's post, but the moderator has mentioned it.

  12. The Absolute Sound's definition of high-end audio was descriptive, prescriptive and all encompassing, in that it included the type of music (unamplified only) and the type of recording (capturing the acoustic performance space). That definition always irritated me no end. For two decades ('80s and '90s) I read every issue of TAS cover to cover, but some of that was more like hate reading. I preferred Stereophile and Hi-Fi News.

    I find HP’s rationale for a broad application of his definition — that a system fitting his requirements could also accurately reproduce other kinds of music — to be questionable.

    Microphones don’t hear like ear/brains, so accurately reproducing what the mics captured may or may not conform to an individual audiophile’s ideal of what “natural” is. I can’t tell you how many times I visited audiophiles who had systems set up exclusively for classical music that had obvious colorations and limitations (obvious to me when I played studio rock ’n’ roll recordings). In one case, for instance, I pointed out to a friend that the imaging of his system was distant, flat and diffuse. My friend explained that his system made his favorite recordings sound like his favorite seat at Carnegie Hall, which was up in the first tier or dress circle. I mentioned that my favorite seat was row E, center, and that his system sounded nothing like live music to me. To him, however, it fit HP’s definition of a proper high-end system.

    Paul, I like your definition much better: “the natural, lossless, uncolored reproduction of recorded music.” That’s what high-end audio is about.

  13. Isn’t the term “accurate” a more concise way of saying “natural, lossless, uncolored”? “Accurate reproduction” means precise and perfect reproduction of the original in all respects.

  14. I have put recordings into two categories. One category is documented music which is the recording engineer's attempt to get the best possible representation of an actual performance or what might have been an actual performance. This holds even where the engineer has altered the signal if it is in the service of achieving this end goal for the listener. Whatever voices and musical instruments these are including electronic instruments they could have been heard live. I would add that so far the technology to recreate convincing facsimiles of real performances doesn't exist yet. Someone we know went to the Metropolitan Opera a few years ago and heard the real thing. Then he went home to listen to the best hi fi system he ever had and said it produced "canned music. Curses." An unflattering but honest comparison. The state of the art isn't there yet.

    the other type of recording I've categorized is what I call manufactured music. These are recordings where a live performance could not have possibly sounded like what you'd hear from the recording under any circumstances. Put Frank Sinatra's voice through a reverb unit, use Autotune to make it sound like Barbara Streisand doesn't sing off key because she is tone deaf, use amplifiers and other processors to make a weak pop singer sound like he or she has a voice that is sufficiently powerful and with adequate tone when without them you wouldn't want to hear them singing in the shower. Most recordings and live concerts are manufactured music. The engineer makes the music into something marketable out of nothing. Different tracks may be sourced from different places at different times before they are assembled and edited.

    Most recordings are manufactured music. Some of us collect and listen to documented music as well. The goal for both types of recordings is to make a profit. Where do purely electronic instruments fit into this like Switched on Bach? I don't know. It seems to be in a separate niche where the audio playback system is part of the instrument.

    1. “manufactured music”? You have softened on this methinks, didn’t you used to call it “children’s music”. I have referenced your categorization of these types of music before! Ha ha. Happy listening.

      1. It's a distinction between the way the recordings are made and the value of the content. Children's music is almost always manufactured music. If you hear how these singers actually sound without all that electronics you'd laugh that anyone would pay money to hear them live or buy their recordings. Weak, not particularly distinctive, terrible tone, and some of them shriek more than sing. I'd pay money to avoid having to hear it.

        By contrast, a great operatic voice is the result of a lifetime of dedicated training. It creates a beautiful tone that is expressive, can vary considerably under complete control of the singer, AND it works on human lung power alone. No coal to Coltrane there. Just one human voice singing to other human beings directly with no machinery to filter it or enhance it to where it might be marketable. And by the way, it also has to do this with great power to fill up an opera house so that people in the last row of the highest balcony can hear it.

        1. I would absolutely agree about the quality of voice of these singers. I have experienced it myself, going to see someone I liked at a bookstore acoustic event, or, hearing them in a non-studio open-mike type environment and with many (not all, and perhaps not even the majority of those I might listen to) you come away thinking "yikes". Auto-tune does nothing for me, I can tell right away when someone has had their voice electronically altered. I tend to shy away from those performers as well. Take care!!

  15. Imagine.... watching the original Wizard of Oz, not in Technicolor? Would you have preferred a realistic appearance instead?

    I want audio "Technicolor" in my room (to some extent). Realistic? Realistic can be very BORING to hear on an audio system. Audio recordings and equipment should compensate for what can not be reproduced on a mere audio system. When you hear music live? The sound is not just coming from the front stage. A huge part of the excitement is how the sound emanates in reflections all around you that makes you know its live and you are there.

    I have no hopes of reproducing the live event as it took place. That would be impossible in a room in a home. Instead, I want to produce an event that you can know "could have been" a live event for its has a realism of its own. Then it gets exciting to partake and listen..... and watch! I find high quality audio with video adds an anchor for concentration and perspective that listening like a blind man (solely audio) can never achieve. That is why some prefer to listen with the lights turned off. Lights off, so it could replicate a live performance where the lights were turned off being not able to see the performers.

    I think the real future for a more satisfying audio experience will include video in the presentation for live performances. You can see where its all coming from and not have to wonder as with audio only.... IMHO.

  16. Anything with electric guitars on it is automatically suspect, as the electric guitar has no natural unamplified sound. Electric guitars were never presented as devices that sounded anything like an acoustic guitar. Charlie Christian's tone certainly didn't sound like any sort of unamplified guitar. The tone we associate with the great jazz guitarists of the 50's and early 60's was a preference of the players, not any sort of "natural sound" one could attribute to an unamplified arch-top guitar. At best, you get the sound of a guitar amplifier. (or amp/mic combination) Increasingly, guitarists record stuff that's never been heard in any form other than through headphones. What is the acoustic sound of a synthesizer?

    I don't know how many times, back in the 70's and 80's when I was selling hi-fi, I heard someone say something like "wow, the image of that voice is great", when I knew what we were hearing was recorded 3 inches from the singers mouth and the "image" created by pan pots and most likely some form of studio wizardry. Or people wanting a "all tube" signal path to listen to Fleetwood Mac.

    This has been going on for years. Maybe we should just say: "It makes the stuff I listen to sound like I like it to."

  17. Having now viewed Paul's video (which I should have done in the first place) and read others' good posts, I now understand that "modern music" is interpreted to include music manufactured in a studio rather than performed in a real live setting. In that case, if "high-end" were to mean "natural and uncolored", the listener would have to have the same or very similar playback equipment and room characteristics as the producer had in the studio when developing and finalizing the music, in order to hear the same thing the composer heard and intended. The composer and producer monitoring the music substitutes for the live performance. It is ironic that the monitors in many studios are not as sophisticated as many high-end loudspeakers in terms of cost, tonality and specifications, so what audiophiles hear is not exactly what the producer heard or intended. It is likely more colored or less colored, and not authentic to the original sound; hence, "high-end" reproduction becomes even more elusive.

  18. I don't think HP or TAS considered unamplified music to be the High End sound. They recommended using unamplified music to judge whether your HiFi system is giving out the right sound. Modern music with electronic amplification of course can sound very nice but it can be completely changed if one changes the electronic equipment amplifying it. So it is not a useful standard to judge one's hiFi system. There is not to say which is High End and which is not. I am really confused by Paul in the use of terms but I hope he is clear in his concept.

  19. I listen to mostly classic and jazz. And as such, I agree with Harry that it is instructive to attend to live orchestral and jazz performances to form an idea of what the sound of that music is like. One aspect of classical recordings that I am especially attuned to is sound of massed strings. I try as best I can to remember their sound from concerts that I attend. I noticed that they are sometimes “peaky” or slightly strident, just as they are some, but few, of my CDs.
    Some this else I found regarding classical concerts is that if you sit back far enough, the impression is more of “fat mono” rather than stereo.
    My sonic expectations regarding studio based popular music are different; less demanding and unrelated to anything “live”. I expect that music to be pleasing and undistorted.

  20. This is a major part of my world. I have hundreds of DSD near-coincident mic pair concert recordings of experimental modern, post-modern and post-post modern music which are absolutely high-end. All processing in the recording chain was replaced by acoustics and custom electro-acoustics for the audience's ears, so these captures are much closer to the real music than studio recordings, and in a sense meet the definition of captured acoustic sounds.

    I had to re-invent audio from the root, and electric, electronic and electro-acoustic music figured strongly in my motivations and trajectory. Among my first records was a survey of synthesizer music by Babbitt, Cage and Stockhausen. As a teenage electronics experimenter who knew music through the piano in the living room, I found the sounds interesting but un-musical. It was unfortunate these were my first exposure, as the pioneering work of Raymond Scott was a better bridge to acoustic music.

    Scott invented the analog synthesizer and taught Bob Moog how to build the circuits, which were then used by Wendy Carlos to make the first synthesizer hit record. It played well on radio, but was still not high-end. This part of the puzzle was making a real-time machine with a keyboard controller so the human expression from keyboard-trained fingers could be applied.

    The very expressive Theremin was invented in the late 1920s, with gestures controlling analog pitch and volume. Another early electronic instrument was the Ondes Martinot which had pitch control by a touch strip and pull string; but these still suffered form the poor musical quality of the interaction between waveform generators and the "sounding board", dynamic loudspeakers.

    I heard the original Ondes model with original speaker in Messaien's "Turangalila" played by the New York Philharmonic. The speakers were awful, they beamed the treble in a narrow cone where I sat in front center, which was truly annoying and also blocked our direct line to the orchestra; while the rest of the room heard something more like the composers intent and the orchestra could only hear the muffled bass from the backside.

    I got a clue working with composer/Thereminist Dalit Warshaw who was a student of Clara Rockmore. She came in with a program of Cello sonatas and art songs arranged for Theremin and Piano, so she wanted a sound like Cello and human voice. We tried my Cello speakers, but they were too linear - they sounded exactly the same at all volumes and reproduced the filtered sawtooth waveform precisely.

    Acoustic instruments utilize the non-linear dynamics of wood, skin, gut, vocal chords and air column turbulence to produce timbral shifts with volume that affect the perception of loudness more than the crude human response to sine tones where the just noticeable difference (JND) is 26% more or less energy (1dB = 10^.1).

    My next try was using a guitar amplifier which has evolved second order distortion and soft knee overload in the tube power amp and controlled breakup in the speaker diaphragm to give more musical dynamics to the sterile signal coming from solid body instruments. This proved too hard to control on a Theremin.

    We needed something in between. Modern electric guitar recordings use a blend of direct signal with a miked amplifier cabinet, so I split the Theremin signal and ran it to both Cello speaker and guitar amp. The harmonic and phase richness of the Vox AC15 with Celestion Guitar speaker (famous from British Pop Invasion) blended with the high-end linearity of the cello speaker was the right combination.

    This successful experiment led to a consort of speakers that are half way in between to mimic the sound of "acoustic distortion". They are “studio guitar speakers” which make the live sound like the recording and vice versa. They have lower timbral, temporal and inter-modulation distortion and extended bass and treble with respect to guitar, bass and keyboard amps, providing "High End" sound for electric and electronic instruments.

    There is also the problem of sampling, which goes back to the earliest compositional use of magnetic recording by Hamza al Din. Sampling has been used to kill music since the disco era (Bee Gees, Giorgio Moroder) and now we have a plethora of artists using looping for solo acts. But done correctly - hand triggering all instances - samples can be a real human expression instrument, like turntablists. I suggest listening to musicians like Yuka Honda (accessible) and Richard Barrett (challenging) who play sampling keyboard with the skill level and expressivity of conservatory trained musicians.

    There are also "electronicists" who control tapes for live performances of mixed electro-acoustic compositions. I have produced multi-channel shows using master files with eight speakers for composers Svjetlana Bukvich, Jennifer Logan and David Ibbett performing on controller; and done a live recording of Luigi Nono's "La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura" with Christopher Burns controlling the 8 track tape, and also Dai Fujikura's piece "Prism Spectra" which required Burns to control unstable programming loops deriving from a live Viola part played by Miranda Cuckson.

    Combinations of AcuVox acoustic instrument and electric instrument speakers enable blending of electric and acoustic sources for an organic sound by making the electronics sound acoustic or making the acoustic instruments sound more electric. These match dynamics, timbre and spatial projection pattern in a musical way so you can no longer hear the difference that made combinations so jarring using conventional PA or “Musical Instrument” speakers.

    Here is a DSF room recording of polymath Jessica Meyer's debut as a composer playing amplified Viola through a Viola speaker, and processed viola through a pair of Cello speakers:

    There are synthesized sounds possible today in the era of high speed computing that can mimic the complex sounds of notes starting and stopping on acoustic instruments or create new analogous sounds that are likewise musical. These need the same tight phase response at all angles and defining spatial patterns that enable traditional acoustic instruments to "image" in the room, so they sound amazing through Cello speakers.

    Unfortunately, most of the composers working with electronic sounds have become addicted to sonic novelty for novelties' sake. When I ask them what type of sounds are in a composition to select the best speakers for their concert, the typical response is "My sounds are unique! They can't be described!" as a point of pride. My answer to this is: "If that is true, then they are not musical! (and you do not know what you are doing.)" I am still working on a polite way to say that.

    At the least, there is a mathematical description of all possible sounds and I speak math and physics. Further, I have heard the entire history of electronic music and machine generated noise which includes precedents for nearly all sounds available today - and much of them need to be deprecated.

    I would like to shout out to other people who have made new musical sounds with electronics and advanced the art of mixed electro-acoustics: Mario Davidovsky, Peter Beylsma, Hans Tammen, Gianni Luigi Diana, Alexander Sigman, Jorge Sosa, Eleanor Sandresky, Gene Pritsker, Dan Palkowski, Cornelius Dufallo, Patrick Derivaz, Levy Lorenzo, Rob Schwimmer, Kinan Azmeh, Alex Mincek, Sean Sutkus and Kevin Patton, with special mention to Oscar Edelstein, who records in high definition.

    There are also extraordinary performers and composers who take acoustic instruments into sound universes that are other-worldly like electronics: Robert Dick, Claire Chase, Julian Elvira on flute, Christopher Otto, Elissa Cassini and Miranda Cuckson on Violin, Johnny Reinhard and Rebekkah Heller on Bassoon, Ryan Muncy, Philip Gerschlauer on saxophone, composers Helmut Lachenmann, Luciano Berio, Morgan Krauss and Eric Wubbels on all manner of orchestral instruments and voice, singers like Miya Masaoka, Kamala Samkaram, Kate Soper, Floy Krouchi and Nina Rosalind Dante.

    I also produce acoustic Modern Music from Webern, Schoenberg and Ustvolskaya to the wet ink of Jason Eckart and Marcos Balter. There are worlds of 20th and 21st Century music below the mass media in sales volume, but above in sophistication, nuance and depth – which is my idea of “High End”.

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4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

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