Emotional memories

October 7, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Everything we choose is based on a reference—a model in our heads of what we should expect.

Each of our internal references have been honed over the years. We know exactly how a human voice sounds; a violin; a piano.

When we playback recordings of these familiar instruments and voices we evaluate their closeness to our internal reference.

Real or artificial?

The thing is we can’t ever compare sound for sound. We’re not tape recorders. We can’t actually record in our heads exactly what’s on offer from a musician.

Our references are built over our entire lifetimes and stored in our memories—not the actual sound, but rather our impression of that sound.

We record with great accuracy the feelings evoked from those instruments.

We capture the emotions, the small details, the essence of that sound, or taste, or experience.

Our HiFi systems are all about playing back music that engages our emotional memory.

How it makes us feel.

The better the system, the better to evoke those emotional memories.

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37 comments on “Emotional memories”

  1. Emotional memories indeed.
    Emotional memories take 1…
    After living with a pair of Celestion – ‘Ditton 66’ floorstanders for nearly 38 years it was easy to move to a pair of DeVore Fidelity – ‘Orangutan O/93’ floorstanders.
    Still got a single paper/cardboard bass driver, wide front baffle with 90 degree edges, single input taps, paper/oil capacitors…about as retro as you can get.
    I will always love that sound.

    Emotional memories take 2…
    The Redbook Compact Disc is now forty years old & to celebrate this milestone I draw your attention to one of the very first DDD albums…Donald Fagen’s – ‘The Nightfly’ (Oct 1982) which has also just turned forty…aaah to be forty again 😎
    I recommend that all of you give this superb album a spin today.
    I believe that you will find it just as enjoyable & as sonically impressive to listen to as it was when we
    were all much, much younger ✌

    “I know what happens,
    I read the book,
    I believe I just got the goodbye look.” 😀

    1. If you listen to the Donald Fragen YouTube interview I posted in the forum, you’ll hear why this recording was so good in spite of being such an early one. The 3M recorder, although a mess in terms of adjustment, seems to have been leading in sound quality by far at the time.

      I also remember the Soundstream recordings as quite superior at the time.

  2. As far as I’m concerned, the stronger the emotional memory of the performer or piece of music, the less important the audio quality. It is when I am listening to music that I have not heard performed live that better audio quality can make up some of the deficit of not having an emotional connection. However good the playback, it will never get to the same emotional level.
    Live amplified rock music and studio recordings, I treat as completely different animals.
    My favourite piece of music is Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. I’ve never listened to it at home. Go and see it once or twice a year and I’m happy.

    1. I have several albums which are both recorded in a studio and during a live event on stage. Those studio recordings all (!) sound most clean but sterile while the recordings of the live event are really emotionally involving. You feel the musicians had fun during the performance – obviously in contrast to their work in the studio. By the way, in most cases the same recording engineer was involved for both concerts!

      1. Lang Lang recently released a double album of the Goldberg Variations, a studio performance and a live performance. The contrast was clear. Was not well reviewed. Live performances vary dramatically as well. I heard Levit play the Goldbergs at Wigmore Hall and his recording, in a similar sized space in Berlin, gives a similar feeling. I heard Kolesnikov play them in a brick warehouse (the Ragged School Museum), which was electrifying, especially as I was sitting 10 feet away, his recording although in a large venue (St Silas, Kentish Town) has a rather different acoustic.

  3. A question I wanted to ask anyway since long:

    Who of all the high end fans has ever heard an instrument unamplified from closer than the concert audience perspective?

    I guess nearly no one except the musicians and producers/engineers among us.

    So what do we think most of us reference to?

    I guess for most it’s what they heard on stereos since their first one and what they think the real instrument could sound. Or how an instrument sounds from far away (it would be bad if a stereo would sound like that, except if it’s a one point recording).

    That’s why the typical slogans “sounds live”, “sounds like the real instrument” amuse me, as hardly anyone listening to high end systems ever heard a live, unamplified sax, bassoon, piano, clarinet or even voice from closer than 50ft, if at all.

    1. Does studying and performing on all wind, string, percussion, keyboards and vocals count? How about a degree in Instrumental Music? Maybe I’m over qualified, but intimately know how unamplified music should sound in audio reproduction! Bet there are many more audiophiles that are “in-the-know” through hands-on experience!! 😉

        1. We completely replaced what is called “living room” to become a “music room”. There is a beautiful baby grand (that I don’t play, she does). A few comfortable chairs to listen, a few reading lights and the stereo equipment. I rarely play a Martin acoustic guitar there and almost never the Fender, I’m no SRV (sadly).

          The back “family room” has another stereo system but it is not set up for serious listening. This is where we welcome friends as with the weather in SoCA you can go outside almost all year round.

          Of course we know how a good instrument sounds close by. The sound of the piano or the Martin are just unique. But we know how to separate what we hear at home with the illusion of the recording. It is not had when you try.

    2. jazznut,
      It’s not so difficult getting up close to an instrument. Find any street busker you can get as close as you want. I once heard Dean Friedman busking in Stony Stratford, near Milton Keynes U.K. in preparation for a gig that night. I’ve sat centre front row in a church hall at an Ashley Hutching’s gig. He was supported by Becky Mills and Ruth Angell. Becky was about six feet away from me playing acoustic guitar and singing, really beautiful. I’ve seen Rick Wakeman and Ramos Remedios in a local church, but not sat as close, and Beth Hart and band in a room above a pub. The Beth Hart was amplified and not quite the gig I was expecting. I’d been listening to her ‘My California’ album which is mellower and untypical of her other work. I was about 12-20’ away as she moved about the stage. Just find a small venue and get down the front. Then there’s the unbridled joy of the school concert in the assembly hall. Back in the 40’s and 50’s (so I’m told) many peoples first experience of hi-fi was a piano in the front room. 🙂

      1. Well yes but I think you agree that hearing an instrument in the streets isn’t really something to compare with a recording scenario in a studio or just a normal closed room.

        1. I would have to say that the most incredible live, unamplified music I’ve ever experienced was performed by a small combo playing Dixieland jazz (or whatever it might be called today) in the Place des Vosges square in Paris, some thirty years ago.

          The best-sounding bunch of nobodies you could imagine, and my wife told me she would help me take my stereo equipment to the curb when we got home.

    3. I’ve been talking about listening to acoustic instruments in many jazz clubs, about 20% or more within less than 10 feet of the players on Paul’s Posts for a quite some time now. Since I moved to Florida 10 years ago,I’ve been at small venues I believe about five-six times. I love going to jazz clubs to feel the energy of happening around me as well as the sounds of the musicians close up. So the answer to your question is yes I have and yes I know the difference between being in a small venue listening to acoustic instruments close up versus the different pleasure that I get from listening to my home stereo.

      1. Great!

        I find the occasions to listen to unamplified even Jazz concerts quite rare, if there’s no really tiny club near you.

        Acoustic instruments sure, but unamplified rare imo.

        1. Chet was playing with Paul Motian that night and he even stopped to scream at him for playing so loud but Paul was way back in the diagonally opposite corner from Chet. I don’t recall that either of them had microphones especially Paul Motian and I don’t remember who the third player was but I think it was a pianist playing quite softly. It was pretty quiet in the club that night because the audience wanted to hear everything that Chet was playing, but that’s normally not the case in any Jazz club. Sonny Rollins used to have a mic clipped to the bell of his saxophone so yes he was amplified and saw many other musicians. Sonny was a pistol with that microphone, when he got done playing he would turn his Saxupside-down and talked do you audience through the bell. He was never really that close at the bottom line the stage was at least 7-8 feet away from the closest tables and about 3 to 4 foot higher up on the stage so it was a very different experience.

    4. I may be in the minority, but I grew up playing in a school wind band, and in my young adulthood I attended and participated in many bluegrass jams, large and small, in non-amplified spaces. And for many years, our concert-going experience with the Indianapolis Symphony included a pre-concert discussion and demonstration each time, held in a meeting room that sat about 50. We also had a club that met in that room monthly, with a program arranged and hosted by one of the ISO cellists, and those meetings often had chamber groups performing, or individual musicians demonstrating their instruments.

    5. I have heard the following instruments up close and unamplified:

      Drum Kit
      Acoustic Guitar
      Baby Grand Piano

      I have also heard both Female and Male singing with no microphone

      I refer to these experiences as my acoustic references. Obviously, the male and female singing is highly dependent on the people doing the singing so I do not think of them as a reference for all singing.

      It is important to remember that there is no such thing as a true live acoustic sound when you hear anything that is recorded.

      I also find it interesting that my favorite non rock ‘n roll instrument is a French Horn, which I have never heard live.

    1. It depends on what type of music I expect to hear and when you go into a live venue you usually don’t get a reserved table. In 1982, I was at the Village Vanguard with my cousin and our girlfriends sitting within touching distance of Chet Baker who pulled up a chair and then sat down on the stage that was only about 4-6 inches high so my foot was resting on it’s edge. Chet’ts playing was so soft, with his round tones playing Some incredible note progressions that you want to be sitting close to the entertainer. Another night I was sitting directly in front of Al Foster a great drummer and he almost blew out my eardrums. Not so pleasant. Being at a live venue is a visual experience as well as an audible one.

    2. Depending on who’s playing you may want to sit closer up. At other times, better to be in the middle of the entire crowd. It’s hard to reserve a table. That’s why I was blessed on so many weekday evenings when my cousin and I sat with Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. He had a his own table in the right spot and what a great experience to hear his stories and listen to the music with him.

    3. Invalid…You don’t but it depends on what you mean by close. It also depends on the number of instruments and what type of music is being played. If you were in a jazz venue it’s almost impossible to get reserved seats unless it’s a supper club.

  4. Dear Paul,

    Very well stated! For me, the better the audio system, the greater the emotional engagement. Maximizing emotional connection is the equation I attempt to solve for in this hobby.

    Dear jazznut,

    What about living room solo or ensemble performances? Group Muse is a great way to find such performances.

  5. References & emotional impact. Both become subjective to the listener.

    Go to a concert in a small unamplified jazz club or a great symphonic hall. Go to an outdoor rock concert at a stadium or even in a large indoor venue. Do you get the imaging and phantom imaging you do at home? Do you sit there and listen for all the low level details. Is your seat chosen so the orchestra size is perfectly placed at an equilateral triangle to your ears?

    When at home do you get all the ambience of the hall or club. Is that ambience real or dubbed in during mixing mastering process? When all the phantom images take off towards the back and sides do they ever come back? Change something up, does the same instrument sound exactly the same recording to recording?

    Emotion is an individual a response. How deep you’re moved or affected is completely different from someone else, Whether it be a live performance or one contrived in a studio.

    Reference can and should be a hard point, or line in the sand, or an ‘accepted by all standard’. In the case of audio the ‘reference system’ can change as often as some change their underwear. Also in the case of audio, reference becomes what ever an individual deems. “Compared to my reference… this system sounds either better or worse”

    Is it coincidental that all you have to do is pee in front of reference to get preference?

  6. Paul, how about your octave recordings record some staff & family members singing, talking with mild instrument accompaniment? Would make for interesting internal reference.

    Season philharmonic tickets row G.
    Acoustic jazz 1-2x month up close.

  7. Sometimes the musicians don’t get to even hear what the other musicians on stage are playing, but if you are in the audience you can usually hear each musician. I read an interview with Richard wright, he said when they played in large venues he couldn’t even hear what David Gilmour was playing, but in smaller venues he could. My point is you don’t want to be a couple feet away from most instruments, they would be too loud and not sound all that good, of course there are some exceptions, but those are few and far between.

  8. I have a 22 fret Fender Telecaster three feet behind me in my office. I pick it up every few hours and practice on it, un-amplified. I work on tricky parts, finger workout, build muscle memory, etc. In the evening I practice with my 24 fret Schecter in a dark room, un-amplified. When I ‘plug-in’ on Friday I find that I can let my emotions play the instrument and not my eyes. It made a huge difference letting emotion override mechanics. The higher my emotion the more I sweat. The feeling is contagious. The band feels it and gets tighter, the audience feels it and gets on their feet…
    I just got a TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb. It emulates church, plate, spring, hall, and room reverb. Reverb is very cool, it helps the ’emotional component’.

  9. For years, I sat 8 feet away from one of the greatest trumpet players of all time and I can tell you that in none of the 100 or so records he’s on was his sound ever accurately captured. Making music sound “live” on a stereo is a fool’s errand.

    1. Will you tell us who that trumpet player was. I won’t make any comments after I find out. Just out of curiosity.

      My overall favorite jazz trumpeter is Freddie Hubbard because he so many different tricks up his sleeve that he used. Like Miles, you could tell it was Freddie on a recording within a few seconds at most.

    2. It’s not a “fool’s errand”. What has to happen is that the system remains accurate at higher sound levels; and then you get intensity, immersion, correct transient impact. Many rigs begin choking as you raise the volume, and so can never create the live experience.

      Like being in a car at very high speed, which can be in a dangerous, on the edge of disaster scenario, or by contrast in complete control because of the engineering of the vehicle and competence of the driver, so can a playback setup operate. The word often used is effortless – the replay is always true to the recording, at any sane volume. And this generates the same emotional impact as listening live to the instruments would.

  10. Is it live? Or is it my rememberex..?
    I was also in band and stage band (trumpet).
    Full orchestra sound – I still maintain, one of the best concerts I saw was Yanni. Yup. That gal on violin – wow. Beyond skillful. And you can tell, she LOVES her job.
    Fagen: I recently scooped The Dukes Of September Concert DVD. Fagen, Michael McDonald and Boz Skaggs. Highly recommend.

  11. Oh man. This post hits home. I have so many emotional attachments and memories with my audio. Wow. It is immeasurable. I also love the feeling of getting brand new equipment and testing it out with various recordings I adore. I absolutely love that and sometimes the honeymoon phase never wears off!!

    Have a great day gentlemen. Celebrate whatever you have and love in this hobby. It is the thanksgiving long weekend here in Canada, so that will be a big plus for some late night listening. Can’t wait. Got some great stuff including the new Pink Floyd SACD of Animals (2018 remix.) It finally got delivered to me! Perfect timing.

    Cheers all.

  12. What a great topic.

    We learned, some of us indeed have unamplified live experience from closer than row 5-15 in the audience.

    Anyway I dare to say, the following cite of todays‘ post isn’t valid for a majority of audiophiles (Paul however certainly might speak for himself).

    „We know exactly how a human voice sounds; a violin; a piano.“

    IMO most audiophiles we’d see e.g. on a Hi-Fi show just know most instruments from their playback equipment or a live situation not comparable to how the are usually recorded.

    Some of us may have heard string instruments in a relevant way to have a reference, others a drum set and a sax and again others a whole lot of big band instruments in rehearsal.

    But who heard everything he uses claims like “that sounds real from the stereo” for? I’d say most use it inflationary for a lot of instruments we in fact never heard unamplified, close up.

    The surprises could roughly be like that:

    A kick drum doesn’t make booom…it rather makes plop.

    How a cymbal sounds, strongly depends if one’s stick has a plastic or a wooden head. Which did you take as a reference?

    A tenor sax live is very easily distinguishable from an alto. This can be quite hard on a recording, as among others, often a lot of body is missing there or used too much for an alto.

    A solo cello doesn’t sound like an up-tuned bass. It sounds clearly smaller.

    A piano isn’t reproducible, nothing from a stereo sounds like a real piano (halfway high claim provided)

    Holographic sound of singers is a fantastic ability of high end setups and seems to make the sound „real“…unfortunately this doesn’t exist live unamplified.


    I’d say much of why recorded instruments sound different live and recorded is due to them being recorded exaggerated if solo or not properly recorded in a band where the whole mixture of instruments has to work…and certainly due to the limitations of mics.

    So where I’m with Paul is, that the references of most (not all) audiophiles are emotional or a little harder put “imagined“ (at least for most instruments).

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