Hitting the right note

January 19, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

The phrase, "hitting the right note" has many meanings. To a classical music performer, accurate to the score; a jazz musician, true to the vibe; a stereo system, enhanced emotion.

We all recognize when a wrong note is played. Step into any reproduced music environment and you're pleasurably or painfully aware of music's veracity.

Our acceptance of right or wrong depends on expectations. We're forgiving of our child's first band concert.

When it comes to a system hitting the right note, we're always pleasantly surprised when affordable gets our foot tapping.

And painfully aware when expensive is off key.

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7 comments on “Hitting the right note”

  1. The main concern for audiophiles is whether we got the sound right. Soundstage ,imaging and palpability are easy to identify-tonal quality is not.
    There is an infinite range of tonal quality and no two systems sound the same. Attending live music can do only so much. Our music memory can be easily corrupted between live events and our home. So what's an audiophile to do short of bringing a professional artist home?
    We do the best we can and enjoy what we've got while educating ourselves on the right sound.

    1. If you start shopping around for a stereo the first question you get asked is "how much money you got to spend?" It is easy to think that the more you spend the better the sound. i started off thinking that and was shocked to come to a conclusion that often price and desirability had nothing in common.

  2. What is the right note? Right for whom? Does it change even for the same person. My dear friend was on the stage of Carnegie Hall with her teacher who was practicing for a concert he'd be giving there. She told him his sound was harsh and scratchy. He told her to sit out in the audience. The acoustics of the hall worked its magic and the sound was magnificent.

    I have to admit that I did not become a critical listener until the mid 1980s. Up until then recordings were recordings, hi fi was hi fi, live music was live music and I didn't expect much from hi fi. Even so it was fun. The promise of so called accurate sound reproduction was not of concern to me. In fact I didn't even think about it. But i 1974 after my disappointing experience with quadraphonic sound I became curious about whether or not concert hall acoustics could ever be duplicated from a recording. It didn't take long before I had a theoretical and new way to understand it. It had everything I needed to know and more. And so for two years I planned and built the first prototype of my idea not expecting much. But I got a lot more than I bargained for. That first prototype was used in three places and disassembled for the last time in 1985 and from then until 2002 I listened to a conventional 2 channel system. The mathematical model I'd invented showed the relationship between acoustics an tone but it wasn't until experimenting with the second prototype that I understood how critical that was.

    So in the interim, I decided to see if I could duplicate the tone of acoustic instruments as they would be heard in my listening room. I concluded this was the best I could do with a 2 channel system. I was not interested in imaging, only in tonality. I quickly discovered that there was nothing I could do changing the frequency response of my sound system that would work. Several years of trial and error ended up in complete failure. I realized something else had to change. It was the difference between the way musical instruments propagated sound into a room and the way speakers do it. Most of the sound energy from real music is directed away from any one listener. From loudspeakers most of the energy is directed at the listener. Therefore, to be successful I'd have to duplicate what the instruments do. This is the exact opposite of what audiophiles think who try to kill the room acoustics off. It's also what Acuvox discovered. But not all instruments radiate sound the same way. I had to find out what they had in common to arrive at an engineering solution.

    Years later with prototype number two the goal became to integrate the two ideas into one. Time, space, and credible tonality all at once. Is it easy? No. I listen to a recording, tweak it for days, weeks, months and it seems I've hit the right note. Then I come back again to the same settings, same recording, and suddenly it isn't the right note anymore. I repeat the process until the day arrives when it always seems to be the right note. That's when I know I've nailed it. How many did I get done? Out of 3000 cds maybe a hundred or a hundred and fifty. What do you want for only 14 years of effort?

  3. Thelonious Monk famously said, "The piano ain't got no wrong notes."

    And how about the music of John Cage?

    Like so many things in life, it is a matter of context.

    1. A piano is a class of instruments. Some are exceptionally fine, some are awful and there is everything in between. Like all people who use instruments of any kind, some are extraordinarily talented, some are meatfisted and there's everything in between. When an exceptionally fine pianist plays on an exceptionally fine piano, magic can happen.


      As for John Cage, I restate my opinion that as a composer of music he was a fraud and anyone who praised his work or took it seriously was also a fraud. Some things are so inane that even stretching the definition of what they are supposed to be to the point where it is about to snap still does not include their efforts.

      1. That Lisitza YouTube soundtrack was so distorted I couldn't listen to it. The density of dissonant piano chords is really mangled by digital file compression.

        I am a big fan of John Cage, and have recorded many of his works. We hosted a series of concerts for a Cage festival, and many other events including leading Cage interpreter Joseph Kubera and a performance of "Water Walk" with Megumi Shibata.

        We worked with Cage archivist Emily Manzo to adapt the prepared piano specifications from Cage's Model A (7.5' Steinway) to our Model D (9') and sampled the notes for future acousmatic uses of his sounds.

        There is a gross misunderstanding of Cage's methods. For example, he threw pennies in I Ching fashion to compose pieces. The basic tenet of this action is that all things are connected, so the hand motions that determine heads or tails are connected to the flow of the Universe by the receptivity of the individual. There is no randomness, only Chaos.

        Cage also applied a consistent aesthetic to all his compositions and selected the ones that fit, rather than publishing all his myriad experiments. If you start with Shoenberg and Webern and continue through the Darmstadt School you may develop an appreciation of the continuity from post-Impressionism.

  4. There is an exercise in orchestration class where they play files with the beginning and end of notes cut off and ask the composers-in-training to identify the instruments. This proves it is the articulations, the musical equivalent of consonants in speech, that give the most definition and meaning to music.

    Hitting the right note is especially difficult for percussion and plectrum instruments because they load energy into a store silently and release it instantly, so the sound projecting surface or column is launched into maximum acceleration from zero. This represents an extreme level of "jerk", the third derivative of distance over time, and very few speakers can reproduce it because their jerk is limited by mass divided by inductance of the voice coil.

    This is why I use woofers and squawkers with Faraday rings that short inductance and AMT type tweeters which have inherent inductance cancellation.

    Typical crossovers also slow down the jerk, and blur the stopping and starting of notes.

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