Need anyone say more?

December 14, 2014
 by Paul McGowan

My friend Mark (aka. Soundminded), a frequent contributor to the comments section of these posts, posed a question of his own. I will paraphrase: “Would I rather have a great performance and a bad recording or vice versa?”

Most of us would immediately respond we’d prefer a great performance over a great recording. But what about the extremes? What about something on the edge of unlistenable by our standards? The 78 rpm scratchy record of Caruso over today’s better recordings? The YouTube screech of something resembling music?

Just applying some honest introspection I fear I may fall into the category of those that stick with what sounds better. Fear of ridicule from music snobs over audio snobs? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know. Mark gives us an example of a great performance with sound that is awful and I could not turn it off. I listened on my crappy little monitor speakers. The video’s awful. But the performance. The music. I nearly swooned listening to it.

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31 comments on “Need anyone say more?”

  1. Paul again I am with you. I think we all have many great performances but never enough great recordings. Although I can understand the first part I think it’s what makes an audiophile from a music lover. From my post on your forums pauls I am At a point in my life where it’s become about the quality . And because of this I have grown into enjoying music I never would have even liked years back. Although with the DS it does make pcm as good as gets and does bring out the best of it.
    Sound minded don’t be upset it’s all about views anyway. No one has all the choices for all. And most likely Paul and I are on the downside of this topic anyway. Hey Paul look we agree for once . Lmao

  2. How anyone can truly enjoy a great performance on a poor recording is completely beyond my comprehension. And that doesn’t make me an audiophile vs. a music lover. I am both.
    Bad sonics just destroys it for me regardless of whose performing. For the same reason, I choose my concert venues carefully, because a marginal/poor sounding hall isn’t worth the effort and expense. Luckily I have the Disney Concert Hall in my city, and that pretty much sets the standard.

  3. I’m having difficulty parsing these two extremes myself. Recorded music is inherently an engineered product. A live performance, by contrast, can be great. Even then, it can be great because of the location you are in the venue, the vibe of the audience, the company you are keeping, your general state of mind or maybe that excellent glass of sherry you had with desert. By contrast, a recording is a group effort. To be a great recording you need talented artists, attentive sound engineers and some singular sense of cohesion as to what the final product should sound like. When poor equipment and skill is used to capture a great live performance, the end result just can’t be great IMO. The hardest thing for me to listen to is uninvolved musicians recorded by bored sound engineers. I won’t curse anyone here with links but listen to just about any of the mid ’80s Windham Hill recordings for a good example. You want to scream “does anyone care? Even a LITTLE BIT?” There were some talented artists there but the material, the performances and worst of all the recording was designed to elicit a big giant Meh.

  4. I suspect I’m a bit more audiophile than music person(which doesn’t mean that I don’t LOVE music a ton) but in this case the musical magic reproduced over the cheapo speakers included with my computer comes through so easily it’s a no brainer. The reproduction in this case is good enough to not obscure what’s going on. I can listen from beginning to end. At the other extreme some of the Caruso recordings I’ve heard are so poor that while I can still hear his magic, I can only listen for a few minutes. I suspect though that if it’s something I want to hear it has to be close to the Caruso quality for me not to play the entire performance, even over my main system. Even as an audiophile I purchase mainly for music I desire. I only occasionally buy to show off the system. But ‘ain’t it great’ when you get both?

    By the way, Thanks for the heads up on this performance. I’m listening as I write this and it’s a mind blower

  5. Considering this is a high performance audio equipment forum it’s not surprising that myself and others prefer a good sounding performance. To me music is a language, one that I understand well at times and at other times I’m totally lost. But I do enjoy listening to the sounds of that language even if I don’t understand the meaning so much. Yes, the music snobs will vilify me, but I can accept that. Is it wrong to like the sound, but not always get the emotion? I think not, but I’m sure someone will find fault with it. I will say that I enjoyed the performance in Paul’s link, even though I only listened to five minutes worth and over the speaker of an iPad no less. I got it was a good performance, but it sure would have been more enjoyable in well recorded sound over my main system!

  6. I suspect everyone here who ever attended an audio show has experienced this conundrum. Every year a few recordings are “anointed” as sonic spectaculars and played in room after room, regardless of their musical merit.

    Going back many years, even before Windham Hill, a couple of the Shefield DTD LPs were led by Lincoln Mayorga. I didn’t care how clean or dynamic or tonally correct they were, I thought they were “smaltz” and they bored me to death.

    So yes, recording quality is wonderful when one can find it, but as Cookie stated, “emotion and feeling, which trumps perfection for me.” I will pick that every time.

  7. “Need anyone say more?”

    Actually I need to say a lot. Sorry if this is too long. Read it in slices or just skip it.

    Listening to old scratchy 78 records is not much fun, especially if the quality of sound is important to you as it is to me. Isn’t that why we’re all here after all, because we enjoy high quality sound? I have a lot of 78s and many CDs made from 78s and I never listen to them. They do have their purpose as historical archives and as instruction to musicians and music students. However, remember once upon a time when that was all there was, people just like us enjoyed them as much as we enjoy our favorite recordings on our best sound systems. Maybe they enjoyed them even more. They accepted them for what they were and had no unreasonable expectations of them. Tomorrow the best we have now may be seen in the same light when technology moves on and leaves our machines in the dust of history.

    Remarkable strides have been made in recent decades to “rescue” defects in the sound of these and many other types of old recordings. Not just to clean them up of noise but to greatly improve their sound in many other ways. It requires a lot of skill, patience, and knowledge. It also requires a lot of technology. And that facility is only going to increase will time. Will we ever hear what Caruso really sounded like live from the scratchy old distorted recordings he made that are left to us? 30 years ago I would have laughed but I’m no longer so sure, in fact I’d put my money on the side that says eventually we will. It will be done with the kind of processing technology most audiophiles eschew. More is more IMO when you have the right technology and know how to use it.

    How can I be so sure? Here’s an analogy. When the movie Jurassic Park came out, Ted Koppel asked a microbiologist he was interviewing how long it will be before we have the technology to do this, to recreate dinosaurs. The microbiologist looked at him like he was crazy. I laughed and laughed. I’m not laughing anymore. What seemed impossible and absurd may now be on the cusp of what can be done. What miracles can our high technology world perform? Many I never dreamed I’d live to see. For example I’ve rekindled my childhood interest in astronomy and I’ve been astounded at images from the Hubbell Space telescope and how much we’ve learned from them through digital signal processing. Here is a photograph that gives you an idea of what is possible today (tomorrow much much more will be possible.) Look at the computer enhanced image starting at 4 minutes into the video clip I’m linking to. This is a sharply detailed digitally enhanced image of a black hole at the center of the Andromeda galaxy 2.65 million light years away. Only a few years ago obtaining such an image would have seemed beyond human capability.

    Why are we here discussing recordings, music, equipment? Because we enjoy it whatever our knowledge or experience with it. Our goal is to enjoy it more by sharing that knowledge and experience. I happen to also like solving puzzles of all kinds, especially puzzles about how things work and I love building things. I don’t criticize things because I want to diminish anyone’s fun but because based on knowledge I’ve gained, my understanding of it, I think most of what’s being done is trying to increase other people’s fun going about it the wrong way. I think a lot of people are hitting their heads against a brick wall that won’t budge instead of trying to find away around or over the wall.

    Paul asked “how do you know when it’s right?” My answer is when you come back to it again and again and would not change anything ever because any change would diminish what you have, it would be less fun, less pleasing….and it never loses its fascination the way it is. Cookie said the performance I referenced was “EXCELLENT.” Paul said it almost made him swoon. For me the music and performance is right, it’s exactly what I want to hear. So much so that at the moment I’m addicted to it. It’s what’s known as an earwig, a sound that bores itself into your brain and you can’t get it out. I hadn’t heard it in awhile and despite myself I was compelled to hear it through five times yesterday….through the speakers in my computer monitor and the speaker in my phone. For me this performance is far more than just the technical skill to play the notes correctly. It exhibits a profound understanding of it that can at times be lyrical, and at times often of immense power. It conveys the exact message the composer wanted me to understand. IMO this is one of the most important works of the best composer of the 20th century. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder so for me this is not only as good as it gets, I can’t imagine how it could be any better, it is performed exactly as I want to hear it. Oddly enough, I think I have a Philips CD of this recording somewhere in my house. I don’t know if it’s exactly the same performance, I’ll have to listen to it closely. It’s one of those discs I bought a long time ago I never listened to. It also contains a recording of the Tchaikovsky 1st piano concerto which you can also find on YouTube. Argerich breathes new life into this old warhorse I’ve also heard countless times. Performances like these two make me rediscover this music like I’ve heard it for the first time.

    While the music and performance are right, the quality of the sound is not, it’s far from it. My job as an engineer is to use technology to rescue it. To make it sound more like I remember musical sounds of instruments they were played on in order to make it even more fun to listen to. I will use the technology I have at hand applied as I understand the problem. Can I do it? Can I make it even more pleasing for me to listen to? I don’t know but I intend to give it a long hard try, my best effort. For this one, that effort will be worth it even if I fail. I will be using some techniques familiar to many, others only I understand well. The process is usually neither quick or easy. Fortunately by now I’m well practiced at it. I have high hopes.

    I hope you enjoy this recording as much as I do and others as much as well. This is after all what we share in common.

  8. Speaking as an amateur pianist, I will always favour good performance against good recordings in my heart. Having said that, I entertain myself with good recordings of mediocre performances all the time. You know the ones, it’s most of the content in the demo disks audio companies/mags distribute from time to time.

    That video of Martha Argerich indulging in Rachmaninoff’s #3 is indeed proof of a great performance. You can very easily be immersed in it, even if the sound quality is less than optimal. Heck, I’ve been impressed by great stuff whilst listening to them via a portable radio.

    Great content coupled with great sound engineering is the way forward. I wish this simple truth could be seen by more recording companies, producers, artists, and the average consumer.

  9. How one can know a great recorded performance without a certain level of technical accomplishment in the sound, however far from perfect? That’s why Mark’s point about the future of Caruso recordings is so fascinating: it’s exciting to think that the level of old performances that we’ve all read about but have often been only able to imagine, will some day be achieved. It’s why I think a counterposition between sound and performance can easily lead to a false debate.

    I’m a semi-retired PITA for sound booth operators at live concerts. I’ve innocently angered several over the decades by, for instance, asking if they could turn down the volume a little (or a lot), in circumstances that ranged anywhere from the performers’ qualities simply being lost (mushed together), to trying to curb a physically painful experience for the audience -or at least a good chunk of it. What I found out is how often it’s been the performers who wanted the volume up, with the sound folks feeling hostage to it. That’s when it’s time to speak to the hall or festival’s musical director, which I’ve done on occasion, often enough to a thankful reception. OTOH, once while setting up chairs (quietly) one night at a popular big city music venue, a well known jazz musician called back to ask what I thought during the sound check. I answered honestly, suggesting a small adjustment, which the musician gladly accepted. However, the hall’s management took great exception when they found out, and suspended me from volunteer duties for several weeks.

  10. Always loved those old transfers of Caruso, scratchy though they were. Then, for the new millennium, Caruso 2000. Stripped his voice for the old shellacs. Recorded the Vienna RSO, tuned down to 438 Hz. Some orchestral artifacts in C’s voice that couldn’t be removed. One can live with it. Controversial in some quarters. Not this one. As the Brazilian virtuoso Bola Sete used to say, “I hope you do enjoy.”

  11. Gary Gallo sent me the link to the CD of this great performance so those of us enthralled with the music and her wizardry at the keyboard can enjoy without suffering through the bad sound of YouTube. Best of both worlds!

    And… an Audiophile version if you’re interested.

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