Nuance vs. broad strokes

February 11, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

The end goal for both audiophiles and recording engineers is the same. A perfect capture of a musical event.

How each arrives at their goal is very different.

As audiophiles, we struggle to wring every last nuance out of the music.

Recording engineers are less concerned with nuance, focusing instead on broad strokes: which microphone to use, how far/close to the instrument, mono or stereo capture, avoid acoustic bleed from the other instruments.

These fundamental differences of approach lead both to the same place but through radically different means.

Like a sculptor's use of hammers and chisels or a painter's broad brush strokes, recording engineers carve out their masterpieces so we audiophiles can revel in the subtle nuance of the recording.

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44 comments on “Nuance vs. broad strokes”

  1. Think Paul's hit a nerve here. Audiophiles want to maximise the fidelity of reproduction of the encoded data, whether a digital stream or grooves in a plastic disc. This is basically accuracy over the frequency band and low distortion. Normal people are just happy to listen and don't give much thought to the sound quality. Some (but not all) audiophiles I think don't give much thought to the music, but prefer to bask in the glow of their electronics.

    Some recording engineers have an easy life. Those at Wigmore Hall just sit by a box and turn the recording devices on and off. They also have to read the introduction and continuity announcements. They do frequent live broadcasts and in lock-down were doing daily live streams. There are fixed microphones above the stage. When they have instrumentalists they know where to put the microphones, they've been doing it for decades. The room does the rest.

    Other recording engineers mix data that might have been recorded on different sides of the planet. They are not engineering a live event, they are mixing something to give an impression that it was performed by someone or some people in the same room at the same time.

    Whatever is delivered as the audio product, good or bad, audiophiles will treat it with religious reverence, even though sometimes it may not be deserved.

      1. As people here bemoan the death of the CD, elsewhere normal people bemoan the death of soaps from reality TV. As Caitlin Moran wrote today in the Times under the famous Kylie and Jason photo, and I quote:

        Of course, on the one hand, Neighbours is part of a general decline in soaps — reality TV much more viscerally scratches that “gossipy stories about ordinary people” itch that young viewers have, and is cheaper to make, to boot.

        But on top of that is the fact that in 2022 Australia doesn’t mean, to British audiences, what it did 30 years ago. In the Nineties its young viewers knew Australia as “that place with all the lovely beaches and chilled-out people, where every evening ends with a big barbecue”.

        For young people in the 21st century, however, Australia is known as “that place with all the dead reefs and offshore refugee internment camps, where the entire country often turns into one big barbecue”. It’s not aspirational any more. Gen Z all want to go to Korea instead.

        1. Apparently the theme song from 'Neighbours' has hit #1 in Britain since you Pommies got a wif of the soap's possible demise.

          As far as where young people want to travel, well that's up to them.

          Even if Australia switched off all of it's coal & gas burning facilities today, the Great Barrier Reef would still die since the majority of the crap in the air that is turning the oceans acidic is coming from China, India & the Americas.

          We've always had bush(wild)fires...forever & a day, except for the last 2 summers because of the 'La Nina' weather event that we have had here on the East coast of Australia.
          In & around the south-western coastal area of Western Australia, where there has been no 'La Nina' weather events, it's bush-fire season as usual this summer.

          There are roughly 84 refugees left in Australia that came here illegally & that are waiting to be settled in America; as soon as America takes them, something that they (through Barrack Obama) agreed to do.

          Young people can think & say what they like.
          Since they seem to prefer to be educated by what's on social media, YouTube & Podcasts run by ignorant morons, I have no sympathy for the poor choices that they make.
          We were young & stupid once too.

  2. For me it’s most unbelievable how the golden era engineers (classical or jazz), inspite (or because) of the vintage gear and inspite of limitations everywhere, could achieve a sound quality, that’s superior to the majority of recordings since then. We really didn’t improve a lot relevant so far it seems and “the broad” of that time seems much more efficient than “the nuance” since then.

  3. When we speak of playback home audio, audiophiles more or less just have the option to tweak the nuances (which is why they try to), manufacturers are the ones who should deliver the broad. If this broad and essential was really delivered to a wishful degree so far is another topic similar to the recording side.

  4. I wonder how many recording engineers have had to compromise on their skills
    because the producer is more focused on the profits than the production.

    Danny Richie from 'GR-Research' has posted this video presentation about calling out
    the ever-growing number of 'green' & uninformed home-audio reviewers on YouTube.
    The video is an invitation to any reviewers to visit his business in Iowa Park, TX to get an education about high-end loudspeakers & to get some experience in high-end electronic components before they try & present reviews to the public.
    The real 'fun' is in the comments usual.
    Heads-up: this presentation is 46 minutes long.

    1. Yes it’s crazy…and then there are camera reviewers who now also here and there review audio components and all of them are seen as „experts“ without much differentiation by their readers.

      We definitely have an Inflation of experts and reviewers.

      The good thing with all the vinyl hype and online presence of audio topics is, that when we’re 95 😉 and sell our vinyl, todays‘ young new vinyl community generates a huge demand and has the funds to buy our collections at astronomical prices because analog remastering is long dead by then 😉 …except if Paul (then about 107) has already long made this obsolete with generous DSD recording and playback processes 😉

  5. "A river cannot smell if the source already stinks", saying. IMHO most studios produce music to be sound well on Alexa and the like. Compared to this gear my workshop tube radio made 1956 is high end. Back in the 80's the average listeners equipment was above today's roaring plastic toys. This is one of the reasons to adjust major recordings to the broad audio habitat. When I listen to fifty years old "Riders on the Storm" from the doors and feel like being outside in a prairie thunderstorm then I ask myself where, except for some tape noise, is the time appropriate improvement.
    Of course there is audiophile production and musicians focused on art and not only on revenue.
    Great listening, my 56 radio still works every day.

    1. Well.... one could run stinky through a waste treatment plant but then you'd have the waft of disinfectants. 😉

      I realized I'd crossed a threshold (reproduction equipment) when I started looking for a particular production of a song by a group in a particular venue. My stuff revealed their stuff.
      Dire Straits was trying to make money out of nothing in early sessions at a low rent studio location. Tapes were rolling. Subsequently, the band found better accommodations and began working in earnest, trying to finish making money out of thin air. Despite having exact placement of instruments & microphones, they couldn't satisfactorily reproduce that atmospheric intro. (them drums, them drums) Period. All they had was of the intro was the session recording. So they mixed & played on, making lots of money with not very much. The worldwide release of "Money for Nothing" contains them low rent drums, and the chicks were free.

      1. I have the "Private Investigations - The Best of" CD, in terms of dynamic and resolution absolutely outstanding.
        The sudden drum attacks are frightening, at 4:51 one can even recognize the type of glass thrown away.
        Inconceivable what happens with this material available on SACD.
        I would be the happiest person if the mass of productions have 50% of this quality.

        1. I don’t know if you’re aware but that CD uses HDCD encoding. I couldn’t find any mention of it on the cover, in the booklet or on the discs themselves so you need a tell tale on your dac or player but this could be part of the reason why it sounds so good. It’s a CD I always enjoy listening to.

          For some reason HDCD’s are usually a few dB quieter than standard red book copies. I have a faulty HDCD, Trisha Yearwood, ‘Songbook’. A track starts with the HDCD light on but then almost immediately goes out and it gets louder, most disconcerting. I wrote to MCA about it but didn’t get very far. The problem is not apparent when played on a non HDCD player.

          Funnily enough I had a similar issue with a Mark Knopfler CD, a CD single if memory serves, but there I fared much better. I received an apology accompanied with a double CD of a MK radio broadcast, nice. 🙂

          I also believe that with HDCD the encoding is used during the recording process as well as playback. The theory/story being that an HDCD disc will sound better on any player regardless of it having a decoder or not. I’m not so sure about this myself, it could just be marketing, unless anyone knows any better?

  6. Todays opening line leaves me stumped. (Once again 😀 )

    “The end goal for both audiophiles and recording engineers is the same. A perfect capture of a musical event.”

    It seems to me the recording engineers goal is to capture perfectly.
    The audiophile’s goal is the perfect release of what was captured.

    How well the capture and release are done, along with the techniques of either the capture or release is quite often the subjects of these daily posts.

    The two go hand in hand. No sense in capturing without a way to release. No sense in having a perfect way to release if the capture is less than perfect.

      1. FR,

        In a sense isn’t that what audio is all about? We find that great “captured” musical event.

        Then we use all kind of resources to release it properly into the room.

        Get your pole - home audio can be like a can of worms. - once you’re hooked it’s hard to wiggle free 😉

      1. I Understand Paul.

        I’m working on being less literal, ✌️

        You need both to complete the loop.
        For reproduction it all starts with a recorded source. So we all want that to be as good as it can be.

        Thanks for the reply and and have a good day.

  7. I find the method of recording puzzling. Put microphones all over place, including next to things, then work like heck to put everything back together to create a 2 channel experience.

    If the end goal was to hear what people hear, why doesn’t the method of recording reflect a “2 ears from a listening position” aspect? As mentioned in a prior post, the closest thing to live music I have heard is a great mono setup, from recording through source material, designed to be mono.

    I think that it seems natural, because it best represents what you hear live, which is separate parts in “general” stereo, like from a single listening position, but not the extreme left and right directions things come from in most stereo recordings.

  8. Expanding on Paul’s artist metaphor.

    If recording engineers are artists, striving to capture a unique image, we as audiophiles are art restorers, whose primary goal is to bring back the artist’s creation, without adding color that was not present in the original.

    1. Russian faceless painting, Anna Leporskaya - 'Three Figures' vandalised
      by bored gallery security guard who drew eyes on it...February 10th, 2022.
      Is it human nature to change things that we are 'bored' with...even if it's
      worth over a million dollars? 😉

      1. I like when they take scans of old paintings to look behind past bad restorations, just to find that there are details of landscapes, buildings, and even other faces that restorer was too busy or lazy to retain.

        I guess in this metaphor, the scanning machine used on old paintings is equivalent to Paul’s DSD 😉

      2. (shaking my head)
        Reminds me of some of things I did in my youth. A friend and I once posted our names in a cave in big letters. The cave is now a protected land mark and "vandalism" is a felony. The park rangers take pictures on a regular basis to see if new names appear.
        As the park rangers were talking about the seriousness of "vandalism" my grandkids spotted my name... Names frozen in time...
        The ranger (knowing the names were there for many decades) saw my grandkids pointing at a name and my red face. The ranger and the entire tour laughed. The range exclaimed this was not the first time grandkids told on their grandparents. (chuckle - and shake my head some more)

      3. Hi FR.
        What about this a Spanish fresco in Borja that has become known as monkey Jesus after it was supposedly restored by the 81 year old granny.
        Some people just can't stop themselves.

  9. Been wanting to post this for a few days now and today seems as good a day as any.
    New silver disc I’m spinning, Morgan Wade, ‘Reckless - Deluxe Edition.’ Americana. If it were a chocolate, a mellow centre with a rocky outer, very tasty.
    Also the recently released Pink Floyd, ‘Live at Knebworth 1990’ sounds better than I ever expected it to.

    1. I wish you well, I was there in ‘75, or 76 I think. No recording is ever going to live up to that concert. (Contentious)
      But…….it’s no good, now I know about it I’ll have to get it anyway!

  10. Paul, "The end goal . . . is the same. A perfect capture of the musical event." ???

    I'm surprised to see you say this.

    I've read multiple stories of artists being dissatisfied with the recording as released. Not necessarily the engineer's fault, it is the priorities of the label that dictates how the recording sounds. If the engineer wants to keep working then they must please the company that hires them, so their primary goal is to keep their job.

    Regarding the goal of us "audiophiles", how many have a realistic idea what the musical event sounded like? I've never even been in a recording studio and I doubt many others have either. Rather, we may have an idea what it "should" sound like, based upon individual taste. Add to that, how many modern recordings are a result of splicing together multiple parts recorded at different times at different sites and the phrase "musical event" becomes a bit nebulous.

    1. This is also where I am on music production and audiophile systems as well.

      I do see one similarity between the two. On both sides so many things have to be done right to get great results. And on both sides there is little to no formal direction as to how to get it right.

      Most people don't go to a school to learn how to be a recording engineer, mixing engineer or mastering engineer. They don't take classes on acoustics or signal processing. It's all word of mouth and hands on experience. Yet everything from which mic you use, where it is placed, what recording format you use, what mixing console is used, how it is mastered, is the CD compressed to is the vinyl pressed too hot or with non-fills effects the sound that we get.

      The audiophile side is only a little bit better. There are books out there ( we know some guy named Paul who wrote one ) that tell you how to cobble together a basic stereo system and there are magazines that can help you find good gear, but as we know from or own experience here that it seems everyone has their own opinion as to what gear sounds best. Some of us like planer speakers and some of us hate them. I know one audiophile who uses tube amps and Maggies to listen to classical music and solid state amps and big Wilsons to listen to rock! You read on an audio website that some of us think that cables made by XYZ sound great. You get some and they sound like crap in your system. Why? Because I doubt if anyone, including the company XYZ, knows how those cables interact with different output and input impedance.

      I have a set of recordings that I know how I they should sound to me. I call them my reference recordings. I keep them separate from everything else. When I change something in my system, I play these recordings to decide if the change is good, bad or indifferent. As to buying music releases, I read about four different magazines that review music. I have learned which reviewers I can trust and use their guidance. As always in audio, YMMV.

  11. I have to agree w M3 lover, there are too many recordings whose end product are a big disappointment .... loss of dynamic range, poorly recorded end product ,etc. One way or another someone is responsible for this over the years past. Surely record labels knew the recordings were poor.
    Too bad there is no way to significantly "improve" the recordings in one way or another.....
    Lets not even discuss experiences at major venues where the audio experience in the seats/bleachers are mediocre at best.
    There is a small place locally called the "Coach House" in Southern Calif, a local dive where we have attended multiple times to hear very well know groups or artists-buzzing microphones, drums so much louder than the rest of the band, deafening sound levels for a pretty small enclosed venue... I see it as disrespectful to the artist playing there....we no longer go there for those reasons.... regarding recordings, for some artists who are well known and have clout, you would think the would have some say on the quality of the final product.....

  12. Something a lot of people don't realize is that the idea of avoiding bleed and wearing headphones only became a "standard" way to record in the early 1970s. Prior to that, studios were designed to reflect a flat frequency response so that musicians could easily hear each other, and any bleed would not make the sound muddy. This allowed more distant microphone positions and all but eliminated the need for limiting and compression.

  13. From what Paul has to say about modern recordings...'The Loudness Wars'...Overly Bright EQ (to call attention to itself) etc. I would hardly call today's engineers: "Sculptor's or painters...who carve out their masterpieces." How about a post on consistency?

  14. I disagree. As a recording engineer, we are deeply concerned with nuance, I think more so in fact than most audiophiles. I'll use a Neve solid state mic pre instead of an Avalon solid state pre because I want a certain sound quality from it. I'll use a Josephson condenser min instead of a Neumann for its unique characteristics. I might use a UREI 1176 compressor on a source instead of a dBx. Most people would not notice these subtleties, but we deal with them every time we record.

    Also, our job isn't to simply "capture a performance". Almost always we are enhancing it - creating something that wasn't there to begin with. It might be taking one musician overdubbing every instrument and vocal and making it sound like a full band. It might be making a classical performance sound better that it did at the venue we recorded it in. I'll often move a mic an inch or two and see how it affects the stereo image. It might be using a tube mic to thicken the sound of an otherwise thin sounding vocalist.

    It's easy to think that we are just simply capturing a performance, but it's almost never that simple. We are always enhancing it - with our mic placement and mic and preamp choices, with our choices of reverb, delay, compressors, etc.

      1. If you used nothing but neutral mics, neutral preamps, no compression, limiting, reverb, or delay, neutral recording medium, no EQ, and no mastering, the recording would be boring indeed. Not to mention that none of this exists. Some gear is more transparent than others, but none is competely neutral. And then there's the choice of mic placement, which also colors the sound. Every step of the process involves making choices which will affect the outcome of the recording.

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