Pickup and playback

February 12, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

In yesterday’s post, I riffed on the difference between the broad strokes taken by recording engineers and the fine polishing we as audiophiles expend to enjoy all that the recording captured.

That line of thought can take us in a few directions. Among them is how very different our views of reality are.

Take for example the differences in sound quality between loudspeaker and microphone types.

It should be no surprise that music played through dynamic loudspeakers sounds very different than the same played through a planar ribbon design—the two transducers are built from radically different technologies.

It should also be no surprise that music captured by a ribbon microphone sounds very different than the same music as captured by a dynamic or a condenser microphone. Again, very different transducer technologies offer us very different sound.

The same can be said for most transducer types. Compare a record played back with a MC or MM cartridge.

The point here is that transducers used to either capture or reproduce sound are so radically different as to make one’s head spin.

How, with all these differences, do we ever get close to the real sound as if the musician were playing in the room with us?

Are any of them accurate?

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35 comments on “Pickup and playback”

  1. I’d say it depends on how one defines accuracy.

    Most mainly but not only define it by a ruler flat frequency response
    This makes life easy as then most equipment, digital and solid state more than analog and tubes, can be declared accurate.

    If we define accurate by “most real sounding, the best illusion”, things turn. Then the measured accuracy gets in the background and the potential to reveal especially ambiance and imaging information out of recordings gets in the foreground. As does analog and tubes.

    Transducers technically are the most inaccurate candidates, which is why the relevance of the first definition of accuracy for the rest of our chain seems so small.

    On the other hand certain technical accuracies first enable revealing details.

    1. Finally I think, the technically most accurately reproducing and best measuring out of the most revealing and real sounding transducer candidates are favorable. If both meets…perfect!

      How we get closer to the real thing inspite of all those differences?
      IMO by setting the right priorities, making the right choices in the above sense and by knowledgeably considering and if necessary compensating the inaccuracies.

      Any of them (technically) accurate?
      Nope. Should be priority 2 or lower anyway.

      And as always, if one presets a certain technology to achieve a goal (say, microphone, recording format or speaker concept) or presets perfect measurements, this limitation of choices narrows the chance to have the actually most „real“ sounding result. Only one who knows and theoretically allows all choices, achieves the best results and not only the best by the given precondition.

  2. If the sound of transducers being captured or reproduced is that different by comparison, Paul, which transducers do you select for recording or for designing a loudspeaker? Which criteria do you set? Having very cheap transducers in my telephone I nevertheless reproducibly recognize the individual of persons calling me. Our hearing system operates using pattern recognition techniques based on a most intelligent data reduction system. Thus a transducer only has to fulfill the requirement not to add too much distortions, distortions which significantly and audibly change these relevant patterns. And stereo reproduction is another complication in the system adding all kind of combfilter effects by crosstalk and annoying early reflections and unwanted room modes in a real world listening room. Not to mention crosstalk and Doppler effects and cabinet resonances created by multi-driver loudspeakers. And no, it is not about having a Big Band or an orchestra playing in my tiny listening room but about getting the impression of “I am in the concert hall”!

    1. Exactly right, Paul. And my answer is that as a recording person we choose the transducer that for the application sounds best to us: a specific dynamic microphone that is able to capture the output of a kick drum is probably not the best microphone choice for recording the delicate nuances of a violin.

      Speakers are a whole different kettle of fish. They must work with all music and in synergistic harmony with your room and equipment.

      1. It would be interesting to learn more about the effect of using very different kinds of mic’s to best capture each instrument and artificially compose a soundstage and sound out of this vs. Using few mics capturing large parts of the musical scenery. What are the advantages and disadvantages as well as recording characteristics available or not by the one or other?

        I think we all might have a good guess already but it would be an interesting topic.

          1. Yes thanks, I know this one.
            It seems it’s generally even more important for the result how to use mics in terms of catching the whole and the room vs. single sounds or how to combine both, than which ones are used (which also makes big difference).

            As different as recordings sound and as rarely as it happens, it doesn’t seem so easy to finally catch or simulate a natural ambience without noticable “bugs”. Aspects like digital/analog don’t play a big role in comparison. I’d prefer e.g. a Pauler digital recording to many analog ones.

    2. For all the technology crammed into cell phones today, you’d think they could come up with better speakers (and microphones) in them. Perhaps some day a light bulb will go on in some marketing department and the cell phone industry will be re-born. Who knows, it might even lead to more interest in high end audio. 😎

  3. “Are any of them accurate?”
    …indeed!
    I’d rather a CD be spinning than my head.

    As long as the sound coming out of my loudspeakers makes me really take note & feel that ‘Oooh, yeah!’ excitement & connection with the music, then the notion of some kind of accuracy, per se, (accuracy to what reference?) is not something that is that important
    to me as to be distracting from the task at (ear) hand 😉

  4. They’re all accurate. None of them are accurate. One of them is accurate.
    Does it really matter?
    Just pick the one you enjoy the most.

    Cat among the pigeons 😉

  5. What if a ribbon mic is used to record and dynamic speakers used for payback. Or, what if a condenser mic is used to record and ribbon speakers are used for playback. Do these two combinations give the most “neutral” response or the worst sound?

  6. Based on the premise Paul has put forth, to obtain the highest accuracy in sound reproduction, the transducers at both ends of the chain should be identical. Like two tin cans with a taunt string in between, and we all know how good that sounds :-D.

    Recall that the original Edison wax cylinder phonograph used the same transducer for recording and playback. Again, we all know how good that sounds.

    The point is, we should not get all hung up over the transducer technology used at either end of the chain. We need only need to concentrate on the final product, of how the music sounds, regardless of the technology employed.

    At least until quantum energy level transducers with 24 quadrillion packet resolution are perfected :-P.

    1. Aeroaudio,
      I suspect that the reason that the tin cans weren’t
      successful back in the day was because there was no
      audiophile grade string…AudioQuest – ‘Hemp MkIII’ 😉

  7. J Gordon Holt in whom we trust spoke an essay about audio into a wide ranging variety of typical well regarded recording microphones.

    Guess. Did they sound rather similar ?
    Nooooo! Devastatingly different.

    Conclusion: the recording engineer is the chef or winemaker or perfume designer with a wide palette from which to create their personal flavour of choice.

  8. I have a Pucchini opera recording from the Royal Opera House made 23 years ago. No idea how it was made but it sounds like the artist is standing in front of you, total real. It all starts with the right selection of the mic type, diaphragm diameter, receiving pattern, distance and lots of passion and expertise on both sides of the pickup.
    “Where there is nothing, nothing goes” is the motto. To me a good example of passion: https://youtu.be/959Cf8Nk9O8 . During mixing the sound master should be very carefully with adding effects, filters and width of the stage, often excessive these days. One of my trash CD’s, I have a whole closet full, creates the illusion that B.B. King plays lying down on the floor. To me this is an insult to a great musician by universal music.

  9. Here we go…. Accuracy & then Correctness…..

    Accuvox has said it many times – different transducers for different instruments.

    The what’s and why’s of the whole recording process are beyond my control.

    The what’s and why’s of speaker design are, for all practical reasons, beyond my control. (Same with electronics)

    So as a consumer it comes down to what my preferences are. That’s where the control comes into play.

    Which recordings are chosen as outstanding, which electronics are outstanding, which speaker design and topologies are outstanding. These are all individual choices based on individual preferences, budgets and ears.

    Most everything in audio is some sort of compromise. Nothing is totally correct.

    So let the industry march on – let the audio science continue – let the debates rage on – as audio things improve all who are interested will reap the benefits –

  10. We were at a local winery when I heard music start. Without even looking, I new it was live, from the sound. A single guy with a simple setup playing a guitar & singing.

    Pure and simple. I don’t care what type of high end audio rig you could replace him with. It will never sound like that.

  11. In one of the early Stereophile demo CDs, J. Gordon Hold did a voice only track. He read a passage using a different microphone for each sentence or so. The tonal quality of his voice differed significantly with every microphone change.

    Which one was accurate? Who knows? How could one know? Should one worry about it? Might one learn from it?

  12. I was once taught that a portrait painter highlights what he sees and paints. That what you see you will know is the person, but the appearance will be better than real life. Their good points will be enhanced as to be complimentary.

    Well… welcome to the art of recording music.

    1. That’s a perfectly logical and sensible approach to portrait painting, a good theory, but not exactly borne out by some of the portraits I have seen! In fact some are so bad I’d want compensation for psychological harm.
      Then again we’re back to eye (or ear) of the beholder.

      1. >>>>>That’s a perfectly logical and sensible approach to portrait painting, a good theory, but not exactly borne out by some of the portraits I have seen!<<

        Yeah… I get the 'picture.' 😉

  13. It’s all about capturing/creating an experience while minimizing distractions from that experience. Accuracy is not the point because we can’t see the performance with our eyes or feel what is going on around us. A great recording is like a picture taken with a lens that has been carefully focused on just the eyes or another point of interest with the rest slightly blurred so as to not distract.

    This is in fact where surround or Atmos falls apart as a means of music reproduction. In the movies, everything important is mixed front and center behind the screen with the surrounds reserved for artificial ambience and sound effects. For music without a picture, stereo or even mono is often a more three-dimensional experience than a dedicated surround mix. I think this is why surround music has never taken off. The most critically acclaimed surround recordings were recorded live with simply the output of a binaural microphone fed to the rear channels. As a result, you could listen without being locked into a tiny sweet spot.

    1. I think I have to read about the 50s, 60s Decca sound and how they at the same time achieved super airy holographic walk through imaging and bodily singers, stupendous dynamics, a very direct sound as if we are the conductor but at the same time with the perspective of sitting in the audience at a normal seat and not too little capture of room ambiance. It sounds as if they placed just a few mics around the conductor, but who knows what really happened. The more modern ones that quickly come into my mind which sound similar in capturing ambiance is Fone, Pauler and Chesky, Reference Recordings also great but more different.

  14. Very timely-just about 30 min ago I was listening to my daughter practice a Chopin etude on our piano in our living room, and I was thinking that there was no way that any microphone could pick up the dynamics, details and harmonics that I was hearing. There is such a wide gap between the sound of a live instrument and a reproduced instrument-the ‘Absolute sound’ philosophy of trying to reproduce this is a noble one, but I subscribe to a different thinking. I want my system to play back the recording, to its fullest and most accurate extent (most detailed and pleasing?). A lot of the music I listen to was created in the recording studio anyway, so I revel in hearing the recording as it is presented, with the producer and engineers being equally responsible as the musicians themselves for the final product.

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