Portraits of sound

December 4, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

My friend Lawrence wrote, “We do not call portraits people” and he’s right.

In the same vein, we should be careful with our expectations of perfection for the recorded arts. They are more like artistic portraits than realistic holograms.

The value in thinking about recordings as works of art is that we can lower some of our expectations and enjoy them for what they really are. Sound Portraits.

Our eternal search for building exact holographic copies of sound in our homes can be left more in the hands of the engineers attempting these miracles as opposed to listeners struggling to achieve the unachievable (at least for now).

I liken this train of thought to my education of the arts. When my family first dragged me into art museums I went with folded arms and a harrumph because few supposed masterpiece paintings were true to life—otherwise, what’s the point of a painting? Their often stylized interpretations of the human form deviated too far from the photographic for my engineering mind. It wasn’t until I realized that style was the point of the painting that I let down my guard and began to enjoy the experience.

Miles Davis Kind of Blue doesn’t recreate the live event any more than Leonardo’s Mona Lisa isn’t photographic, yet both can be savored best when understood they are only portraits.

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45 comments on “Portraits of sound”

  1. Is that the reason why „high fidelity“ has become an old fashioned and even term being replaced by „high end“ or „absolute sound“ meaning that that there are specific „mastering guru sound“ (depending on the headphones or studio monitors used) or even „brand sounds“?

  2. Back in the day as I was a much younger person all I cared for was the sound of music and didn’t know the difference between a good recording and a bad one, now today everyone is trying tosale some kind of gadget To tell you it will improve Your sound , time for me to sit back and start to enjoy the music and not fuss about the small thing’s.

  3. A number of years ago I came to the realization that my system did not need to be “the best”, it only needed to be “good enough”. I stopped fussing over little tweaks and pieces and parts and just turned it on and enjoyed the music. This realization has made it all so much more pleasurable (and far easier on the pocketbook ha ha). My current all-in-one box is a case in point, it would never be considered best in any category, but, it is more than capable of producing the range of file types and sounds I ask it to reproduce. It’s good enough! Happy listening everyone.

    1. Indeed. Reviewers and manufacturers of audio gear claim monthly improvements of even better sound (never defining “better“) while the the enduser has nearly no chance to check these claims lacking competent dealers with optimized demo rooms. Trials with new gear at home mostly reveal a “different“ sound, rarely a “better“ one. Finding components for the own stereo chain which really reveal better resolution and stage imaging is most time consuming and a kind of lottery. Better enjoy the music if your system already gives a sufficient PRaT factor instead of wasting time in the search of the most unlikely „better“.

    2. Concerning “categories” of audio. At least a reviewer or manufacturer should clarify which problem or deficiency – both audibly relevant (!) – was finally solved with the new model. I rarely find this information.

      1. Ha Ha Steven, that got a chuckle out of me. Since I am satisfied (for now) with the audio being good enough, I am concentrating on photography this week. I have been stuck on Sony DSLR cameras as I have a lot of money tied up in glass that only works on Sony mounts, so, just scored a deal on a new Sony a77ii to upgrade from my (rather old) Sony A200. Again, not the best camera (I think of you and your Leica) but, “good enough” 🙂

        1. I too am enjoying my audio system, some really cool jazz (Shai Maestro “The Dream Thief” on ECM). Enjoying the music rather than the audio system per se. Sony/Zeiss lenses are excellent and well worth the investment. I have a Zeiss 21/f2.8 and my son’s main lens is a Zeiss 50/f2. Lenses are where the money should go and keep hold of them. Remember, the photographer takes the picture, not the camera. I went to a talk recently by an amazing photographer who for 25 years has mostly used 5×4 film and sometimes a pinhole camera, shooting mostly within about a 3 mile radius in East London. http://www.tomhunter.org/gallery/

          1. I wholeheartedly agree about the lenses just as I tend to agree that the speakers are the most important part of the audio chain. I am sure that there are blogs and chat groups on photography where the merits of the “source” (camera) or “output” (lens) are debated over and over ad nausea.

            As with my audio items, my lenses are good enough. I would have to go back and see what all I have, they have been in boxes since my move last February, but I know I have a 50-200 f2.8 (that one was costly), a 500 prime f4 (Tamron but was as highly rated as the Minolta/Sony lens), a couple of older zooms that offer optical macro and not digital (so I was always told to keep those), and a 50 or a 75 portrait lens, I honestly can’t recall. They were the upper level Sony lenses in the consumer line, so, not sure of the pedigree but was always happy with the images under certain conditions, I am hoping the new camera with it’s much higher ISO capabilities and multi-point focusing allows me a bit more fun (bugs, animals, plant studies, moon shots, some miscellaneous concert photos and some fun architectural shots – I am the funny guy laying flat on the sidewalk taking the photo up toward the sky ha ha).

            Enjoy the photography and the music, talk to you again soon. Thanks for the photographer link as well, I enjoyed those images as well.

    1. I also wondered…but I like the idea of a portrait.

      In its „artificialness“ high end is just mostly (not always) much better than the original (soundwise, more rarely even regarding the experience). I think there’s no other kind of portrait that has this potential in this kind of way. That’s what makes me seek for an even better analogy.

      1. I think to me high end is rather like a movie of an original event. Depending on its facilities and money spent or on its make , it can be more or less realistic, more intense and exaggerated or less.

        1. The simile proposed by you, can be applied to the comparison between two audio systems to each other, but can not make such a comparison with the musical event not amplified, as it is heard in a concert hall.

          Until today it has been impossible, and so it will be until a future not so close.

          1. I know it’s provocative for acoustical concerts, but I think even then, when a live concert is perceived more like a mono soundwall, a transparent recording with extensive soundstage can have a somehow different, possibly stronger intensity.

            1. How can a domestic installation have more “stronger intensity” than a “mono soundwall” of about 100 speakers (musicians) that is what you hear when you attend a non-amplified concert of a symphony orchestra?

              Here I am not talking about sound intensity (although it does exist) but about an emotional intensity and auditory stimuli that provoke what is called: Aesthetic Emotion, when one is facing a masterpiece.

              I am speaking here of the powerful discharge of the central nervous system of dopamine and serotonin in its order, the same that does not compare with what can be produced by the illusion of this phenomenon, as indeed it is: the reproduction at home .

              However, there may be people for whom the main objective in life, be the audio equipment, having the music in a secondary plane, that is to say as a distant complement, only there we could speak of “stronger intensity”, but there we would enter the pathological field of emotional deprivation, but that’s another story.

              Singularizing, for me audio equipment is a means to enjoy music, but for others it may be that music is a means to enjoy those equipment.

              1. Yeah, your last paragraph is another story and not a habit of what I’d call music lovers.

                You named an example (100 musicians) which indeed has impact that overrules all virtues delivered by high end reproduction. You also named many other aspects which only the live act has or bears.

                I’m not the best one to defend the virtues of a high end system against a live performance, as I’m myself a hobby musician, music lover and concert goer.

                If you concentrate more on the valid aspects of my initial arguments than what speaks against them (which is a lot), you might see what I mean.

                What I mainly want to say is that the pure isolated sound quality of maybe 70% of live concerts (lets exclude big orchestral or choral/opera works) is better from the well done recording of it imo. That doesn’t mean that the complete experience of the live act isn’t superior to the recording.

  4. In the 8th grade I asked my art teacher (Mrs Krupka)why people bothered yo paint these days with availability of very good cameras. That thought may have been based on my utter and complete inability to put down a straight line without using a straight edge (Mr Lewis would be pleased I remembered his warnings about not confusing rulers with straight edges).

    I can still remember the look of disdain she gave me 58 years ago.

    As to our ability to accurately reproduce sound all I can say is we can try. Just maybe it really is the journey that counts.

  5. As a person with formal training in both oil painting and photography, I feel compelled to share that the analogy can be expanded even further.
    It is often said that a photographer is a sculptor of light.
    The angle of incidence, dramatic to mundane, sets the tone of the work.
    Likewise, when Led Zeppelin created music, it was much like a photographer trying to reproduce not only the feeling of the music but with some gee-whiz tricks in production, like a master printer turning a negative into a print, to express his interpretation of the situation.

  6. I am both shocked and appalled by all the sensible and well thought out posts here.
    I approach every listening event as though I was blind. Every listening experience is its own singular event for me. There is no “absolute sound”.
    I have complained on this site that there is often too much love for the equipment and not enough for the musical content that gives it life.
    OT: My immediate thought for last music in room one was either 1812, Fanfare for the Common Man or AC/DC “For those about to rock”. Why do I like listening to explosions so much?

  7. Holographic reproduction is literally impossible, but reproduction of a good facsimile musical sound field is possible using speakers that replicate the spatial pattern of individual physical instruments. Even the electronic sounds of sampling, processing and synthesizing through discrete “acoustico-mimicry” speakers sound more like what acoustically trained ears expect, blend better with acoustic instruments and create real physical imaging.

    Think about the classic rock format (I was a teenager in the ’60s). You had a lead guitar amp, a rhythm guitar amp, a bass amp, a keyboard amp and a vocal amp. The sound came from each instrument, usually a point on the stage behind the respective player, a literal stereo image* . This concept was scaled up by Owsley Stanley to stadium size, in the best PA system in history. The most telling visual clue was the disappearance of the mixer, both the hardware (mixing board) and software (audio engineer). This is why all audio systems should be OVOMOS: one voice, one mic, one speaker. There need to be as many channels and speaker as there are instruments, because mixing is spatial distortion.

    This is why commercial recordings are not even portraits, they are cartoon cutouts like cell animation. They take each track of the master, sculpt it to fit in the frame, place it in the proscenium and then fill in the background with the scenery of artificial reverb.

    Also bear in mind that portraiture is static art. Music can’t be stopped – it is inherently ephemeral. You can only compare and contrast instants through memory. “Memory is the canvas of music” – Robert Jourdain, in “Music, the Brain, and Ecstasy”.

    * “Stereo” means solid. 2 channel is fake, 1.5 dimensional sound that audiophiles learn to imagine as three dimensions.

    1. I LIKE cartoons. Some of them are Incredible ; )

      Though I don’t disagree with your theory/approach, that does not mean that we’re all being “fooled” by our stereos. I would hazard that a majority simply enjoy it. Works pretty well and is practical for the most part.

      I feel a bit bad for you when you talk about not being able to listen to anything other than your system. It’s great that you feel you’ve sorted out something better. But as with Soundmind’s system (utterly different I realize) it is not practical for most people.

      When I first recorded a local symphony with a pair of omni’s, I finally “saw the light” re: comb filtering, and why I was often bothered by the sound of strings (particularly massed strings) in most classical recordings – even well-regarded ones. It was, however, a revelation I’ve sought to forget for the most part, as I don’t always like learning things that negatively affect my perception of something I love (which applies to other areas of life as well).

      1. I am not an idle complainer, I did something about it. Moved 2,000 miles, started life over again, re-trained my ears which took quality and quantity time, researched for years, taught myself cabinet-making, built dozens of speakers, hauled them to New York, re-configured them nightly for hundreds of performances to learn how the new paradigm worked and documented it all. Over $50K in parts (equivalent to $500K of “High End” gear), and roughly ten years equivalent full time effort.

        I am finally getting around to setting up my listening room, been too busy to spin discs. Besides, when you attend top flight acoustic concerts in the best halls with the best audiences, it satisfies the need for music for days.

        1. Sorry – was not intending to suggest that you were an idle complainer. I realize you have done the work. I’m just suggesting that it is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for everyone.

          I suppose it is the oft-repeated insistence on it being the only true path, and by extension, we’re all fooling ourselves into thinking we’re hearing “real” music reproduction.

          I think Paul’s analogy today is one of the best I’ve heard.

          Darren and I were discussing this the other day. He asked me a couple of things (as a video producer): Do people in video complain about resolution getting better, or insist that, say Standard Definition TV was as good as it ever needs to be?

          I started laughing really hard and said, “Never heard anyone say that”. Though I will say that many of us have been surprised at how fast 8k came on the heels of acceptance of 4K.

          His other question was about if I thought people watching their TVs were concerned about an illusion of 3D. Nope, of course they aren’t. Yet it bothers approximately no one that their TV is flat, and looks best from a center seating position. He went on to point out that two speakers in stereo (heck – even one in mono) can create a sound image that clearly and easily exceeds the boundaries of the speakers, and interact with the space they are in to further extend that image (given a good room, etc.) which is something a TV does not do.

          For some reason folks in this hobby worry about stuff more – and about more stuff – than the next three hobbies put together.

          IMO, AFAIK, On My System, In My Room, YMMV.

          1. That supports my arguments for mono instead of stereo if there is no change of getting perfect symmetry or perfect room acoustics.! 🙂 However 4 k instead of standard resolution had got HDR vastly improving the picture quality. The higher resolution of 4K or 8k rarely reveals more details (our eyes are limited too concerning resolution) but rather influences the minimum viewing distance (depending on screen size too).

  8. The performance of music is an art. Beauty is in the eye or ear of the beholder. For me some music is the equivalent of a three year old making their first finger painting. Some is pleasant but hardly impressive. Some seems to be the product of a fractured mind. And some of it is the product of a level of skill that transcends all others and is in a league of its own. Whose ideas are right? No one’s, everyone’s.

    The problem of recording and recreating the sound of live music, speech, or anything else is a problem in science and engineering. I’ve distinguished accuracy from convincingly. Accuracy can only be achieved to a defined degree in a controlled laboratory by extraordinary means. Convincingly has many of the same attributes as accuracy but is not scientifically a true replica, merely an approximation that is sufficiently similar to an actual musical performance that it is indistinguishable to human hearing including to those sufficiently experienced with the original to recognize it. The tolerable degree of error depends on the degree of experience and memory of the real thing. These define the expectations of those who judge them.

    The sciences involved are the studies of sound, room acoustics, and psychoacoustics, the capabilities and limitations of human hearing perception. The engineering involved is the ability to recreate sound fields heard at live performances in an audience though other means in other places and at other times from stored sound converted into another form and then recovered.

    The theoretical underpinnings of the physical science are only understood sufficiently by a handful of people who are not in the commercial high fidelity audio industry. Their work is more like laboratory research than anything else. It’s been less than 125 years since this science has been studied and it still has a long way to go but analytical solutions do exist. The engineering for laboratory accurate recreation of sound fields also exists but only in theory. Such a machine and laboratory are enormously complex and expensive. However, experimental prototypes that are based on the theory but compromise it to one degree or another to bring it within practical limits do exist but are extremely rare and not developed to a point where they are even remotely close to marketable products.

    It is not the expectations of the equipment that is most disappointing and should be lowered but the expectations of the people who made endless sweeping claims testing the limits of hyperbole time and time again but whose efforts fell far short of their claims. On one hand having failed they claim it can’t be done and it can’t be done ….. by them. They do not have the requisite knowledge to even make a serious attempt. On the other hand they keep perfecting the same failed ideas to the most absurdly preposterous limits still convinced that if they devise a playback system so perfect it will actually recreate the desired result they say can’t be achieved. In truth they are at a dead end with their concept and no sledge hammer or explosive will break down the wall between them and their goal.

    For me the problem is an intellectual one where emotion plays no role. If there is a thrill it’s in the theoretical solution of the problem by analyzing it in new ingenious ways and attempting to engineer contrivances to test the theory and my own engineering skills. Emotion is the enemy of rational analysis and problem solving. It is a diversionary distraction. Love me, love my speaker, amplifier, CD player, or whatever. If there is an element of beauty in it, it’s in the mathematics which may be the only thing of perfection humans have created. It’s never a perfect model of the real universe but within itself it is a consistent and coherent system of understanding that is the best tool we have available to us when it is used skillfully. I learned so much of it and was able to use it effectively … and then forgot the bulk of it over decades through disuse. I’d like to think I could relearn it whenever I want to but the reality is that I won’t. BTW, the field of mathematics I understood best was Euclidian plane geometry. By the time I was done with it I knew as much as Euclid did. This probably has to do with its connection to visualization. If I could turn a mathematical problem into a geometric form, I could usually solve it. That is how I solved this one. The shape of something that is invisible.

  9. No time to read the comments here, but I’ll throw this bone out:

    Paul writes: “style was the point of the painting”. And to some extent style is also the point of the equipment and the listening room too.

  10. The problems with audio are different than the ones that are measured and optimized. Specifications include frequency response and harmonic distortion, numbers that are of lesser importance because they represent relatively easy to reproduce musical VOWELS, or continuous tones. The vowels also open up “creative” possibilities in recording, because they are generally still recognizable no matter how many mathematical processes are inflicted on them.

    This is analogous to the Mediterranean European languages Spanish, French and Italian which are rich in vowels but generally take more syllables. Singing voices also project vowels better than consonants, which is why vowel based languages are generally preferred for Opera.

    However, in intimate song, instrumental music, prose and poetry of consonant based language groups (i.e. Aramaic, Slavic and Germanic etc.) the consonants, which are only 5% of the sound energy and time duration, can represent over 50% of the meaning – and these are far harder to get right in audio. Getting the notes and their echoes to start, stop and transition accurately is the proper test of amplification and reproduction.

    To get back to the portrait analogy, frequency response is like swaths of color, while consonants are outlines and movement. Color is dependent on light source and the color of other objects in the scene, and so varies too much be utile recognizing objects beyond cartoon classifications. The precise details of a face, limbs and movements are what make people, architecture and furniture recognizable – and that works in black & white far better than formless or vague blotches of color.

    In the same way audio should be characterized by TEMPORAL and SPATIAL distortions. This invalidates the processes used in tracking, mixing and mastering recordings, and also several common flaws of speaker design like sharp edged cabinets that blur consonants, cones that break up and high inductance voice coils..

  11. The fact that we will never have perfection in reproduced sound is no reason not to enjoy it. The fact that we can reproduce sound is a wonder in itself and when one considers how far we have come from the days of the wax cylinders it is a miracle. The sound can be so good that one has to tip the hat to audio engineers. It’s the listeners fault if his or her system is incapable of that sound. Whether it is because of financial reasons, unrealistic taste or simple ignorance of what good sound can be is no excuse. The thought that since perfection does not exist so the sound reproduction should be appreciated as lifeless paintings does not make sense. Painting once made remain the same as long they last. Sound reproduction is fluid.It changes all the time for the better and one has to keep up with it with perfection as the goal. Paintings are static. One can never mistake a painting for the real thing.. But a good sound system can sound realistic often enough to fool one into believing that he or she heard the real thing. Regards.

    1. AH, the asymmetry. Audiophiles often think that live music sounds like their audio reproduction, but musicians never think so.

      Real music has orders of magnitude more information than fixed channel reproduction. It is so much more rich and complex that musicians grow much larger brains to hear the expanded information. This knowledge has been suppressed by a machine model of hearing and 80 years of using urban/suburban speaker listeners for all the pseudo-scientific research.

      If you don’t spend thousands of hours during your formative years listening to live music, you can’t recognize it. Instead, the cognitively and culturally poor substitute of audio becomes the limit to your reality, because you can only hear what you learned to hear – and music cognition is neither quick nor easy to learn.

      There are some musicians who compartmentalize and correlate live and recorded sound, particularly “recording artists”. As a rule, they are not the best live performers, and conversely the best performers are less adept in the studio than the studio specialists with few exceptions.

  12. An excellent portrait painter speaks with a thousand words. The portrait creates a mood about it. A feeling that conveys emotions and thoughts about the one being portrayed. All in a split second.

    Our audio system turns us into portrait painters. We choose the hue and colors we like.

    Its those who turn Picasso on us that gives audio a bad name. 😉

  13. This is not only about sound quality, articulation, intimacy and comprehension of the sound of music. Modern recording techniques fragment the thought processes of musicians. I hear the INTENTION to splice because it focuses attention on “getting the notes right”, instead of on the overall message. It is like the difference between television and stage acting. TV is stitched together snippets of video, while stage work is non-stop.

    There was a movement in cinema called “Dogme 95” started by Lars Van Trier and Wim Wenders that is analogous to audiophile recordings. Among the rules were using only location shooting with natural light, no sets; a hand held camera; and sound recorded during the action. Jacques Tati only used wide shots, no closeups. Other directors have worked without scripts, used long tracking shots and other techniques to bring the representations closer to reality.

    To this day, may favorite movies tend to black and white with subtitles, because Hollywood sells entertainment of fantasy worlds, predictable time wastes that have little to no bearing on life and create false expectations where everything works out In 22 minutes (sitcoms) to 90 minutes (theatrical releases). LA music production is the same mainstream mush, like David Foster and Ricky Minor. Problem is, the tonmeisters at DGG, Decca and Sony went down the same path…

  14. Within the context of existing audio technology there are at least two factors that are most disturbing to me about high end audio as an engineer. Both relate to the lack of control. There are virtually no provisions engineered to compensate for the variables of performance of loudspeakers in different rooms. This is the result of the notion that all room problems can be compensated for by room treatments and passive external devices such as diffusers, absorbers, and reflectors, combined with speaker placement. It is also based on the assumption that room reflections are inherently bad so rather than trying to use them to advantage the system is designed to reduce their effect. This explains why most modern tweeters beam their sound along a vary narrow solid angle. This is exactly the opposite of the original intent of the invention of dome tweeters. The god of high end audio seems to be imaging and/or sound stage.

    The other problem is the lack of control to compensate for different recording techniques especially in regard to their spectral balance. This results in the system being optimized for only one narrow range of recordings. Were the system provided with means to make such adjustments many more recordings could provide much greater enjoyment.

    About the only adjustment most of these systems have left besides speaker placement is a volume control, an input selector switch and a power on off switch. They’d take those away too if they could just figure out how. For these reason, even in the context of conventional 2 channel stereo it strikes me that high end high priced equipment is a poor value for money.

    1. We used to have a saying in my design group: anything that can be adjusted, will be adjusted wrong.

      This is even more true in audio where people are trying to adjust things with no absolute reference, starting with the men at the mixing desk and most speaker designers. Hearing is so plastic that it requires constant re-calibration. I take a daily dose of piano or harpsichord in a good sounding room.

      1. There have been lots of adjustments already made that you have no control over. When an engineer picks one microphone instead of another he’s made an adjustment. When he places it he’s made another adjustment. When people like Paul voice DACs, speakers, amplifiers, preamplifiers they’ve made adjustments. Now you have all of these variables in your recording that are made different ways, audio equipment that has been voiced one way, and you have no way to compensate for any of these adjustments. So, this means that if you do not give the end user the power to adjust anything, by your logic you assume that not only can’t he use such tools but he can’t even learn how to use them. That’s okay. Having met so many audiophiles…. I am forced to agree with you.

  15. There is only one way to test for a perfect recording. Lets say, you wanted to record an excellent guitarist’s solo playing.

    After recording, to know if that everything was perfectly done? You would need to place the audio speakers right where the guitarist played.

    Now, if it sounds just like the guitarist, but now who is invisible? Then, and only then, you can know the recording and playback was perfect.

    Once we listen to the playback in a different room? We are on our own.

  16. I don’t know about other enthusiasts. I require a good amount of realism before I can enjoy the reproduced music. The better the realism, the better my enjoyment. I do not view it as a portrait and try to develop my HiFi system to enable me to be inside the recording venue with ambience sound extracted by the use a Lexicon CP3 from the rear speakers. It is a goal I think all HiFi enthusiasts try to attain.

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