Through the ground glass

March 8, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

When I peer into my camera’s ground glass I am intent on one thing. Sharp focus.

When I check the clock for my 9:45 meeting I focus on the second hand and ignore the hour. I can tell you if I am late or early but not what time it is.

When we narrow our focus in the listening room it is at the expense of the big picture. I might pay particular attention to one area of music like the tonality or imaging and not notice the highs are missing.

This filtered attention helps narrow down specific problems at the expense of the whole.

Some of my most insightful observations of a stereo system came not from narrow focus but by the off-handed listen to the whole without preconceptions.

Ground glass viewing is perfect for razor-sharp focus, though it’s often at the expense of the picture.

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28 comments on “Through the ground glass”

  1. It’s why I have a favorite list of tracks to audition any changes. This track I listen for bass, a track for hall ambiance, one for piano (which I find is the hardest instrument to get right), another for multivoice harmonization, etc. It is impossible to focus on “the whole”.

    If you have the right track list, you can focus one single aspect at a time and the big picture just happens.

  2. In audio, becoming obsessed can be a symptom of the person’s internal conflicts.

    And speaking of obsessions and details, I have a friend of Asian origin, who owns 360,000 LPs, and the account keeps growing, because some people give him their collectibles that they no longer use. He confesses that he has heard just 0.003 of that amount.

    The excessive attention to certain details in an audio installation, may not focus the appreciation on the main thing, which IMO are: the tonal balance, the timbre, the texture, the roughness of the string set and the spatiality of the orchestra symphonic so that it resembles even remotely, to what is heard live. I prefer to have the vision of the forest as a whole, and not that of a certain tree.

    Other terms related to the slang used by audiophiles as stereo image, instrumental focus etc, etc, for me have little or no importance. since the microphones do not allow so much minutia, that is not to mention the manipulation of the signal in the consoles.

  3. When I listen to a new speaker to “judge” it, I always listen to the bigger tonal picture.
    Focussing on the parts tells me nothing about the cohesian of highs, lows and mids.
    The parts can be good, yet the sound of the whole not.

  4. I have purposefully gone with a “good enough” approach the last few years in regard to my kit, and file types, and listening in general. No longer do I obsess over the minutest of detail in a song. I found myself in the past concentrating so much on the details that I could listen to a song over and over yet still not know the actual melody or lyrics. I am more interested now in the overall as a whole such as the beat and melody, which elicits much more toe tapping and enjoyment!

    Speaking of new kit, I am making a move to a new home in a month. It has a whole house speaker system for passive listening. I am now learning the setup involved in this type of thing. It has JBL 8300 in walls. A new experience indeed!

  5. Audio engineers have do deal with the details so that the customer can enjoy the big picture. Being obsessed with the details of the audio system should end fairly soon after it is purchased.

    Taking pictures with distorting lenses is done for effect. Someone looking at it should enjoy the effect without having to understand the nature of the distortion.

    They are no different. The engineer has to obsess about cause, the consumer’s only interest is effect.

  6. This continual going back and forth between the near and far focus is very important in audio engineering. You can get obsessed with sorting out details (this note from that instrument during this passage is missing/sticking out, etc.) at the expense of the whole. Learned a good trick from the famed engineer Al Schmitt – walk out of the room while the mix is playing. If it doesn’t sound right from the next room, something’s off.*

    I use it at shows – when a room sounds awful from the hall outside the room, chances are good it will sound bad inside – and generally that’s the case. It’s not like I just assume it’ll be bad in a good seat. But there seems to be a lot of ‘missing the forest’ at shows.

    *Specifically, he was answering my question about surround mixing, which was, “What happened between the mix of the Eagles album and the Beck album?” (The latter being far more coherent of a picture in surround). The answer was basically, “Experience”, since the Eagles album was an early surround project, when it seemed like putting one player in each channel would be a cool idea (the “You’re On Stage with the Band” perspective).

    But the trick works for stereo as well. It should still be of a piece.

    1. I pay attention to how my living room system, in a long combined living/dining area sounds from the kitchen, next to the latter, and how the desktop one sounds from the bathroom next door or bedroom across from it. I agree that in-room and out-of-room appreciation typically jibe. I find that I won’t likely keep a component whose addition doesn’t sound right from the other room. I think of it as if I had a friend over for dinner and the quality of what they would be hearing.

  7. Paul, that’s deep and insightful. I think it speaks to life in general – do you think? As I help out a good friend with his live venue, I find myself reminded of the same considerations: Is the sound that important to the audience or is the overall experience without all this tech the real secret…

    What’s the purpose of live music, to be ‘dazzled’ by the spectacle? To be enthralled by the story of the lyrics? To be blown-away by the talent and musicianship?

    When we leave a great show, there’s deep fulfillment – somehow the whole experience comes together as something greater than the sum of the parts!

    I think this may be true for our audio sojourns…

  8. Music performance requires attention to:
    Pitch
    Volume
    Timbre
    Rhythm
    Contrapuntal Complexity

    This is true for both live or electronically reproduced music playback. The rest is audiophile gobbledygook.

  9. For the end user it quite simple. Listen to the system and there will always be something that needs attention. Listen to the music, get lost in the lyrics, or that great solo, and the system is forgotten. With the rare exception we bought these systems to get closer to the music, I am much happier when I focus on the music.

    There is a time and place for critical listening, and if we are interested in improving our experience, we have to be able to do that. But that should be done only when necessary. If our ears, and knowledge about our system are good, we will first be aware that something isn’t right during a music listening session. It will be obvious to something isn’t right.

  10. When I was into photography I loved shooting 35mm slides. My favorite film was Fujichrome 100. One day in Alaska I was taking some pictures and looking through the viewfinder I SAW what the slide would look like when it was developed and projected on to a screen. At that moment I WAS a photographer. Five minutes later I lost that ability and went back to being a snapshooter. Well at least I know what it felt like. I’ve never been able to get it back again and frankly lost interest in photography. BTW, I hated working in a dark room.

    When I listen to musical performances I try to focus on hearing everything at once. The musical composition, the performer’s artistry, the interpretation of the music, the tone of the instruments, and the acoustics of the space I’m in. Duplicating that is a tall order. That’s why I’m so critical of the shortcomings of what equipment I could buy and had to invent my own. It’s also why I have a rather low opinion of what most people call music.

    1. Yes! I remember shooting Fuji fantasticly deep reds and yellows. Shot some great orchids using extention tubes @ the Garfield Park Conservatory. I couldn’t stay long, being dressed for cold winter because it was 82 degrees and very humid inside.

  11. If pitch, volume, timbre, rhythm and contrapuntal complexity is good/perfect but the audio system (speakers in particular) sounds bad, then I don’t like listening to it.
    If the system is (very) good but the soundquality of the disc is rotten, it sounds like crap to me. Can’t listen to that at all.
    If you like to call that audiophile gobbledygook, be my guest.

    1. A very high percentage of all record production on both vinyl and CDs sounds horribly wrong.

      In my experience, the percentage of vinyl recordings of well-known brands that do not sound good is considerably high, they can not really be heard and it is not due to the medium or the TT & cartridge, it is due to the recording itself.

      That’s why all those who are demonstrating their products choose certain recordings, which allow their systems to look like a million euros.

      There are record labels whose sound is extremely pleasant, such as Calliope, Sheffield, Harmonia Mundi, Archiv, Telefunken and a few others, in the analogue world, while on CDs: Delos, Reference Recordings, Argos, Naxos, Chesky and a few others.

  12. People keep telling me that optimizing 2 channel reproduction is the final answer.

    I read about them looking at the trees through a window and across the fields with a telephoto lens, moving by inches to get a better picture. They can zoom out and see the forest edge (losing detail), but it is never like the view walking through the depth of the forest. Commercial “stereo” is like imagining a painted stage set is a forest – and to keep the photographic metaphor, every knob in a recording studio is like a “Cubist” filter, distorting time, space and perspective.

    I explore the forests regularly, take pictures and bring up to 16 tree replicas into the yard, models accurate enough that woodsmen accept them as real. Tonight it’s old growth – a Viol consort.

    1. Stereo acoustic reproduction seems to be stuck on a level that graphic art reached in the 16th century.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perspective_(visual)

      Pin point imaging, depth etc. are technically built illusions that “have an effect upon us like magic” (Plato). But it shows every perspective is distorted somehow, even the one we imagine as most natural.
      That is why I often like ‘cubic’ music and it is a pity there is so little.

    1. I’ve learned a lot about being an audiophile from Accuvox and Audiomania. The first lesson is don’t obsess. We’re at the mercy of the recording engineers and the limitations of the equipment. If you want to hear the real thing, go to a live concert. Otherwise, enjoy your system with the best you can afford and set up.

  13. Do certain audiophiles suffer from OCD? That’s a rhetorical question. Emotional involvement
    of any musical performance is the experience of being swept up in the expression of the performers fueled by admiration of the audience participating in the communication of the performance via toe tapping, dancing, clapping, crying or even quiet contemplation

    Noticed that Atkinson while seated with smart headphone rig listening to his recordings was bopping just a tad taking him back to a place in time, listening through the system transported to the original performance, paying little attention in the moment to the hi-fi aspects of the experience. Awesome!

  14. As long as the reproduced sound has no glaring errors or disturbing characteristics like a frazzling tweeter sound , my personal worst hated characteristic , or excess distortion across the board from a grossly overdriven cheap amplifier, then I can appreciate the character of the music and lyrics in most cases. But if I find the musical piece or performer really interesting then the quest begins to find the best possible recording and playback I can to really treat it as a favorite. But as others have mentioned, it’s a disgrace how bad most of our available audio choices sound. Vocals that are shrill or raspy due to poor microphone choice and usage is just inexcusable but is found on so many recordings of popular music. I keep thinking it must be my speakers or some other issue, then I put on a “reference track” and nope, it’s not the speakers etc. And I can barely bring myself to talk about how today’s engineers think that entire albums have to be crammed to maximum saturation of the digital medium. No dynamics at all, just roar. But people still buy it and wearing ear buds running down the street they have no idea what they are missing, nor do they care. Although after years of working to get our systems to their best even those who don’t care about audiophile intricacies can still be pleased by good clean balanced sound and realistic dynamics. Still we all must learn to let go and get our ears out of the microscope and enjoy the music just as it is at that moment. Otherwise it’s really all for nothing since true perfection is never attainable. Compromise, however small on great systems, will always be there and obsession will certainly ruin any enjoyment, at least for me. I would love to hear stories about other folks audiophile epiphanies. We’ve all had them when, at some point , we achieved some milestone in our efforts to get that certain sound. Perhaps not the guys who buy the pre-designed systems complete in all aspects, but those of us who started with little and worked for most of our lives building up to that level of quality and performance we have always dreamed of. That’s a truly worthwhile endeavor.

      1. Oh dear god what a joke the Antares processor is on so many people. Watch the great pop stars climb and swing and hang from trapeze and dance like mad men and NEVER take a breath or breathe heavy into a mic 1 inch from their mouth. LOL. Impossible. But honestly, I support its use by aging performers who have been onstage and recordings for 50 years and need a little help to finish off their careers with a few more performances. We who love these performers prefer to hear them as we have for years or close to it and look the other way to the technology. And for those who don’t use it, and unfortunately sound terrible, I find it more than sad and less entertaining. But I am still the fool who dishes out the cash for Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull show in spite of his inability to sing like he once did. He’s still a world class performer and always has great musicians as well. Loyalty still exists.

  15. I rely on an evolving sensitivity to synesthesia to visualize with my ear-brain as well as my ear-eye-brain.

    Perceptually enhancing your ability to hear “out of phase information” is über enlightening to setting up and acoustically locking the speakers into the room, with placement and treatment for 3 dimensional presentations.
    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ॐ

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