Transparent images

July 10, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

There’s something very wrong with the idea of a transparent image. If it’s transparent it means we can’t see or hear it.

And yet, the term has great meaning.

Our audiophile lexicon is a wonderful tool for communicating with each other. It does seem to fall a bit short when conveying a sense of what we hear to those outside the circle.

For me, I use the term added transparency to describe a multitude of auditory events.

Here one: when I can hear through an instrument. Imagine a trumpet playing in the room. It’s loud and, on many recordings, dominates the others in the group as if it were an impenetrable wall of sound. Played through some types of equipment the listener might hear the instrument on top of the other members in the band. On other more transparent equipment, the trumpet now sounds more integrated—closer to a see-through hologram rather than a 2-dimensional photo.

A great example of transparency can be found on Octave Record’s Gabriel Mervine tracks. Here, engineer Steve Vidaic spent hours finding just the right grouping of microphones and positioning of Mervine’s trumpet in order to capture a transparent image of the horn.

Though the term transparent image is a bit nonsensical, you know it when you hear it.

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41 comments on “Transparent images”

  1. I’ll settle for a transparent amplifier then.
    I really like my impenetrable wall of sound…it must be a Rock ‘n Roll thing.

    **Off Topic**
    Sydney is looking at another 2-3 weeks of lock-down, maybe even longer,
    due to the delta strain.
    Australia’s federal government backed the ‘Astra Zeneca’ (AZ) vaccine &
    we started manufacturing it here after the EU denied us the Pfizer vaccine late last year.
    Then we found out that you can get fatal blood clots from the AZ vaccine,
    so no one wants it…what a f#@k up.
    Now, with only 9% of our population fully vaccinated, we have no choice but to lock-down again, but for longer this time, as we desperately try to get the Pfizer brand flown in from anywhere that we can; now due late August/early September.

    I’m so glad that I found my pre-loved Musical Fidelity – ‘M6i’ integrated three weeks ago, because now I’m stuck inside with a far more transparent amp than the one that I had previously…be thankful for small mercies 🙂

    1. hey there FAT RAT……if you haven’t got a copy of Jeff Beck’s “Truth” UDSACD 2223 (mofi) then mate do try and get a copy and whack the volume up on that M6…! what a great recording….as for the AZ vaccine millions of us in the UK are double dossed on the stuff and no more side effects what-so-ever over the other offerings!……..and of course zero tarrifs now you guys have got closer to the mother land!…..God save OUR Queen.

      the AZ vac reputation comes via the EU who are well pissed off that we left their club.

      rock and bloody roll….and we have a game to win on Sunday!!!!…….Mike

      PS. I don’t like cricket……I love it!

      1. Hey hey RA Mike,
        Thanks for the head’s-up & the shout-out.
        Feeling sorry for HRH without her beau 🙁
        Free trade rules!
        I’m waiting for the ‘Pfizer’.
        Bring on ‘The Ashes’ you Pommy Bastard 😉

    2. The percentage of people who get Covid and die from it is far greater than the percentage of people who die from taking the AZ vaccine. It’s not even close.
      Oh, and don’t forget to look both ways when crossing the street. That’s another killer.
      Just trying to keep you around on the planet a little longer, FR.

      1. Longplayer,
        Yes, I understand & agree with you, but tell that to the families of those who died from AZ blood clots.
        Perception is reality for the masses here in Australia because of the low infections & low number of CoViD deaths in comparison with the rest of the world.

        1. A few unfortunate losses, for sure, but the perception and loss of those who die from Covid,
          or even survive with long-term health consequences is far greater. People need to look beyond
          themselves to the good for humanity to take available vaccines to prevent the spread of the
          current disease and its variants before an even more horrific variant emerges. This is a problem
          without borders or political ideologies…unless we selfishly turn it into such. This is far more than just my personal belief. It is also one thing if you are a reasonably healthy person, and quite another if you have known risks and vulnerabilities. Be well.

          1. Longplayer,
            I said, “Yes, I understand & agree with you…” (7:00pm)
            Ultimately it’s up to the population of Australia & I have no control over them.
            And while our international borders remain closed we (Australia) can not infect the rest of the world with anything.
            I’m at home a lot these days, even before CoViD-19 started in late February last year, so I can wait another 6-8 weeks for my Pfizer shots.

    3. FatRat

      It turns out that all the vaccines have a small risk of blood clots.
      However, the risks are greater for the young.
      And for the young, the risk of getting *ill* with covid is really very small; so the risks of taking any of the vaccines if you’re 15-30 years old is “similar” to the risks direct from covid. A vaccine should have substantially lower risk than the disease it’s seeking to protect against, so young folk probably shouldn’t be getting vaccinated.

      Meanwhile, worldwide, it looks like covid, the deathly virus for which governments repeatedly close down their countries, has, overall, roughly the effect of increasing your chance of dying – whatever that chance is – by about 15%, because that’s about the number of extra people who died 2020-2021. This 15% includes *all* the effects, including (eg) dying because you didn’t go see your cardiologist, not just direct deaths. 15% is obviously worth avoiding, but it’s not a whole lot more than year-on-year variation. And death rates 2020-2021 are (if memory serves correctly) better than the covid-free death rates prior to 2010…

  2. I love transparency in recordings and it helps to get a sense of the room. But imo it’s more or less not available live in that form, it’s rather an audiophile construct to make recorded music more interesting to listen to.

    Yes, a symphony orchestra can sound more transparent in the one hall or orchestrated by the one conductor than the other. But this has a different background than the transparency constructed from multi mic’ing.

    When I stand in front of a real big band, I hear no audiophile transparency, I hear more or less a wall of straight, dynamic sound with slight staging of positionings of musicians/instruments. But none of that enveloping, spherical sound of e.g. a trumpet on recorded/played back music.

    If a Hi-Fi setup would reproduce a live event, in terms of its limited imaging, transparency and holographic experience, this would mostly (not always) be a disappointment imo.

    If it could reproduce it with its dynamics, ease and implicitness, this would be great, but it can’t.

  3. It’s never occurred to me transparency refers specifically to an image. To me transparency is when all (or most) of the distortion, fuzziness, sibilance, ringing, artifacts, etc. is NOT present. Like I am in the room or venue.

  4. If you like a bit of transparent trumpet, try Ibrahim Maalouf. His father, a great trumpeter before him, invented a quarter tone trumpet for Middle Eastern music. His albums Diagnostic and Wind are magnificent, and his latest release 40 Melodies is in part a Greatest Hits and sounds sublime.

    I didn’t know audiophiles ever referred to a “transparent image”. A transparent system is one that provides an unobscured window to the sound, so “transparent” is being used with reference to the system, not the sound.

  5. Transparent image, where did that come from? It’s not a term I’ve ever used to describe hi-fi. Transparent, yes, a transparent system that images well, but not together. As Paul says, it sounds so contradictory.

    Looking up transparent I got this, “allowing light (sound) to pass through so that objects can be distinctly seen (heard). My brackets. I would have thought a good description of a quality system.

  6. There are things that are optically transparent, but not acoustically transparent. Think glass.
    There are things that are acoustically transparent, but not optically transparent. Think speaker grills.
    Then there are things transparent to both. Think air
    (Nothing is perfect so always assume some absorption / reflection)

    I can think of electronics as being transparent (no change other than intensity) to the input signal.
    Speakers can seem to ‘disappear’ although that requires some imagination.
    Up till now I never gave any thought as to how transparent a recording can or should be.
    If recording and mixing is considered an art form unto itself then pretty much anything goes…

    I think jazznut said it best today. HiFi set-ups are in their own realm. Because of that they have their own set of rules and challenges.

  7. Transparent refers to the sound. A recording can be transparent or not.
    If you can hear the individual instruments as if around each instrument there is some air, then it’s transparent, as opposed to a “thick” sound (“wall” of sound) where you cannot hear the individual
    Next question then is what the system is capable of, in particular the speakers.
    Assuming the sound is transparent, does the system let you hear this.
    So, yes, speakers can be tranparent or not.
    With “image” it has nothing to do IMO. Then I’m thinking more of “soundstage”.
    But, like I said before, “soundstage” for me is more of a hifi invention in the studio (!).
    In real life at a live concert there is no soundstage. Well, in a big (curch)hall there is reverberation. If you like to call that “soundstage” be my guest.

  8. I tend to use the term a 3D ( three dimensional ) acoustic image. If I can tell ( when I close my eyes ) that the lead singer is in front of the drums and that the bass is on the right and the lead guitar is on the left and the key board is behind the lead guitar then that is a good 3D acoustic image.

  9. Many years ago the Absolute Sound came up with their own audio lexicon and one of their descriptive terms was image specificity.

    To the best of my recollection this term meant being able to hear each instrument and voice with the air surrounding them in its own three dimensional space separated from the other instruments and voices within the soundfield.

    1. Yes, TAS promoted that sonic attribute. Except I, personally, do not hear such clearly delineated individual images in live, unamplified music. I think the TAS concept describes an electronic artifact.

      1. Do you mean you don’t hear this at a live venue? I would agree with you about that 100%. I’m able to hear what the Absolute Sound called image specificity on many of my quality recordings.

        1. Exactly; I do not hear this TAS-described audio system attribute at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I think it is an artifact of playback systems and, therefore, by definition, not part of “the absolute sound.”

  10. The problem revolves around our ability to express ourselves properly. We as a nation have abandoned the use of the English language.

  11. Transparency in audio terms can mean see through to the soundstage instruments behind images in front of them. It can also mean the difference between a dirty or cloudy window and a clean one. A dirty or cloudy window will obscure the outside visual image. The same could be said about sound reproduction.

    1. Always a fan of Australian tennis players. One of my two favourite sports books is McEnroe’s “Serious”, his idol and role model was Rod Laver and the Aussie fearless no compromise attitude. Barty was superb today, a very popular win.

      Me and my Paleontological mate were playing tennis once and on the court next to us were McEnroe and Peter Fleming. We gave up after a while and just watched. We were meant to be revising for exams anyway.

      1. It’s been a bit ‘thin’ over the last few decades for both England & Australia.
        I couldn’t believe that she came back from love/40 & then blew the 2nd set…excruciating!

        1. Excellent match. Was actually surprised that Barty won. She was playing an up and down game and at certain points I thought that she was going to throw the match away

      2. I was at the tennis Hall of Fame in Newport Rhode Island when they inducted McEnroe.

        He went on and on for an hour and a half until someone had to walk up and take the microphone away. It was hysterical because someone hooked into the PA system was asking him to wind it up for a half hour before they made this radical decision to cut him off entirely.

  12. When we talk about high fidelity the question comes up fidelity to what? The most powerful musical experiences I’ve had I have been when there was no PA system present I think Harry Pearson got it right about unamplified music.

  13. For some serious trumpet and Baroque horns, may I specifically recommend the opening of Bach’s Brandenburg Concert No. 1 in F major (BWV 1046) performed by Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Richard Egarr on the harmonia mundi SACD HMU 807461.62. The salvos sounded by David Blackadder, Andrew Clark, and David Bentley prove that this hoary war horse can still kick your ass.

    1. Playing the trumpet in the Brandenburg Concerto‘s is a killer. I saw the Brandenburg Concertos one evening and the trumpet player a literally turned into the Heinz tomato trying to play his part.

  14. I plead guilty to having said “I want the sound to be transparent.” Of course I didn’t mean I want the performers and their music to disappear. I mean I want to hear the performers as they would be heard from an optimal vantage point in the performance room, without any additional sound contribution by the recording system, the playback system and my room. In effect, I want everything from between the live listening position and my listening chair to disappear. Well, maybe it’s nice to keep the volume control!

    1. Yes, keep the volume control…and check your playback level from time to time with an SPL meter. Many people don’t realize what they are doing to their hearing when attending live music performances, much less while listening at home. This becomes even more important when the quality of your playback system achieves greater resolution and lower noise. It’s so easy to crank it up another notch or two.

  15. Transparent “to me” is hearing the playback music in a holographic soundstage (3D image) with proper positioning and placement of voices, instruments, strings and keyboard, just as I’d expect in the venue of that live performance (of course this being all recording quality and accuracy dependent)!! 😉

  16. Indeed. No one has ever seen sound so how can one see an image of sound? I think the person who started the ball rolling may have been trying to describe a sound stage where every sound source is firmly placed side to side, front to back, up and down. Maybe the person meant something else. Whatever the explanation one certainly cannot see something that is transparent and certainly not sound. As often is the case something impressive sounding comes along and every one starts using it. It makes one seem so full of knowledge. Regards.

  17. In regards to Paul’s post. I enjoy and prefer the term ‘Opacity ‘as well.
    And going back to the “moods” post I have days where by I feel a more ‘see through’ level when listening to my equipment.
    I’m sure many have an opaque veil in their brains. 😉

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