Music machines | conclusion

The project as artwork and intellectual challenge


To the third part of this article


I propose you an exercise.


Click on the page About us. Apart from a couple of exceptions, Silvia De Monte and me, who tell about themselves and their passions but not about their "system", you will find the description of the "reference" systems that almost all the enthusiasts use for their listening sessions.

Like in any other similar review, you will find a great variety and a "taste" diversity of the systems.

In some cases, Rocchi for example, we even have a formal duplication: a vacuum tube system with high sensitivity loudspeakers and a semiconductor system with mid-low sensitivity loudspeakers.

We all know the "religion wars" of the audiophiles. Tubes against transistors, horns against direct radiation and, in this last case, dynamic against electrostatic/planar speakers, etc. And what about punctiform against linear and variously distributed sources up to the omnidirectional ones? Vinyl against CD or even old analog tapes against streaming music, with or without compression!


Let us pretend to observe the phenomenon from the outside: as it would concern someone else.

In the previous reviews, we said that our passion does not pertain to a reproductionof the "real" musical event. The so-called "playback" music refers to a representation instead.

Let us have a look to a "competitor" site, the very interesting Confessions of a Part-Time Audiophile, on this page in particular. 

Look downwards, where are two images of a girl with red hair. The author makes a comparison between a photograph and a line drawing and then, I quote: "neither are real. Both images are reproductions, and imperfect ones at that — neither are the actual, real, live, girl". Each one with its own rules and its own aesthetics. Obviously, it is absolutely right choosing the most important parameters: maybe not to produce the illusion of a real event, but to perceive the "clues" that make a musical event significant.


Marino Mariani explains that the gramophone and the high fidelity would never have been like that without Enrico Caruso's voice (Italian only).


Norman Lebrecht describes the communicative phenomenon of the "The Maestro Myth" as a promotional topic intimately connected to the advent of the record as a commercial product, also here with some prime examples: Arturo Toscanini and Heribert Ritter von Karajan, called Herbert. If you are interested do not miss this precious book printed twenty years ago: Lebrecht, Norman, The Maestro Myth: great conductors in pursuit of power, London: Simon & Schuster, 1991, updated editions published 1997, 2001.


Sergiu Celibidache was an amazing conductor, von Karajan's predecessor but, most of all, Wilhelm Furtwängler' successor in leading the Berliner Philharmoniker. Nowadays and not many years after his death happened in 1996, few people, also among the enthusiasts, know his name. Why Sergiu Celibidache, graduated in philosophy and mathematics at the University of Bucharest, did not believe in the record, ever? He also said that "listening to recorded music is like going to bed with Brigitte Bardot's nude picture". Sergiu Celibidache used to interpret and make music: he was not interested in representing it. An extremely nonconformist choice that will cost him his future memory. It was not a whim. Celibidache knew that the musical performance is an unrepeatable and irreproducible event.


Consider, as audiophiles, just one aspect: the huge importance in positioning the loudspeakers and the listener position in the room. For the tonal balance, for the balancing between direct and reflex sound, for the consequences on the sound image, etc. Now imagine, without any reference to all the other possible human parameters that control the uniqueness of the relationship between performers and audience, that the conductor himself, the orchestra itself and the score itself are performed in the same concert hall. But in different seasons and schedules... Just the differences in temperature and in the audience's attire will produce an important dissimilarity in the way the sound waves are transmitted and reflexed. And these apparently minimum alterations in the time domain produce perceptive situations that are radically different. The performance is a lively and vital communication gesture. Indeed susceptible of a recording. Its quality, here meant with reference to its capacity of evoking the users’ answers, is extremely variable.


Are we able to define and eventually measure this quality?


In the musical theory we can distingue some fundamental components of the musical language. They are melody, rhythm, harmony, tone colour, dynamics and agogics.

Each one of you has surely hummed a melody, the most easily noticeable constituent of the composition, usually due to the voice or to the soloist. And does not require any explication that periodic regularity that characterizes the rhythm, often due to percussive instruments and upon which measures the music and the dance are structured? More complex is the definition of harmony, boundary of the musical theory that studies the way the sound amalgamates to produce the tonality. Chords and notes are tied and reciprocally structured in harmonic and melodic principles. In both cases, instruments with a different timbre produce harmony and melodies: that series of relations in width and duration between fundamentals and harmonics through which you can distinguish two sounds with the same intensity and height, ad example those emitted by a trumpet or a piano.

Familiar to the audiophiles is the concept of dynamics, which in musical theory refers to the notation, in score, of the sound intensities. In our field, is common the differentiation between the capacity of a system to respect the micro dynamics and the macro dynamics of the musical event. Last, but not least, there is the mysterious agogics: in musical theory the component of the language that regulates the velocity of a piece and that represents a very important parameter for the execution of the classical music. If the musical notation, the score, has rather specific and binding instructions for the melody (a defined succession of sounds of different height and duration), the rhythm (it divides the time in forms and measures that can be variable, regular-symmetric or irregular-symmetric) and the harmony, less urgent are the specifications about the tone colour, as demonstrated from the infinite polemics on the use of the original instruments. On the other hand, the indications on the dynamics and on the temporal structure or agogics, are largely left to the performer's interpretation, so that it is not even possible to refer to an "abstract" score, if not to the specific interpretation given by a particular performer.


In several cases, the fundamental parameter is of more immediate comprehension: the tonal balance of a system, reflex of its graphic representation, the frequency response.


Certainly, it is an essential parameter with respect to the tone colour. Moreover, we refer to it only considering a restricted range of "mid" sound levels, similar to those reachable by the human voice or acoustic instruments. At these levels, the systems are very correct, but they can lose their congruence when they have to reproduce high sound pressures or, vice versa, very low levels.

We do not often consider the limit of the dynamic range, already effectively possible in the recording phase: more restricted also for the state-of-the-art devices, and for tens of decibels, with respect to the dynamics of the original sound event.  

Independently from the pathologies introduced in the more commercial products, and famous "wars of loudness" that in some recordings tend to destroy the musical dynamics in order to get values of sound pressure constantly high, which, it has been demonstrated with techniques of behavioral psychology, have more commercial success, also the "audiophile" recordings are necessarily characterized by a more or less present compression. Here we take into account the limits of the recording apparatus and the mean limits used for a different recording depending on the subject. A non-casual, but scientific, hence systemic way: the sound engineer will not take into account only your mean system, but also the mean level of noise... Very different depending: on your listening room, if you have one, on a listening with headphones while you are doing some jogging in the traffic, or on the fact that you have to consider the noise of the cockpit of your car.


The compression introduces forms of distortion completely different from those we usually have in high fidelity.


It can completely alter, simply by changing the reciprocal volumes, the relations among melody, rhythm and harmony, also when the timbre of the instruments is respected. One of the reasons that continues to feed the passion for the settings of the apparently "vintage" sound aesthetics, is tied to functions of dynamic expansion which are produced by some tubes systems conjugated to high sensitivity transducers. Dynamic expansion that approximately compensates the recording compression!


Electrostatic or planar systems requiring thousands of watts to move - unfortunately sometimes without a power handling capable to produce very high sound pressures also for very short times - can produce the perception of a very high transparency. The latter perceived as artificial, just because it does not respect the dynamic relations among different instruments, also when particularly suitable to a good playback: melody, rhythm and harmony are all essential for a correct recreation of the tonality.


Among all the parameters that regulate the musical language, the one that the western tradition has less formalized is the temporal parameter.


The introduction of the metronymic is relatively recent: J. S. Bach did not compose for piano, because the piano did not exist, and for an analogue good reason, the metronome neither existed, he did not specify the metronymic time at the beginning of his compositions. All his music, like the ancient repertory, gregorian chant included, have been thought to be performed following a natural rhythm.

Something tells us how deep are the reasons for the other historic division that splits the audiophile field, the division between the analogue and the digital, with this last one that only recently has understood that the bits must be given to the digital-analogue converter with an absolute respect for their "punctuality" – the jitter! – and, maybe, it has not yet entirely understood that they "travel" on an "analogue" support for its nature, the current, whose quality and constancy produce amazing remarkable effects at the listening.


In sum, from the outside, the audiophiles do not seem so weird: if we do listen to them, we will find that all are right. That all pay "necessarily" attention to specific parts of the musical language, maybe in relation to the different subjective importance that has part of the musical language which gives a meaning to the listening experience.

An experience that will always be different from the real event and that probably will improve, together with the capacity of the technology to respect, at the same time, other important parameters.


Parameters that, scientifically, we will be able to study only after having understood described and formalized.



4 out of 4 - The end

Enrico Caruso
Enrico Caruso
Elbie e Norman Lebrecht
Elbie e Norman Lebrecht
Arturo Toscanini
Arturo Toscanini
Herbert von Karajan
Herbert von Karajan
Sergiu Celibidache
Sergiu Celibidache
Wilhelm Furtwa╠łngler
Wilhelm Furtwa╠łngler
by Angelo N. M.
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