What's the point of hi-fi if you're playing lo-fi recordings? Tim Goodyer compares musicians' attitudes to technology with those of the listener.
THE RECENT FAILURE of my faithful old JVC hi-fi amplifier brought me face-to-face with the wonderful world of the audiophile once again. In attempting to replace it I discovered that, as in the world of hi-tech music, advances in technology had brought hi-fi its share of benefits - and, inevitably, heightened the almost religious opinions of the most devout audiophiles. All this wasn't exactly news to me - it's probably not to you either - but it raises some serious questions when you re-enter the comparatively bullshit-free area of music technology.
To set the tone, let me quote from a story which appeared in a recent edition of Hi-fi Choice. As part of a regular series in which someone's (necessarily impressive) hi-fi system is examined and its owner quizzed on it and his opinions on the subject, Dave Ruffell's £70,000 system was featured. Now, Ruffell used to be a recording studio owner, so he should know the score from both sides of the record shop counter. Nevertheless, during his endeavours to obtain the perfect music reproduction system, he had the electricity authority replace the feed to his house - at a cost of some £600. Another article I read recently extolled the virtues of disassembling the mains socket feeding your hi-fi and ensuring that the wiring was up to scratch. Somehow it managed to overlook the fact that there's another end to the wiring... Serious stuff, this - and we're not even discussing the signal path yet...
So what's the point? It is this: in the world of hi-fi, leads, plugs, equipment and speaker mountings and room furnishings are all considered to be important aspects of constructing the ideal hi-fi system. On such a carefully - no, lovingly - assembled rig, the listener expects to reap the fullest rewards of the music produced by singers, musicians, programmers, engineers and producers. Fine.
But those same musicians, engineers, and so on are more likely to be judging the performance of an instrument on its sample resolution and bandwidth or how it sounded through a 10K PA rig at last night's gig than how it will sound through a 70 grand hi-fi. In the studio itself the signal so revered by the audiophile is routed through countless patchbays and effects processors and then judged on speakers situated on the far side of a mixing desk well known to adversely affect the sound to a significant degree. How many of us have simply trapped bare wires in a mains socket when there was no mains plug readily available to connect it up properly? Without recommending it, I have to admit to being guilty. This is the technical reality behind much of the music destined for the audiophile's platter (sic).
Before the deluge of mail begins, let me concede that the majority of professional recording engineers and programmers are not guilty of such malpractices. Neither do they treat the musical or technical quality of the music they're recording with the ignorance I've described above. But there's no escaping convoluted signal routings and poor monitoring conditions that exist in many modern recording environments, for example.
I'm not endorsing the extremes to which hi-fi junkies are prepared to go, but those extremes contrast starkly with many aspects of the way in which music is recorded. Think about it.
Perhaps appropriately, those involved in recording classical music are most aware of the qualities of the instruments they're recording and therefore least guilty of sins against the audiophile. The classical world is almost alone in paying equal attention to both musical and acoustic detail - take the reputation of such labels as Chandos and Nimbus as an indication, if you're in any doubt. Perhaps there's more to be learnt by the average popular musician from this area of music than anyone presently appreciates.