Low-Fi in the Concert Hall

J. GOHDON HOLT combines audio consulting with free-lance writing about high fidelity. This marks his first appearance in the pages of Accent on Living.

Back in the days when record-making equipment was crude and recording engineers were not much better, the idea of “concert-hall realism” was a worthy goal and a useful scale for measuring the altitude of sonic fidelity. It gave the engineers somewhere to go, something shining and wonderful to strive for with the knowledge that, even though it could never be reached, it would, like the kingdom of heaven, lead them ever onward and upward to unimagined heights of sonic sublimity.

Today, this visionary concept is recognized for what it was: merely a touchstone of reality, to be fingered reverently in times of insecurity and self-doubt. But the experts who write all those books about high fidelity (or hi-fi, if you count yourself among the lower orders) are still trying to perpetuate this doctrine of concert-hall realism when every truly dedicated audiophile, his confidence unfettered by restrictive musical considerations, knows that high fidelity outgrew musical sound long ago.

This had to be. Live musical sound came to a dead end twenty years ago, and were it not for the progressive thinking of recording engineers, it is very likely that music on records would still sound the way orchestras did in those days. Musicians, particularly of the classical ilk, as well as the baroque and romantic ilks, have shown an impossibly stuffy attitude toward the sound of their instruments, an attitude that is no better illustrated than by their adamant veneration of terribly old stringed instruments made by obscure foreigners who did not even have enough common business sense to put trademarks on their products.

Faced with this militant conservatism, the recording engineers were obliged to seek their own ways of making music sound the way it really should, the way composers actually wanted it to sound, and this they have done with such success that today’s hi-fi records, particularly in stereo, are far better than the real thing.

The hi-fi-deprived music listener, who must depend upon live concerts for his music, is missing the joy of hearing orchestral sound as the old masters envisioned it. To begin with, he is obliged to listen from one seat. He can change his seat from time to time, but at any given moment he must perforce listen to all the instruments from two points separated by no more than the width of his head.

The recording engineer is not hampered by any such spatial restrictions. This is not to say that a recording engineer can sit in several different places at one time, but he can place his microphones in Row A and Row M and in front of the tympani and the flutes and the cellos, and can blend them together as desired to create a complete synthesis of all the sounds of the orchestra as they might be heard from an ideal “best seat in the house.” That this best seat is actually better than the best seat in any house soon becomes obvious to any confirmed record listener who spends a season trying to find even a passably good seat in the concert hall.

Of course, there are some things to be said for concertgoing. An orchestra ticket costs less than a good stereo disc, although a record will last at least five times as long as a concert if played with a lightweight pickup and cleaned from time to time with an antistatic detergent and a folded wad of cheesecloth. In addition, concertgoing gives one the opportunity to get all dolled up and make an evening of it, and there is no denying the added pleasure of sharing one’s disapproval of the conductor with a crowd of similarly enthusiastic listeners. But the seats are not very comfortable; there is not enough leg room; you cannot smoke or sip sauterne; and it is traditional that all concert halls must be overheated in winter and unventilated in summer. And besides, the sound is distinctly low-fi.

Compared with an average hi-fi spectacular, in stereo or mono, a live performance sounds quite dull and uninteresting. And to the trained record listener whose home hi-fi system is good enough to make him really critical of sonic purity, there is much in the sound of live music to offend his delicate ear.

String tone, for instance, is recognized as being one of the ten best tests of a hi-fi system’s quality. It is terribly difficult to reproduce cleanly, and only the finest phono pickups will trace loudly recorded massed violins without breaking up into harshness. A good pickup can yield clean string tone, though; a live orchestra cannot. To the truly critical ear, live violins are annoyingly marred by wheezes, rattles, and buzzes that would send the conscientious hi-fi enthusiast scuttling for his intermodulation tester and his stylus-inspection microscope.

All the stringed instruments at a live performance have a distressing “gutty” quality that quite obscures their natural steeliness, and brasses, too, are poorly depicted. Trumpets bleat thinly and raggedly, and trombones sound like tearing calico, with practically none of that turgid fatness that is the delight of the hi-fi record listener. Horns and woodwinds are always too loud, except when you can see the players playing but cannot hear them at all.

As a matter of fact, the live orchestra is really very badly balanced. There is always too much bass; the violins aren’t nearly strident enough; and triangles, castanets, and tambourines, although audible most of the time, lack the intimacy and power they need in order to dominate the entire sound the way a capable engineer could make them do. Not only that, the whole thing is badly distorted, with a soggy muddiness that the trained ear can readily recognize as marginal overload of an orchestra that is exceeding its low-distortion-power capabilities. The trouble is mainly in the bass registers, where kettledrums and plucked double basses add their thumps to the whole morass of fluffy, suffocating boominess.

As for soloists, anyone who contemplates attending a live concert to hear a star performer should buy his records instead. In the concert hall, a piano is audible only when the rest of the orchestra stops playing. And even then there is none of that sharp twang of hammers or the wooden kunk of releasing pedals that is such an essential part of piano sound. Vocal soloists are sometimes audible, if soprano, but only the vowel sounds come through. Gone are the familiar labial pt and the explosive tsst and poof of high-pressure sibilants.

Even the soloist’s position is wrong. Every stereo listener knows that the soloist must be properly centered between the loudspeakers, but orchestra conductors have not learned this. Instead, the conductor himself, who is usually inaudible, occupies the stage center, and the soloist is relegated to whatever space is left at either side.

This is not the only reason why stereo listeners find live concerts so dissatisfying; the stereo effect itself is quite poor by modern standards. The qualities of spaciousness and depth are there to an acceptable degree, but the real stereo effect, the distinct left-right directionality and the ability to pinpoint the locations of instruments across the “stage of sound,” is almost completely absent. Instead, all the instruments are crammed together into a narrow space somewhere in front of you, creating much the same sort of “point source” effect that you get when you play a monophonic LP record through a stereo system. If you like stereo, do not look for it in the concert hall. The best stereo is on records, some of which are so perfect that everything is to the right or left, including the surface noise.

It must be admitted that the background-hiss level in a concert hall is usually quite low. Unfortunately, this is offset by the high incidence of ticks and pops, from overloaded upholstery and from the gentleman three seats to your right who is opening a cellophane bag of gumdrops, very slowly, so as not to annoy anyone. Sometimes there are other noises, recognizable to the person who is familiar with the technical problems of cutting and pressing discs. There is always at least one elderly dowager within earshot whose atrophied hearing makes her unaware of the 12,000-cycle whistle she emits with each nasal downdraft, and the man with the squeaky shoe who has an itch on the ball of his foot which can be scratched only by flexing the shoe in time with the music.

In the home, the minor background noises of ticking clocks, humming refrigerators, and street traffic can be drowned out simply by turning up the volume. This is out of the question in the concert hall, where the volume is irrevocably set between the range of not quite loud enough and barely audible. The apartment dweller, with neighbors, may have volume problems too, but at least he can use headphones as a means of listening to music at the right volume. Even that privilege is denied the concertgoer.

Everything considered, it is difficult to understand why the hi-fi experts keep harping on “the real thing” as the criterion for judging the height of reproduced fi. Actually, it is about time the conductors started thinking in terms of hi-fi as the criterion for concert-hall sound.