Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Sound of Music

Audio quality has, as Pliable obligingly points out, been a recurrent theme in my blogging throughout the past year. This is because I believe recorded sound is vital to the future of classical music. It is after all, the most ubiquitous and the most overtly commercial and therefore accessible means of consuming music currently available. Coverage of the elitism versus populism debate, the demise of record companies, and waning concert hall audiences continue to feature prominently in the arts [or more often, Entertainment] sections of the mainstream media as well as on the Internet. And, if recorded sound isn’t at the heart of each of these debates, it's certainly part of the art’s life support system.

I’ve tried to draw attention to the ways we listen to music and the means for doing so – the diminishing ability to appreciate it, and sometimes - with a certain cynicism - to the way in which some developments threaten to limit or undermine our experience.

Anyone with more than a cursory interest in contemporary developments and technology, and the facilities to evaluate the quality of sound recordings might find the following links interesting.

Millennia Media [part of the not-for-profit Millennia Foundation], is a manufacturer of very fine specialist pro-audio products, which has made available a selection of downloadable musical extracts from a 2004 recording of Handel’s Messiah by the American Bach Soloists and Orchestra directed by Jeffrey Thomas. The entire recording is available on the Delos Label but John La Grou presents the downloads in response to what he calls requests “for a ‘tutorial’ series on large-ensemble acoustic recording.”

The extracts, recorded at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts at Davis, California are available as 44.1Khz (CD quality) WAV files, and - for those who can’t be bothered to wait approximately 1 minute for the files to download – MP3’s. The interest lies in being able to compare the final multi-microphone mix with a more minimalist version taken from the main pair of spaced omni directional mics.

For those using a PC, if you right click the download links you can save them to your computer hard drive, which will allow you to compare them more easily. If you have the ability to connect your computer to a decent hi-fi, or if you take the trouble to write the files to CD, you will have a much better chance of resolving the differences.

Nevertheless, listening to audio critically doesn’t come naturally: differences are likely to seem insubstantial or trivial at first. But if you focus your attention on specific aspects – such as the sound of certain instrumental sections, or on the acoustic resonance, differences between the two versions will gradually become more apparent.

On a more geeky-techie note; the Aurora Plug-ins site is a tremendous resource. It is “a suite of plug-ins for Adobe Audition or other Digital Audio Workstations, allowing

“room acoustical impulse responses [to] be measured and manipulated, for the recreation of audible, three-dimensional simulations of the acoustical space.”

The site also includes links to the Ramsete site - a CAD resource for room acoustic modelling on PC, where you can find a Wave Convolver and a complete CD-ROM available for download. The files (you’re not obliged to download the entire disc) include convolution samples and orchestral recordings made in an anechoic chamber, which will be particularly useful for exploring the difficulties of superimposing digital or convolution reverberation upon the existent sound of a recorded acoustic. Unfortunately, the site is rather complicated – and the download manual exists only in Italian!

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