THE IMPORTANCE OF SOUND IN OUR LIVES
A summary of the arguments regarding sound presented in
the papers of The Anstendig Institute.
©1988 The Anstendig Institute
It is what we experience through the senses that makes life meaningful. In fact, it can be said that what is experienced through the senses is life itself.
The two higher senses, seeing and hearing, are the basic fundamentals of life. They are the basis for all higher human endeavor. Impressions obtained through these two senses are as much a necessary human nourishment as food and water.1
Though both of the higher senses may seem to be of equal importance, it is not often realized that hearing has the greater effect in determining the character of our lives. In fact, hearing has traditionally been regarded as the highest, most powerful of the senses. The supremacy of sonic impressions over visual impressions is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the character of visual impressions will be determined by the character of the sounds accompanying them and not vice versa.
Music is the highest of the arts for the same reasons that sounds are more powerful than and take precedence over visual images.
It is through the expressive qualities in speech and music that we experience and, thereby, become familiar with the higher qualities of life to which human society aspires--those qualities which enrich our lives and uplift us into the higher experiences that balance the dreariness and struggle of everyday life. It is these higher, finer experiences that give living real meaning.
In fact, the negative aspects of life remain inexplicable and seem wholly unjustified to anyone not conversant with these higher human experiences available mainly through sound.
The most important aspects of sound are those qualities which convey emotions. In fact, the emotional qualities we do experience and become familiar with are caused mostly by sound. The extremely wide range of emotional gradations with which most of us are conversant could not have become known to us through first-hand, personal experience. For that, life is too short.
It is through the different expressive qualities of sound that we learn the various nuances and subtleties of emotion. This enormous range of gradations in our emotional experience is communicated most often through the sonic arts, thereby saving us the need to have corresponding real-life experiences.
Hearing, being the highest of the senses, is the cornerstone upon which all higher social values are built.
It follows that it is essential for society to preserve the integrity of the sounds with which we surround ourselves and to preserve and foster the finest examples, i.e., the epitomes of sonic arts. Otherwise the quality and richness of life quickly deteriorates.
Unfortunately, this has been the case. Society has been subjected, not only to bad sound quality, but, more importantly, to sound reproduction in which the most important expressive aspects of sound are mutilated. In our society, this bad sound quality has become ubiquitous in the literal sense of the word. It is everywhere we go and can no longer be avoided. This is a calamitous situation, because our hearing is conditioned by what we hear: since we can only know and be familiar with that which we hear, we cannot be aware of those sound-qualities and experiences which we have not heard.
Records have been the chief source of recorded sound over this century. Fortunately, with records, the main technical problem is in the playback systems, not the recording process. When records were made, the necessary information was usually captured in the groove. The problem is that playback systems could not retrieve all of this information. Even in earlier recordings, in which the sound-quality has many other technical limitations and distortions, the expressive nuances were captured in the groove. The other distortions in older recordings can be corrected enough to allow the listener to experience the expressive content if the record-playing equipment (turntable, tone-arm, pickup) is able to at least retrieve all of the information that is on the record.
The simplest proof that much of the musical content has been missing in recorded sound lies in the improvements over the years in the sound-systems themselves. While there is some controversy as to whether some new developments in high-end sound-systems components actually make much difference in the sound, no one questions that there have been substantial improvements in many components, especially in the last decade. And there is agreement that each of the bona-fide improvements has improved the fidelity of the playback to the original performance.
However, the tendency in evaluating recordings is to listen for sound-colorings (timbre, etc.) and other static, non-changing characteristics of sound.2 It is generally not realized that the dynamic characteristics of sound flowing in time, i.e., the fine expressive content (phrasing, etc.) of the sounds, were also disfigured, perhaps even more so, and that it is in these dynamic characteristics that the artistic interpretation is experienced.
In other words, the interpretation lies in the expressive characteristics of the sounds as they flow in time. But much of these nuances has been missing in the playback of recorded sound and that which remains is mutilated. It follows that the expressive content has actually been changed, i.e., degraded, and these distortions create a response in the listener that is quite different from that of the original live event. Further, it should be emphasized that those aspects of sound which are changed and lost are the most desirable aspects of sound. They are, in fact, the attributes of sound which convey and cause higher human experience.
Unlike records, the new digital recording systems (CD's, PCM, and all other digital sound commercially available to the consumer) do not capture the expressive content. These are totally inadequate, flawed systems, the introduction and acceptance of which by the public as well as by so many experts can only be explained by the fact that society has not only lost its ability to recognize and discriminate sonic values, but actually listens for wrong aspects of sound in trying to evaluate its quality. Since expressive subtleties have long been missing in the playback of recorded sound, they are no longer expected, i.e., not listened for.
We must remember that, due to inadequate playback equipment, society has not even heard the content of its analog records, which do at least contain the necessary expressive information. But, unlike analog recording, digital does not adequately capture the important expressive nuances in the recording process itself. It may, with some sounds, be able to reproduce the static qualities of the sound (instrumental colors, imaging, etc.). But the expressive information, which is the heart and soul of music and speech, is simply not completely captured, and there is absolutely no way in which that information can later be restored. (The public should not be fooled by claims that "over-sampling" and other techniques can restore missing information. Live sound, especially that of music, fluctuates so quickly and so unsystematically that there is no way for a machine to guess what was missing. Techniques such as over-sampling just fill in the cracks and make the harshness and roughness seem smoother, but the subtleties remain lost. There is no exception to this fact with current digital systems, and the buyer of digital equipment should not be swayed by claims to the contrary. The only possible solution is to change the whole digital system itself, changing the sampling rate to a very much higher speed and substantially increasing the bit rate.)
The means of having an adequate sampling and bit rate at marketable cost is not there yet, nor do we have a viable means of storing all the information that such a system would generate. By bringing out the present inadequate system, the sound industry has risked compromising the hearing discrimination of society, and thereby all the myriad social values of society itself.
The problem confronting all society is that it is impossible for anyone to know what is missing in the quality of experiences gleaned from recordings without knowing the original live event that was recorded and without having had a deep, long-time immersion in the finest subtleties of the higher sonic arts.
Due to this poor sound-quality and the fact that the fine expressive-emotional (experiential3) qualities have been either missing or mutilated in the playback of records, people have slowly, over decades, not only lost their ability to discriminate between good and bad sound quality, they have, even more tragically, lost their ability to discriminate between good and bad artistic performance.4
Not only the general public, but also our professional musicians and artists themselves suffer from this same lack of discrimination. In fact, they imitate in live performance the quality of performance that they hear through recordings and sound-reinforcement (amplification during live performances). Tragically, the quality of performance which they get to hear through these electronic means is not only distorted in instrumental and vocal timbre, it no longer contains the original nuances of the live event.
The work of other professionals brought up on bad recorded sound, such as acousticians, recording-engineers, and producers, etc., also reflects the wrong, distorted sound quality of recordings. Concert halls have even been built with no acoustic at all, using only sound-reinforcement (amplification), a technique which, besides being based on the failings of recorded sound, is by no means perfected and highly unreliable.
Young musicians have particularly suffered from the artistic examples provided by this distorted sound reproduction. They need to hear and study those felicities of musical and theatrical performance that are missing in today's sound reproduction. Whole generations of artists have already grown up without an awareness of the finer expressive content of higher artistic endeavor in the sonic arts.
And, in fact, the sonic arts, both pop and classical, as well as the use of the voice in theater, radio and TV, have already deteriorated to the point where there has long been a general feeling of crisis in the art world.
For decades, this problem of the deterioration in the expressive content of musical and stage performance in one form or another has been lamented, without recognition of the basic underlying cause: poor recorded sound. As long ago as 1954, when the author entered the conducting class of Jean Morel at Juilliard, Morel treated the deterioration of musical values and the emphasis of empty technical proficiency over musical expressivity as a fait accompli. George Szell lamented this problem at many public occasions and there even exists an old 45-rpm recording of an interview with Szell in which he makes the point. But it was thought that the use by musicians of records as a crutch in studying musical scores was the way recordings caused a deterioration in musical values. It was not comprehended that it was the quality of the recorded sound itself that was dulling their musical-expressive sensibilities.
Improving the quality of new recordings and their playback is only one part of the dilemma. Performance standards have deteriorated and the oral traditions that taught and preserved the basic customs of performance as well as the specific expressive intentions of the composers have been lost. The resultant crisis in the musical field makes it imperative to improve the playback of already existing records, since most of these traditions as well as examples of impeccably expressive musical style and performance are preserved in this body of existing recordings.
A full comprehension of the ramifications of poor recorded sound has to lead to the realization that any significant development leading to the retrieval of more of the information contained in analog records is of importance to all mankind, irrespective of the fact that digital has usurped the sound-reproduction market place. It is necessary to develop and preserve the means of retrieving the information already preserved on analog records, or the traditions and quality of the classical sonic arts will not only be mutilated, they will be lost.
In his program notes for Roy Harris' Third Symphony in the San Francisco Symphony's programs of January 27-30, 1988, Michael Steinberg writes, "Of "serious" music, Virgil Thomson once wrote that we require 'not only that it move our hearts [and] that it be interesting to the mind, [but] that there is yet a third qualification about which we are no less exigent. We insist that it be edifying. This demand is as old as time. Every civilization and every primitive community have recognized a music of common or vulgar usage and another music, grander of expressive content and more traditional in style, a music worthy of association with the highest celebrations of religion, of patriotism, and of culture.'"
That music is the repository of the finest, most delicate, most exquisite experiences in the whole vast range of human experience. In its finest forms it is nothing less than the epitome of humanity and culture.
The finest examples of this edifying aspect of music lie chiefly in the compositions and performance of classical music. But it is important to understand that the actual performance of this music is of crucial importance. The manner of performance is, in fact, as important as the music itself. Notes on a page convey very little as to the character with which the music should be played. The fact that someone performs the notes written by Beethoven or Mozart in no way assures that the listener is hearing the music conceived by those composers.
The author spent many years in conducting classes consisting of already mature musicians presenting their interpretations of the great masterworks, which were subsequently analyzed and criticized. The author quickly found out that, as a rule the performances we hear can be proved to have little to do with the composer's actual intentions. It is, therefore, essential to the preservation of our musical heritage and the development of those discriminatory capabilities necessary for an advanced society, that our recorded heritage be preserved and readily accessed by equipment capable of accurately retrieving its treasures.
There must be something very wrong when the public can attend performances of classical masterpieces by the finest symphony orchestras and opera houses and not experience anything finer, more delicate, more moving, more ennobling, in a word, more edifying, than it can experience at any rock concert or other "popular" art form. But that is usually the case. This is not to slight popular art, which also suffers from poor recorded sound. Everything has its place and all is necessary to the whole. But society has, in the past, recognized the need to nurture and preserve its epitomes. Today, even among the advantaged members of society, most people do not know that these finest qualities of art exist. And truly grotesque is the fact that we have record critics reviewing digital recordings that do not even contain the most important subtle details upon which a true evaluation of the merits of the performance would have to be based. And they have not yet heard all he information on their analog recordings. The whole record-reviewing industry has to be re-thought and all recordings re-assessed after listening to them with up-to-date equipment and distortion-compensating techniques.
The marketing success of poor digital recording is sad because, in the last decade a great many advances in all other aspects of the playback of recordings have, in fact, taken place, particularly in the refinement of existing record-pickup technology. (The pick-up, usually a cartridge, is that part of a record-player that actually traces the record grooves and turns the mechanical undulations of the groove into an electrical signal.) The two best known types of record pickup (the moving magnet and the moving coil) have been developed very nearly to the limit of their potential.5 Dr. Sao Win has pursued the refinement of these systems about as far as mechanically possible. His moving-coil cartridge, the Win-Jewel cartridge, was The Anstendig Institute's previous cartridge of choice. It is, in our opinion, by far the most advanced and best-sounding of traditional cartridges.
After pushing the development of traditional pickup designs to their feasible limits, Dr. Win found certain crucial limitations to be inherent in their designs. He therefore set out to develop a completely new manner of pickup. The result is his FET 10 pickup, which, for the technically interested, uses an FET resistor to convert the movement of the stylus into electrical signals, instead of the magnets and coils.
The Anstendig Institute feels that, with this theory of cartridge design, pickup technology has finally reached a stage where most of the essential information and subtleties can be retrieved from the groove. This development has to be viewed as a major advance for mankind.
An understanding of the role of sound in our lives and of the importance of music in our emotional and cultural development leads inevitably to the realization that the quality and accuracy of available systems of recorded sound goes beyond a question of free trade and the right to manufacture and sell whatever the public will buy. It is more like the manufacture of automobiles. The integrity of automobiles is a matter of life and death deemed worthy of critical control on society's part. The integrity of recorded sound is a matter that determines much of the cultural and psychological maturity of all society. It determines society's ability to discriminate qualities and determines how most of us will be able to experience music, the highest of the arts.
The nearly universal acceptance of CD and other current digital technology, the beginning of a slow disappearance of analog recordings, and the lack of any truly acceptable form of sound reproduction for the general public have unpleasant implications for the future development of the human race. The FET 10 Cartridge could change that dismal picture. It allows the achievement of high-quality sound reproduction in the playback of analog records and provides a means of searching out and preserving the greatest performances of the past which embody the oral traditions that have nearly died out. It also provides those who are developing the recording systems of the future with the needed example in relation to which the accuracy of those systems can be judged. This brings new hope that the highest qualities of musical experience will finally become accessible to all the public and that the edifying aspects of music will again serve as the guiding light for society that they were in the times of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms.
1This point, while implicit in much of the institute's writings, is not specifically voiced. It is, however, well documented in the medical and developmental sciences and an accepted point throughout the philosophical and metaphysical literature of the world.
2See our paper "The Necessity for a Re-evaluation of All Record Criticisms.
3See our paper "Hearing: The Informational and the Experiential".
4A parallel technical problem in photography--the inability of any available camera to focus with true accuracy--has also anesthetized the public's perception of visual image-quality. This is typified by the acceptance of the abominable quality of television images and, more recently, video recordings. Our institute has many papers dealing with this important aspect of modern society.
5The only further advance in these technologies is an invention by Mitchell A. Cotter (our institute's technical advisor), who has reinvented the manner in which the energy traced by the diamond point is transferred to the coil in the moving-coil type of pickup. But this design will not be available to the public in the forseeable future.
The Anstendig Institute is not commercially involved with nor does it financially benefit from the manufacture, sale, or distribution of any product made by Dr. Sao Win or Sao Win Laboratories, Inc. Based solely on the Anstendig Institute's research in sound reproduction of analog recordings, this FET cartridge, invented by Dr. Win, has been found to be an epitome of technical accomplishment in relation to its ability to reproduce the sonic information on analog records. This unique invention is cited because of this fact. The Anstendig Institute is making known an advance in technological theory, which is the use in the pickup itself of a FET transistor instead of magnets and coils. It hopes this principle will be taken up by the rest of the industry, eventually manufactured at lower cost, and thereby made more accessible to the public. The institute wants this paper to make the point that records remain the most accurate means of preserving sound and that advances in record-playing technology are of much greater importance than the public realizes. It is not endorsing a particular commercial product per se.