And I Start Fidgeting

The question was asked on an online forum, “When is your HiFi good enough?” Here was one of the answers.

There are moments . . . when my heart/head tells me, ‘There ain’t no better than this.’ But then the next music starts to play and I start thinking, ‘This would sound so much better if. . ,’ and I start fidgeting.

Bingo! Can’t tell you how many times that’s happened to me, but there’s a big difference between my reaction and the quoted person’s reaction. Whereas the above blames his equipment, and it may be equipment related, I ask questions. What is the fault? What is the cause? Where is it coming from?

“This would sound so much better if. . ,” gets us nowhere if we only guess at the problem and blame the first thing that comes to mind. A’philes fall into the mire of marketing, reviews, and all sorts of weird inexplicable electromagnetic effects. What if I had a better Digital-Analog Converter? What if I had a better amplifier? Better speakers? Better wires? Or maybe it’s the preamp? The power, the weather, who knows? We start chasing our own tails, swapping out this for that, and never really get to grips with the problem, or even if there is a problem. The merry-go-round of stabbing in the dark and escalating cost never stops until we run out of money or dreams.

A big part of the problem comes from not knowing the basics on the technical side of audio. That’s okay. You don’t need a PhD in electrical engineering to have a basic understanding. But some use their own ignorance to dismiss the technical, and rely simply on their ears. “I know it when I hear it.” That’s true, uh, to a degree. Yet, as far back as the 4th b.c.e., about 2400 years ago, Anaxagoras understood, “Through the weakness of the sense perceptions, we cannot judge truth.” Your ears won’t lie, but your perceptions will. If we could use our ears without their signals getting mixed up with our brains’ interpretation of the signals, and without the signals from our other senses crisscrossing, it might be another story. Consequently, we need reliable, repeatable, objective measures to confirm what we believe we hear. We need those measures to set us in the right direction. You’ll never fix a problem until it’s been correctly diagnosed. Blaming the power, the weather, or who knows, is useless.

But this still misses the first question that needs to be asked. How can this music sound so good, “but then the next music starts. . .” and now it’s not so? What has changed?

Bingo! The only change was the recording. Too often we blame the equipment, the immediate source, instead of the real source : the recording. We’ve been conditioned by marketing to do this. There’s no way, no matter how great your audio system, that you can have excellent sound if the recording you’re playing is inferior. And mind you, that’s coming from someone who has a financial interest in selling better equipment.

I know what my system can do, and what it can’t. I know from measuring it. I know from listening. I know because great recordings sound great, and lesser recordings not so much in proportion to the quality of the recording. I know this because I hear it every time I listen to music, not only on my system, but others’ too.

Stop fidgeting. Get real. Listen and measure. Then you’ll know.

Here’s another thing to stop fidgeting over, formats. I recently had a chance to hear the same recording played back in three different formats, LP, reel-to-reel tape, and CD. I was pumped for this. All three are commercial copies made from the original master tape, a Mercury Living Presence recording. The Living Presence recordings are still considered some of the best ever made. That may be too generous, but for the time period, they were outstanding, and even today they hold up well. My host played the LP first. For an LP it sounded pretty good. Had a few minor snap-crackles, but given the LP wasn’t pristine, quite listenable. Then he played the tape. Suddenly there it was, the whole orchestra. It was like heavy velvet curtains were pulled open from the stage. You could hear the vibrancy of the violins, the warmth of the cellos, the ambience of the concert hall. For a 50+ year old recording, it is remarkably good. Then came the CD. I expected it to be indistinguishable from the tape. Not even close. It was better than the LP, but still hadn’t the openness, liveliness of the tape. Whaah? There’s no excuse for this. My only suspicion is that it was equalized to take out some of the tape hiss. A questionable choice considering how good, and relatively quiet, the tape copy is. Let me stress that the tape I heard is a commercial copy, probably a high-speed dub, and therefore has more tape hiss than the original master. Each format had its distinct sound quality. The contrasts needed no A/B listening. The LP, by the nature of dragging a diamond chip in a vinyl groove, has severe limitations that explain the loss of fidelity from the tape. The tape, by the nature of its noise floor, a consequence of the size of magnetic particle relative the area the signal is recorded, has ever present hiss. Digital, although not perfect, has neither of these highly audible problems. Had they simply digitized straight from the master, the CD should have sounded better than the tape.

Comparing formats is an interesting game. Unfortunately, it’s riddle with variables that can easily confound making absolute judgements. In the example above, there are other variables, of which I’ll only throw out a few—the turntable, its arm, cartridge, phono stage, the analog output stage of the tube-modded DAC, and of course, the unknowns of the mastering for the different formats that can take an excellent recording from one format and spoil it in another.

Read more about [comparing formats].

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Local Loco

local-pianoWe’re reminded frequently to support your community and buy local. It makes sense. Every time you shop at a big chain, although they may be (under)employing your neighbors, the profits don’t stay in the neighborhood, and the locally owned businesses, also your neighbors, struggle to make a living, or often, go out of business—one less independent entrepreneur. Every time you buy a piece of fruit trucked from across the continent, you’re adding to the carbon in the atmosphere. Every time you go to a chain restaurant you help close another not-a-cookie-cutter unique kitchen. Recently I needed a new pair of bicycle tires. I could have ordered them online. Instead I ordered them from the local bike shop. The cost to me was the same as the online order, but even if it had been a couple of dollars more, I still would have spent the money here. That small bike shop provides personalized service that’s impossible to get from a chain, and doesn’t exist online. I can call them on the phone and a real person answers who can actually help. It saves me time, tons of frustration, and makes my life easier. Okay, enough of the lecture, this is supposed to be a music review.

The good news is, it’s a review of music performed locally, by a local musician, and recorded by a local amateur recording engineer. The bad news is, you can’t get this recording. And there’s more good news, after I get a few complaints out of the way.

The piano could have used a touch-up tuning. The recording space doesn’t isolate well from outside noises. It was a recital with an audience and all the usual coughs and shuffles and dropped things—thank you no phones rang. And Seth Trumbore, the pianist, is not a world class technician. Yet, these are all minor nitpicks. Perfection does not exist—though it’s nice to get a little bit closer.

A little bit about the artist. He has a degree in piano performance and pedagogy from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He’s won a few awards, is a certified Suzuki Method instructor, teaches privately, plays organ for a church. Not too exciting and definitely not impressive—thank you, again. Because impressive biographical stats mean little. What is exciting is his interpretation and expression. He’s one more prime example of the many gems to be found in our back yards. He’s one more reason that making a piddly effort to keep local is well worth it. He’s why you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars for tickets for an overcrowded, oversized, over amplified concert hall, to see an overhyped, overblown, overrated brandname performer go through the motions. Instead, you could go to an intimate concert, near home, for a fraction of the cost, and hear great hidden talent give you something you’ve never heard before, never knew existed, and would have been cheated out of hearing had you gone to that big media, big name, big money bedlam.

Seth plays with heart & soul. When I hear performances like this, I don’t care if it’s not technically note perfect. It’s better than note perfect : it soars with emotion. Seth doesn’t play the notes. He plays the music. He’s giving us his music the way he hears it in his head. That’s real talent. Getting the music out of one’s head and into the piano takes enormous skill. There are too many well known performers that, should you actually listen, you’d realize they’re simply on autopilot. They’re playing it by the book. Their technique may be exemplary, and their showmanship impressive, but if you close your eyes to listen, could you say, they’ve put their mark on the music? Would their music launch you to another world? 

It doesn’t hurt that Trumbore selected two of my favorite composers for the piano. Although, that makes me all the more critical. Debussy’s music is glorious, and Chopin’s is transcendent. There’d be no review if he had just played the selections exactly as indicated by the composers. The recital ended with Clair de Lune, one of Debussy’s most popular and recorded pieces. The usual interpretation is quick and flowing, with the arpeggios coming across in fluid sheets of sound—florid and flirtatious. It’s not the most difficult piece of piano repertoire, however for me, it pushes the limit of my skills. I’ve resigned myself to play the piece much slower than the pros. At first I rebelled against it, yet as I practiced, I discovered a beauty in it not revealed by taking it faster. There is an alternative approach that works—and well indeed. Much to my surprise, Seth plays the introduction of the theme quite slowly, but that’s the easy part. After the opening, I fully expected him to pickup the tempo when the arpeggios come in. Surprised again. He methodically retains the leisurely tempo, stretching out the arpeggios gracefully, stressing the melody. For someone who has the ability to play it fast, it takes courage to go against orthodoxy to play it how he feels it. This comes through on every piece, if not quite as starkly. He presents us with marked pauses, extreme dynamics, and subtle twists of rubato. This is what I want to hear in a performance. I want to hear the artist tell me what this music means, not to his teacher, or the academy, or the judges, but to him or her personally—thank you, again.

The recording needs accolades too. Clean, simple, two microphones, closely set (but not crammed under the lid), captured the full range and delicacies of the performance. There’s not a lick of compression, equalization, mixing, or manipulation. You hear the piano so near to what you’d hear had you been standing there in front of it, it’s almost alarming. Not only are there no games or tricks, there’s never a point that a single transient peak even comes close to hitting the maximum. This recording needs to be turned up to appreciate the softest passages, and to get the impact of the loudest peaks. Izzy Marone, the engineer, records local performances just for kicks. He does this because he loves music, respects the artists, and has fun doing it. These are the best reasons I can think of for doing anything. If you aren’t making your life and the lives of others better, if you aren’t making the world a better place, you aren’t living.

Hear how the living live music.
Chopin, Ballade #1 

Debussy, Clair de Lune

Chopin, Ballade #4

These recordings were done 24 bit, 192 kHz. They’ve been resampled to 16/48 to reduce file size. Because WordPress limits media files to 24 mb, and in order to give you a longer sample of the Ballade #4, I’ve had to reduce its sampling rate 32 kHz. It still sounds pretty good.


Also read about another hidden talent : [Celebrity Worship]

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