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KIH #11 – Purity or posturing?

  • POP. Purity or posturing? We’ve all read those nauseating “pure window on the recording” descriptions. They’re leitmotif for audiophile beliefs. The recording is somehow sacrosanct. Pure. The unvarnished truth. So let’s hit ‘stop’ for a moment. Go into the menu and select special features.

    Oops, that’s video. Never mind. What do we find? Behind the scenes glimpses into how certain shots or scenes were accomplished. Green screens. Miniaturized models. Wire-suspended actors. Amazing crane contraptions to move the camera into places human operators couldn’t reach. Multiple camera angles cross-edited after the fact. Endless sessions in the makeup, hair and costume departments. Software experts who apply photogenic enhancements after the fact. Music intercut and overlaid with foley tracks that include composite sounds alien to nature. Speech fixes re-recorded well past the wrap of filming.

    The level of overall artifice is mindboggling. Of course half the action in movies these days is so fantastic that it absolutely requires such massive special-effects assist. For certain 15-second passages we learn that shooting took two weeks preceded by months of construction and setup and untold days in the editing room to massage to perfection. But even seemingly simple scenes are meticulously storyboarded, planned, blocked, framed, lit, rehearsed and repeated for as many times as it takes.


    Spontaneity? Ha. Unvarnished truth? Not. It’s about layers and layers of shiny varnished perfection. Do we really believe for one moment that our treasured music is any different? Unless it’s an ultra-rare direct-to-disc production, all tracks have been… well, sorry to put it crudely, seriously fucked with. The spontaneous play-through captured by two simply microphones is all smoke and mirrors.

    Instruments are multi-mic’d, multi-tracked and EQ’d and enhanced afterwards. Certain performers submit their contributions by email from another continent. Manipulate phase. Add reverb. Correct pitch. Splice multiple takes to remove performance errors. Apply compression. Dither. Put different types of microphones on different performers. Use reflective screens. Move virtual placement. The list is endless.

    This extreme artifice is one reason why playback and live concert are as different as men and women or Mars and Venus. Recorded music worshipped on the altar of audiophilia really is extremely Photoshopped … er, ProTooled. Beyond certain ‘purist’ recordings done without any overdubbing, splicing or post-production equalization and processing, just judicious venue and microphone selection plus performer/microphone placement before ‘the tape’ rolled, our recordings are manufactured artifice.


    We chase the recreation of the original event but there was none – just an endless assembly line of mini events combined into a final patchwork collage. We chase the recreation of the original venue but most the time there was none – just clinical booths in a studio, musicians wearing headphones to hear each other. Whatever spatial information there is was added artificially. Given how none of us were present in the recording studio or post-production facilities; or compared the authorized master tape/file to the commercial pressing of the vinyl slab, shiny disc or disseminated music file… we really have no clue about what’s on the recording versus what should be, i.e. how much has been lost in this entire recording-to-final process.

    What really is our reference? Isn’t it quite the lie and intrinsically no different than centerfold perfection or anorexic runway models who propose a version of reality that’s completely fake? If we return to that tired “pure window on the recording” attitude, taken at face value it must mean that we’d see this recorded artifice for exactly what it is. We’d notice all incongruencies, all patches like different reverb times for performers who were supposedly jamming together in the same room. We notice microphone swaps halfway through a track. We hear splices. We hear timbre manipulations that go beyond an instrument’s physical abilities. We hear artificially goosed bass. We spot treble brilliance that’s achievable only with EQ or a microphone in such extreme proximity that no ear would ever hear it like that.


    Do we really want to notice and thus know all of it? If our goal is the enjoyment of music as we would during a concert where one take is all the performers get, I’d say clearly not. Now down-to-the-bone analysis is fit only for the would-be sound technician or recording studio rookie who need an exercise in reverse engineering and to guess at certain decisions made during a particular production.

    Does such analysis do anything for us to get us into the zone of the ‘musical flow’? Doesn’t it conflict with wanting to forget all its manufactured artifice so we might move into a place that feels real or at least emotionally meaningful? It’s inevitable that this line of inquiry would lead to the whole ‘musicality’ issue as an attempt to reconnect with the musical message and disconnect from both the delivery medium and the recorded artifice which fronts it. That’s not about more and more resolution. That would merely increase our sensitivity to everything that deviates from an organic uncut musical performance. It’s then fair to posit that a so-called musical system should somehow compensate for this fakeness and repair or disguise some of its worst offenses. That’s clearly a very long discussion for another day. It should also mean somewhat different things to different people. For today we simply declare that our cherished recordings (be they eternalized on vinyl, tape, disc or file) are manufactured. Exactly like major motion pictures, they’ve been pieced together and in the process manipulated intensely. Is anything about that so pure, spontaneous, organic, life-like and sacrosanct? Personally I fail to see it.

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. The process you describe is IMO also at least partly to blame for the reduced dynamics we’ve been experiencing the last 20 or so years, conveniently dubbed loudness wars, mainly because musicians no longer need to be in the same space to record an album and thus lose sight of the relative volume of their piece.
      This then necessitates a whole lot of “magic” from the mixing & mastering engineers, who are also being pushed upon by the record labels to “make it loud”, resulting in squashed dynamics & lifeless renditions of otherwise brilliant tracks.

    2. Good point, Srajan. All of the music we hear has been heavily processed before it even gets to us. For example, almost all vocals receive a heavy dose of studio-added reverb before they are released. Once the music gets to us, our gear also changes it. Whether we have a warm-sounding DAC, some bright headphones, or dense furnishings near our speakers; the music is always modified in some way by our equipment choices. This is one reason why I am a believer in EQ. The music we obtain was never pure to begin with, it has always been modified. Just by choosing any gear to play it back, we have already further modified it. Even a pair of supposedly “flat” studio monitors are always modifying the music in some way. If a little EQ makes it sound even better to the listener, I don’t think this compromises the music in any way, because it was already compromised and modified the moment we started playing it back. Each listener is always making a final modification to all the music they hear, even if that’ s just by choosing the environment or place where they listen to it.

    3. Thank you for saying this. I am an audio engineer myself and have been since before I bought my first stereo. I don’t think there is anything *wrong* with a lot of the standard recording processes – they often make music sound good. When I record with my bands I like to track live, all in the same room, but there are projects where it doesn’t make sense. I don’t know, I’ve never been under any illusions about the grand audio truth coming to a consumer via CD. And I’ll say as someone who has mixed classical concerts, most people really don’t want an uncompressed performance. The dynamics play to a stereo pair halfway back into the hall a lot differently than they do to the ear in the hall. Led Zeppelin ain’t Led Zeppelin without analog compressors. Plenty of recordings from the 50s on are riddled with tape splices. All this leaves out electronic music, which doesn’t need to sound like anything that exists in the natural world.

    4. Well said. This myth of recording “purity” is continually perpetuated in the audio press to the point where most audiophiles are pretty much brainwashed on this one.

      Having done limited music recording and lots of live concert mixing, I can hear what’s going on “in the mix”. And guess what? It doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the music one bit. It’s fun to talk a fellow audiophile through a mix to help them better understand what they’re listening to. We need more of that, not just to knock down the “purity” myth, but to help music lovers better appreciate the art of music production.

    5. Great perspective, and quite correct.

      As a musician who’s been performing since 1972, recording since 1975, and critically listening all the while, I feel the farce of “audio that mimics live performance” is just that, pure farce.

      Call a spade a spade! I don’t care if the sound is manipulated in recordings, I manipulate sound in live performance! My room is tweaked with gear and treatments!

      Life itself is tweaked, fer crissakes!!

    6. This recalls Brian Eno’s observation that a movie is not simply a video camera pointed at a stage play. Theatre and movies are different worlds. As are albums and live concerts.

    7. Wow, Srajan, six comments and no one’s collecting villagers and handing out torches and pitchforks?!
      Whatever is happening to ye olde interwebs?
      Compelling view, well presented as always.

    8. This discussion brings to mind John Lennon’s “Double Fantasy”, compared to “Double Fantasy: Stripped Down”. I remember the first time I heard “Stripped Down”, I was shocked, and almost embarrassed by how intimate it was compared to the studio release. It was like John was there in my room giving me this personal version of this album. For sure, sometimes the outtakes and cutting board releases are very special, and its a shame there is so much processing that goes into the original studio cuts. I guess thats what I like about Lenny Kravitz’ stuff (lots of retro tube amps with minimal processing).

    9. srajan ,what’s wrong with your eyes?the emperor is wearing BEAUTIFUL clothes!
      michele,from rome

    10. I am really sorry about the length of this, but…
      This reminds me of what Hannah Arendt insisted upon in her political theory: politics is the realm of artifice and appearances and this is what it should be. What she meant by that, however, was *not* that there are no truths in politics; only that truths which are genuinely political should not be judged by reference to ‘reality’, since ‘reality’, as opposed to appearances, has no legitimate place in politics.
      Perhaps, more interesting in this context, the argument could be extended towards the ‘reproduction’ of politics; that is, writings about politics. Thus, for Arendt, for example, Plato was not very political in his philosophy, whereas Aristotle was.
      What this means for KIH and the whole of the audiophile business, I think, is that the fact that recorded music is heavily processed does not render the issue of ‘musicality’ irrelevant. It rather suggests that ‘musicality’ should be judged not by ‘truthfulness’ to recorded ‘reality’, but something else.
      Personally – and again drawing on the vocabulary or politics and political theory – I would go for persuasiveness. In politics, more persuasive arguments invariably win over the more ‘objectively true’ ones. (We may on occasion prefer the latter to the former, but when we do we usually leave politics proper for statistics and bureaucracy.)
      This, however, raises further question: of what exactly am I persuaded when I listen to a satisfying system? Again, personally, I think, there is only one answer to this: I am persuaded that what I am hearing conforms to my, already shaped, conception of what is musical. The key – and the KIH – here is ‘already shaped’. Because when it comes to music, or taste generally, nothing is shaped merely ‘personally’. We are all educated or socialised into taking something for ‘music’. This education though is not limited to the practices of passive listening. Finger-snapping, air-guitar-strumming or foot-tapping are just the most obvious and crude examples of the active, creative aspects of the perception of music.
      And if music-listening is a creative process not radically different from (or at least no radically opposed to) music-making, the equipment for music-listening should be chosen at least with an eye to the same criteria that are used for choosing musical instruments.
      Put simply, audiophile systems are peculiar musical instruments, rather than pieces of lab-equipment.
      Still, the exact peculiarity of these musical instruments deserves a pause. They are instruments designed primarily (in a sense, exclusively) for listening to other members of an overall ensemble in which we invariably participate every time we choose to listen to music. And we want to hear them (and not just ourselves; that is, our preconceptions about ‘good music’) as clearly as possible, as closely as possible to how they wanted to be heard. (Which, btw, with some music, requires hearing and appreciating the layers of studio-processing.) So, yes, purity for sure. But purity of a special, musical kind, as it is defined by music and not, say, optics or electronics.
      Now, here’s the last word I have to hang on to a bit – ‘defined’. Defined by whom and in what context? It seems to me that the real target of this instalment of KIH are not those who strive for excessive purity in their audio-designs. There’s never enough purity, as there should be never enough creative attentiveness in music-listening. The real target are those who *in writing and talking about these audio-designs* (this includes audio-shows and the choice of music at those) define purity in ways that are alien to music and thus introduce the most malicious distortion of all. That would be posturing.

    11. Alex: My primary target of this article was that pervasive audiophile belief or rule that the signal is pure as white snow and not to be ‘messed with’. This has given rise to the minimalist purist system without EQ or tone controls as the approach which supposedly alters the recorded signal the least. Yet audiophiles still season their stew with component and cable choices plus any number of tweaks to make the outcome more pleasing (whatever exactly that means to them).

      Too many of us hifi nutters are burdened by ideals like the absolute sound, the original performance, the original venue. I simply meant to point at multiple levels of artifice involved in modern recording practices. Once people begin to think on the implications (and by association, the many differences between live music and playback), I would expect a bit more mental freedom on their part to approach the whole subject in a more rational and practical way. In other words, have people consider multiple possible solutions to a given hifi problem or challenge without categorically writing off the ‘impure’ ones as inherently wrong, bad and out of the question.

      If EQ and tone controls for example improve your results, why not use them? Why should listeners have to justify what improving even means if the whole purpose of listening to music is enjoyment (which presumably means different things to different people)?

      I think it’s more relevant to bring these types of discussions down into the realm of practicality rather than leave them in some abstract philosophical realm. With my KIH features I’m simply hoping to talk about some practical basic hifi matters and strip them of surrounding myths in the process.

    12. Srajan, I really appreciate what you are doing in KIH (and elsewhere). I’m afraid though, the ‘surrounding myths’ you are referring to are being created and recreated on the level of discussions about ‘listening to music as enjoyment’, which necessarily include some rather abstract ideas about ‘music’ and ‘enjoyment’. Insofar as these notions are being tacitly smuggled into audiophile discussions, they remain at their most potent.
      This is why for me personally, ‘listening’ sections of audiophile reviews are the most problematic ones. This is where most of the ‘smuggling’ is happening. There are few exceptions, such as your discussion of Metrum Hex DAC or Alan Sircom’s review of Eclipse TD508mk3 speakers, for example. What makes them exceptional is not merely technical competence but a combination of such competence with clearly stated ideas about music and its enjoyment.

    13. Alex: Here we will probably have to agree to disagree. If listening to music isn’t about enjoyment, what is it about? Truth? Fidelity? Other? I’m afraid that for me it’s here where things get abstract, idealistic and irrelevant. I’d prefer to bring it down to a very practical level. How much music listening does one do on a daily basis? And is this music broad in scope to include plenty of new stuff on a regular basis; or does it only consist of a few ‘vetted’ CDs or files?

      If one only listens rarely and then to a very narrow range, I’d propose that gut-level enjoyment, pulling of the heart strings and feeling grabbed by the short and curlies is in short supply.

      Then it really doesn’t matter how truthful the system is, how pure or correct. If it doesn’t get *used* on a regular basis, it’s not serving the purpose it should. And the only practical reason I can see for anyone using anything that’s not essential on a regular basis (i.e. something which you could live without without dying, starving or getting sick) is usefulness and enjoyment. Working out may not always be enjoyable but we do it because it’s useful. Same for other good habits.

      What use would listening to music serve if enjoyment wasn’t present? To me playblack’s primary usefulness *is* enjoyment (which I think means different things to different people but the end result is the same – *doing* it and getting some versus thinking or talking about it).

      And that I don’t think is a myth or abstract notion. Well, at least not in the sense that love and emotional satisfaction aren’t abstract unless you’re a scientist looking for a molecule behind it all -:)

    14. For me, the Telluride Jazz Festival is my ultimate sonic reference, along with all the other festivals and live shows I am blessed to see. I’m in the bass and drums tribe. I’ve been assembling a stereo and surround sound system that creates the feeling I have during and after a live concert. I live in Telluride, Colorado at 8750 feet. Lots of awesome music festivals. We are high. I needed a new hobby, for my obsessive compulsive disorder, to keep me from participating in extreme sports like big mountain skiing and downhill mountain bike racing. But how to get my fix, my adrenaline rush? Music has always been the answer but I can’t afford or make it to all the awesome show’s. Starting when I was 12 I took buses all over Pittsburgh, PA to stereo stores and begged them to play my Led Zeppelin records louder, louder for how it made me feel. And they did. How to relive the glory days and keep them flowing? Simple physics. I invested in Emerald Physics CS2.3 MKII’s. 2 – 15″ woofers, a 12″ inch mid-woofer and compression mid-tweeter. It’s an open panel speaker with no box expense or coloration. It moves a lot of air and pressurizes my room just like at a live show. I’ve gotten a soundboard tour at Telluride Jazz Fest and a few other top shows and festivals. They measure the PA speakers with a mike and use DSP to put the individual speakers in the arrays all into phase, because when out of phase they cancel each other out and all kinds of nasty problems and distortion happens. And lots of EQ and other processing is applied to the live music. I have a DEQX HDP-3 tri-amping the EP’s, just like at the show, dude. It performs speaker correction with EQ and phase and timing correction and room correction for the bass. It works. I love and use the equalizer and tone controls and change individual driver levels for different music. It’s perfect for my OCD. Instead of ten of thousands of dollars going into engineering for a speaker cabinet and passive crossover, etc an active pro level device I scored used for $2000 gives me complete control voicing my speakers, which were designed for such dominance, to my tastes and room. A Red Wine Audio Signature 16 handles from 1050 hz up with a Wywire blue cable stuffed right into the back of the driver. Direct drive, no passive crossover, speaker terminal and internal wiring. Voice, piano, guitar, drums, bass, percussion, everything sounds real. Bass measures solid down to 20hz and is extremely detailed and textured. My friends and I occasionally jam and sing along to music on the stereo, on real drums and electric and acoustic guitar and bass and percussion. Even listening closely, the line blurs between whats recorded and whats live, including listening from another room or outside, one of my measures of is it “live or Memorex” . My rear surround speakers are a pair of Zu Soul MKII’s. They blend perfectly with the EP’s and I love them.
      I was blessed and got t0 go to my first and not last The Show, Newport, and proceeded to have the recorded music and live music experience of a lifetime. Been going to RMAF the last 6 years. Thank you everyone one who makes the shows happen. I truly appreciate it. I know how much effort and expense there is in attending these shows. The best part is meeting people and seeing all the great, dedicated people I’m getting to know. The Emerald Physics and Wyred4Sound crew has adopted me. And Zu, they’re like family. E.J. of Wyred4sound let me set-up and position the EP 2.7MKII speakers they were using with their awesome electronics. A custom 4 channel 1.5 kw W4S MKII amp is in my future, hopefully. Armed with my Bosch laser measurer and pointer, tape measure and masking tape, I got busy blasting my reference set-up music and moving speakers around while EJ, Rick Cullen and the Emerald Physics boys Walter and Mark went out for dinner and some male bonding. I have the same speakers, except for the mid-tweeter and a similar sized and proportioned room and I got lucky and everyone liked the results with only some small tweaks and EQ changes in the DSP bringing them to even greater sonic levels. It felt very good to help out and be a part of it all and I made sure to help them pack-up Sunday evening. Didn’t hear many rooms, at any cost, that could do what my system and this system does. I’ve invested about $15k for the stereo and $5k for the surround portion, not cheap, and quite complicated, but worth every penny. Of course you don’t always get to hear what a speaker and system can do in every room.
      I’m still processing and high on what happened to me in Newport. It really was that profound, on the level of a major music festival for me. I heard a huge variety of awesome music. Highlights are plenty and the most transforming were: Scott Walker and Ted Denny’s – Synergistic Research and Magico, VAC room. Scott said he had a surprise and played a live Kraftwerk tape and it took me to another dimension. Jason Lord’s Source Audio – Focal Utopia and McIntosh, D’agostino and Boulder room. On Sunday evening, for the last 45 minutes of the show Jason punished us with the Focal Grand Utopia’s with the giant Boulder, (Yay Colorado) amps cranked to 11. Metallica, amongst others, showed up and played a short set. And Jeremy’s MBL 7.2 surround and 4k theater playing live Blu ray concerts. Truly surreal. And MBL’s reference stereo room playing mixed tapes of copies of master tapes from Bruce Brown’s library. Mostly rock and pop tunes you’ve heard a thousand times, but we listened to masters, Bruce said so himself, on the MBL reference system. I had the extreme good fortune they let me hang out in there until 2:30 AM Saturday, they cranked it up to realistic live levels, and I got to experience and feel a lot of Sources, the real thing, the master tape and have a blast watching a parade of people come and go. Some of the tapes were simply mind boggling. The room was large enough for the bands to easily fit, making it easier to suspend disbelief, and mostly it sounded like they were there playing for us. Led Zep, The Stones, The Who, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Earth Wind and Fire, ELO, Dead Can Dance, etc, etc traveled forward in time and they were there playing for us.
      I was gifted some mind expanding new source and reference music experiences by lots of generous people at The Show. I got to hear lots of amazing systems. I listen to and feel music differently now.

    Zu Modern Console debuts at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach 2014

    Keeping it honest at T.H.E. Show Newport Beach 2014