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KIH #33 – Hearing the forest for the trees

  • RIAA. Resolution is absolutely all. That silliness just converted the established abbreviation for vinyl’s standard re-equalization curve; and that of the Recording Industry Association of America in general. Having it mean res über alles is a bit capricious and laboured. This installment of KIH means to show that so could be the meaning itself. Let’s start with the one Swiss watch I’ve succumbed to buying after living in CH for eight years. It’s a basic Quartz movement, not an automatic that stops running after three days if not worn. This close-up of it, from the brand’s Polish website, shows typical guilloché work. That’s a fancy French term for fine surface texturing.


    Now, if I held the actual watch close enough to my eyes to see that detail in equivalent resolution, I’d no longer be able to tell actual time. Being too close obliterates our ability to perceive something in its entirety. It’s like being inside a house means we won’t see its outside structure and how that’s set within its surroundings. Obviously this Aerowatch tells time, date and week day no better or worse for its tasteful guilloché. In fact, that detail is redundant to the actual function of this or any other time piece.

    Having played in a symphony orchestra, I can further tell you that my perspective then, of whatever piece we played, was unique to my seating position (behind the flutes and oboes, next to the bassoons and in front of the trumpets). This exact point-of-hear wasn’t shared by anyone else. Nor was it the balanced experience which the composer intended for the real audience. For that matter, neither would be the conductor’s perspective. You might say that the baton wielder stands in the door frame of the house which the architects hopes you’ll admire from a still greater distance.

    Appropriate perspective, to an object or a performance, is part of perceiving it whole replete with its surrounding greater context. With music, context is venue. If you sat on stage, with the musicians, your perception would be quite different from the regular audience in the actual seats. Extreme nearfield details mean things like the clacking of a woodwind’s keys, the spittle noises of brasses, the finger slides or bow scratches on strings, the breath work of singers, the squeak of a chair, the rustling of a score turned over etc. With acoustic music which does not have you stand a meter or two from a street performer, such detail doesn’t really factor. Once you place microphones where no ears go, that perspective changes completely. Not only are we now on stage, we’re inside a singer’s throat, inside a flügelhorn’s bell, on top of a cello’s f hole or on its strings beneath the bow – and simultaneously for all of it, across the full breadth and depth of the stage. That detail resultant from such extreme close-ups is no prerequisite to musical enjoyment is obvious to anyone who’s ever been to a proper concert in the normal seats.


    Even so, much hifi discourse about resolution concerns itself with excessive nearfield detail. Consequently, resolution—the ability to recover everything that’s been recorded—has become synonymous with the type of minutiae a concertgoer would never hear. True, it might be on the recording; if the microphones were so close as to capture it. But again, such detail is no requirement for musical enjoyment. Nor is being that intimate with multiple performers at once natural or realistic. At best, you might stand close to one. You’d never stand close to all of them at the same time. That’s a physical impossibility.

    What about tone mass, image density, dynamic contrast, the sheer physicality and emotional rawness of music? Shouldn’t resolution—again, that’s the ability to recover everything that’s been recorded—include those aspects as well, not just zero in on the lead singer’s inhale and the pianist’s foot pedal action? Silly question, huh? Given how music beyond a girl+guitar gets complex quickly to overlay, intertwine and naturally mask such micro detail, unravelling it back out requires extreme separation power. That’s a thoroughly analytical process. Say you saw a movie for the first time. Say you were in a properly receptive mood. At the appointed time, you’d choke up and feel the tears well up just as the director intended. Now imagine yourself a movie director instead who watches a respected colleague’s film. Instead of watching it like the normal audience would, you bring your entire film school training to bear. You automatically reverse-engineer the on-screen action. You see lens choices, film speeds, blocking, crane movements, lighting decisions, CGi vs. life capture, costume palette, makeup and hair – the lot. You resolve all of the artifice, manipulations and mechanics behind the on-screen action.


    Whilst presumably enjoyable and certainly educational in its own way, we ought to agree that neither is this the effect and experience which the original movie director intended; nor one that’s emotionally stimulating and fulfilling. Once we apply the same thinking to recorded music, is it necessary or even helpful to reverse engineer a recording by trying to discern microphone placement, microphone types, faux vs. real reverb, dynamic compression, a woodwind’s make and reed strength, whether a piano is a Bösendorfer or Blüthner, whether the second chair of the 2nd violin cadre plays an Eric Caldwell or Berl Mendenhall? All of those things are pure mechanics. They are not meant to be intelligible to the consumer. They are the tricks of the trade. In fact, with a Las Vegas style stage illusionist aka magician, the entire act’s sense of child-like wonderment would collapse if we were privy to the mechanics behind how that big elephant vanished into thin air.

    The same holds true for the magic of music. Seeing how it was made is utterly counterproductive. It destroys the intended effect. By implication, today’s interpretation of resolution is too focused on the close-up perspective and not sufficiently on a more holistic proper distance. It’s all about the micro not macro realm. Just as guilloché does nothing for time keeping, so the pornographic view on the mechanics behind the making of music does little for playback’s emotional persuasiveness. Here I’m not saying that in its own way, quasi reverse-engineering a recording couldn’t be fun. But I do propose that it’s not what the musicians intended; and that it’s an inherently analytical dissective process. It belongs to the mind not the heart.  If you’re a mentalist listener, that might be your preference. I’m simply of the contrary belief that music is first and foremost about a visceral response, in the body below the head. If you agree, you might also agree that obsession with too much close-up detail is quite counterproductive. It’s not conducive to emphasizing the aspect of magic in music. Rather, it’s about revealing the mechanics. Must you really know whether that bassoonist blows a Vandoren or Britannia reed?


    It follows that one can have too much micro resolution; and insufficient macro perspective. It’s the old leaf versus forest thing. Much of it happens in our brain; how we apply a virtual zoom function to our attention and either hone in on one instrument and stereo effect; or stand back and let the whole of it wash over us. If you’re mostly a listener who hopes for the latter… then modern notions on resolution (what’s normal, realistic and desirable especially in the micro realm) could well be overdone to point in the wrong direction.

    To close out with an extreme visual, Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio once bragged on the phone that his new tonearm was so precise that not only would it tell him when a fly landed on it; but which leg of said fly was arthritic. Obviously he was telling tall tales as all men are wont to when women aren’t listening. But it’s a good image to go out on when the subject of ultra resolution comes up. Why should you care about bloody flies? Hon, where did I put that swatter…

    More of Srajan’s audio world commentary can be found at his own 6moons.

    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. This dovetails nicely into your previous piece on the infinite possible versions of ‘the truth’.

      Bringing it back to the modern rock arena (where I live), Peter Gabriel’s live 2LP ‘Plays Live’ sees the following confession printed on the back cover:

      “Although this album was compiled from four concerts in the mid-west of the United States, some additional recording took place not a thousand miles away from the home of the artiste. The generic term of this process is “cheating”. Care has been taken to keep the essence of the gigs intact, including “human imperfection”.

      ‘Essence’? Gabriel’s production is forest aware. 😉

      Their admission begs the rhetorical question: how do we know that the micro detail we hear within the ‘recording’ – fingers on string or even audience cough – wasn’t added after the fact? As you say, we readily accept that movie directors do it with SFX so why not presume that record producers perform similar and frequent trickery with overdubs?

      I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before but a movie is not the result of cameras pointed at a stage play. The assumption that what we hear, micro details n all, is somehow an exact facsimile of what went down in a recording session is somewhat naive, especially when considering guitar rock and (especially) electronic sounds.

    2. Very interesting read guys, from both of you. It brings me back to the question I’ve asked myself a number of times over the years; Do I want a high end system or a system that just has a fun factor to it? I’ve already worked out that I can get goose bumps from music regardless of what system it’s played through. Having said that, hearing something on the recording that shouldn’t be there but was left there because the recording engineer didn’t hear it at the time can be lots of fun too. Recently my wife and I both looked at each other and said “let’s hear that again. That was a thump against the microphone wasn’t it? And it was. Can’t remember the song but I’ll find out and will let you know.

    3. I somehow doubt that you’d need to add fingering noises of a guitar in post production. All it takes is a microphone right on the strings. That creates a sound-from-10cm-away perspective which is unnatural relative to what an audience would hear at a live concert; or even that guitarist’s band mate a few meters over on the same stage; or in a neigbouring sound booth in the studio. Now do that spot lighting to all instruments and vocalists of a production and you end up with 10 x 10cm perspectives or more, simultaneously. That’s even more unnatural. But it does capture those little things. Their magnitude relative to primary sounds should still be low; but definitely higher than hearing a concert from the seats at the usual distances. And perhaps, as you suggest, post production in the studio does artificially boost those little details.

      If it’s on the recording, it’s on the recording.

      My point is that,

      a/ we may start out with something very contrived and artificial at the very beginning of the hifi chain, something which we have absolutely zero control over (the recording).

      b/ in conjunction with res-über-alles components or system tuning, that will really emphasize the

      c/ unrealistic hyper nearfield perspective that’s all about the mechanics of the performance but arguably less so about its magic.

      In such cases (and so many studio productions are recorded in that fashion), piling resolution atop resolution gets one farther and farther away from something that resembles believability. Is being inside a singer’s throat or on the fretboard of a guitar so believable a perspective?

      So I wanted to make an argument that says, “one can have more resolution than is conducive to enjoyment and musical realism”. We can’t do anything about the recordings other than not buying them. For a music lover, that’s not an option. The next-best thing we *can* do is compensate with how we voice and tune our systems.

      And here I wanted to propose that rather than believing more and more resolution is the necessary way forward, one might get more enjoyable results if one focused a bit less on the micro realm and a bit more on the macro perspective. Which, like you noted, is back at the previous KIH piece – about there being many valid perspectives one might pursue. So nothing is set in stone and readers are encouraged to think about these things in a less dogmatic fashion and explore what’s most to their liking rather than what the audiophile police approve -:)

    4. Loved it, Srajan.
      And I love your taste in watches; quirky whilst retaining a ‘classic’ look.
      Poor audiophiles though; they fret and worry about missing anything from the original performance so do they EVER actually just surrender to the moment and enjoy the music?
      Oh, and does that make you a clarinet player…?

    5. Nice read. It’s stating the obvious, but very well done!

      Makes me happy. Also has me thinking of “Sinkovsky Plays & Sings Vivaldi”. This album seems to be recorded almost inside the instruments. In this case I like the effect of being close very much. It gives the well know piece a new dimension. But I agree to the forrest view in general.

    6. Graham – correct. Clarinet it was. But unlike my two French-horn playing siblings who work at the Hamburg Symphony and Wiesbaden Opera respectively, I hung it up. Now I’m just a pencil pusher -:)

    7. I’m inclined to think much has to do with the nature of the recorded music experience vs live. Inevitably the recorded experience lacks the visual, physical, social experience.The big S is often forgotten but really is where music comes from. So how do we compensate? There is a limit to how much the recording can provide so it does what it can do, which includes providing great detail. Like a well constructed wine, it can be savoured in private by those who can afford it…… It’s not a bad thing, but it’s not a mass moving experience….

    8. I really like that perspective! I’ve mixed live music for many years. I experience the weight and power of the music even as I focus on manipulating the details to bring the performance to the audience. I figured out long ago that listening to my home audio system is a mere surrogate for the rush I get working the console. That’s what makes audio such a fun hobby. It appeals to both heart and mind.

    9. At the end of my day (@GMT+2, but does this detail matter?) I sat at my balcony, iPad+mojo+Lyras on their routine duty, I flipped some pages for techno-info thought food but instead… I came across my finest read in ages. One’s thoughts expressed by another’s ‘pen’ seem so enhanced and clear. I turned the volume down, sipped some more and played ill Eno, my music coming from a distance. Thrilling. Read again.

      Great piece Srajan!

    10. Thanks for the great write up. Funny story, I recently attended a performance of Cameron Carpenter Saint Saens Organ Symphony using his traveling Organ (bunch of speakers) and I was on the first row. Let me say this, It blew me out of my chair LOL but it was awesome….It felt like a rock concert. But going back to your article, when I listen to music I usually try to visualize myself as been part of the audience. So thats the experience I am looking for. Keep the good work.

    11. I don’t think we can ever have enough resolution with digital recording. I don’t listen to digitally recorded demo music like 2L. Mostly classic rock that’s been transferred from analog tape. I want to hear it the way the engineer did in the control room when he rolled the tape.

      I’m also planning to build the Linkwitz LX521.4 speakers so don’t talk me out of it! You can always find a way to lose resolution but you’re not going to get back what isn’t there. We could always use a plug-in to dumb it down.

    12. If it’s on the recording, it’s on the recording. I think we all agree on that. Both a system tuned for top separation/focus and one tuned for big tone density will play back a guitarist’s finger slide noises if they’re recorded. The one with lower separation won’t throw them out. Nothing is dumbed down. But one might emphasize or spotlight those noises; and the other might portray them as more secondary or even tertiary stuff folded into the primary action.

      Zu and Harbeth systems have often struck me as big-tone dense setups. Heco’s big-woofered broad-baffle 2-way Direkt Model does a similar thing. It’s more about density and shove than ultra resolution and separation. Many tube amps play to the Zu tone aesthetic whereas a Goldmund or Job amp plays to speed and separation. And so forth.

      So it’s up to the hifi owner’s choices of hardware and setup how what is recorded is presented. There is plenty of room to change the relative weighting of many of the attributes which hifi discussions talk about. It’s not about dumbing things down by throwing away detail. It’s about how that detail integrates with the big picture to suit our personal preference. There’s nothing wrong with a really close-up intimate ‘inside the music’ perspective if that’s what one likes!

      I personally have never grown to appreciate surround sound with movies. The visual action is 2D and in the front at quite some distance, the sound going with it is 3D and all around. Hence I never had desire to own surround sound at home. I prefer 2-channel home theatre. But, going to the movies means that we accept the experience for what it is.

      Same with recordings; and the differences between speaker and headphone listening. Each is its own thing and different from a live concert. At home, we have a lot of control over how we influence the perspective or flavour of the playback experience. Rather than the absolute sound, I’d call it the very relative sound. Everyone should be knowledgeable about how many options there are so they construct something that gives them the most enjoyment. And for some, less emphasis on tiny detail and more emphasis on the bigger picture could well be the pathway into more enjoyment -:)

      • I made those remarks after a couple drinks last night. I’m actually reluctant to build the Linkwitz speakers because of the resolution. I’ve thought about it over and over. They’re supposed to be very revealing which could be a problem with the kind of music I listen to. 60’s-70’s Classic Rock/ Pop with the overdubs and recording technique from the era. I’m afraid after such a labor intense project that I won’t like the sound of the grain on the tape.

        I agree with you on surround sound. I don’t do it either. But I’m not into movies as much as audio. To me, two channel audio is difficult enough to get good sound from. Surround make it exponentially harder to get right. I can’t deal with the neurosis.

    13. I’m a proud and happy owner of a Job INTegrated. Not a small part of the buying decision was due to a Swiss review ;-). I like music that’s not to crowded with instruments standing out. So me and the Job is a good match. Thanks!

    14. Kostas Papazoglou
      “Anlayana sivrisinek saz…….” (see footnote)
      Hello from Melbourne,
      An unequivocally pertinent topic for our passion/hobby, presented as always in a cohesive, well-constructed and convincing manner but, nevertheless, infused with personal biases, generalisations, contradictions and even inaccuracies ……..all natural human traits and NOT a stigma at all!
      My views are not meant to be antagonistic. If anything, they are intended to be supplementary, offering an alternative exegesis on the topic. Allow me to make a few points.
      As a player, recordist and avid listener, I would like to think that my my views are relatively holistic.
      In your article Srajan, resolution is constantly synonymous with close-miking and you fall short of calling it a chimera! Detail on a recording, whether near, mid or far- field is REAL detail. It is not an artefact ( we are not talking about post-production artefacts ). I personally want to hear intricate, subtle micro detail, contrasts and timbral shades. Dense, congested mixes or musical passages with a plethora of instruments have every right to be heard. Their individuality should not be discriminated.
      More so when you have multiple instruments (often of the same family) rendering monodic music that play exactly the same melody, even in the same octave! You should be familiar with this aspect since, like myself, you are a Greek/Turkish (amongst other traditions) music lover.
      Proper microphone selection, placement and spot-miking can actually compensate for and alleviate stage and auditorium shortcomings which discriminate against many concert-goers. It is the same with concert-goer placement, i.e seating. I personally always buy tickets in advance so that I can be at the front. If I can have this approximated or replicated ( never as a facsimile) in my listening room, then I welcome it.
      Listen to a distant, cavernous, vague, indiscernible recording or have a terrible seat in a concert and evaluate your listening experience and enjoyment! Equally, close your eyes and listen to a concert at row two and at row thirty and evaluate the difference.
      And now to playback. For all of the above-mentioned reasons, I personally pursue a highly resolving ( hear as much of the recording as possible), transparent to sources (not coloured or least coloured), linear system (i.e no systemic emphases and of course room-dependent) in an acoustically conducive room, which will hopefully offer me a more vivid, immersive experience.
      For all of these personal preferences, as a player/recordist/listener, I have (by sheer coincidence!) and totally independently implemented your frequently exalted head-phone listening model, except that I prefer to have my STAX 009s floor-standing!!! Hence my choice of Martin Logan CLXs. By the way, I have several headphones. Rest assured, that if …”tone mass, image density, dynamic contrasts” (what about micro-dynamic contrasts…..not all instruments were born dynamically equal) were on the recording and not post-produced by cones, boxes, cross-overs and other components, then they will be heard.
      Footnote: This is the first half of an allegorical Turkish proverb/aphorism which beautifully encapsulates (using musical language) a universal dictum/truism, applicable to all of us. A paraphrase: …To the understanding/knowledgeable person, a mosquito ( i.e its barely audible noise ) is a saz ( a subtle, refined sounding string instrument)…….The other half for perhaps another time.
      Thank you and apologies for my forthright comments. And enjoy your new abode!
      Kostas Papazoglou

    15. Differences in opinion make the world go ’round. Open dialogue on different view points about our shared hobby are exactly what these features are all on about -:)

    16. I was at a chamber orchestra performance a few weeks back. Besides enjoying the music, every once in a while I tried to listen to it the way I listened to my stereo. I found it impossible to do so. The spotlighting of the instruments was missing! 😉

      Close-mic’d recordings do not really replicate a performance in some key respects. But I can see some enjoying them the way that some enjoy films with hand cameras (which invariably gives me vertigo!).

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