Sunday, May 01, 2005

Capturing Sound (Mark Katz)

posted by Tim Walters @ 10:49 AM

Subtitle: "How Technology Has Changed Music." Starts with a certain master-of-the-obvious quality--he describes the idea that recording has "profoundly transformed modern musical life" as "counterintuitive", whereas I would describe it as "no shit, Sherlock"--but when he gets into specifics, things get interesting. We learn, for example, that recording gave rise to modern violin vibrato, and that the instrumentation and style of early jazz changed quite a bit to adapt to acoustic recording technology. There's a very interesting chapter on Grammaphonmusik, an early attempt to use recording in a non-literal way (with a long-lost example by Paul Hindemith on the accompanying CD). Oddly, Katz skips over the development of the modern recording studio entirely, and jumps straight from the 1930s to DJ battles, sampling and MP3s. His description of DJ battles is interesting, and the recording of a championship routine found on the CD is freaking amazing (especially when he breaks down exactly what's going on).

So, there's not much of a coherent thesis, but there's plenty to chew on.


At 9:24 AM, Blogger Todd T said...

Does sound fascinating.

"gave rise to modern violin vibrato" - how do you mean?

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

According to Katz, violinists like Haifetz increased the amount of vibrato they used when recording into the old acoustic horns so that (a) they would be more audible (some of the highest notes were barely picked up) and (b) any intonation errors, which would escape notice in a live setting but would live forever on a recording, could be masked.

Other violinists learned their style from these recordings, and the result is that they play with much more vibrato now than even in the Romantic era. I don't know enough to be sure that he's right, but he backs it up with three examples of the same piece, going from almost pure tone to lurid vibrato in the space of about twenty years (1900-1920, or so).

To my ear, a little goes a long way, so I hope this discovery encourages some fiddlers to get back to their roots. As it were.

At 4:33 PM, Blogger Todd T said...

I read an article while in Chicago this week about a team at some midwest university (I forget now which) that took a piano that is designed to remember and replicate whatever is played on it, like a player piano with playback, including the timing, power and depth of each finger stroke and each pedaling. They rewired this special piano and fed it some old LPs to recreate Glenn Gould and some old 78-era fellow. They claim that we can now hear exactly what these guys sounded like live. (Science for the ghost aficianado!)

But having had this conversation with Tim here, I realized that it could not really be. Sure, they were able to replicate what was on the vinyl. (They removed the scratches and hiss and stuff first.) But what was on the vinyl was not really precisely the playing of these past masters.

I also wondered: is it possible to reach perfect fidelity? Or at least, perfect enough that no human ear can tell the difference? Do we asymptote towards it, or can we actually hit it square on the beezer?

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

I would think that the vinyl would contain the information they needed (timing and volume) to a fair degree of accuracy. It's as if the pianist had made a high-quality piano roll (many of those by famous pianists have been discovered as well). Of course, the piano they're playing it back on (presumably a Disklavier) isn't the same the original artist used.

To answer the more general question "is it possible to reach perfect fidelity": not really. We have the electrical aspect of it pretty close, but transducers (i.e. microphones and speakers) are a long way from where they need to be. Surround helps (although it's more often used for whiz-bang in these early days, much as stereo was in its); binaural can do even better, albeit under extremely controlled conditions; but nothing yet captures the fine-grained texture of reality.

Even if all acoustic problems were solved, pure audio will never be enough; seeing the performer has a great effect on how you hear the performer. So we'll also need perfect holotanks.

The good news is that we can enjoy recordings that are well short of perfection. Humans are very adaptable. And none of the above applies to recordings that don't attempt to recreate a live performance, but instead work the medium for maximum advantage.


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