A funny thing happened on the way to the future…

Microphone plan I use for pianos as described below. The yellow lines show the “Figure of 8″ natural pickup pattern of ribbon microphones. More on that in the post below.

Microphone plan I use for pianos as described below. The yellow lines show the “Figure of 8″ natural pickup pattern of ribbon microphones. More on that in the post below.

I’ve been a music lover since my earliest memories.  The two earliest are one of Sacred Harp singing in a wooden church lit, I kid you not, by kerosene lamps on the wall.  The one I can put a date on is at age 4, when we got our first TV set.  I was in another room and heard this fascinating and heavenly sound.  I followed it and found my family watching some live play set in the 18th century.  A person in full dress of the period sat at a rather strange looking instrument that appeared to be piano-like, but the sound was more like a harp.  I found both the music and the sound mesmerizing.  I asked what it was, and nobody knew.  It was years before I realized it was a harpsichord. 

By junior high, I was a band member and it was my passion.  We had a little book called “50 Chorales” which were band arrangements of Bach chorales used for warm-up at the beginning of the rehearsal.  It was usually my favorite part of the hour.  My favorite pieces were Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” overture and, especially, Tchaikovsky’s “1812” overture. In 1965 my mother presented me with my first record, the Mercury Living Presence recording of 1812 by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra complete with real muskets, cannons, and bells.  I still have it, though pretty well loved to death.

By the mid-80s I had a very respectable audio system and a couple of thousand LPs and reel to reel tape recordings.  I read the audiophile press religiously and like many could hardly wait for the Compact Disc to be a reality.  I’d read the theory and, being a scientific type, could see this was a whole new ball game, a true paradigm shift.  “Perfect sound FOREVER!” was the promise, and I was a true believer. 

In 1986 I moved to Singapore as assistant director of the newly established “Centre for Educational Technology” at the National University of Singapore.  I was making more money than ever before and was able to purchase my first CD player.  I was thrilled.  No surface noise, wide range…WOW!  I purchased CDs left and right and played an LP only when I really wanted to listen to something I liked that wasn’t yet on CD. 

This gradual abandonment of analog media continued to the point that on my return to Texas I didn’t even set up a turntable.  My LPs remained packed in storage through the 90s.  My love for music was still there, and my wife and I had season tickets to the Dallas Symphony, but I finally began to ask myself why I was no longer spending quality time with my recordings and audio system.  Further, it seemed that most of my friends who once shared the same passion were no longer interested as well.  If we listened at all, we’d wind up talking over the music and finally turning it down so it didn’t interrupt.  I pondered this, and remembered articles by a Dr. Jack Diamond from back in the earliest days of the CD suggesting perhaps something wasn’t right with the medium.  Now, Dr. Diamond had absolutely nothing to do with the recording industry.  In fact, his PhD was in psychology and his specialty was music therapy for senior citizens.  His work was roundly discredited in the audiophile press and eventually pretty much forgotten.  Except by me.  I recalled that he’d observed the same effects as I had experienced and observed with his patients.  Even though the sound from CDs was much cleaner and of higher quality than the old portable record player he’d used, it didn’t seem to sooth and calm as the records had done. 

So, I set out to see if I could find out why.  My first experiment was to dust off my turntable and play a record.  Whamo!  The thrill was back.  Made no sense at all.  Back also was the surface noise, clicks and pops, dust, etc.   Not only did I not have an answer, I had more questions.  

I am not going to make a technical paper out of this, but simply a narrative of my experience and results.  I reread all the digital theory, algorithms, and reviewed the process of analog to digital conversion and the inverse.  I already had a good grounding in the analog process by virtue of my “audiophilia” and experience in radio.  I couldn’t figure it out.  All but a few of my CDs just sounded lifeless compared to the best of my analog recordings and it simply made no sense scientifically.

Finally, I began to wonder if the issue was not the format but the engineering.  The phonograph process was well over a 100 years old and fully mature, while digital was only a little over a decade old and being performed largely by engineers trained in analog. 

By this time, ADACs (Analog to Digital to Analog Converters) were getting affordable.  I sold a few excess audio items, bartered, traded and manage to acquire a couple of excellent ribbon microphones, a microphone preamplifier, and a DAT (Digital Audio Tape) deck.  About the same time, I was given a 1936 RCA BK3A microphone by an old friend who worked in civil service.  He was tasked with cleaning out a government warehouse and disposing of the contents.  He told me it had “Dave” written all over it, so he brought it to me.  How right he was!  Only about 600 of these were made and they are inherently improvable. 

I was attending a church with superb acoustics at the time (Annunciation, Lewisville, TX) and a parishioner donated a very nice Kawai grand piano.   Our music minister happened to be friends with a young Dallas organist by the name of Stewart Wayne Foster.  Stewart was winner of the first Dallas International Organ Competition held in 1997 and our MM was able to talk him in to playing a dedication recital on the new Kawai.   I spoke with Stewart and he agreed to let me record the concert.  I already knew that piano was the “Waterloo” of many an experienced recording engineer and that few piano recordings really sounded convincing and satisfying.  I listened to all the solo piano recordings I had and it always seemed the mono recordings sounded best.  Even those of the great pianists like Rubinstein, Gilels, Richter, and Horowitz often presented a stereo image that made the piano sound like it was 20 feet wide with the pianist hard to locate.  As I had a bit of understanding of microphone pickup patterns I applied that to the problem of containing and projecting the image.  My “solution” was to place one microphone (see the image at the beginning of this entry) as close to the widest part of the piano strings as I could get it while being as close to equidistant from each string as possible.  Then, I placed the other microphone at 45 degrees to the first and a few feet off the end of the stringboard with full “view” of the strings as well.  The result was the recording which you can download or play and judge for yourself. 

When you can find one, these go for between 3k and 10k.  Thankfully, I have GOOD friends...

When you can find one, these go for between 3k and 10k. Thankfully, I have GOOD friends…

I used the 80-year-old RCA masterpiece BK3A on the soundboard and an Octava ML-52 on the ambient mike.  You might ask “Why ribbons, Dave?”  OK, your probably wouldn’t and while I promised to keep this non-technical you’ll be able to handle this.  All microphone heads, that is, the part that intercepts sound vibrations in the air and makes them into electrical patterns, pickup sound equally from all directions.  We call that “omnidirectional.”   It’s easiest to visualize this as a light bulb out in the open.  The only naturally directional microphone is the ribbon microphone where the sound vibrations strike a ribbon of thin metal suspended between magnets.  Vibrations from the side produce little or no movement and therefore no current.  It’s a figure of 8 pickup pattern, like our light bulb mounted inside a tin can with both ends cut out.  You can see it in the yellow lines in the picture of the microphone plan at the top of this post.  That pattern means that the back pickup is over the heads of the audience and so we get all of the ambience of the building, which is important to an accurate recording, but less of the audience shuffling around and program rustling.  There are other good reasons, but I’ll leave it at that. 

While I highly recommend you play this on the very best sound system you can access, try it on whatever is convenient.  If what is “convenient” is capable of delivering a reasonably accurate stereo image you should find the pianist to the left and the apparent source of the sound extending to just short of the right speaker.  You’ll hear some creaks from the piano bench that mortified our music minister, but they help in that they should come from the left where the pianist was located.  Turn it up to a “realistic” level, that is, as close as your system will allow to what you would expect from a real piano in your listening room.  Listen especially to the final decay of the last notes, which one listener described as “…simply delicious.” 

Clair de Lune NOTE: If you click it will play in  the browser.  If you wish to download so you can play it on a better system than your PC or burn it to disc to play in a CD player, right-click in Internet Explorer and select “Save Target As” and put it where you wish.  Firefox, Chrome etc may have different ways to do this and I can’t cover them all!  Please let me know if you have problems. 

Also, if you will bear with me, a note on the performance for those who may be well familiar with the piece.  Some have said “That is a very slow performance…”  I pondered this and finally realized why:  Stewart, while a highly accomplished pianist, is an organist.  Pianists play only the instrument.  An organist plays the instrument as well as the space that houses it.  The Church of the Annunication has almost a 4 second reverberation, and if not taken into account music, especially an organ with its sustained tones, can “step on itself.” Stewart, therefore, automatically adjusted for the reverberation to keep it clean and distinct.  

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog entry…

What I learned was this:  There is nothing inherently wrong with the Redbook (that’s the technical name of the specification for producing a CD) process.  However, it is an extremely unforgiving process and there have been a lot of errors and a long learning curve by engineers learning to produce the same quality as we were used to with analog.  The human brain is extremely adapt at telling “real” from “Memorex,” to use the old cassette advertisement from the 80s, and certain transforms and artifacts that an engineer might consider minor or inaudible appear to disrupt the brain’s ability to respond.  Darwin, for one, thought that music might well be older than human language and our earliest means of communication, and it stands to reason that our perception of it transcends our scientific understanding of how it works.

For a long time, I did a lot of recording using more and more advanced digital equipment and with results that fully satisfied my sense.   My methods are not only not sophisticated and complex, they are simplicity itself:

  1. 1.       Two microphones placed “where my ears want to be.”
  2. 2.       A vacuum tube preamplifier.
  3. 3.       A ADC (analog to digital converter)
  4. 4.       Storage (digital disc drive)

No mixers, processing, multiple microphones, etc.  Every recipient gets a master copy.  I patterned this after the greatest of the analog engineers, Stan Richter, who produced LP masters using the same method except the output of the microphone preamplifier went straight to a master analog disc.  No retakes there…if there was a single error either by the musician or the engineer you started over again with a blank disc and cut a new one.  THAT was art and the results remain stunning to this day.

Family issues, work issues, and our move to Houston cost me all the contacts with Dallas Symphony members and other musicians so I’ve not been able to much recording in the past 8 years, but I hope to resume someday.  I’d extended my research to try to find out why “surround sound” didn’t seem to be working as well as it should.  Most of my audiophile friends remain stolid stereo fanatics and their attitude towards surround ranges from “ho hum” to outright disgust.  Here again, it makes no sense.  While my work in that area remains incomplete, if you’d like to know more about that download my paper on the subject.   Click here:   SixCard  You will see a rather strange link with a description.  It will open the paper.  As with the sound file above, if you right-click in Internet Explorer, you can choose “Save Target As” if you want to download a copy.  YMMV with other browsers…

PS – Of course, things have gotten even worse than poorly engineered Redbook.  Since I did that story the vast majority of people have switched to MP3s.  Thank God it’s music and not food, or they would starve to death.  What remains after 90% compression is little more than a shell, as if you could completely disappear a house except for the paint.  It may look like a duck, and quack like a duck, but it’s pure illusion.   Of course, they’ll say “It sounds fine.  I can’t tell the difference.”  But their BRAINS can, and do.  I’m sure the Dr. Diamond’s elderly patients would have said the same thing, but their actions made it clear there is more to music and the human brain’s processing of it than meets the ear.  However, I am only going to point out the logical progression of the deterioration of media for music playback since its peak in the 80s without starting another rant.  For one thing, there’s a much better one than I could write already available from a far more credible source.  “This is your brain on music..”  Finally, if you want to see just how extreme the search for first quality reproduction can go, check out the 3875.00 7 LP box set from the Electric Recording Company of Great Britain.

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2 Responses to A funny thing happened on the way to the future…

  1. micah says:

    Once again Dave your blogs prompt me to ponder topics at great length, that I would otherwise be ignorant of. As always keep ’em coming.

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