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Listening to Music - The Consumer and the Studio

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Audio RecordingBack in the day, all the top hit albums were recorded on tape. Some on just four to eight tracks mixed down to two. Recording studios were populated with Teac, Ampex, JBL speakers, Tascam boards and, for the most part, were pretty much the same. The age of digital alteration didn't exist. You got what the mics recorded. Bands had to be good in the studio and well as on stage. Many albums were done in just a few takes -- some in just one. That music is still some of the finest ever recorded. No fancy exotic gear like we have today.

I recently scored a pair of JBL Century L-100s (aka JBL 4312 which are basically the same) and there is a reason I wanted them. These were the speakers that a majority of music of my era were mastered with. Lots of studios used the JBL 3-way speakers -- they were the standard of the industry for a very long span of time for recorded vinyl. Listening to them would be a lot like what was heard when the albums were mastered.

People used to spend hours in the brick & mortar record stores perusing the bins of 12 inch vinyl in every category under the sun. Every genre from ever country and going back to the beginnings of recorded music up to the day -- it was all there is the massive stores. You often met people with similar music tastes and would talk about the artists. You would find a label that always seemed to have what you wanted and you'd start to follow the label. Often just a single musician would be on various albums and, if it was someone you were interested in, you could follow them by reading the liner notes as well. The great music social scene was in the record stores.

People used to enjoy their music. I mean, really get down and enjoy listening to the music. They would invest in the best amps or receivers, speakers and turntables, cartridges and such. They would set up an area in their home for just sitting back and absorbing all the music comfortably. That was the day when power was real power. Why a 100 watt stereo receiver would draw 5 amps out of the wall and weigh almost 70 pounds. Today's 5 channel, 100 watt per channel home theater systems only draw 1 or 2 amps and weigh maybe 20 pounds. There is a reason for the difference. Power was measured differently back in the days of blue lights and silver faced equipment. An old amp wouldn't even struggle to deliver 100% regardless of the signal and, both channels could deliver 100% simultaneously. Not true with today's equipment.

I spent a great deal of time setting up my listening environment. Surprisingly, its pretty basic and simple without a lot of gadgetry. Vintage receiver, DBX compander, stereo octave equalizer, good turntable & cart, and speakers. Add in some tube amps and the JBL speakers and I can pretty much guarantee that what you're going to hear is pure, clean, alive and balanced. But, one must also remember that a listening room to listen to all styles of music is not the same as a recording studio. Both environments have totally different purposes and sound requirements. While a studio may want flat without acoustic reflections and such, the listening environment needs to be musical. You want the music to open up in a listening environment.

Today's consumer isn't really a listener. They no longer immerse themselves totally into the album. They're happy listening to compressed and lossy MP3 audio through cheap 99¢ ear buds connected to their phone. They aren't likely to follow a label, songwriter or artist across multiple projects. They are also not likely to purchase music for years of listening pleasure. Today's popular music consumer often treats music as a disposable commodity.

So, while the JBL L-100s are a nice addition to my audio collection, they are definitely not the most desirable speakers to use for listening. They are, however, great for comparison. Musical speakers, in my opinion, need to be efficient, handle lows well without a subwoofer, not be too focused, image well and be good across a wide range of angles before them. My all time favorite speakers are the Klispchorns followed by the Pioneer HPM 100s. Technics SB-7000A are a linear phase design that is quite pleasing with their 15 inch woofers. I would love to acquire a pair of them. The Altec A7 are good but the horn can be overpowering. There are many others but the class at the top remains a very limited group.

In the amplifier department, I like around 100-200 watts per channel of old school amplifiers. The general consumer high end equipment was extremely good even by today's standards. I loved my Pioneer SX-1010 receiver but unfortunately it died. The Sansui 9090db was an awesome piece of gear but restoration of those is a massive amount of work. I'm looking for another SX-1010. I also enjoy the McIntosh tube amps for their warmth. The MC-100 100 watt mono amps are hard to beat. Some music just naturally sounds better with tubes. I doubt if I would seriously consider any of today's consumer grade amplifiers or receivers.

Recording studios have an entirely different requirement for music. They are, after all, the source and not the consumer. This is where all the elements of an artistic creation come together. The song, of course, then the arrangement and finally, a band putting it all together into what the consumer will ultimately consume. In that process are the producer, the audio engineer and recording studio and others associated with graphics, legal, and other functions necessary to complete the work. My focus will be on the audio engineer and the studio as this article focuses on the music and the equipment. In the studio environment today, we have mixing boards of 64 or more channels. Digital, rather than tape. audio recorders. Racks of equipment to alter the sound and make it perfect, sterile and polished. Effects are computerized offering virtually any "sound" that the creators want or desire. In fact, it isn't unusual for different musicians to add their parts at different times and even in different studios and then its all put together somewhere else. Technology has taken over.

The studio is not a "live" environment. It also isn't really a "listening" environment. No. The studio is an acoustic factory custom shop. A very special custom shop where no two products are ever exactly the same. Some, like the Nashville sound, use the same musicians and the same people directing to the point where even different artists or bands have the same sound. Why? Because they basically are. In Bluegrass Music, we don't see that too much and, in Americana and Roots music, you don't see the sameness of the product either. But in today's pop and country music being marketed and broadcast by the big corporations, you see too much of it.

The studio is kind of a magical place where the wizard is the audio engineer, sound engineer or even a team of engineers who all work together to create something new and exciting that will appeal to the masses. They will use their racks of gadgetry to model, shape, form and massage the material into the final product. These engineers are the ones with the golden ear that are often as artistic as the bands they record.

What the engineers listen to is not even the same as what the consumer listens to. Different equipment. Different environment. Different acoustics. Everything is different. What is even more interesting is that virtually every consumer has all different variables as well. Thus, the engineer attempts to make the product appeal to the masses while retaining the intricate nuances of the music itself. When the audiophile gets into the mix, they want to reproduce the music in its natural form. A difficult task today when it wasn't even recorded in its natural form. In fact, a "natural" sound may not even truly exist at all.

Today, hardly anybody has a "listening room" anymore. There are a few of us who immerse ourselves into the music as a form of relaxation and to get away from the stresses of life. Vinyl sales are rising and vintage Hi-Fi gear is in great demand today. More and more people are getting back into the listening environment to get more out of their music. Hopefully this trend will continue.

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