Music Machines | part three

The project as artwork and intellectual challenge


To the second part of this article


Dead can dance

The title of this series of articles comes from the fact that in our hobby, or rather in our passion, machines effectively play the leading role.

From the Latin machina, the term refers to any device, with inside more or less complex mechanisms, aimed at carrying out a given function. Besides, in range of musical playback, there are at least two typologies of transducers. The first ones can be assimilated to motor machines or engines "that convert electric power into mechanical motion". For us, ad example, the loudspeakers. The second ones can be assimilated to generator machines or generators that "convert mechanical motion into electric power". These last ones are the microphones and, obviously, also the cartridge of your dear analogue turntable. It is almost superfluous to specify that the amplification chains belong to the class of the electric machines.


Now, the machines are thought, imagined and, above all, designed by engineers: not by musicians, listeners, reviewers, consultants or sales representatives. This statement is implicitly specified by our Executive Editors in the Method section of our web magazine and explicitly by the famous John Atkinson, editor of Stereophile, about the legendary John Curl, an “Engineer”, precisely.

John Curl - for the youngest readers - is someone that could say word of mouth "I Am Legend" like Will Smith in the homonymous movie. The audiophiles know his classic designs for the very first and mythic output of the Mark Levinson JC-2, for the Vendetta Research phono preamplifier, two hundred hand-made pieces that were considered replicas of a masterpiece, or for the mysterious CTC Blowtorch line preamp. Most recently, for excellent products designed for Parasound, the Halo series, or for the incredible brand new Constellation devices.


John Curl starts his career designing professional instruments and, specifically, reel-to-reel tape recorders for Ampex. Thereafter, he is among the authors of one of the most incredible musical instruments in history: The Wall of Sound, the enormous public address system designed by engineer Owsley "Bear" Stanley specifically for the Grateful Dead's live performances. The Wall of Sound was designed to fulfill a very ambitious target: a distortion-free sound system that could also serve as its own monitoring system. It was not a system created to reproduce music, but rather a system for its making: thus a musical instrument. And the musical instruments are machines indeed. Inspired, suggested, required by the musicians, although designed by engineers.


In the introduction of the Steinway Lyngdorf Model D, the only High-End system that is the proud holder of the Steinway brand - yes, the piano's brand -, Peter Lyngdorf speaks of the men that made the last piano for Franz Liszt. Yet Beethoven used to ask to the manufacturers more strong pianos given that at the end of the concerts they were worn-out.

Liszt used to start his concerts pulling off his gloves and throwing them to the audience, something never tried out, not even by Michael Jackson. His performances compromised definitively the acoustic surviving of a fortepiano. Because inside the nineteenth-century fortepiano there is a wooden harp and often no kind of metallic support. The reason is because the framework onto which the grand piano strings are inserted has the same morphology and function of a harp, and in the upright piano, this one is "bent in half". Stressed to the extreme limit, the wooden framework deformed itself making impossible to get a perfect and enough stable re-tuning, because the strings of a harp are plucked, but those of the piano are hit by hammers, and depending on the pianist, also with great accelerations.

As you can verify on Wikipedia, at the beginning of the XX century, Steinway & Sons of New York introduced an authentic technologic revolution: the piano with a cast iron plate. They had to thank top engineers and physicians like Hermann von Helmholtz, extraordinary homo universalis, German doctor, physician and physicist. But, the pessimist-conservator would say, there are no more men like von Helmholtz. Sure, nowadays there are different men and different are their “creatures”. Ad example, look for any news about an Italian engineer who gives himself the luxury of depriving of some nights of sleep the Steinway & Sons' men. Look for "Eng. Paolo Fazioli” together with the entry "piano". You will see incredible things.


Back to the machines for reproducing - and not making - music based on such an obvious consideration that just few ignore: in our age and in the common belief there is more playback than live "music". The opposite happened until a couple of centuries ago. However, we have to take into account that, among the paradoxical effects the digital revolution has brought into the market of the recorded music, there is, at least for the great international artists, a return to a profitability of the live concerts: because those ones hardly come illegally on the Internet with a velocity proportional to the author's fame.


Which kind of instruments allow the recording and the playback of the music is something known to my readers: : they must be here for this reason. And I do not linger in telling its story: I will give you some hints easy to find on the Internet, like in the learned article of Marino Mariani (Italian only) unforgotten Editor of Audiovisione.


But I will linger on one principle. The definition of Transcendental Systems.


Many, many years ago, in an editorial named Dr. Kreisel ad Parnassum (Audiovisione, N. 44, 1980), Marino Mariani himself introduced the concept of transcendental loudspeaker. The prerequisite was that the sound made by high fidelity systems was "alike the real sound" and, above all, was intended to arouse the same psycho-acoustic emotions in the case that the spectra of energetic distribution were identical, that is when the reproduced sound was globally and structurally identical to the original musical event. The two prerequisites at the basis of this statement were: 1) the capacity of numerical recording without any limitation in bandwidth and dynamic level and 2) the possibility of making the transcendental loudspeakers, so called for their capacity of "giving a response from 0 Hz of direct current and making sound levels higher than 100 dB below 30 Hz”.


These statements were published about thirty-two years ago. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. In the last years, the principle put as a foundation of these statements has been called into question. What has become clear is that the experience of listening to the live music is something completely different from listening to the playback music. First, because the same process of "capturing" the musical event, the recording, is a form of representation.

Without making any complicate linguistic and philosophical disquisitions, we would say that it is possible to compare different photographic shots. In the old issues of Life magazine, you can easily recognize the aesthetic choices - which are also the outcome of technical choices and possibilities - put at the basis of a collection of black and white photos from the Vietnam war, with the contribute of the Nikon F cameras, rather than of those color photos that provided documentary evidence of the Apollo missions, taken with the Hasselblad camera. Pictures totally different from the shots taken by the great artists of the National Geographic and by other great artists of the camera. You do not have to be an expert: also if you do not know anything about photography you can easily notice a "style" that makes recognizable the photos by Henri Cartier-Bresson from those by Edward Weston, or the photos by Robert Capa from those by Franco Fontana. Anyway, only an idiot would consider as a parameter the "real scene" that the photo accompanies. On the contrary: the photo of a real master is like that because it lets you observe the reality with eyes different from yours. To observe things that you could not see even if you had watched them directly!


It fails the idea that is possible to reproduce at home spectra of energetic distribution that are analog to those of a real musical event. This, because you think that the sound engineer responsible, first of the recording and then of the mastering, always opts for some technical and aesthetical choices to make his work a real interpretation of the sound event. Interpretation where the choices concerning the whole reproduction system are played in the respect of all the surrounding conditions, starting from the listening room and its setup: Jim Smith docet!


A part from the spontaneous human tendency to split into factions and then fighting religion wars, it is just this reason that makes possible to have school of thoughts in the framework of the playback and no one of these with some last "truth". There are simply many great photographers but, reasonably, no one "the best photographer in the world". In fact, it would be ridiculous speaking of the "best food in the world", the "best perfume", etc.


So, is it everything good? No way.


Reaching specific levels of accuracy in the sound playback is an engineering challenge. We have spoken of John Curl: his articles, together with those of Matti Otala, Walt Jung and Eero Leinonen (PDF) have opened the way to the verification methods of the waveforms. They have allowed the individuation of typologies of distortion that before were considered immeasurable. These people have also brought to a new control method to achieve the targets of the design. Whoever has taken an interest also marginal in Hi-Fi, High-End or High Performance Audio, as we say nowadays, knows the diatribe between "measurements-fans" and "listening-fans".


We will get on it again. Today, instead, I will propose the likelihood of measuring not only the performances of a music machine but, rather, as it seems obvious from my background - I have studied medicine, neurology and radio diagnostic, not engineering, and I have written of neuroradiology, psychology and biosemiotics - which different physiologic reactions can be induced in a listener by using different apparatus for the reproduction of the sound.


In an old article, Musica per la pelle (Music for the skin), written for the column L’Amateur Professionnel on Suono magazine, I roughed out that the playback music - strongly depending from the specific unique moment and modalities at which we listen to, and from the specific meaning that a musical piece has for us - can cause an emotional reaction. Emotional reaction that could appear a bit mysterious to the engineers, but easy to measure for a neurophysiologist.

Some parameters, like the frequency of the pulse and of the breath or the cutaneous conductibility, can accurately reflect an emotional reaction, as happens with the lie detector. The lie detector cannot "read the mind": it simply records and measures an emotional reaction from stress, started from a false answer to a specific question. The lie detector works because very sensible, for example, to the change of the electric conductibility that precedes the phenomenon of the "sweaty hands" that occurs when we are lying.

Even when we are getting ready to lie. In not specifically trained subjects, this reaction is completely out of the conscious control.

Therefore, systems that demonstrate in a consistent way - I mean repeatable and verifiable in more than one subject - to be able of "putting thrills", the goose bumps, at least theoretically, have, as a consequence, that they can be susceptible of a comparison based on the measurements in the alterations induced in the electric cutaneous conductibility. Or in the acceleration of the pulse. Or of the breathing cadence. It has become common among the reviewers to monitor the non-verbal reactions of every person present at the listening sessions. "You said that amp performed so and so... But you made such a face when I connected it!"

This is a very important parameter. In fact, a system capable of moving also prevents the most enthusiastic lunatic to linger on the improvements and on the fine-tuning that a system always requires. It also proposes, in a spontaneous and natural way, a possibility of contact with the world of meanings and poetry that constitutes the communicative intention of the musician or composer.


Now, transcending the system literally, getting in touch with the Music, is the first feature that I suggest for the new definition of Transcendental Systems. I am speaking of systems and not only loudspeakers, because the capacity of resolution and the relative transparency that each component of a system has reached in these decades, consent to the systemic approach – where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts the whole is - to be an imperative thing. It is a pillar of the science of the complex systems, always and only explicable in terms of emergent properties. Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. "Emergence is central to the theories of integrative levels and of complex systems".

At a further level, the one of the relatively rare authentic Esoteric Masterpieces, I propose the possibility that the system evokes a flow experience, also called optimal experience: a phenomenon often seen in the agonistic trance. The phenomenon was observed and described by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975 and it associates sportsmen and musicians. They can find it out in a direct comparison like in the program E se domani, (And if tomorrow), during an interview by Alex Zanardi to Giovanni Allevi. The topic has been touched about five minutes after the beginning of the fragment recorded on YouTube.


Occasionally, in the reviews on the systems of playback, we feel a strange " slowdown" during the listening of a music piece we know very well. It is not an authentic slowdown. The pitch, the tone of the single notes, has not changed, but we distinctly perceive every single passage. As if the level of the resolution would allow the music to present itself in unreleased forms, with more naturalness and intelligibility, to our perceptive apparatus. It is a unique opportunity for the non-musicians. That only the big systems, and only if well tempered or, if you prefer, perfectly tuned, can realize.


But why all this? Because, as happened for the photography before and for the cinematography after, the recording allows to immortalize a unique event. We know from historical documents that, at the end of a Beethoven's piano concert, the pianos were worn-out, but we do not know how actually Beethoven or his performers had played. The same thing happens in the legendary Paganini's concerts.


Independently from the specific interpretation that the "curators" of the recording and reproduction realise, what counts is the quality of the procedures. A lot. As assistant of Edison, Theo Wangemann, during an exhibition in Hamburg realized one of the first audio documents: Brahms adlibs at the piano the first Hungarian dance.

Have you ever heard it? Can you bet that is Brahms himself? Can you hazard any evaluations on his piano skills? No, because the recording quality does not consent it. And in the impossibility of increasing the informative content, the use of better playback systems would worsen the situation.

It is easy to understand why, although the invention of the cylinder phonograph dates back to 1877 - Liszt died in 1886 - we have not been worried too much about this "opportunity loss". In less lucky occasions, it has immortalized the not excelling performing skills of great composers instead....


A transcendent system can deceive us in a literal sense: it can generate the illusion of the existence here and now of a musical event that takes place in front of us: of our ears, our brain, and our body.

Not necessarily the illusion of a live concert: but sometimes in deep contact with the mind and the art of an artist. Without limits of space or time. Because Miles Davis and Bill Evans are dead, but Kind of Blue is immortal. It is just like that: dead can dance!


3 out of 4 - To the fourth part of the article




This series of articles has started in August 2011. ReMusic was online from a couple of months only. Many things to do for a new web magazine. Neither blog nor forum. Just the first and authentic Italian magazine with international versions, so far unique. In the meantime, the articles tied up in bundles, the urgencies have grown, and the contributions multiplied. The editors wanted the desirable object, new devices to test. The readers, for the most part, asked for articles of new devices. For this reason, also articles like this, dense and steamy of knowledge and meanings, have unjustly been "put aside" to follow the plaudit of clicks and contacts.

I apologize for that, because with this kind of articles we write the real story of our sector. And only such articles, innovative and visionary, but also reasoned and scientific, make history.


by Angelo N. M.
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