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Why Sound Quality Matters

Rock 'n Soul Alley is full of ratings and comments about sound quality, a concept with many twists and turns. Here is my take on it:

Each of us has a unique sensory and emotional experience in listening to music. Still, everybody hears the difference between live and poorly recorded music, just as we all taste the difference between fresh and canned food, and see the difference between loved ones in the flesh and in cell phone pictures. Everyone appreciates quality differences in sound, taste, and vision when they are so obvious. Otherwise, under ordinary circumstances, it's more like "different strokes for different folks." Whether you pay close attention to how music sounds (or how food tastes, or how pictures look) depends on your personality and priorities, and, above all, on what your personal experiences have been with live and recorded music.

Although I sang and played instruments and even wrote and arranged music in college, I paid little attention to recorded sound quality until I learned about the differences between U.S. and import versions of Beatles albums (in my late twenties). Previously, I hadn't understood the emotional impact of better sound quality on my listening experience. Once I realized how much it added to my pleasure, my interest in sound quality took on a life of its own: I enjoyed learning more about how it worked, and especially the payoff in finding and hearing the best-sounding versions of my most loved music. I turned into a sound quality enthusiast.

But not a typical audiophile. You don't need expensive gear to hear the sonic differences that most affect me. When I play guests a comparison between two versions of the same music, pointing out what to listen for, they always recognize the difference and appreciate the demonstration. I believe most people are affected emotionally by sound quality whether or not they realize it. (There is plenty of social science evidence that judgments and feelings are seriously affected by things we are not consciously aware of.)

I also consider the subject of sound quality to be part of music appreciation, and thus a valid component of Arts Education. Better sound quality brings the listener closer to the source of the music, to the creativity and personal expression of the soul(s) at the other end of the communication. As fresh food is more nourishing to the body than processed food, high-quality sound is more nourishing to the spirit than low-quality sound.

At live musical performances we hear the sound directly. But even then, the sound's quality is affected by the physical characteristics (the "acoustics") of the room or venue. What we hear is always altered by what is done to the sound between its origins and our ears. The concept of "high fidelity" defines the best quality sound as the least distorted by what happens to it on its path from original creation to the form in which we hear it. (I've written another piece specifically about the steps on this path.)

Some recordings—for example, most jazz performances—are meant to be heard precisely as performed. High fidelity is the most sensible criterion of sound quality for all recordings like these. The other context where high fidelity makes most sense is for reissues of original recordings. Some may debate this point, but I feel very strongly that reissues should never "mess with" a recording's original sound.

Most rock and soul recordings, however, are created with a different mindset. One aspect of rock and soul music—sometimes the most important one—is the sound itself. At the dawn of rock & roll, Sam Phillips added "slapback echo" to Elvis Presley's records. We've all heard about the "Spector Sound" and the "Motown Sound." A standard part of a guitar player's tool kit is an "effects" box.

More often than not, the sound is intentionally manipulated pretty much throughout the creative process of recording rock and soul music. For this reason it makes no sense at all to use high fidelity to the original performance as a criterion of rock and soul music sound quality. Lacking a theoretical justification, we're on our own to tease apart how much we like the sound of a recording on artistic/musical grounds versus how much the quality of the sound engineering, mixing, mastering, and manufacturing of the product contribute to the final result. Some of the time, no doubt, it's a fool's errand even to try. (I've written another piece specifically about what figures into my sound quality ratings.)

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