Inspiration for a blog can come from any number of places. In the August/September print edition of Sound & Vision, Ken C. Pohlmann writes about the issues involved in cataloging classical music for access on music streaming sites.
Classical music as a category is a catch-all term for compositions originally played in front of a live audience. Most such music is a century or more old, but adventurous composers are still writing it today. It’s similar to modern “popular” music (rock, country, metal, and more) mainly in the fact that it’s now experienced more from recordings than viewed and heard live.
But while classical music is tricky to define, anyone even remotely familiar with today’s pop music can instantly distinguish classical music from the music produced by past and present iconic pop performers such as Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, or the Beatles. They’re all classic in their own way, of course, but for my purposes here classical music is defined as performed by orchestras, choirs, or smaller groups with or without singing and (usually) without external amplification. It encompasses hundreds of “classical” composers, some well-known, others not so much. There are also outliers that many people would consider classical but others would not — the comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan, for example.
The late J. Gordon Holt, founder of our sister publication, Stereophile didn’t, as far as I know, deprecate popular music, but was a strong proponent of well-recorded classical music, viewing it as the only genre fully suited for judging audio gear. That’s no longer a popular opinion, but in one respect Gordon had a point.
Virtually all popular music today is recorded in a small studio with multiple microphones and often heavily equalized and dynamically compressed to sound as loud as possible. What it should actually sound like on a quality audio system is anyone’s guess, but it probably doesn’t come close to resembling what the original performance sounded like in the studio. It might still sound impressive, but is it “high fidelity?” Probably not, which raises a question:
Does the term “high fidelity” still have any true meaning?
Yes, but only on the playback side, where it likely means an accurate reproduction by the playback system of what’s on the recording, which will differ from what was heard in the studio in any number of ways. The portion of the recording chain between the sound heard in the studio and what your audio system receives from the recording of it is a gray area and will likely always remain so. The playback system itself is full of pitfalls, even if the audio system is theoretically perfect (and it will never be given, in particular, the contributions of both loudspeakers and rooms).
But I digress. The best symphonic recordings employ a limited number of microphones discretely positioned for the best acoustic result. The goal is to have as little manipulation of the mic feeds at the recording console as possible. But most such symphonic classical recordings today use far more microphones than did the best recordings of the past, and not necessarily for multichannel playback. More microphones allow for creative mixdowns into 2 (or more) channels. But while a symphonic recording can sound spectacular on a good system, it will always be limited by the fact that you can’t properly reproduce the impact of 100 musicians playing in a domestic space — not that you’d want to!
My interest in audio (and later video as well) began (as it likely did with many of you) at the movie theater. My obsession with a film’s sound, often in the impact of its music score, likely triggered an early interest in music in general. I have a sizeable collection of film scores on CD, but few of them sound anywhere near as good as when they accompany the film as intended (with the exception of where music in the film is toned down to make room for the dialogue).
Why might that be?
One possible reason is that when the music is mixed into the movie, the filmmakers might be present during the process. But if that mix is later transferred to a 2-channel version for the CD release that oversight might be less stringent. The final days or weeks of preparation for a movie’s launch can be hectic. Among other things, the theatrical opening date is set well in advance, and moving it can be financially crippling. Passionate movie fans are also likely to look for the soundtrack CD of a favorite film immediately after seeing it (or at least might have done so in CD’s more halcyon days!). And since most are not as fussy about sound quality as audiophiles, the CD might still sell reasonably well. The financial downside of a late disc release may well be more critical than the disappointment of a few hypercritical audiophile buyers.
But for me the often mediocre quality of movie soundtracks on CD has greatly reduced the possibility that I’ll buy such CDs. But if I liked a film in the theater, I’ll always consider adding the full movie on either 2K or 4K Blu-ray into my collection. And it often sounds better on my home system than it did in the theater. Unlike in the movie theater, I can control the sound level. No one who has viewed a movie on my system has complained about it being too loud, though it’s often played at a level that would risk the ire of my neighbors if I lived in an apartment. (Sadly, most moviegoers are likely to judge a theater’s sound on how loud it is, not how good it is!). The surround sound is also often less impressive in a commercial theater (though this will vary with the quality of your local multiplex). Third, I can control the balance of the mix to a degree, adjusting the sound levels of each channel to ensure that the dialogue, music, and effects are ideally set. The maintenance of your local commercial theater’s setup is often sadly neglected. I avoided my local IMAX for years (during Covid, of course, and also until Oppenheimer came along) because the sound in that theater, particularly the music, appeared to come mostly from the surrounds!