Elwood H. Smith
THE SOUND OF INTEGRITY
AUGUST 9, 2006
My Tetra 305
In 1982, I became an audiophile. I needed new loudspeakers and, to make at least part of this long story short, Maggie and I ended up wandering into The Sound Mill, a "high-end audio" den in Mount Kisco, NY. I wanted to replace my old Advents and the Sound Mill featured speakers with names like Naim, B&W and KEF. The listening room was filled with massive turntables sporting elegant tonearms poised like robotic birds above expensive, 180 gram LPs and huge mono power amps bristling with large vacuum tubes. Speakers the size of trailer homes trembled, waiting for another hit of Wagner's "Götterdämmerung". After "auditioning" (really, that's what us audiophiles say) several speakers, all exceeding my modest budget, I wrestled the checkbook from Maggie & bought two KEF speakers, modest in size. And, as I was soon to discover, modest in dynamic range. Once back in my listening environment, I experienced the first stirrings of my disease. The speakers certainly had more clarity than my Advents, but they lacked bass response. Back to the dealer. This is your lucky day, Mr Smith, we have a custom-made subwoofer, perfect for your needs! And that wimpy Advent receiver you are using is woefully inadequate. You'll need more power. Doesn't everyone need more power? I purchased a used preamp and an amp that looked ready for arc welding. For increased depth and transparency, I was urged to elevate my KEFs with a pair of spiked speaker stands. Sand-filled, of course.
I was hooked. I finally understood the pain of the alcoholic, the powerlessness of the drug addict. I began regularly upgrading the amps and preamps. The speakers begged for expensive oxygen-free cables and interconnects. As my ears became fine-tuned to audio nuance, they demanded increasingly costly cartridges (not "needles", you rube!). I bought and discarded airborne tonearms and sleeker, heftier turntables. I was a junkie, seeking the "perfect sound". My various systems did a credible job reproducing small solo instruments like the cello, guitar and harpsichord and small ensembles like string quartets, but my favorite composer was (and is) Gustav Mahler. I wasn't asking for much--just a stereo system capable of reproducing the faint tinkling of a triangle or the delicate tremolo of a bowl-backed mandolin AND (without distortion, please) the whomp of a huge bass drum or the thundering sound of massed strings pulsing beneath bellowing woodwinds and brass. This huge orchestra, of course, should fit comfortably in my 14 x 14 foot studio with an 7 foot ceiling.
Not long after Maggie and I moved to Rhinebeck, I began subscribing to "Cadence", a small format jazz magazine. A guy named Vladimir ran ads in the magazine offering high-quality audio equipment and a no-bullshit stance on audio advice. What the hell, I thought, maybe this Russian cat can answer my audio prayers. I dialed up NorthCountry's number. Vladimir Vastonovich, please, I said, twitching, as I rubbed the stylus tracks on my arms. Turns out Vladimir wasn't a sinister ex-KGB agent, but instead a cheerful member of "The Crew".
Vladimir is one of the most honest, straightforward persons I know. Definitely the most knowledgeable audio guy I have run upon--with intelligence, humor and energy to burn. He is also a serious triathlon or, probably by now, a quadathlon or worse. Not surprisingly, he's also a computer whiz. He has become a friend over the years and I'm here to tell you that, if you care about good sound, if you love music of any genre, and if you are thinking of upgrading your sound system, call NorthCountry Audio. I'm sharing this info with my Drawgerite friends because many of you share my passion for music and because so many articles posted here gravitate to the topic of honesty and integrity, in your art, your lives and your businesses.
That's my hook for this article, INTEGRITY. It is sorely lacking in the world these days. I can start with our leadership, what with the corruption, selfishness and greed of companies like Enron & Haliburton and the Katrina fiascos and so on. I often despair when reading the news, but I find solace beyond the carnage of governments and extremist religions in those small pockets of reason and kindness found in everyday life. I'm offering two examples of honest men, both residing in Redwood, New York.
HONEST GUY #1
To view old movie of Vladimir's first triathlon:
One is Vladimir Vastonovich, my audio guru. Thanks to his guidance, I ended up with an amazing audio system. It took us a while to sort out my sonic priorities. Vladimir sent many amps, preamps, tonearms, cables and speakers to Rhinebeck for me to audition over the years and I made several treks to Redwood, NY. Finally, I achieved Nirvana. Okay, nirvana with a lower-case "N". Musician friends flocked to my studio to listen to the most accurate sound in the Hudson Valley. About a year ago, I decided to downsize my audio rig. Life is an odd journey. Having found an amazing, nearly perfect sound system, I realized I didn't need it. I didn't want it. I traded my huge, glorious Brentworth Sound Lab speakers, my two TriMax mono tube amps, a classy Wytech Labs preamp, a VPI Turntable with the award-winning Graham Arm for a pared-down, no frills system: a Plinius integrated amp, an HHB CD player and two Tetra Loudspeakers. That's it. The quest is over.
I lost an octave of bass and some openness and transparency, but I gained peace of mind. No more trying to achieve another increment of perfection, trying to get closer to the Real Thing. My current system sounds great and it needs no care and feeding. It fits more comfortably in my small studio and the amp, having no tubes, allows for a cooler room in the summer. The system roughly approximates the sound of a live performance of Bach or Mahler, but it doesn't reach for the unattainable. I am at peace with simple, but excellent sound reproduction. It is damned fine and the hell with Tweaksville. I have other fries to fish.
That doesn't mean I wasted my time seeking that ultimate system--I learned a lot. It provoked anxiety, but it was great fun, too. My current system is the result of the long search. Vladimir was a great guide. He IS a no-bullshit guy with great ears and knowledge and his willingness to listen to your questions and provide answers and suggestions is priceless. He buys his stock outright and has no need pitch product--no agenda. A happy customer is his goal, not a profit margin. An example of what I'm saying: I sent my neighbor, Andy Weintraub, to NorthCountry Audio some years back. Andy wanted to buy a new sound system. Vladimir asked him what he was using. Andy was taken aback with Vladimir's recommendation: I don't believe you need a new system--let me send you a new receiver, he said. Try it out with your current speakers and see if it does the trick. If not, I'll send new speakers. Andy was ready and willing to spend a couple thousand bucks for a new system but Vladimir didn't think he needed it. The loudspeakers Andy was using seemed to Vladimir to be more than adequate. Only the electronics needed upgrading. Andy was delighted with the improvement. I doubt the kid at Best Buy or the salesman at J&R Music World would offer that advice.
In recent years, Vladimir has written a column for Cadence Magazine called "Sonics". He wanted to share his accumulated knowledge with Cadence readers, helping them to make informed decisions when buying stereo equipment. Mainstream audio magazines are dependent on advertising revenue and their articles are skewed to varying degrees by that dependency. Vladimir is free from that restraint. If a product produces crappy sound, he'll let you know, even if it is a major brand with a huge advertising budget (think Bose). If the product produces excellent sound but has little name recognition due to a focus on quality not promotion, Vladimir will do his best to get the word out. There is the unbiased "Consumer's Report", but they depend on measurements in their reviews of audio equipment and I don't trust their ears. I have good hearing and a fine-tuned sense of sound and music & I'm not easily fooled when it comes to sound reproduction. Vladimir has those qualities in spades. Some years back, I sat in his listening room determined to buy an extremely well-reviewed speaker system. After comparing my dream speaker to a set Vladimir recommended, I had to go with his choice--the BSL's. They weren't as lovely to look at, but there was no denying their sonic superiority. Vladimir spends hours auditioning the equipment he sells and, once he knows your budget and your musical priorities, he becomes your musical ally. A note for the budget minded: Vladimir regularly buys discontinued products he knows to be of high quality and passes the savings along to his customers. He offers modestly priced stereo rigs as well as "price-is-no-object" systems.
CIMP Recording Session (The Duval String Quartet)
HONEST GUY #2
The second honest soul I want to talk about is Bob Rusch. He live down the road from Vladimir. Bob has been publishing Cadence Magazine every month since 1976. He is a respected producer, critic, author with a deep respect, love and understanding of the Jazz scene. Bob began producing and distributing jazz & blues (he refers to it as "creative, improvised music") on the Cadence label in 1982. Cadence Magazine is a gem. First-rate musicians are interviewed in every issue. Some are high profile names, but many are superb musicians who are too often ignored by the mainstream magazines like "Jassiz" and "Downbeat". More recently Bob began producing a series of recording under the CIMP label. Creative Improvised Music Projects. The sound of these recordings is astonishing. Really. Here's what engineer Marc Rusch says about his approach to recording:
"CIMP records are digitally recorded live to two tracks. Digital recording allows for a vanishingly low noise floor and tremendous dynamic range. There is no compression, homogenization, EQ-ing, post-recording splicing, mixing, or electronic fiddling with CIMP performances."
Want to hear the results of Marc's recording approach? Order John Gunther's CD "Axis Mundi". It is a great album filled to the brim with outstanding music. Mostly melodic, some forays into atonality, but always inventive music making. The interplay between Gunther on tenor sax, clarinet & flute, Rob Thomas on violin, Ron Miles on trumpet, Leo Huppert on bass and viola and Jay Rosen on drums is pure musical magic. It is a joy to hear on any stereo system, but if you have a really good one, you will get taste of what I'm talking about when I say the CIMP CDs are as good as any audiophile label out there and better than most. The second track, "Deja Vu" starts off nice and melodic and wanders into track 3, "Matter (of choice)" a wonderfully weird atonal piece. Listen to the openness and realistic timbre of the instruments on track 2, like the woody plucking of Thomas chording along on his violin. It is almost as though you are inside his violin feeling the violin's top resonating--but, of course, the 2 microphones are some distance away, aimed at the entire group. You don't get individual mics hovering over each instrument like you find in most recording sessions. Marvel at the deep, but un-hyped upright bass sounds as the tune begins. Track 4, "Country Waltz" is one of my favorite. Graceful & tender, I can almost hear Tom Waits stepping in with one of his gruff vocals. The whole album is a recording marvel, but it's the music that counts and, for my money, Gunther has hit a truly high mark with his skillful merging of improvised/composed and melodic/free musical offerings. If you end up liking this CD you are in luck--CIMP offers 3 more Gunther CDs. And tons of other CDs with wide and varied approaches to creative Improvised music.
Tell you what, if you are a Drawger member and you buy the Gunther Axis Mundi CD and end up disagreeing with my assessment of the sound, I'll buy it from you. How's that? If you don't like the music, that's the luck of the draw(ger).
Much of the stuff on the CIMP label will give the uninitiated ear a thorough cleansing. It is not easy-listening jazz, though much of it is very accessible. The CIMP catalog is Pig Heaven if you are hungry for new musical experiences or already enjoy avant-garde improvised music. I tend to favor the more straight forward melodic stuff on the CIMP label like Gunther's CDs, but every musician on the CIMP roster is a pro and all are throughly committed artists. Bob Rusch has given the musicians a forum and he pays them advances, which is rare in the jazz industry. CIMP projects are not mainstream and the label was not created to make Rusch rich. In fact, the CDs rarely make a profit, but Bob insists they are a success the minute the music has been recorded and transferred to CD. They are artistic successes and Bob's goals and those of his musicians have been met. Anything else is gravy.
Vladimir and Bob Rusch are the kind of people I am proud to call my friends. Their aim is to produce something that enriches other's lives as well as their own. They are honorable men. It's not about the bottom line, it's about treating others with respect. The word integrity fits them like a Porkpie Hat.
(from Sonics 08/2006 in Cadence Magazine)
A recent flurry of surround sound experiences got me thinking again about the many differences between sound for video and sound for audio-only listening. Past "Sonics" articles have dealt with the mutual incompatibility between the two and why it is so hard to come up with a single system that does both well, with the best compromise being a system that at least has good audio for video and passable sound for audio. If the goal is fidelity to acoustic instruments and sensitive recordings, a surround sound system is just too full of "processing" bits and other electronics to pass the clean signal needed for that fidelity. While tone, timbre, resolution, and finesse are all desired attributes of a high end audio system, they are not intrinsic to a surround sound system, and, given the limited audio quality of most surround sound sources, it is not clear that these attributes would be a benefit for a video system. To help listeners understand this incompatibility, a discussion of desired sonic goals might be useful.
The ultimate goal of the audio listening system is generally considered to be fidelity to the source material. The goal of the source material is generally considered to be fidelity to the music as it was played during a recording session: straight wire with gain, neither taking nor adding anything to the signal. It would seem that this would be true as well for audio for video. And it is—sort of. With audio the link between fidelity and source is reasonably clear: hit a drum, record that sound, play back that sound, how close does the end come to the beginning? Sound for video fundamentally changes the equation because often there is no real world sound that one could use to compare the end result. Almost nothing with video sound has a real world copy. Sound effects are just that—sound effects meant to evoke a visceral reaction. Fist fights, footsteps, conversations (and who knows what a dinosaur sounded like?) in reality generally do not at all sound like the effects one hears in a movie. This lack of "fidelity" to the reality of the source is consistent with the visual images that are part of the reproduced experience. The screen images are not meant to be an accurate look at the world we live in, but instead are designed to evoke feelings through distortions of reality. The sound and the visuals are working in harmony to create a desired sensation, one that has been carefully crafted to suggest but not mimic real events. So, the goal of a sound for video system is to reproduce as realistically as possible the fabricated sounds of the source. This is fidelity to the source, keeping in mind that the source has no fidelity to anything real. This seemingly small difference accounts for the difference between a good audio system and a good audio for video system.
We now have a definition of accuracy for video sound. Now, how best to achieve that result? Well, the good news is that it will be a lot less frustrating than trying to put together a high end audio system. (As an aside, one of the reasons that high end audio systems are increasingly frustrating to establish has a lot to do with the lack of fidelity of many modern recordings. In effect, these systems are operating with cross purposes. With stereo playback there is the notion of fidelity to a real instrument. However, with more and more recordings being created with a "hyped" and non high fidelity sound, equipment designed to be accurate in this way often will not produce the desired results simply because the source is flawed and assumed not to be.)
With video you need three reasonably easily obtained and achieved factors. The first is solid amplification. Resolution is not so important as grace under pressure. Most video sound is overly bright, harsh, and a bit flat in presentation (little depth to the sound). Cheap amplifiers exacerbate this condition and can make for exhausting listening. The good news is that solid sound is not hard to find and any costs above that are generally unjustified, except in cases where you just need more power.
In much the same way as the amplification, speakers fall into the same category. They should be well designed, but not the highest resolution. In fact, higher resolution is more detrimental. There is not a lot of inner detail or fine resolution in video sound—no "there" there—and magnifying that deficiency does more harm than good. This is one of the reasons why a good audio system does not always make a good video system and vice versa. Speakers that would be great for a video system can often sound a little veiled or lacking in detail if placed in a high end audio system. There is some reasonable middle ground, but it is important to realize that you are not likely to get good surround sound (all five speakers) for merely $499.99. It is hard to find one good pair of stereo speakers at that price level, much less when you then have to add center, rear left/right, and a powered subwoofer.
The last factor is the powered subwoofer. You will need one if you want the visceral impact of those sound effects. Here, power and size make all the difference (assuming certain qualities are maintained) and what would be a mistake in a high end sound system is what will make a video sound system. While low end clarity and articulation are of some importance for surround sound, they are second to low end weight and authority. Low distortion is important and is what keeps a good subwoofer from being inexpensive. One could not be built for $250 and adequately meet the requirements—a good amp, good driver, and a really well built cabinet.
The good news is that putting together a fine surround sound system can be less painful than picking out an audio system. The bad news is that hype and marketing are still hype and marketing and thus there is no way to put together a solid system on the very cheap.
©2006 Cadence Magazine
Click here for the Jazz Weekly Interview with Bob Rusch
More about CIMP
You can contact Vladimir through Cadence/NorthCountry Audio
Redwood, New York 13679, USA
Cover art for all CIMP CDs is by Kara D. Rusch, another wonderful member of the Cadence Crew.