Listening To Studio Monitors

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I’m at an electronics store, in the studio monitors listening room. It’s dark and the temperature feels about 50 degrees. I wish I brought hat and gloves—it’s frigid in here. The salesman turns on the song “Deacon Blues” from Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja, which is probably the most listened to album by people demoing monitors because is was expertly recorded and has such a lush, hi-fi warm analog stereo, this-is-how-real-musicians-play sound. The salesman turns up the volume to an unpleasant level so I can feel the thump of Steely Dan’s super-tight rhythm section (Steve Gadd is on drums: that snare sound—wow!). The music comes out of one set of speakers for about ten seconds, then switches to another set. The salesman is touching a computer screen, making the speaker changes, but not telling me where he’s going next. I look up to locate the new sound location then glance over his way with an Oh it’s over here now? It’s like a real life video game: using my ears, I have to find the correct set of vibrating speakers and then quickly shuffle left or right to position myself at the mid-point between them to listen for a few seconds before the salesman assigns the music to another set. I wish he’d slow down though. The scene is funny, except since we’re the only ones in this cold room no one else is around to laugh about it.

What am I listening for? No one tells you what to listen for (a fact that applies to music generally too). I think I’m listening for speakers that “sound good” but more importantly, that sound true—meaning that reflect what is actually happening in the music without “coloring” it in any substantial way. For instance, a speaker might accentuate the low frequencies in the music, which will give you an exaggerated sense of what the bass in your music is doing. This is not good. Instead, what you want, as much as possible, is a speaker whose “flat” frequency response doesn’t exaggerate any one band of the music’s frequency spectrum. In audiophile and professional recording parlance, flat monitors are crucial for accurately reproducing the music as it actually is. This is important when you’re mixing because you need assurance that the levels you’re adjusting reflect what is actually there. This all gets metaphysical pretty fast because music’s sound and location—music’s is-ness—are never static facts. Where exactly is music’s there? Just as live music sounds different depending on where you are in relation to it—Are you the performer? The listener? Where is the music happening vis-a-vis where you are?—recorded music sounds different depending on the speakers or headphones you’re using to reproduce it. How music sounds also depends on the acoustics of your listening room, but that’s for another discussion.

After a few minutes of Steely Dan, we listen next to Miles’ 1959 album, Kind Of Blue. I immediately hear a faint hiss from the speakers—it’s the room tone of the studio in which Miles and his band recorded—and remark to the salesman how this phenomenon doesn’t exist anymore in contemporary electronic music’s airless digital and auto-tuned realm. The room tone makes it feel like the salesman and I are with Miles, turning this cold listening room into the studio where he recorded. Over the room tone I hear the bass introduce the question mark theme of “So What”, the piano and horns answer it, and panned very hard to the right speaker is the shimmering ride cymbal of Jimmy Cobb. It’s like Cobb is three feet away. “The ride sounds amazing” I say with an emoji smile. The salesman remarks how great a sound they got back in the 1950s at those famous old New York studios. Kind of Blue was recorded (in two days) at Columbia Records’ 30th Street Studio, also known as “The Church” because the space was originally the Adams-Parkhurst Memorial Presbyterian Church. (Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Pink Floyd’s The Wall were also recorded here.) “It’s incredible that they recorded a sound with that kind of detail without even having good monitors” the salesman says. I never thought about it that way. “But they did have good microphones” I offer.

The salesman then taps his screen again and we listen to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a song that until today I had only ever heard coming out of televisions speakers. Nirvana’s music isn’t as crisp in its high frequencies as either the Miles or Steely Dan recordings. In fact, it sounds rather ugly—kinda grungy, actually—like it was recorded hastily and the musicians insisted that their levels to be in the red because it sounds more lumberjack plaid jacket aggressive that way. The music isn’t helped by the salesman turning up the volume ever higher, perhaps under the impression that I’m a rock fan even though I keep backing ever farther away from the wall of speakers as the song punches itself along. Cobain keeps repeating A denial! A denial! A denial! and I realize that I always thought he was saying Turn the lights out! Turn the lights out! Turn the lights out! Oops. As he says at the end of one verse, Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Just make the music stop. After numbing ourselves with Nirvana we talk some more about the build quality of the various speakers. I’m still freezing but focused. “I’m not a fan of Genelec’s metal casings” the salesman says, tapping its shell, “they don’t sound as warm as wood because, you know, wood ages.” We also marvel at how far consumer-priced pro audio equipment has come over the years. “Your average Joe Consumer isn’t going to pay a thousand bucks for a set of speakers anymore. You got podcasters and video editors using these things—it’s a whole new ballgame now.”

Standing in front of the speaker wall, listening to one set at a time and alternating among brands, I’m still finding it difficult to find substantial differences from one set to another. They all sound more than adequate for my needs. Okay, maybe the Mackies sound the most spacious (“They’re my favorites!” the salesman says), until I hear the JBLs (“Great speakers, no doubt”), which makes the Mackies sound a tad muted, until I hear the Focals, which sound punchier than the JBLs, until I hear the Adams (“You can’t go wrong with them”) whose ribbon tweeters make all of the other monitors sound a tad strained. Maybe if Miles were in here with us he would set us straight (The speaker doesn’t make the music he might say, in a whisper).

I clear my voice a bit, “Do you have anything…Classical? Like strings? Or piano?” I can’t believe I just asked that. The salesman probably hears: “Do you have any music that’s more relaxing that Nirvana? Something more…mellow?” But Nirvana at 100 decibels won’t help me discern anything about sound reproduction. After  scrolling through the iTunes playlist the salesman finally finds us a stray Mozart symphony and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” We listen to Mozart’s cheerful strings for a bit and then switch to Beethoven’s brooding piano. “That shit was written a few hundred years ago and still sounds great” he says. I agree. “Remember, the audiences back then never heard music on speakers—ever. They had to go to a concert to hear that. That’s why those concert halls were designed so you could hear everything.” We listen in silence for a while as the Beethoven piece unfold itself, one slow and inexorable arpeggio at a time. “The speaker just disappears into the music, doesn’t it?” I say. Or maybe great music overtakes the speaker? The salesman nods. “That’s the idea.”

 

 

 

On Spotify’s Vastness Versus Listening’s Smallness  

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The other day I was browsing through Spotify’s seemingly endless genre categories (a subject for a future blog post), marveling at how the company’s algorithms manage to carve music into so many micro-genres. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not just about rock, hip hop, EDM, and classical anymore: through Spotify’s eyes, there’s a musical niche for everyone, no matter how idiosyncratic you think your tastes might be. Scrolling through some classical music playlists (wondering why and how Rachmaninoff and Max Richter came together) I noticed a playlist called “Indian Classical Music For Studying.” And in case you’re wondering if this list has been carefully calibrated for studying, I would say probably not—it’s just a collection of some of the world’s finest Indian classical musicians including Ali Akbar Khan, Imrat Khan, Ravi Shankar, and others. The playing is so expressive and interesting I don’t know how anyone could study with this music on—unless of course you’re studying melodic improvisation, in which case this playlist is an encyclopedia. (Side note: Why isn’t Indian music required transcription material for western musicians? High school stage bands could be arranging these improvisations instead of playing “Birdland.”)

I decided to give the playlist a chance and started listening to Ustad Sultan Khan playing rag Shuddh Kalyan. Khan (1940-2011) was a prominent sarangi player and vocalist. The sarangi, one of many stringed instruments used in North Indian classical music (the most well-known of which is the sitar), is short-necked lute with many strings that produces a hollow, echoing sound. When a musician imitates vocal sounds on the sarangi using little shakes (gamaks) and sliding movements (meends) on the strings, it can sound eerily like singing. It’s for this reason that I like listening to this kind of music because it’s a change from my regular diet of sharp attack, short-decay percussive stuff. Khan plays the Kalyan raga, which is a set of pitches that sound somewhat like the western major scale, though not at all exactly. Khan explores the raga through a thirteen-minute alap, which is the slow and unmetered opening section of an improvisation that introduces the raga over a drone backdrop. I find alaps the most interesting parts of Indian classical music performances because they build so much tension and intrigue before the tabla drums enter and things get more regimented (i.e. a meter is introduced) and therefore predictable (i.e. phrases end in unison on beat one of the meter, etc.).

All of this is digression from my main point: as I listened to Khan’s spaciously expressive alap I thought about the disjuncture between the vastness of  Spotify’s algorithmically-organized content and smallness or specificity of how musicians actually create and listeners actually listen. Listening to Khan (several times now), I marveled at how many tiny details he incorporated into every beautiful phrase. One could spend hours on these ten minutes, finding lessons on phrasing, form, and affect. One could conceivably ignore all of Spotify’s other offerings and spend a year studying “Indian Classical Music for Studying.” I won’t do that, but one lesson from this encounter is that sometimes it’s worth thinking about what the music itself offers. What meaningful sense impression or insight can you extract from its sounds? Does the music leave memory traces? Does it contain moments that resonate with you? Having all the music choices in the world is wonderful, but one can also excavate endless interest within a single performance.

Resonant Thoughts: “Tympanum of the Other Frog” In John Corbett’s “Microgroove”

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In the preface to his excellent book Microgrooves (2015), critic and musician John Corbett recounts listening to the sounds of frogs by a pond with his father when he was eight years old. Corbett’s dad told him to focus on the sound of one particular frog among the full chorus. “Now, he said, keeping that one in mind, try to hear another one at the same time.” Once Corbett could do this, another task: “Listen to the new voice in relation to the first one…OK, now see if you can switch them.” Corbett expands on the lessons he was learning:

“My dad was teaching me about polyrhythms. Setting me up for Steve Reich and jazz. That’s already pretty mind-blowing for an eight-year-old, but there was more. I couldn’t put a name on it, but I also understood that he was showing me something deeper, a principle. If I was able, by shifting my focus, to change the rhythm I was hearing, then listening must be a relative activity. A listener has to make decisions about how to listen. It’s not just a passive thing. And in order to do that, to put yourself into the right space to be able to make informed listening decisions, you have to pay attention.”

Willy-Nilly Listening

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Though it may not be the most accurate way to describe what I mean, willy-nilly listening captures the random element of how I often encounter music as it accompanies other things. It’s overheard in that loud car that zooms past, it’s background for those TV shows, it’s keeping strangers on the subway at bay by filling headphones, it’s the latest pop hit soundtracking the moment that is this week. Most of the music I notice I can’t really control (which is the number one reason why I compose).

Willy-nilly Listening also describes some of my deliberate listening as I keep up with trends or re-visit agreed upon old gems. I skip around from one music to another, sometimes listening to just a few seconds as if taunting the music, come on, let’s see if you can hold my attention. (I’m somewhat ruthless about not giving musics the benefit of the doubt. It has to prove itself on its own terms.) Sometimes after skipping around for days or weeks I’ll return to one piece and obsess on it, playing it over and over again, trying to figure out how it works–or not figure it out and just bask in its workings. If a music has made it this far up my attentional ladder, I might then see how it fares when I play it in juxtaposition with say, Messiaen or Autechre–just to mess with it a bit. The point of this exercise is to ask: What is this music doing that other music’s don’t do? But now I notice how those other (older) musics are still working their respective magics. What were those musics trying to do that hadn’t been done? All of a sudden my willy-nilly listening reveals itself to having more goals that I realized.

“Music is a machine for producing anticipation” notes the critic Dave Barry in his book The Music of the Future (118). Barry’s idea strikes me as a fundamental insight about how all musics work—from the mood music in TV ads, to Bach’s fugues, to pop and jazz and EDM, to West African dance drumming, to even ambient music. In generating perpetual anticipation, music brings a method to our attentional madness, giving us a series of cues for what to attend to and how to attend for as long as the sounds last. (“Music” said one of my teachers, David Burrows, “is a hypothesis that works for a while.”) When we listen we’re always comparing what we’re hearing to what just happened and what might be around the corner, suspended in a state that, for me anyway, is halfway between dreaming and perfect lucidity. Whether our listening is willy-nilly or not, there are few better ways to spend our time.

Alien Aurality

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Imagine how an alien
sensibility might hear
your music
as a series of sound-gestures
meaning otherwise
than what practiced moves should mean

so that jazz isn’t swing
rock doesn’t rebel
classical can’t conjure
and dance won’t trance

as the sensibility hears
through and beyond
your musical moves
past even their signals’ social
and resonant rapport

to reach further along
the spectrum of sense
than a musician can know
by playing his axe
in concert with others

because the alien’s sense
is deaf to your sounds
but attuned
to their language
of impossible signs.

A Creative Compass: Music Is Feeling, Not Sound

 

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In the second stanza of his poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier”, Wallace Stevens makes a simple observation about the nature of music with an acuity that exceeds the findings of the most sophisticated music theorists:

“Music is feeling, then, not sound.”

Stevens brings our attention to one of music’s central curiosities: how it’s built from one thing (sounding vibrations) but is about another (felt feeling).

I keep returning to this line whenever I’m assessing music I’m listening to or when I’m working on something of my own. What Stevens understands is the many ways music can do its emotional work not only through its sound, but despite its sound, or in contrast to its sound. Keeping Stevens’ line in mind, I’ll ask myself how the music is working on a feeling level. What is it doing (to me)? What is it trying to achieve? How does it push or pull me along? How the music is working as sound is usually audibly transparent, but its feeling quality is a more complicated matter. A music can trigger multiple sensations simultaneously, like a mallet striking five bells at once: there’s an initial klang, but then you hear all those individual pitches overlapping into a chord and dissipating as they go their separate harmonic ways over time. How do all of us non-scientist listeners unpack this as we go along?

Stevens’ line also emboldens me to be a critical listener: as I listen I want evidence of some kind of emotional stance and if that stance doesn’t materialize sooner rather than later, which is to say that if the music seems to be more about sound than about feeling—I’ll jump ship. Maybe it’s for this reason that I’m weary of virtuosos or those who have pursued a technique to some exaggerated end. Musicians keep your attention through the feelings they generate, not their sounds per se.

The most useful application of Stevens’ line though, is to use it as a creative compass. The next time you’re inside that song, or at the concert, or playing an instrument, ask yourself whether or not the music is about the feeling or about the sound.