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Some Ruminations on The Absolute Sound and Musical Timing

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  • Some Ruminations on The Absolute Sound and Musical Timing

    ….Specifically the concept of there being an “absolute sound,” as opposed to The Absolute Sound magazine. (With all apologies to the late Harry Pearson whom I sure would have enjoyed debating this subject.)

    High-end audio is a constantly evolving journey and the more we listen, the more we should question things. It’s become increasingly apparent as I continue my evolution and delve more deeply into the music that musical timing, rhythm, etc. was a quality that HP missed, ignored, didn’t appreciate, etc. and that continues in high-end audio to the present day. No, we’re not talking about in the old days where PRAT was largely an exaggerated quality and resonance that gave the appearance of timing.

    It was largely through the efforts of people such as Gordon Holt and Harry Pearson that we have an audiophile language/vocabulary to assist in communicating what we hear. That is with eyes wide open that that reductionism isn’t perfect and comes with its own sets of issues. But in this case focusing on one quality at a time when listening to something so highly complex as music (with so many things happening at one time) allows for greater perceptual ability. At the same time, however, a listener can become too fixated on a few qualities—take imaging or dynamics—to the detriment of other qualities.

    HP defined the term the “absolute sound” as being the sound of unamplified live instruments. But is that necessarily correct? Partially correct? Is there an “absolute sound?” Was it about HP being a classical snob? Did HP also miss the boat when it came to musical timing? Was it as a manufacturer recently shared with me, “He (HP) was more locked into soundstage, timbre, and resolution but it is musical timing that let's your brain relax and think it is real.”

    Regarding an”absolute sound.” It’s not a stretch to say we can all agree that our systems should be able to reproduce the recording as it occurred. That includes the timbre, dynamic range and full frequency response of the performance. Admittedly a daunting, if not impossible task.

    But that’s where things get sticky because what’s recorded and comes out the other end aren’t necessarily the same. Hence the push for purist recording. But even those producers and engineers knew—just as the people who gave us the recordings from the Golden Age Of Stereo—that some tarting up was always necessary. After all, they were at the recording. So is the absolute fidelity to the actual performance or to the master tape or digital file?

    HP also felt that for many reasons that amplified instruments were not up to the task of reviewing audio equipment. Who knows what they are supposed to sound like? Truth be told every amplified and unamplified instrument sounds different so maybe an “absolute sound” gets you at best 75% of the way there. A violin should sound like a violin; but a truly revealing system should tell us what kind of violin.

    Truth be told many of these amplified instruments take for electric guitars do have a sound. (The sounds good vs sounds pretty school shall be left to another time.) Just ask musician who plays them. The electronica so to speak just gives a musician a greater language with which they can express themselves. And make no mistake. Music is as much of a language as is English, Spanish, German, etc.

    That brings us to the topic of musical timing and the ability of our equipment to reproduce that ever so important and sometimes elusive quality. Timing is everything in music. Proper timing gives life to the music. So why don’t audiophiles pay more attention to it? Because it’s easier to perceive soundstaging and dynamics? Because soundstaging and dynamics smack us over the head?

    Perhaps the first consideration of the importance of timing was Tom Miller’s review in the pages of conrad-johnson’s Premier Seven preamplifier. Here was a product incorporating new (in the sense too of large values) Teflon capacitors that brought home the importance of musical timing. Why? Because this dual mono preamplifier didn’t smear notes like earlier generations of high-end audio equipment. The lack of smearing also now pointed out the importance of transient attack attack, musical silence and and in the end the perception of rhythm.

    Timing isn’t simple and incorporates many qualities including the solidity of, length of, silence between, attack of and consistent decay of the notes played. Can you for example tell if the musician is playing a note (not just chord) on a guitar with an up or downstroke (there is a difference, nonetheless, as much as musicians practice)? To wit, quarter notes with downstrokes and eighth notes with upstrokes. How easy is it to hear phrasing or musical motifs? Those silences are periods in the music and time for a breath. Or a response.

    Where does timing make its presence felt? Take for instance jazz. Sure the concept of syncopation can be traced back to the days of Mozart and Bach. But it’s the concept of timing, up and downbeats, off beats, triplets, playing slightly in front or behind the beat that gives jazz its uniqueness. This concept all begins with the front-end and certainly differentiates good from great turntables. If the musical timing is messed up here, there’s nothing you can do after to resurrect it. Or take a piano or guitar. When the timing is off, the music loses its bounce, articulation and solidity of notes and free decay of instrumental overtones.

    Further thought?
    Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
    Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
    ________________________________________

    -Zellaton Plural Evo speakers
    -Goldmund Telos 300 stereo amp
    -Goldmund Mimesis 37S Nextgen preamplifier
    -Doshi EVO and Goldmund PH3.8 phonostage
    -VPI Vanquish direct-drive turntable
    -VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy dual pivot tonearm, VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy gimballed and SAT LM-12 arm
    -Lyra Atlas SL Lambda, Fuuga Mk. 2, vdh Colibri Master Signature, MutechHayabusa, MOFI Master Tracker, Sumiko Songbird cartridges
    -Technics RS1506 with Flux Magnetic heads, Doshi V3.0 tape stage (balanced)
    -Assorted cables including Transparent XL Gen. 6, Skogrand, Viero, Kubala-Sosna, Audience Au24SX, Genesis Advanced Technologies and Ensemble Power Cords
    -Accessories including Stillpoint Aperture panels, Cathedral Sound panels, Furutech NCF Nano AC receptacles; Silver Circle Tchaik 6 PLC, Symposium ISIS and SRA Craz 3 racks, Audiodharma Cable Cooker, Symposium Ultra and assorted SRA OHIO Class 2.1+ platforms.

  • #2
    I never bought into the PRAT thing, but attack and decay is very instructive, and it isn't something you can discern with amplified instruments as accurately- piano is something I'm familiar with- how the note is struck, how the overtones emerge and decay informs the shape of the instrument in space. Much as I love certain electric guitar playing, the use of pick-ups to amplify the instrument (or if it is a solid body like a Fender, it doesn't have much in the way of tone to begin with, unamplified) changes the game; add to that artificial reverb and you are out of the box entirely for evaluative purposes.
    I think the notion of an "absolute" is chimera partly because of the huge number of variables- I know HP used specific reference discs to try to eliminate that variable, but how much attention was paid to room acoustics back in the golden era of TAS? I remember diagrams of rooms for different reviewers, not much in the way of treatment (that was the province of studios and pro stuff as I remember, very little marketed to the home enthusiast til later). And even if treated, every room, every system sounds different. We seem to accept that now-- that some listeners are going to prefer one type of sound over another.
    To me, so much is dependent on the quality of the source material that unless we all listen to the same records, we aren't even speaking the same language. And as we've seen, even with that, there is a wide gap in perception. I was thinking about David's reaction to the SRX records, and wondered if the nature of his system- huge horns with very low powered amps--has a far more pacific quality (I've never heard his system so I'm speculating) that makes any sort of hyped up sound (that Tunisia record blew me away with dynamics and detail and I'm not really one who listens for 'detail,' I'm usually after tone) seem magnified or exaggerated. I dunno. As Mark says, ask a dozen audiophiles and get 13 answers....

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    • #3
      Myles I think “timing” is one of those terms or concepts that has been confused in audio and music. I have always been happy enough with PRAT to describe an almost indescribable feeling or concept in audio. What is it other than the known meaning to the acronym in audio? I’m not sure what it is except to say I hear it in some systems and not others. A bounce, feeling of forward movement, an aliveness? I’m not sure. In music we have timing which is very specific on a page of music delineated by a time signature, notation, and terminology indicating speed or tempo, and markings to indicate legato, staccato, broad, and dynamic contrasts. In audio is the feeling of prat a result of tubes, solid state, system synergy, and how can you define the result by anything more than a “feeling”? I can’t attribute the feeling to equipment because I have heard good and not so good in expensive and inexpensive systems. How much of this feeling is in the recording and the interplay of the recording with the system? But in music there is actually more to that “feeling.” It is tied to how a musician connects notes in their singing or playing and that is so individual that it defies definition but reveals who the player is if unknown and it affects this whole topic.
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      • #4
        Interesting topic... Do you think one needs more "musical theory" background to appreciate these attributes, such as timing, tempo, rhythm and beat? When you start mentioning things like "up beats and down beats", modes, licks around scales, and how all is integrated into proper rhythm and pace, one gains a lot more appreciation for these attributes the more you study music. I was largely unaware and couldn't readily pick up on this for most of life (when listiening to music), but after studying with a jazz piano teacher and got into theory a lot more, I realized how vital it was to gauge audio components and music in general. Have far more appreciation when it is done right, but is often counterbalanced by a lot of the other aspects we look for as well. However, it is eye-opening (or should I say "ear-opening") to hear when reproduced well. It does seem, on some level, that ears need to be trained to recognize some of musical attributes and refinement you highlighted.

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        • Guest's Avatar
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          Good comment. Knowing how to read and play music, imo, adds considerably to appreciation in listening. It helps one's vocabulary in describing sound. Likewise for reading a score.

      • #5
        Originally posted by MylesBAstor View Post
        ….Specifically the concept of there being an “absolute sound,” as opposed to The Absolute Sound magazine. (With all apologies to the late Harry Pearson whom I sure would have enjoyed debating this subject.)

        That is with eyes wide open that that reductionism isn’t perfect and comes with its own sets of issues.
        (true dat!)

        HP defined the term the “absolute sound” as being the sound of unamplified live instruments. But is that necessarily correct? Partially correct? Is there an “absolute sound?” Was it about HP being a classical snob? Did HP also miss the boat when it came to musical timing? Was it as a manufacturer recently shared with me, “He (HP) was more locked into soundstage, timbre, and resolution but it is musical timing that let's your brain relax and think it is real.”

        Further thought?
        Sorry, but I can't speak well to the timing/PRAT issue as I've never really heard in those terms. But I would like to address the subject of the 'absolute sound'.

        About 5 years back I got into a long online discussion about what the 'absolute sound' really was. Unfortunately I was never able to disabuse a stubborn Texan of his mistaken 'opinion' of the meaning of HP's 'term of art', but the discourse did organize my thinking on the subject, which I later wrote up and published on my web site.

        I encourage you to read my essay on the absolute sound. I think I bring some novel perspectives to the idea, and, I hope, clarify an idea I find as fresh today as 45 years ago.

        Dave
        Analog: modded Yamaha PX-2, Denon DL-103r, MFA Magus preamp, Mogami/Vampire/DIY cables
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        • #6
          I wonder sometimes if this isn't an expression of a circuit performing better at some frequencies than others. If a component's circuitry was not able to keep up with the dynamic demands at higher frequencies vs lower, during complex passages, wouldn't that end up expressing itself as a reproduced musical passage with different portions "out of sync" with others?

          The slew rate measurement might be indicative of this but we also have problems with this when we have coupling capacitors in signal paths. All caps have a sound and that's not good. The best sounding components have no capacitors in the signal path. There are, no doubt, other components in modern circuits that effect the signal.

          The best systems I have heard have usually been the simplest systems, with the least amount of circuitry to do the job. The KISS principal still holds true all of these years later. My old preamp still sounds dammed good and that is because it is pretty simple (an old Audible Illusions L1). It inverts the signal and you have to compensate for that by flipping the + and - connections at the speakers but that's a small price to pay.

          The shortest ICs sound the best. The shortest and most direct signal path within a component sounds the best. It all matters. If any of these effects are not linear, in all respects, across the entire frequency spectrum, we have timing issues. The result will be something not sounding quite right.

          When everything is right and there is no phase shift anywhere, in any component, you have a coherent sounding system with exact placement, of everything, and a spooky real sound. One of those "how did they get in my house" moments.

          It is a very hard thing to achieve and maintain...

          Ed
          Life is analog...digital is just samples thereof
          https://www.edsstuff.org

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          • #7
            The debate of acoustic vs. amplified has not been clarified; in that, when I hear a live performance miked through speakers...I always know it’s live. That, to me, is the absolute sound. No ambiguity whether the voice, guitar, sax, etc...is actual. It just is.
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            • #8
              I'm starting out here unclear how to parse (understand) the phrase musical timing. The adjective musical modifying the noun timing. I roll the phrase around in my head and cannot make sense of it.

              Be that as it may:

              The German poet Heine wrote: "Music is spirit, but spirit subject to the measurement of time."

              Music is a performance art. As such it only exists in time. Look at a score or piece of sheet music and you can see instructdions to a musician about performing a particular piece of music in time, according to the composer's intent. Beats and measures are units of time. The score may also offer Italian words describing the pace or character of playing in time within the timing framework currently at hand. Basic tempo markings include words such as allegro (fast), presto (very fast), andante (at a walking pace), largo (very slow) and so on; then there's a host of variations like larghetto (slightly faster than very slow), etc. All controlled by the conductor: the conductor is the orchestra's master clock.

              Rhythm is the way music is organized in time - sounds and silences each with a duration and organized into patterns. Rhythm makes music move.

              Music gets recorded in time. The music industry has a variety of timing related standards adopted for recording and for implementing(?) the recording on media for playback on equipment built to conform to the needed standards for 'proper' reproduction. Thus we have, for example, the 33-1/3 LP, meant for a record player that rotates at that speed.

              As audiophiles we concern ourselves with how well the reproduced performance replicates what was recorded. The word replicates maybe an issue for some people. Adopt the word of your choice: represents, sounds like, reflects, etc.

              The timing of the music in the performance and the timing used to reproduce the performance with our audio gear are two different things. Let's not confuse them. The goal of the latter is the accurate reproduction of the former. The word accurate may be an issue for some people.

              If you had a score to follow and took timings of the original performance as it happened, measuring even on a gross scale the time a movement took, or a fine scale, how long a particular phrase or even a measure took, then you could compare with what you hear reproduced with the same technique and gauge how accurately your system represented the original's timing. Of course you cannot measure the nuanced use of time by a performer or conductor.

              Let's look at this from another angle. I'll talk about the vinyl analog medium, which is what I use. As regards timing the most important component in your entire system is the turntable. You've heard me say this before (CF): "...in the vinyl world of music reproduction, the source of that timing - the source of time itself - is the turntable. The frequency portion of the musical waveform comes from the turntable. If a turntable does not turn a record at 33-1/3rpm that failure at the nexus of the stylus and the groove can never be corrected in the remaining reproduction chain." We can talk about rise time and capacitors and slew rate - no doubt everything matters - but to obtain whatever might be contained in the phrase musical timing the turntable matters most. The turntable is your vinyl system's master clock. If you want even a chance at hearing all the nuances of timing described above, get a turntable whose rotational timing is stable and accurate. Your ears can hear the difference.

              Then get yourself some time coherent speakers. Imo - at least my current thinking - is that the transducers at either end of your system chain are its key critical elements for timing.

              In performance, music rides on time, is organized and exists in time.

              In an audio system, timing, at least in a sense, is everything. Every sonic quality (tonality, dynamics, tempo, attack, decay, dimensionality, depth, etc.) that we hear and read about has system timing as a necessary condition.

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              • #9
                Bump
                Myles B. Astor, PhD, Administrator
                Senior Editor, Positive-Feedback.com
                ________________________________________

                -Zellaton Plural Evo speakers
                -Goldmund Telos 300 stereo amp
                -Goldmund Mimesis 37S Nextgen preamplifier
                -Doshi EVO and Goldmund PH3.8 phonostage
                -VPI Vanquish direct-drive turntable
                -VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy dual pivot tonearm, VPI 12-inch 3D Fat Boy gimballed and SAT LM-12 arm
                -Lyra Atlas SL Lambda, Fuuga Mk. 2, vdh Colibri Master Signature, MutechHayabusa, MOFI Master Tracker, Sumiko Songbird cartridges
                -Technics RS1506 with Flux Magnetic heads, Doshi V3.0 tape stage (balanced)
                -Assorted cables including Transparent XL Gen. 6, Skogrand, Viero, Kubala-Sosna, Audience Au24SX, Genesis Advanced Technologies and Ensemble Power Cords
                -Accessories including Stillpoint Aperture panels, Cathedral Sound panels, Furutech NCF Nano AC receptacles; Silver Circle Tchaik 6 PLC, Symposium ISIS and SRA Craz 3 racks, Audiodharma Cable Cooker, Symposium Ultra and assorted SRA OHIO Class 2.1+ platforms.

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                • #10
                  Assuming that "timing" (pace, tempo, rhythm...) can be a characteristic of an audio system, where might "errors" arise? How likely is it that an electronic component can affect it? Cables? Power?

                  How about tranducers? Even though we can measure speed variations in turntables and R2R, is the magnitude of these variations in better equipment enough for us to perceive them? Digital "timing" has little or nothing to do with the qualities of musical timing; timing variations in the digital stream affect different aspects of the sound. Speakers? This might be one of the most likely areas, both in terms of the speaker elements themselves and the crossover networks.

                  I don't have any conclusions, only areas of conjecture.
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                  • #11
                    Stereo systems should not be creating a different time signature than the album was recorded in and is being played through the system. The only way I see this happening is if your table or R2R is running too fast or too slow.

                    With rock and jazz, 4/4 time is the most common time signature although there are always exceptions with some being dramatically faster. Dave Bruebeck has a song called Eleven Four and its actually recorded in 11/4 time. The version on The Dave Bruebeck Quartet At Carngie Hall is an ass kicker.

                    In most rock and jazz bands, the drummer and the bass player are the timekeepers and they are laying down the beat and keeping the time for the rest of the band. If your system is affecting the time signature of the music you are playing, your system has issues.

                    I remember an interview with Pete Townsend after the Who went on tour with Ringo Starr"s son Zach as their drummer. I had the chance to hear Zach playing drums for the Ringo Starr and his all-star band and Zach is an incredible drummer IMO. When Pete Townsend was asked what it was like to have Zach drumming for the Who, he said something to the affect that man, this kid is always up my ass. What he meant was Zach was laying down the beat and he was pushing Townsend to keep time.
                    Last edited by mep; 02-07-2022, 08:48 AM.
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                    • rbbert
                      rbbert commented
                      Editing a comment
                      So you are saying that Myles’ OP is in effect a red herring?

                    • mep
                      mep commented
                      Editing a comment
                      I am stating my opinion and I edited my post to highlight what I want people to take away from my post.
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