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Thread: Do "natural" sounding recordings really sound that...natural?

  1. #1
    Senior Member Tapkaara's Avatar
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    Default Do "natural" sounding recordings really sound that...natural?

    One of the highest compliments a reviewer can give a recording is how "natural" it sounds.

    Without naming strings specific recordings, I can say that I've encountered a few recordings that were praised for their "natural" sound only to be a little dissapointed when I heard them.

    First of all, I find that many so-called natural recordings have low recording levels. Is natural somehow quiet? Also, brass and purcussion sound subdued. I'm sorry, but in the live concert hall, brass and percussion are usually among the loudest orchestral elements. What could be more natural sound than what you hear in a concert hall?

    One recording that comes to mind is the praised recording of Mahler's 8th on Naxos with Antoni Wit conducting the Warsaw Phil. Yes, it's a great performance that was praised for its natural sound, but it all sounded white-washed to me. The organ sounds weak, plus everything sounds like it was recorded at a distance. I've not heard this piece live, but I'd imagine hearing it in a hall would be ear shattering. Solti's Mahler 8 seems like it would be a more accurate representation of what a piece would sound like in a hall. (A real organ in a concert hall would be VERY loud, not pushed into the distance.)

    So, my questions is: what is it about "natural" recordings that make them sound "natural?"
    "Music is not philosophy." --Akira Ifukube

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    Senior Member Kuhlau's Avatar
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    Thanks for inadvertantly reminding me that, despite owning it for almost two years, I've still not listened to that Wit Mahler recording. Perhaps once I have I'll be better able to come back here and give you my thoughts.

    FK
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  4. #3
    Andante
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    I would have thought that natural would equate to "as close to the original performance sound as was possible" and agree with you that the dynamics of a concert can be very loud at times.
    These kind of recordings are very rare, and as we discovered on this forum the majority of systems can not cope with this dynamic range, but mine can and I love it

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    Senior Member Tapkaara's Avatar
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    As far as dynamic ranges go, what's up with recording where the pianissimos are SOOOO pianissimo that you can barely hear them, even when your player is cranked. In a concert hall, even very extreme pianissimos are easily heard. Again, this seems more "natural" to me.

    In Osmo Vanska's Beethoven cycle in BIS, these performances again are very good, and have been priased for their sound, but the levels are sooo low. You can hear every instrument with crystal clarity, but the playback level is low. I was listening to Vanska's Beethoven 9 yesterday and had to crank my player up higher than I normally do to hear an impactful performance. Even though my player was cranked up so high, some pianissimos were still barely audible. This would not happen, normally, at a live performance.

    There is a trend, nowadays, I think, to create recordings that are recorded at low levels. I don't understand this. I have really come to appreciate older recordings (from the 50s, 60s, and 70s) over modern ones because engineers back in those days were much more capable at producing exciting sound. What is more, theses older recordings normally seem to be recorded at high sound levels. This is a more accurate concert at home experience, I think.
    "Music is not philosophy." --Akira Ifukube

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    Andante
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    This has been discussed in depth see Don't you think the dynamic range is too high on most CDs? If you have a decent system 99% of these problems are absent

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    Senior Member World Violist's Avatar
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    But still the point does rather remain about how realistic sound actually is these days.

    I personally much prefer older recordings over new ones for the most part, unless there's a better interpretation of the given work. But talking strictly sound, I love '60s recordings above all others. There's a warmth about them that too many other, "better-sounding" CDs completely lack. And that I definitely adore. (as a side note, I do have somewhat of a weak spot for SACDs where I can actually follow a score and hear every line and every instrument (almost) - especially those Mahler symphonies, my gosh! but the overall listening experience MUST go to the older recordings for me)
    You get a frog in your throat, you sound hoarse.

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    Senior Member Tapkaara's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Andante View Post
    This has been discussed in depth see Don't you think the dynamic range is too high on most CDs? If you have a decent system 99% of these problems are absent
    Obviously very proud of your system, Andante.

    I don't have a big, honkin' system (yet), but my player is at least quite decent, if not very good! I listen to music fairly loudly, and I don't have huge problems with hearing very quiet sections, but, notwithstanding, even cranked up, there are somerecordings where the level is extremely low. This seems very "unnatural" to me.

    I'm with you, Violist. 60s sound engineering was great. Warm, up front, and closer to what is actually heard in a hall very versus the high gloss, clinical sound on a lot of today's CDs.
    "Music is not philosophy." --Akira Ifukube

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    Senior Member Elgarian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tapkaara View Post
    So, my questions is: what is it about "natural" recordings that make them sound "natural?"
    I'm glad Andante reminded us about the dynamic range discussion and its relevance to this. While I still feel very uncertain about some of the ideas discussed in that thread, it left me thinking, far more than I had done previously, about the listening environment - basically, the problem that arises from playing the music in the confined space of a typical domestic living room.

    I'm not an acoustic engineer, but it seems pretty clear that a recording that sounds 'natural' in an ideal large, well-acoustically-designed listening space, is not going to sound 'natural' when reproduced in a small room. The whole pattern of reflections from the walls, ceiling and floor is going to be completely different: what in a large hall would produce a pleasant reverberative ambience will instead produce all sorts of strange effects, with multiple-reflected sounds entering the ears too close together to be distinguished separately from the original source (the speakers), and muddying the water to an unpredictable degree.

    I suppose what I'm wondering is whether this is a problem associated with recordings, as such, so much as one produced by the listening environment: if we were to invite, say, a string quartet to play in a typical small living room, would it sound 'natural'? I suspect it wouldn't. In such a confined space, I think it would probably sound pretty horrible.

    One possible experiment would be to try what Andy (Simpson Microphones) suggested in that other discussion. Tapkaara, if you listen to one of these problematic recordings using good headhones, does the sound seem more acceptably 'natural'? If it does, then perhaps the room acoustic is indeed a significant factor?

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    Senior Member Tapkaara's Avatar
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    Yes, I will have to try the headphone experiment, though I very rarely listen to anything with headphones.

    I guess it comes down to what someone considers natural for themselves. For me, natural is what is hear in a concert hall with good acoustics. A full orchestra would sound very diffent if, instead of playing in a hall, played in an open field. Some of thiese so-called natural recordings with extreme dynamic ranges give me the open filed effect where quiter passes have nothing to bounce off of and be heard properly. I think most concert music is meant to be heard in a concert hall, so the acoustic sound effects one encounters in the hall should be reproduced ona disc to creat a natural sound to my ears.

    I think a lot of older recordings, (like from the 1960s) better reproduce the concert hall sound than many of todays recordings. Maybe there is a feeling that music that is reproduced at a louder level is somehow vulgar?
    "Music is not philosophy." --Akira Ifukube

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    Senior Member World Violist's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tapkaara View Post
    Maybe there is a feeling that music that is reproduced at a louder level is somehow vulgar?
    That sounds a bit hilarious to me, actually... so audibility is vulgar???

    But seriously, I think there's something to this. I don't know what or why. But still, it kind of makes some sort of sense in some bizarre, convoluted way.
    You get a frog in your throat, you sound hoarse.

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    Senior Member Tapkaara's Avatar
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    Well, there is a definite change from the recorded sound of the 60s, for example, to recordings (at least the bulk of them) that are done today. In the 60s, there was this "wall of sound" type thing going on wherease today, it's like wisps of sound. This transition happened for a reason...is classical music that is loud and in your face not preferable to restrained, cold sonics? Perhaps this is the key...
    "Music is not philosophy." --Akira Ifukube

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    Senior Member Elgarian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tapkaara View Post
    Yes, I will have to try the headphone experiment, though I very rarely listen to anything with headphones.
    Neither do I, and I ought to make it clear (though I think you understood anyway) that I wasn't suggesting headphones as a viable alternative - just as an experiment to try to see what effect the room acoustics might be having.

    I think most concert music is meant to be heard in a concert hall, so the acoustic sound effects one encounters in the hall should be reproduced ona disc to creat a natural sound to my ears.
    I presume most of us would agree that this is what we want to hear. What I don't understand very well is what happens if you take a recording that has very accurately preserved the concert hall acoustic (and so would sound 'natural' on headphones, or if played in an open space), but then then play that recording using a pair of speakers in a small room where the acoustic is entirely different - i.e. much less reverberative, and with reflected sounds hitting our ears with far less delay than in a hall (as I described in my previous post). I can see that this is going to confuse our perception of the listening space to some degree, and it may even transform the most 'natural' of recordings into something unpleasantly artificial. I just don't know enough to resolve my own uncertainty.

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    Senior Member purple99's Avatar
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    Another aspect of the natural sound debate is whether we’re even hearing real instruments played by real people at the time of the recording. With most CDs it’s impossible to tell what the sound lab boys have been up to. Computer generated sound, cutting and splicing, sampling, multi-mike techniques, technicians fiddling with sound desks like Spock on the Starship Enterprise, and you risk ending up with a CGI monster.

    A CD then lands on the shelves at HMV. It says on the cover: ‘Mozart’s Violin Concerto in A major played by Spotty Kennedy with the Bagshot Symphony Orchestra’. But is it? The recording company and their sound engineers are under no obligation to say what they did to the tapes. It’s clearly not in the conductor’s or performers’ interests to blow the whistle if shenanigans have occurred. Yet it’s marketed as a faithful representation of real people playing real instruments at a particular moment in history.

    At root it’s a trade descriptions problem and, amusingly, a subject which makes some recording engineers jump up and down with fury. Why? Because they’ve a guilty conscience. They’re unused to the games they play with their computers being exposed, and don’t like being rumbled.

    Recordings are always compromises and ‘natural sound’ a laudable but unattainable goal. Put an orchestra in a field and it sounds unnatural (Tapkaara); invite a string quartet into a bedsit and they sound horrible (Elgarian). Make a small baroque ensemble using authentic instruments perform in the Albert Hall and the delicate sound is lost in an auditorium designed for 19th century forces.

    The most you can hope for is honesty from CD labels and their paid employees. There’s no reason why computer logs can’t be placed online so buyers and reviewers can check to see what Kevin’s done with his computer. That, in turn, would encourage Kevin to behave, and encourage his employer to avoid instructing him to doctor the record. It’s also a further reason to attend as many live concerts as possible and to view all recorded sound as a poor second best.

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    Senior Member PostMinimalist's Avatar
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    Where I live concerts are probably a lot worse than CDs. I have the recording of Mahler 8 with Wit mentioned above and although having been praised for it's realistic sound I personally found it badly played, shoddily thought out and rather loose. I never listen to it! Give me great playing with as many microphones and technical tweaks as you like any day!
    You know this is not like GM tomatoes where there might be terrible health risks we don't know about, it's just a recording you can listen to. (unless Kevin has laced our CDs with subliminal messages! imagine all the way through Mahler 8 having an nearly inaudible voice whispering in your ear "Use more microphones, use more microphones....")
    It's just another way to make music. The phrase 'Knickers in a twist' comes to mind.

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    Senior Member Elgarian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by purple99 View Post
    It’s also a further reason to attend as many live concerts as possible and to view all recorded sound as a poor second best.
    Exactly so. I reminded myself of that essential truth last week, sitting in the upper circle at the Lowry Theatre watching/listening to Tosca on one evening and I Capuleti the next. I was too absorbed in listening and watching to be thinking much about such things as recording techniques, though when it was all over I couldn't help reflecting that even the best of my best recordings, played through a good amp, and excellent speakers, can't produce a sonic experience to compare for a moment with the real thing.

    It's rather like having a high quality reproductive print of a well-loved painting on one's walls. You live with it, and love it, but when you next are confronted by the original, you're shocked by how inadequate the print has really been all that time.

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