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Peter Kollreider, col legno
Hearing better: Sound, music and technical devices
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Music played from audio media is re-constructed sound. The situation in which the recording is made, the transfer from one medium to another, and the situation in which the recording is played, all contribute to the way we hear.
What is the meaning of “hearing better” in this context? Throughout the history of sound recordings this question has been answered in very different ways, yet always also with reference to the underlying technical conditions. “Hearing better” requires awareness of a relation; in order to evaluate different qualities it is necessary to first define these qualities.
People have been listening to music recorded by and played from technical equipment for more than a century now. The father of the phonograph, Thomas Alva Edison, was a brilliant inventor, yet somewhat less talented as a salesman. His belief that the superior audio quality of his cylinders and records was enough to convince consumers to buy his products, ultimately resulted in Edison losing substantial market shares to his major competitor, Eldridge Johnson’s Victor Talking Machine Company. Johnson mainly banked on effective promotion through music celebrities as his marketing strategy. It was thanks to Edison’s insistence on the importance of sound quality that so-called “tone tests” were organized; these performances, which attracted large audiences, featured real musicians competing with a phonograph. It was claimed that the “re-creation” was indistinguishable from the original performance – i.e. that it was possible to acoustically suppress the apparatus itself. This was, of course, not the case; however, in view of the limited experience of the audience with technical reproductions of sound the relevant qualitative potential was as yet awaiting definition.
Nowadays acoustic signals are put into data packets, are compressed by removing theoretically inaudible frequency components, and are listened to via computer speakers. This has less to do with any alleged greater ignorance of the listeners than with a simple principle: the interdependence of the technical options available to producers and consumers respectively. The ways how music is produced, transferred, and listened to, constitute a cycle. The compression of audio files was a result of limited data bandwidths. Greater bandwidths result in better audio quality, which result in better computer speakers and earphones, which in turn result in mixing and mastering techniques that take into account these conditions of listening, etc.

Through the evolution of audio media and their individual qualities, through converting and the manipulation of sound we have become able to abstract the sound communicated by technical equipment and processes from the acoustic reality. We do not suppress the apparatus but are aware of its function. And this is exactly where the potential of “hearing better” lies. Qualities – by definition “characteristics,” but not necessarily “desirable” per se – can be created, audio material can be optimized in accordance with specific notions, the recording situation can be improved through manipulation processes. Electrical recordings and, in particular, the digital encoding of information expand the range of possibilities beyond the scope of what is known and real. Ultimately, we are able to create an acoustic reality because the technical circumstances enable us to hear differently.

The construction of the sound already begins with the choice of recording premises, of the sound director, the mixing and mastering specialists, and the choice of audio media technology. Spaces are built acoustically, sounds are added, pauses defined, and entire sound scenarios are designed. The listeners, who are as a rule only marginally aware of these processes, contribute to the shaping of the sound by their choice of playing equipment and by their previous listening experience.
Recordings are, therefore, constructions of music and sound. The technology we use has a bearing on what we hear, and on how we hear it. Provided no anatomical problems come into play, most aspects of “hearing better” are directly related to the technical processing of sound.

But there is another essential quality to an acoustic environment influenced by technical processing: it has the potential to train our hearing. The sound that is created also shapes our ideas about everything that may become sound. The amplification or isolation of individual sounds, for instance, enables us to hear them in new ways. We can zoom into the sound, combine the characteristics of different sounds, use any kind of data material to generate and control sound, etc. Chronologies and intensities can be altered, and by guiding the listeners’ attention abstract rhythms and random tonal processes become recognizable as such even in banal recordings. The notions of sound and noise are expanded, both from the composer’s and from the audience’s perspective. Even music written down by hand may thus be influenced by the technical environment. This is clearly evident in contemporary music, and openly demonstrated by composers such as e.g. Wolfgang Mitterer.

The ability to change existing audio material does not only bring about the possibility to optimize the material in accordance with one’s own definitions but also causes our understanding of sound to change as well. “Hearing better through technology” is the polemical synopsis of the realization that we adopt a mode of hearing influenced by technology, and therefore also a mode of composing influenced by technical processes.
Ultimately, though, there is another aspect that should not be overlooked: the enthusiasm with which a teenager may listen to his favorite songs played from tiny, trashy loudspeakers reminds us that there really is more to music than the quality of the sound.

Peter Kollreider
col legno
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