The Problem with Audiophile Music and How to Fix It

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Audiophile music can be tough to swallow for non-hobbyists. Incredibly well-recorded albums from mostly unknown artists with unfamiliar songs and often obscure musical genres can be a bit off-putting to anyone who hasn’t already drank the Kool-Aid. If you’re buying music purely to see what your audio system can do in terms of performance, these almost-always pristine recordings have the resolution, air, openness, and dynamics that you don’t always get from more mainstream pop or rock. While not sold in any meaningful volume, these audiophile recordings from audiophile record labels have an appeal deeply rooted in the audiophile hobby – mainly because of their recording quality. 

My Failed Attempt to Become a Hollywood Record Producer

Mark Waldrep is the only other person that I know in the audio/video business that lives in my neighborhood. We’ve been industry friends for years, and for many of those years Mark ran his lauded audiophile record label, AIX Records. AIX produced and sold music in the latest high-resolution formats and every element of the recordings was immaculate. For me, they weren’t always the disc you’d pulled out to listen to first purely for the joy of listening, but nobody can deny that they sound great.  

The Problem with Audiophile Music and How To Fix It
Perhaps making audiophile music more approachable with more familiar songwriting could help the audiophile music world?

Mark has a recording process that is somewhat unconventional but also not completely unheard of in the audiophile world. He basically records live. This means that there are no overdubs or edits or anything that you’d expect in a more traditional studio process. He learned to employ the best studio musicians from around town to play on his records because “Triple Scale” studio musicians get paid the large sums of money that that they do for the explicit reason that they are so good at their instrument(s) that they can get the work done in the studio in less time. Our own Steven Stone, who has decades of recording experience, suggests that perhaps the performances are pretty safe because any amount of risk-taking could ruin the take. Then again, that was how a lot of those Blue Note jazz recordings were made in the past and they are all-time classics. 

I had just sold AVRev.com and ModernHomeTheater.com back in 2008 and I was not sure what the hell that I was going to do with the rest of my life. I was 33, pretty flush with cash (where did it all go?), and basically unemployed. I pitched Mark on the idea of taking some of the question marks out of the audiophile music process. Specifically, I was talking about the songwriting. It is one thing to sell somebody on why they need a gorgeous recording, but  if the music in question is unlike anything the listener would normally gravitate toward, that’s often too big of a leap. Let’s make great sounding recordings but of music that people actually know the melodies of. Revolutionary, right?

Research took months and I focused on a band that my old Music Editor helped me find. I can’t remember the name of the act, but they played at this awesome yet quite dingy venue in Inglewood on Sunday evenings. Their style was soul, but the music that they played was unabashed rock and roll. They were clearly a cover band, and their method was to song-style rock and roll classics in an unabashed soul interpretation. Take “Misty Mountain Hop” from Led Zeppelin IV and give it a Stevie Wonder groove and you’ve got a song that you don’t have to think too hard about whether you like it. Of course you like it. They would do Rolling Stones songs with a much groovier production quality. They would ham it up on stage and were a blast to see live. 

My music school dream of being a record producer died a miserable death when I realized the band couldn’t play the songs consistently well enough to make a “live” studio recording. Not even close. And I would never have the chance to edit, re-record, or fix any of the understandable mess ups. Nobody would. Now you see why Mark worked with the absolute best studio artists, because they are the people who can get it right and get it right the first time. His recordings were perfect as the performances. That’s what was needed to do it the AIX way. The problem was that my artists  couldn’t perform with that level of excellence (nor could I, for that matter).

I had spoken to another Hollywood-tastic band called Atomic Punks who are a really good (early) Van Halen tribute band. They are so good that David Lee Roth has reportedly hired some of their musicians to go on tour with him. They play truly believable versions of classic Van Halen songs and they are simply amazing live. The same recording live problem exists here and with even more distorted, loud instruments, which is we’d need to be recording the entire track close to perfectly every time. I gave up on that project too.  

How Do We Solve These Audiophile Music Problems?

Pushing the limits of recording arts is a tangential but important part of growing and developing the audiophile hobby to the next level. The best recordings are going to sound fantastic on high performance systems. The issue is that the music needs to make you feel something emotionally. Selling recording technology is one thing and certainly valid. Selling an audiophile disc or file format is another. Selling a style of recording isn’t too hard. What is hard to sell is the idea that the melodies and songs aren’t relatable or engaging. Today’s audiophile recording labels might benefit greatly from finding artists who are willing to cover songs and/or play music that is more standard or familiar to the listener. 

During the entire history of recorded music, there are artists who have done side projects. Would today’s most notable artists record with a small audiophile label to see what is possible in the state-of-the-art of recording and music playback? They might. Why not – assuming their label was OK with it? Bringing in the best studio talent worked well for AIX and it would work well for other audiophile record labels. The best thing that the audiophile labels can do is to find record producers that can bring to the process what I couldn’t: music that people could relate to. That is the special sauce for audiophile music going forward. 


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Michael Zisserson

John Marks (Johnny Puddles) has some of the best engineered, recoded, and musically understandable albums I have ever heard, no, experienced. In fact, his Harry Allen quartet recording is one of the best jazz quartet recordings in existence that is musically understandable (not just jazz on jazz or avant garde riffing). There were few recordings on his short-lived JMR record label that were NOT completely engaging with flawless recordings. So why do others not do this? Why does the musically understandable get undersold while Tibetan throat singing mixed with accordion and xylophone are must-have recommended albyms of the century? Is it the need for snooty audiophiles to feed false egos with “you would never understand MY music?” Loudness wars? Or is it something deeper? I would love to know because when that perfect recording meets flawless performance AND musically understandable genius – That’s what its all about. Alas, if all you listen to is good recordings, you will miss most of the good music out there….C’est la vie.

Last edited 11 months ago by Michael Zisserson
Frank Doris

I tell people that as a guitar player, the hardest thing to do is play a song through without making a mistake. When you’re playing live, a little flub here and there isn’t going to be noticed. When you’re under the magnifying glass and intimidating pressure of a recording studio, it’s a much different story.

Jon

This article reflects the biggest issue with “audiophiles” in that these people believe that the only “good recording” is one that highlights their system and this is why “audiophile” music(?) will always be sterile, limited in genre, and fundamentally obscure.
Jerry Del Colliano documents his feeble attempt at recording live music but can’t find the perfect players to create the perfect music to suit his “audiophile” mentality.
Yet some of the best “audiophile” music recorded is of live performances that weren’t perfect but had great feel because of the interaction between the musicians, the audience, and the recording process.
“Audiophiles” overlook the fact that the equipment is built to serve the music not the other way around.
Music is a form of human expression of emotion, not human search for perfection, thus good music, and as an extension, good recording, is about capturing the emotion the artist wishes to convey and has little to do with creating something to test the dynamic range, or create a “soundscape” on a playback system.
So if you really want to know how to “fix the problem with audiophile music” start by listening t owhat the artist wants you to hear in their music and quit listening to what you want the music to do for your “audiophile” system.

William Moore

Remember Sheffield, Mobile Fidelity and Telarc? Their recordings were always the greatest, both in terms of musicianship and audio quality. I have many of their albums and still enjoy their legendary sounds!

Mike Prager

Jerry, As a non-fan of audiophile music — life is too short — I’ve compiled playlists of demo tracks from commercial recordings (often from better labels) that can and do wow both audiophiles and non-audiophiles much of the time. While few of the tracks are recorded in empty cathedrals like audiophile recordings, musicality, accessibility, and very good sound make up for it. If listeners are engaged in music, they stop focusing on minor things and enjoy the experience.

Some examples: Ron Carter and Eva Passos singing “Por Causa de Voce” from Entre Amigos; Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” from Simple Dreams; Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” on Icon; David Lindley’s “Bye Bye Love” on El Reyo-X”. More: For solo classical guitar, try some of the Naxos releases engineered by Norbert Kraft; Mendelssohn’s “Lieder ohne Worte” played by Ronald Brautigam on BIS; “Die Nacht” from Orphei Drängar’s “Schubert Male Choruses” on BIS (to my ears, even better than the similar disc on Telarc). More: David Grisman and Tony Rice’s “Wildwood Flower” from Dawg & T on Acoustic Disc; Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry (1975 live version) on Legend.

It’s a small sample that gets the idea across. Not everyone will agree, but that makes life interesting. As for me, I’d always prefer a Linda Ronstadt or Abbey Lincoln or Shirley Horn recording in good fidelity than a Diana Krall recording in excellent fidelity. Many music lovers do; but always there will be the type of audiophile that Alan Parsons described. As the song goes, “Nothing can be done.”

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Last edited 10 months ago by Mike Prager
Mike Prager

Thanks, Jerry. And if you get a chance, listen to some of the Orphei Drängar recordings on BIS. You could start with “Die Nacht” as mentioned above. If you’re not a fan of choral music, these are so well done, they could change that.

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