When it comes to the reproduction of sound, the quest for “perfection” can seem like a pointless task when the definition itself is difficult to judge—even, and especially, for a musician. But the truth is our brains can tell the difference, and the closer a sound system comes to recreating a performance, the more relaxed and detail-rich our listening experience becomes.
Most people aren’t very good at judging sound reproduction (especially musicians)
Like many young people, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. The plan was to major in engineering, but I played the oboe and, more or less by chance, ended up studying music for three happy years. Then I started getting freelance jobs in symphony orchestras and was confronted with the tough reality of being a professional musician. So I went back to school and earned a master’s degree in engineering. The combination of music and engineering turned out to be unexpectedly fortunate. Throughout my working life I've had the chance to work with a great variety of sound related tasks, such as the acoustic design of auditoria, the design of PA systems, noise abatement, sound quality, and sound design for consumer products and acoustic components for mobile phones. Today I work at Dirac Research, and it’s proven to be my most exciting challenge yet.
One thing my experience has taught me is that musicians are usually poor at judging the performance of a sound system. The same goes for judging the acoustics in a concert hall—if it has enough reverberation and basic qualities, they will probably be happy at the inauguration.
Musicians are naturally sensitive to pitch, rhythm, and phrasing, but often very forgiving of all other sound related flaws and artifacts. I believe the reason is that they are trained to imagine and think in music. The brain will correct artifacts and fill in missing parts if you give it some clues. It’s for this reason that musicians often give some of their best performances at older ages, when, for sure, their hearing is impaired. The most famous example of this is perhaps Beethoven, who was completely deaf when he wrote some of his best music. More interesting cases are discussed in Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain by the American neurologist Oliver Sacks.
In reality, we are all quite forgiving when it comes to sound reproduction. People have enjoyed recorded music ever since the innovation of the phonograph—even though its sound quality was worse than that of the cheapest sound system today. And for over one hundred years we’ve happily accepted voice calls with very limited frequency bandwidth.
So does sound quality really matter?
Well, the thing is that poor sound requires more processing by our brains in order to fill in the missing bits and pieces. And even more so for musicians because they fill in the blanks with much more information than the average listener. My own experience from when I worked actively with music is that even the faintest of sounds could trigger my brain and keep me sleepless at night. Now that I'm less active with music I am much less sensitive and can go to sleep even in a fairly noisy environment.
So with a good sound system you'll be able to perceive more details and enjoy a more relaxed listening experience, and even more so if you are skilled with music. Still, we have a long way to go before we're able to reproduce sound anywhere near perfection. Even if you spend a fortune on your sound system, anyone can easily tell the difference from a live performance.
However, we now find ourselves on the threshold of the era of virtual and augmented reality and this is likely to revolutionize the way we make and listen to music. Today’s commercially available equipment is rather primitive, but development is fast and in the not too distant future we will probably be able to fool our senses completely. Who knows, we might even grow to prefer the virtual performance over the real one. Personally, I’m very excited about the prospect of virtual and augmented reality and music reproduction. At Dirac we have some very interesting R&D projects going and we’re aiming to be a leader in this field.
In the meantime, find out what digital room correction technology like Dirac Live can do. Download our free trial and experiment for yourself.
- Erik Rudolphi, General Manager at Dirac Research