Readers' Letters: Why classical music is superior to popular music, and always will be, and more...

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of

Thursday November 30, 2006

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In response to Why classical music is superior to popular music, and always will be, Kerry Maxwell writes...

The unfortunate fact is, for many pieces, no recent *modern* recordings come even remotely close to performances recorded as much as 50+ years ago. Has Bartok's Concerto For Orchestra ever had a greater performance than Fritz Reiner and the CSO? Heard better than Toscanini and the NBC Symphony's Beethoven symphonies lately?

I'm not so willing to dismiss the existence of definitive performances, now that entire generations have passed that have yet to offer performances that rival those of the late 50's - early 60's. Spend some time with the Living Stereo series and an SACD player, and tell me how, in a practical sense, these are not definitive versions. Certainly, "go on performing it and re-interpreting it forever", but I don't foresee many of the classic performances from this era being surpassed anytime soon.

RP response: Despite their technical deficiencies, some of those old recordings set an incredibly high benchmark. But we firmly believe that there is no limit to what can be achieved, given sufficient musicianship and determination (and budget!) Let's hope so...

In response to Can you use studio mics for live sound?, Allot Sanchez writes...

Just a Comment

Different types of microphone have different ways of converting energy.They are only the same in diaphragms. Some mics are designed for general use and can be used effectively in many different situations. Others are very specialised and are only really useful for their intended purpose.

Characteristics to look for includes directional properties, frequency response and impedance.

It is useless to have different types of Microphone if the purpose will be the same. Studio mics are designed intendedly for recording use, you cannot use these microphones in live applications.

In response to How can you improve a weak bass guitar?, McGuire Irvine writes...

A finger played bass guitar will sound fuller than a plucked bass under almost all circumstances. Using a plectrum on a bass guitar generates much more high frequency content than a finger or thumb, and doesn't produce as much low frequency content leading to a very present but overall less substantial note.

A good thing to mention to new bass players that don't quite have a handle on how to access power and confidence (two of the three fundamental tenets of bass playing, the other being rhythm) with their fingers is to use more than one finger. This puts more leverage and strength behind the notes, giving a fuller bottom end.

And furthermore, if the bass player can't accomplish this, he shouldn't be playing on the record. Hand the bass to someone who can actually play it.

In response to Feedback nightmare - a clarinet player needs help!, Stuart B writes...

Have you got your own monitor send? Get an engineer who knows how to tune monitors for something other than loud rock and roll vocal...I can tune monitors to be loud and not feedback pointing an SM58 straight at them...but don't go pulling every frequency out go easy and only pull the problems, and split the channel into 2 channels on the desk so you can have separate eq on the monitor channel for the clarinet... I've been doing live sound for 20 years as my sole living, and there is NO EXCUSE for feedback... use SM57s before going to the more esoteric (read wank) mics...a change of mics is not going to improve things.

In response to The best compressor you will ever hear - and it costs NOTHING!, Stuart B writes...

Forgetting the other function of a compressor?... stopping the input from clipping on peaks during recording, but getting a good level onto tape?... with people relying on plug-ins this seems to have been forgotten... just get the old DBX160 between the mic pre and the input and you will not hear it breathing ever if its properly setup... sorry for sounding like an old grump, but man I'm over people not understanding basic simple ideas

RP response: Hi Stuart. With respect, we understand perfectly well the advantages of compressing before recording to analog tape. These advantages are diminished when recording to digital media, but are still worth considering. The article is about a totally different aspect of compression.

In response to Can you use studio mics for live sound?, Aaron Saloman writes...

RE: "studio" and "live" mics

Just wanted to address something I noticed in this article. While I generally agree with the bulk of the response, I would caution against using terms like "studio" and "live" mics. This contributes to probably the number one problem in sound reinforcement - the perception that a particular piece of equipment is "the best", or only has one purpose. If all equipment were specifically designed and "best" for one thing, sound reinforcement wouldn't be the challenging, creative endeavour that it is. I'm sure the author was only trying to simplify for readers, but it's this kind of oversimplification that leads to misunderstanding - we've all had a neophyte musician who's read a couple articles tell us we're using the "wrong" microphone in the "wrong" position, or ask for "more lows" in the violin - you know :)

To the questions . . . the propensity towards feedback of condenser mics is not solely the result of gain - as the author points out, this is addressed when setting levels. However, not all polar patterns are created equal. You'll often find the cardioid pattern of your average large diaphragm condenser to have a much wider pickup than the cardioid pattern of your 57. Sensitivity is also not only a gain issue - the much lighter diaphragm of the condenser is far quicker to respond to signal than a moving coil, hence the often improved transient reproduction. Also, a "flat" mic will not inherently protect against feedback. A low cut will do wonders to help feedback problems, and reduced high frequency sensitivity can help as well - in short, if the frequency's not necessary for the instrument, we can usually reduce or eliminate it and increase our potential gain before feedback. And finally, the importance of monitors cannot be overstated - if the musicians are demanding high monitoring levels, your chances of successfully using condensers are reduced. Were there monitors in the reader's situation? Where were they? He mentioned the mic was in hypercardioid - this could help or hurt depending where he placed the monitors.

There's no reason condenser mics can't be used in live sound reinforcement, as long as the variables are understood. Some traditional bluegrass and classical musicians will refuse anything but spaced pair condensers for their performances (while I think this can be as ill-advised as dismissing condensers entirely, it is what it is). And even at "rock band" levels, condensers on a piano (lid on short stick) are not a rare sight. It may not be a gig where you can fall asleep or check your e-mail at the board, but if you're attentive and informed you can have some fun trying different types of microphones.

Aaron Saloman

In response to Can you use studio mics for live sound?, Darren Freeman writes...

If I could ask another question to accompany this...would a studio mic be better for a satellite position for recording a live show? Does anyone know any good combinations of mic's to use for this? Positioning?

Great site Dave!

In response to Can you use studio mics for live sound?, Paal T Nygaard writes...


I use studio mics in live situations all the time. I have also noted that more people do this over here in Norway. I see no point in categorizing some mics as "studio", others as "live".

Have not had any feedback issues, as long as I am a bit careful with gain on initial setup. Studio mics are more sensitive than live mics, especially if the live mic in question is a dynamic one.

If the singer on stage is a girl and she is not screeming like a maniac, I always try to use a condenser mic, and if possible a "studio mic". Often a "live mic" like AKG 535 will do, but it sounds more metallic than any large diaphragm studio mic.

I would not use the most expensive mic though, as a lot of things can happen on a stage that is not what you want an expensive mic to experience.

Any Chinese copy or original, like Studio Projects, ADK etc will do fine for me.

When working with choirs, orchestras, accoustic, gentle pop / jazz, I use large diaphragm mics all the way, and rather good sound quality is achieved almost without touching any other part of the EQ than high-pass filter, and usually damping somewhere 350 to 800 hz. Usually I find these frequencies to be augmented by the room in live situations, therefore I check them.



In response to Seven PRO microphones compared - with audio!, Richard Bragg writes...

I run a small KJ/DJ operation and am very interested in your findings as I am shopping for mics right now. I listened to all your mic tests and had my girlfriend listen to all of them and we made some decisions. I liked mic 2 because of it's rich, bolder sound, but Suzy didn't because of it's echo. We both liked 3 and 7 best with 3 being the winner. Please let me know what these mics were. Thank you.

RP response: You can see the results here...

In response to Mastering - ignore the advice and throw away the rule book!, Jim Hewitt writes...

I am a self-produced recording musician. I master my own material for 2 basic reasons.

1. Cost - I have enough trouble recouping the cost of CD production as it is. Paying an extra $1000 or so for mastered tracks would put me out of business.

2. Learning experience - I aspire to a mastering engineer level of audio comptenency, and learn much every time I try to master my own, other other's, material. As part of this I read and study as much information on mastering as I can find, such as Bob Katz's book, audio forums, as well as material from Record-Producer.

If you try to master your own tracks, bear in mind several things.

First, you do need the ears of someone who is not married to the material for objective advice about level, dynamics, arrangment, song order, etc. That is vital, unless you are so egotistical to think only you know best. Trust me, you won't always have the best judgment at all times (at least I don't).

Secondly, the pursuit of hot levels for the sake of competition has got to stop. We are already at the saturation point. If you don't help draw the line somewhere, music quality will continue to suffer.

I do mostly acoustic and some electronic music, not rock or hip hop. I have listened to some recent Celtic CD's that sound overly compressed, and they are tiresome to listen to after a while. Celtic! What are we coming to. This is not rock music.

OK, master your own material, but strive for sonic excellence and quality arrangements, not just subjective pleasure. Your music should be compelling and interesting to more than just yourself.

And now and then send out a track to get mastered (maybe for free as a test case), just to see how you are doing compared to pro's. It will not hurt.

'diamondjim' Hewitt

In response to Karlheinz Stockhausen is dead, SonicDave writes...

Ah yes, I call it Emperors New Clothes music, that avant-garde stuff. I had a lot of it back at university in the late 70's. Though Karlheinz sounds quite particular in his approach to doing it "correctly", many of the composers were not.

A story about a performance of John Cage. Cage had written a piece for trombone and if I recall another instrument. The trombone was required to use a large bell jar as a type of sound effector in the bell of the instrument. As my buddy was playing the piece with the fanatical and slavish attention to performance, he accidentally knocked over the jar. It proceeded to roll around the stage in quite loud fashion.

Afterwards he was so embarrassed as he spoke to Cage and apologized like crazy. Cage's response was to learn forward right into the musician and in his deep voice say -

"That was the BEST part!"

RP response: Things at Audio Masterclass have never been the same since eating some wild mushrooms collected and cooked by John Cage. It was a long time ago, but oh the flashbacks...

In response to The best compressor you will ever hear - and it costs NOTHING!, John E. Palmer writes...

I could not agree more. The ear is the most discriminating piece of equipment you have. Riding the fader is the way to go. Too many engineers and producers get so hung up on the "set it and forget it" technology, that they forget the one main reason they are there, to make good sound! I might argue about compression in live sound, but again, the engineer should be sitting there watching the board, not the "action" in the crowd. Thanks for the great articles, and the great engineering books. They were fantastic help when I first started. A plug for a couple of good stocking stuffers for the holidays:

1) One of the best books I have ever read is "Temples of Sound - Inside the Recording Studio", by Jim Cogan and William Clark (Chronicle Books).

2) "Behind the Glass", by Howard Massey. Some great anecdotal insight by some of the pioneers of the industry.

Perhaps that might be an edition to a "quick mail". These books are fantastic, and you will know that someone knows and cares about engineers and engineering by what they read. Absolute gems...

Thanks for the articles you send. They are insightful, and great information.

The ears are the first thing a good engineer develops. Second is patience and diplomacy. Third is equipment knowledge. JE Palmer, Seattle Washington, USA. Happy Holidays!

In response to Which loudspeakers are best for accurate monitoring?, Peter Davies writes...

Although I'm not a professional sound engineer, I mix and master my own compositions, and have a very old pair of IMF domestic export monitors (as they were called). They are about 2-3 ft tall and are large, but give a lovely clear but perhaps "warm" sound, so I mix using them. However, I do also listen to my mix on Creative PM5s and I never feel I have finished the mix until I have listened to it in my car!

In fact, I have the most difficulties making it sound great in the car, so my suggestion is that you create the best mix on the best speakers you can get, then listen to it on others and modify the mix if necessary. Almost every time I have done this, I have made a suble change which has enhanced the sound on all systems, so is worth doing (but is so time consuming!). Peter

In response to Can you use studio mics for live sound?, Stuart B writes...

Ever heard of a phase switch? Put mics near to each other out of phase and the collective summing frequencies that feedback will be cancelled and you'll get better separation.... If you're doing a professional job and being paid for it and people are paying to see the act there are NO excuses for feedback EVER.

RP response: It depends on the frequency at which feedback is occuring, and the distance between the mics, but the phase switch is always worth a try.

In response to Can you connect two loudspeakers to one amplifier channel?, Stuart B writes...

And lets not forget the lower impedance load on the amp the less signal input voltage to drive it to full power or beyond into clipping... ie lower impedance equals less headroom.

RP response: Damn, we still can't get something for nothing!

In response to Shure SM58 - better than a Neumann U87 for a thirtieth of the price?, Stuart B writes...

Re the Shure M58...if you could only have one microphone in your mic box the SM58 would be first choice...the most versatile mic you can use on anything live or studio at a pinch...watched for the last 35 years as pretenders to the throne have come and gone...even Shure cant knock it off the pedestal with the Beta...the 58 is still a better all rounder...if a live engineer ever tries to tell me to "get rid of you 58s and get the blah-blah" I just quickly walk away.

RP response: I have the feeling that Shure would dearly love for the SM58 to disappear from their catalog so they can sell all their other stuff. But they invented this incredibly useful and long-lived microphone and they seem to be stuck with it.

In response to Giant-killing $5 mic preamp - its secrets revealed, Stuart B writes...

Whoever says 45V isn't enough for the Neumann hasn't heard of the zener diode in the Neumann that drops it about 18V...or my sony C48 that has the option of running on 9V from a PP3... The world is full of experts who congregate on the Internet where you don't see their face glowing red when told they are wrong.

RP response: The schematic I'm looking at has a 24V zener, but that's only for the transistor. The voltage for the capsule bypasses the zener. Correct me if I'm wrong but this certainly seems to be so. I feel that the person who questioned whether the mic would work on 45 volts had a reasonable doubt, and in fairness wasn't pretending to be an expert. I can say for sure that the U87Ai works fine on 45 volts, because I've tried it. How low it can go is another question... would anyone care to try it out?

In response to Karlheinz Stockhausen is dead, Lukas Pearse writes...

Thanks for sharing your experience with Stockhausen. I actually love his music, and the experience of hearing his music live forever changed how I thought about the creative use of technology. I am glad that you have this perspective too.

In response to Should you always hear hiss before the music starts?, Stephen Balliet writes...

"Hiss" or noise as it is being discussed here is a byproduct of the flow of electrical current. All of the electrical hardware in the record chain from the mic to the A to D converter has its own residual noise.

As an experiment select an unused input on your A/D converter and record this to a track. Zoom in far enough and you can see that there is now a certain amount of noise that has been recorded. The track is no longer a straight line. This is a recording of the self noise of the A to D converter itself. Connect the drum machine directly or through a mixer and the noise level will likely be higher due to the added noise from these devices.

When you edit a digital track you are generating a mathematical zero level as a place holder for time. This is analogous to the use of non magnetic leader when splicing magnetic tape. This is a level that can not be recorded in the real world. Playing back a digital zero level should sound the same as not playing it back because the self noise that is always present is greater than the zero level you are trying to play back.

If you listen closely to a speaker you can hear the residual noise of the amplifier as a low level white noise, even with nothing playing back. Some amplifier designs are quieter than others, but you can't get quieter than this at room temperature.

I do not understand the statement "If you are hearing noise in your MIDI-to-audio conversions, then this is being generated by the software you are using."

MIDI, or Musical Instrument Digital Interface is nothing more than a standard for serial data that carries commands that MIDI equipped equipment responds to. Automation for light boards would be one non musical example. MIDI is not converted to audio. MIDI does not create noise. MIDI triggers audio generation either in an external sound generator or via a software synth or sampler. An external synth or drum machine will have self noise and a sample will contain recorded noise, but it is certainly possible for sound generating software to create a "perfect" or silent-to-the-sample-depth precision sound without added noise.

RP response: If a MIDI-to-audio software is creating undue noise, then in all probability it is because there is too much headroom between the highest peaks in the MIDI track, and the highest level the audio file can accomodate. To optimize the signal-to-noise ratio of the audio file, the conversion software would have to find the highest peak produced by the MIDI track, then adjust everything else with respect to that. If anyone with experience of the development of such software could throw further light on this, we would be very interested.

In response to Karlheinz Stockhausen is dead, Shane McElroy writes...

Had you not written this article I would probably not have known of Karlheinz Stockhausen's death for some time to come. As you said, you yourself read it in a minor news item. It's a terrible shame that with all the music related news I do read, I hadn't heard of this ultra pioneer's passing until now.

You were truly blessed to have worked with this man David.

Thanks for the fine article...

In response to Karlheinz Stockhausen is dead, Karel Mars writes...

My introduction to Stockhausen's music was a LP that a friend lent me. The record sleeve was tattered and and it had a label from the record shop that sold it. The record shop was a highly reputed audiophile music shop, and the Stockhausen was probably considered as modern classical music if I have to guess.

I knew that Stockhausen was an important personality in the music world, probably from reading a book such as Yehudi Menuhen Music of Man. I was quite happy at the time to give difficult music a good listen, and explored the record.

I still have the record stashed safely with my other collectable LPs.

The music was not dense, but did swing from quiet to loud clanging passages. Some of the sounds sounded like a plastic ruler being held over a table edge and the the free end being plucked. If you then move the ruler while it vibrates, the pitch changes. The sounds did sound natural, but being generated by modern materials like plastic.

In the beginning I found the music quite impenetrable as compared to say Terry Riley or Brian Eno, but with time this record became a personal favourite, especially for deep relaxation. The narrative underlying the music became more apparent, and I would recommend anyone who enjoys exploring sound, to give some time to Stockhausen's works. If the operas sound a bit heavy, try out the other experimental works. You will be surprised!

Long live Stockhausen!

In response to Karlheinz Stockhausen is dead, Wes Maebe writes...

R.I.P Karlheinz.

I have always enjoyed your work and have the greatest respect for I have for the man who synchronised your Studer and subsequently ended up teaching me about synthesis on that very Arp Axxe you signed. See you on the other side.

RP response: Yes, but not for a while yet...

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