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A Thought-Provoking Demo in Munich


In a show with many demos, one demo in Munich stood out for its creativity and ambitiousness: the live with recorded (rather than live versus recorded) sound in the Stenheim/darTZeel room. At a reservation-only event, jazz saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh played music from his album No Filter live, while a recording of his band accompanied him by way of top darTZeel electronics and Stenheim speakers. 

This is not the first live-with-recorded demo at a trade show. Acora had a convincing one at the most recent Capital Audiofest. That demo was typical of the ilk in that the recording incorporated its own artificial “acoustics,” in the form of EQ and added reverb. Meanwhile, the live performer was subjected to a completely different set of acoustics: the demo room itself. 

However, in this case the recording—a sax-less version of the No Filter album—had been made especially for this occasion. Notably, the new version had zero added EQ or reverb. That way, the demo room’s acoustics would apply equally and exclusively to the proceedings. In theory, this arrangement should create a level playing field, as it were, making it easier for a listener to gauge the differences and similarities between the live and recorded sound. 

The results were surprising, to say the least. The live sax blended so seamlessly with the recorded backup that any difference was virtually indiscernible. I asked myself, how is it possible that the sax didn’t sound substantially more live than the recorded accompaniment? Stenheim and darTZeel would argue that it was thanks to a great system, and surely that was a factor. Another logical reason would be the high quality of the 96/24 recording, which was produced by Aaron Nevezie, and mixed and mastered by Pete Rende. Again, that clearly was a factor.

But are we to take what we heard and conclude that, given a good recording and an equally good system, the industry has finally eradicated all forms of compromise in reproduced sound, and that it now sounds truly live? I think we all know that that’s not the case. And in a strange way this demo proved it. That’s because as I listened further, I realized that the excellent blend wasn’t due to both sources sounding live; rather it was because neither of them sounded live. Good as it was, you’d never mistake the sound I heard for unamplified musicians performing in a jazz nightclub.

That’s to be expected. We simply aren’t yet at the point where live and recorded music are indistinguishable—and I don’t know anyone who thinks we are. What, then, did this demo accomplish? The answer is, it raised important questions; primarily, how is it that a live performer, standing right in front of us and being backed by recorded sound, can himself sound recorded? I think there are at least two possible explanations.

First, as we all know, the recording process is inevitably lossy. Microphones aren’t perfect, nor are recording electronics or digital encoding itself. In this demo, those losses are imposed on every instrument—except the sax. So perhaps when 90% of what’s being played has a certain sonic signature caused by recording process losses, and you add 10% (the live sax) with a different signature altogether, the ear-brain mechanism attempts to avoid confusion by lumping all the sounds together. This may sound far-fetched, but there’s a lot we don’t understand about psychoacoustic phenomena. 

Another possibility has to do with the room itself. Despite being heavily treated (or perhaps because of that), the room had a strong acoustic presence. As you’ll recall, those acoustics applied equally to both sound sources. This raises the possibility that the room’s sound simply swamped any subtle differences between the live and recorded music.

Although the demo may not have proved what its organizers presumably had hoped—that live and recorded music have become indistinguishable—it nonetheless illustrated that the two have become close enough that other factors come into play. At the same time, the demo raised questions worth exploring, such as how our ear-brain mechanism copes when live and well-recorded music are juxtaposed. For that reason, the exhibitors should be commended for designing such a challenging and provocative demo.


By Alan Taffel

I can thank my parents for introducing me to both good music and good sound at an early age. Their extensive classical music collection, played through an enviable system, continually filled our house. When I was two, my parents gave me one of those all-in-one changers, which I played to death.

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