Special: STEREO Workshop
STEREO Sound Education Sessions in America
Favorite Subject: Sound Studies – What seemed to be a crazy idea at first turned out to be a didactic hi-fi-hit at an American high school. STEREO hosted informative "Sound Education Sessions" there and also set an outstanding example for learning with listening fun.
Teaching young people about hi-fi, its possibilities and its potential for fascination is Matthias Böde‘s favorite subject and a matter close to his heart. In 2019, for example, our "Mr. Workshop" utilized the connection between PREMIUM PARTNER Reiner Kemper in Ulm and the local technical high school to give senior students an insight into high-quality music reproduction, taking into account their personal interests. For the teenagers, it was a school trip into the hi-fi field that was as unusual as it was delightful, and which found its way into (German) STEREO issue 3/2020 as a workshop.
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Benjamin Rehberg, hi-fi enthusiast and STEREO reader living in New York, also read the article and was impressed by its approach. He has long lamented the general lack of knowldedge concerning hi-fi topics among young people. Who doesn‘t? Hence his cautious request to our Mr. Böde: Couldn‘t we do that here at my son‘s school? Excuse me? About 6,000 kilometers away from our normal place of work?
"That‘ll never work," was what Rehberg‘s wife had said, but Böde was instantly hooked. The fact that it nevertheless took more than two years was not due to the distance or other logistical obstacles. Rather, the Covid-19 pandemic with its contact and travel restrictions delayed the event. Kyle Hosier, Principal of Edgemont Junior-Senior High School – located in the beautiful Westchester County north of NYC – was immediately open to enriching the general project week at the end of the school year by adding a few "Sound Education Sessions" – the catchy title for the workshops.
And what do you need for that? Well, a proper hi-fi stereo system of course! After all, the event was to take place in the school‘s gigantic auditorium. We were able to win over T+A as a partner, being one of the most distinguished high-end brands in Germany and even sporting its own sales division in the U.S. for some time now. As a German hi-fi magazine, we obviously wanted to appear with one of "our own" brands in America.
We still had one concern, though: that the large Criterion S2200 CTL loudspeakers driven by the powerful PA3100HV integrated amplifier – certainly intended for generously sized living rooms, but not as a hall PA – would be acoustically drowned out in the vast auditorium. But that quickly proved to be unjustified. On the contrary: the "crew", which also included music teacher John Catoliato and T+A‘s US sales manager Jim Shannon, was simply amazed at how substantial, contoured and untarnished the setup performed
Matthias Böde knows exactly how Maria Pihl‘s full-bodied "Malvina" is supposed to sound. It did not show any paleness, but rather offered a rich rolling bass, clear mids, gentle highs without any hints of annoyance and even a really three-dimensional spatiality. Hard to believe, but true! And it didn‘t even matter whether you were sitting in the third, sixth or even twelfth row of the auditorium, which rises slightly towards the back. You could also play quite loud – not unimportant for our introductory didactic chapter.
Optimal prerequisites for our teaching session, which approaches students right where they listen; and thus focuses on modern pop music. This stems from the fact that it is subject to a series of "laws", in terms of sound, that not only every teenager should know. Böde started with the obsession for loudness, which some producers of popular music amplified to the well-known "loudness war".
Why? "What do you do when you want to attract attention in a loud group?" is the common example chosen by our STEREO man. "You shout. And that‘s what happens in a lot of pop recordings, which are often maxed out all the way. The aim is to garner attention for the music. In addition, the mobile playback devices that are frequently used – be it tiny Bluetooth speakers or phones – can‘t produce rich dynamics anyway. That‘s why it always has to be loud, and the music makers try to outdo each other with all kinds of tricks." To general amusement, Böde recited the story of how mastering legend Bernie Grundmann once reported that bandleaders constantly whine when their new album seems less flashy and "loud" than that of another group.
What that means in reality is demonstrated by two songs, both produced completely differently: We start with Katelijne van Otterloo‘s "Satin Doll", captured fragrantly and with natural dynamics, played at a pleasant volume. If you keep the volume settings and switch to "Dani California" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the system literally screams. The reason: its volume is completely maxed out from time to time (see box at the end) and even increases in the last third, not only subjectively. That borders on deafening noise! If you jump back to "Satin Doll" at the same volume, you think you can hardly hear anything at first.
Of course, however, dynamics are important for a natural-sounding playback of music, for which higher demands are set than for background noise in your car or kitchen. What dynamics can do is made clear by a "moment of shock" from Flim & The BB‘s‘ notorious "Tricycle", which the youngsters certainly don‘t know. In the song, a quiet piano intro is followed, as if out of nowhere, by a heavy impulse that makes more than a few of the surprised students jump abruptly. "That‘s dynamics – and they can do that!" grins Böde. The participants won‘t forget this lesson quickly!
Another important aspect is the trend towards high bitrates. Even CD quality might be unknown to many young people – especially in the USA, where streaming in MP3 is the norm. Thus, quite a few of the participants are surprised that similar to the TV, film and video sector with its HDTV, Bluray, 4K or even 8K formats, there have long been corresponding developments in the audio field.
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Some of the songs that Mr. Böde brought with him in various versions made clear in what direction these are heading. As he importantly noted, the highest resolution in each case always corresponded to the original recording format, meaning that no up-sampled files were part of the show. The MP3 versions also always came in the best MP3, i.e. 320 kilobits per second. "Don‘t you worry, I won‘t trouble you with 64kB MP3 files, such as there used to be on Napster, where mostly young people illegally traded pop songs reduced to this bare minimum," as his quick summary of the situation in the early 2000s went.
"I always wondered why they wanted to drag those kids into court back then. They were punished enough with having to listen to that stuff," our man gets a laugh, knowing full well that his audience is too young to personally remember the file-sharing site that went online in 1999 and was already closed in 2001 after legal quarrels. But don‘t forget the well-attended "parent‘s evening" for curious adults. A bit of light-hearted chatter and hi-fi history can‘t be missing at the SES, right?
Now, the time has come for everyone to get their own impressions. This is aided by T+A‘s ingenious MP3100HV multi source player, which presents the directly selectable titles in their respective best shape. Of course, they are played at identical volume levels for easier comparison.
Nils Landgren‘s cover of John Lennon‘s "Imagine" signals the start. The elegiac guitar resonating in the background and the sensitive performance of the Swedish jazz musician only unfold their full potential when the song is played in best 24 bit/88.2 kilohertz resolution. In the CD version (16 bit/44.1 kHz) and even more so as an MP3, the performance appears more and more narrow, with duller colors as well as an increasingly meaningless emotionality.
"MP3 says: Spatiality, subtle details and emotion? You don‘t need that! And MP3 is right. Outside, on the road with earphones or via `roaring boxes´ on a desktop setup, which are insensitive to these aspects anyway, such facets are ignored at any rate," Böde precisely conludes. But anyone who feeds his high-quality stereo system with such meager hi-fidelity cuisine is severely limiting its capabilities. "And no player, amp or loudspeaker, no matter how fantastic they are, can make up for what is missing right from the start." The students learn one of the central audiophile principles.
Listening to the live recording of "I Remember Clifford" by Hans Dulfer and the Beets Brothers leads to quite similar results. In MP3 quality, the soundstage is flat and narrow, the applause sounds more like frying a Schnitzel. The CD version already introduces significantly more air, naturalness and relaxation to the song. The band, however, only really breathes a sigh of relief when the track – extracted from vinyl with an ultra-turntable for our first STEREO Phono Festival LP – shines in the recording format of 24 bit/192 kHz.
And if you now think that high-bit hi-fi is only something for audiophile music styles, be ready to be proven wrong by CC Coletti and her thrashing "Rock And Roll". Chesky Records‘ "dummy head recording" – also to be found on our listening test edition III CD – only offers an optimum of finesse, plasticity and sophisticated power without annoyance in the full digital resolution of, again, 24/192. The students are amazed and now know that a listening sphere worth discovering does exist above MP3 and Spotify.
The bell rings to signal recess, but the audience, no matter if juniors or seniors, wants to know more. It echoes "just go on!" from the crowd. Okay, and now the relationship between sound and music is on the SES curriculum. Through several listening examples – from duos to many-headed orchestras – it quickly becomes clear that these are not distinct and separeate variables, but rather two sides of the same coin. In "Wake Me Up Before You Gogo" by Le Bang Bang, the sound engineers did not simply pull the singer and bass player to the front of the stage for no reason. Displaying them large and spectrum-filling gives them dominance and a sense of directness
In contrast, the producer of the Antonio Forcione Quartet‘s crisp "Attempo" deliberately drew the dimensions wide. Thus, we get an overview over the live performance while attention was also payed to sharp impulsivity, without which the song would likely have swung around the dynamic corners rather flat and not sparklingly – and thus would have missed its goal.
In "Mitt Hjertte Alltid Vanker", these parameters aren‘t important at all. The sound engineer is rather tasked with capturing the spiritual and graceful mood of the song, which aims directly at your heart and is played – including a haunting solo part and a captivatingly beautiful choir – in the vastness of a church. And this task was mastered excellently. With a shredding sound style, its emotional spirit would have been guaranteed to fall into the void.
Similar case with the entrance of the archangel Michael in Ottorino Respighi‘s symphonic cycle "Vetrate di chiesa", which fluctuates between violence and subtle nuances. It would have turned out less dramatic and impressive without the know-how and brilliant touch of "Prof." Keith Johnson. Everyone understands that good sound wraps itself around the music like a tailor-made robe and in this way transports and reinforces its impetus in the shape of audiophile artistry.
Now it‘s the students‘ turn, as Matthias Böde proposes they link their phones to the T+A player via Bluetooth and play something from their own collection. Let‘s see how that sounds? But instead of dynamically flattened average pop, we hear – surprise! – "Another One Bites The Dust" by Queen or "In The Flesh" from Pink Floyd‘s "The Wall". "Hey, when that came out, I was hardly older than you," remarks "Mr. Workshop" with mild shock. And who would have thought that Rick Astley‘s 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up" would be so popular again amongst American teenagers?
Apart from that, though, it came as expected: Wasia Project‘s "Impossible" is nice to listen to, but comes with highly compressed dynamics. The same is true for Post Malone‘s "Stay", which thus exposes modern pop production methods. On the other hand, Tripie Redd‘s "Miss The Rage" plays it big. But the bass only sounds "fat" on a superficial level; it actually does not reach very deep and is as distorted as if you had a completely cranked up gangsta car next to you.
As a change of pace, Mahler‘s Symphony No.5 performed by the Berlin Philharmonic follows. She has never heard music sound so good, says the student afterwards. That can be taken as the essence of the entire successful "Sound Education Sessions". We thank everyone involved and say goodbye. It was great fun!
If you compare the loudness diagrams of "Satin Doll" (diagram 1/left) and „Dani California” (2/middle), you‘ll notice striking differences. The first song contains a lot of gray, which stands for silence, into which blue energy peaks, i.e. music impulses, rise. In contrast, there are almost no quieter passages in the Red Hot Chili Peppers track, and it is consistently levelled to the zero dB limit towards the end. The distance between the loudest sound and the average level amounts to just five decibels (DR5), while "Satin Doll" sits at DR10 and offers natural dynamics. However, as background noise and via mobile "hearing aids", more subtle sounds could easily get lost. That means: Pedal to the metal! The music becomes more noticeable and thus more "commercial". But in no way more hi-fi!
"Tricycle" (3/right) from the 1983 album of the same name by the US band Flim & The BB‘s is a downright "dynamic icon" in the audiophile community. If you play the piano intro at a reasonable volume, a powerful music impulse will throw you out of your listening chair right away. Generations of hi-fi fans have scared their friends with it. The diagram on the left shows the steep rises of the onsets. Genuine listening pleasure, but you ought to be prepared for it.
Jonna & Leon Schwarz: "The show was amazing! Although the selection of songs was not really to our taste, we enjoyed every track. Note: With a top sound system, any piece of music becomes an experience."
Matt Glotzer: "Very informative! In the days of MiniDisc, DCC and DAT I delved extensively into the topic of digital technology, its possibilities and standards. The SES have now brought me up to date. A great event!"
Adam Abramowitz: "The higher data rates convey more of the music and give the listener a chance to dive deeper into it. Switching back from high res to MP3, not only details were lost, but at the same time also some of the `emotional impact´."
Andrea Lee: "This was really cool! I have never rellly thought about the relationship between sound and music. But now I was presented with a feeling for high quality."
Stephanie Avolio: "Now I know why I, as a fan of symphonic music, have to constantly adjust the volume of my headphones. But I‘d rather do that than listen to music with compressed dynamics. A lot is lost in the process! Over loudspeakers, the listening experience is a completely different one. That was new to me. And I like it!"
Girish Subramaniam: "We are so used to MP3 for reasons of convenience that we seem to have forgotten about the sonic richness in music and settle for mediocrity. This presentation tore me away from that. Thank you!"
Kyle Hosier, School Principal: "As the principal of Edgemont Junior-Senior High School, I care deeply about a well-rounded education of students, even beyond the normal subjects. The SES are a real enrichment to our diverse activities that we could not have provided ourselves. Thanks a lot!"
John Catoliato, Teacher: "What a great time to be a music teacher! You are surrounded by sounds everywhere. It is worthwile to pay attention to quality in your personal life. If you invest some attention and effort into your playback devices, you will be rewarded."