Audiophiles, Audioworkers & Assholes

posted in: Letters & Spiels | 0

Disdain is one of my least favorite things. Disdain is a repugnant combination of hubris, hard-headedness and indifference all in service of bolstering one’s own position. Dialogue dies, communication collapses, exchange expires and possibilities parish.

Increasingly, I see audiophiles and audioworkers expressing some relatively fixed positions toward each other, delivered with rather formulaic disdain. Stereotypes abound, as they do when one formulates opinions of any group, and it’s gotten to the point where even trade magazines are starting to fill up with disdainful articles about each other. Worse — professionals within these two groups seem to be misunderstanding each other more and more. Disdain is one thing; misinformed disdain is another. It’s getting bad. Bad enough to pitch Christopher Guest with a mockumentary concept.

I’m a pretty snobby recordmaker and a relatively mellow audiophile. I’m fascinated by great sounding recordings and by great sounding playback systems, and last I checked you don’t really bother with one if you don’t have the other. I weep in front of a pair of speakers more than most people, I’m fairly sure. That phantom image, that utopian otherworld rendered in sound waves, that alternate universe held in the grooves on a plastic disc — that causes me to marvel at humanity and our quest for beauty and wonder more than Hubble telescope photos, Paloma Herrera’s pirouette, even Love itself. I look at all the fucked up things we do to this planet, it’s species and each other, and then I listen to a beautiful recording on a totally awe-inspiring playback system and I think: We did THIS! The better that sonic experience, the more I feel that music. The more I feel that music, the faster I melt into a puddle of weepy hope.

And what does it take to melt me? It takes people obsessively toiling away at making records, and it takes people obsessively toiling away at making great playback equipment. Both communities obsessing on either side of that strange divide between audio input and audio output is what brings sensitive listeners like me to tears and fills us with hope.

And so I get really confused and frustrated when I hear these two communities slinging disdain at each other like a bunch of middle-schoolers having a food fight in the cafeteria. Well, people, today I’m the lunch monitor and I just turned off the light and I’m here to let you know I’m handing out detentions faster than you can hide that PB&J you were about to schemer in your classmates face. Audiophiles, audioworkers: it’s time to grow up and stop being assholes because my very hope in our species’ ability to save this whole damned planet depends on you getting along. I’m not kidding.

Let me quickly summarize the disdain I see.

Audioworker’s Disdain Toward Audiophiles

  • You audiophiles are addicted to placebo effect.
  • You make things up in order to sustain your elitist hobby.
  • You audiophiles care more about sound than music.
  • We “engineers” are scientists and you audiophiles are like religious zealots worshiping some sonic god. You might as well join the religious right. Your love of sound is anti-Darwin, anti-science, anti-sanity. You’re NUTS!
  • You’re missing the whole point of recorded sound if you’re busy obsessing over tiny changes in sound quality, most of which you’re making up in your delusional minds.
  • Objectivity is king.
  • If only you could think like we do.

Audiophile Disdain Toward Audioworkers

  • Ok, a few of you audioworkers are ok, but are you people mostly deaf or what?
  • Are you slaves to some degradation of recorded sound in the name of a paycheck?
  • You guys started the loudness war, and now you ruin everything with compression.
  • You all side-stepped the apprenticeships of the past and now you all are unprofessional hacks.
  • But worse, you guys can’t hear what we hear, and you rely on shitty, short-term ABX testing to prove that small differences don’t matter, and now you’ve thrown enough of those small differences under the bus that your records sound like someone is rubbing my face on coarse sandpaper.
  • You mix on NS10s? Auratones? Are you NUTS?
  • Subjectivity is king.
  • If only you could think like we do.

Eye eye eye!

While being a disdainful asshole who employs stereotyped generalizations is in itself a huge problem, what’s worse is that audiophiles and audioworkers still have so much to learn from each other!

Let me put a more positive spin on a couple of things, just to try to see if dialogue, communication, exchange and possibilities might emerge. Remember — you’re going to have to put the PB&J back in your lunch box, sit down at the table and act like a grown up.

Ok, now…let’s call these “talking points.”

The only rule of engagement: Don’t be an asshole.

Talking Point: Dynamics

Audiophiles love them wide and deep, audioworkers see dynamic range as a creative choice. Here are a series of questions you can use to help build intelligent dialogue around this topic.

  • What are your perceived end goals of any recording, and how do choices about dynamics serve those goals?
  • As an audiophile, what should a recording do when you listen to it?
  • As an audioworker, what should a recording do when someone listens to it?
  • Are dynamic preferences inherent to our species due to evolution, or are they an acquired taste?
  • Is there any science (probably in perceptual studies) that can help us understand human responses to dynamic ranges?
  • What about music that isn’t very dynamic in the first place?
  • Are there examples of masters with narrow dynamics that feel widely dynamic? What about widely dynamic recordings that feel flat?

Talking Point: Consumption vs. Listening
Audiophiles spend lots of money and time on listening concertedly to recorded music. Audioworkers, however, are often serving a non-audiophile listening group who consumes music distractedly while multi-tasking. Here are a series of questions you can use to help build intelligent dialogue around this topic.

  • How is society shaping listening habits? Are we able to realistically expect concerted listening from more people?
  • Is the sound of modern recordings contributing to that distractedness? Is that sound serving it?
  • How important is it to you that people become concerted listeners?
  • What strategies can one use to help people become more concerted listeners?
  • Do we need to make different masters for different end uses — concerted vs. multi-tasking?

Talking Point: Playback Systems & Formats

Audiophiles can point us toward affordable but very high quality playback systems and would hope these become more popular. Audioworkers, however, must work toward making their recordings sound passable on even the worst sound systems, and must assume that people aren’t going to spend the money to get good ones. Here are a series of questions you can use to help build intelligent dialogue around this topic.

  • Are consumer playback systems getting better or worse?
  • Is the sound quality of recorded music and playback systems related to people valuing it in their lives? What about as consumers?
  • Can better playback systems cause people to listen less distractedly? 
Will improvements in personal audio systems lead us back toward popular high fidelity in our culture?

Talking Point: Judging Recordings

Audiophiles tend to have a set of criteria by which they judge the quality of a recording, while audioworkers have had a first-hand experience making recordings and have built their judgements around that experience. Here are a series of questions you can use to help build intelligent dialogue around this topic.

  • How do you judge whether a recording is good or bad? Be specific about your criteria.
  • Are there recordings that fail to meet your criteria, but that you love anyways?
  • Can the sound quality of a recording trump the content?
  • Can the content of a recording trump the sound quality?
  • How do audiophiles judge a recording that is a total studio construction? Can you apply the same criteria to an electronic record as you do to an acoustic one, for example?

Talking Point: Artists
Audiophiles like to hold audioworkers or record label executives responsible for the sound of records, but will sometimes concede that the artist had a hand in those decisions. Audioworkers have a first-hand experience of how those decisions get made. Here are a series of questions you can use to help build intelligent dialogue around this topic.

  • How does an audiophile respond to an artist choosing to make a record that they (the audiophiles) deem to sound “bad?”
  • How does an audioworker deal with an artist choosing to make a record that they (the audioworker) deems to sound “bad?”
  • Can an artist “get it wrong” when it comes to the sound of their records?
  • Can an audioworker “get it wrong” when making a record?
  • Can a label “get it wrong” when building a recordmaking team?

Talking Point: Endless Tinkering

Audiophiles, it seems, are constantly replacing components, cables and whatever they can get their hands on in their playback systems in an attempt to improve the sound. Audioworkers seem to think this is mostly all very stupid. Here are a series of questions you can use to help build intelligent dialogue around this topic.

  • Has the tinkering ever lead to interesting, useful discoveries?
  • Is anyone being harmed by the tinkering? If so, how?
  • Are audioworkers worried that audiophiles have more highly tweaked equipment than they do in their studios?
  • Are audiophiles concerned that audioworkers often monitor their work on systems they’d deem inadequate?

Talking Point: Subjectivity & Objectivity
Audiophiles often dispense with…..

….[coughs]….

…audiophiles often….

…[coughs some more]….

…Excuse me! Where was I?….

….[suppresses yawn]…

…[stretches neck from side to side]…

….you know what, I think you all get the point, and I can’t really be bothered to start grinding this old objective-subjective axe. Let me just say that I think audiophiles and audioworkers can drop the disdain, even when discussing subjectivity vs. objectivity, and recognize that rather than being correct and living on one side of that divide between input and output, that — if we remain openminded and kind and beautiful — all of us humans will remain awash in wonder and curiosity about recorded sound while remaining scientific and sure-footed. Those two attitudes need not be at odds, but can wind themselves around each other in a very human way.

Folks, drop the disdain for each other. Come together at the table, put the PB&J back in your lunch boxes if you’re not going to eat it, and look across at each other and realize that when you might just bump into each other in the grocery store — probably somewhere near the peanut butter — and you might just have something worthwhile to share with each other.

Author: Allen Farmelo
First Publication: Pink Noise
Publication Date: November 19th, 2014