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Save Our...Stereo!

[Italian version]

It is London in the early 1900s. A couple are worried about their young lad who doesn't seem to show much interest in anything and seems to have a rather short attention span. Is there perhaps something wrong with him? After all, he is not doing very well at school and has no obvious ambitions.
The young lad in question drifted around in his own little world until, one day, he stumbled upon the new-fangled science of electronics. Something clicked. This interested him. In fact, it more than interested him, it was the key which unlocked his creative interest and allowed his natural genius to flow. He quickly made up for lost time with regard to his lack-lustre academic record, before bursting upon the world of electronics like a ray of sun-light, rattling off 128 patents before his life was brought to an untimely end in a Halifax bomber on June 7th 1942 (a few weeks before his 39th birthday), while he was continuing his groundbreaking work on radar. His name was Alan Dower Blumlein.

Along the way he invented stereo. In fact, he also thought about multi-channel audio and how it might be used, but he realised that you could recreate a realistic audio performance with just two channels. Blumlein didn't simply theorise about this. He sat down and built the prototypes (to the astonishment and good fortune of EMI) and worked out the whole start to finish chain of events, including recording techniques.
He defined the "figure of eight" stereo microphone technique, still used to good effect by the more knowledgeable recording engineers today, especially those involved with the reproduction of classical music. They also understand that, properly undertaken, Blumlein's techniques from the 30s can provide all the spatial information you need, coupled to a degree of realism in capturing the original acoustic and performance, which has yet to be improved upon. You can hear this yourself on some of the better classical (and sometimes jazz) recordings. This is also why some of the simple recordings undertaken in the 50s sound so good, before they started mangling everything with more mixers and processing in the chain.

A good stereo recording can provide a full soundstage with accurate instrument placement and depth information. In opera recordings (always a good test for Hi-Fi systems) it can accurately track soloists as they move around the stage and re-create voices from the back of the stage, or even from completely off stage, as is sometimes required. It can do this with a full bandwidth, dynamic sound that captures not only the artistic performance, but also the particular acoustic in which it took place.
Indeed, classical and opera enthusiasts can often tell in which venue a recording was made, by identifying the subtle acoustic clues present in a proper stereophonic recording. A multi-miked and heavily edited studio recording sacrifices this information in return for more control over the perceived presence of each instrument. A poor bargain.

So why do we need more than two channels? What is all this 5.1 and 6.1 "home cinema" nonsense? Well, cinema sound has always been more about special effects than accuracy. You may remember the early "stereo" cinema soundtracks and later variations on a theme such as "Sensurround" and other such chicanery where sounds were bounced around until you were dizzy. Bullets whizzing from left to right etc. etc.
Movie producers like that sort of thing. Perhaps it serves to divert one's attention from a less than riveting script. Consumer electronics manufacturers like it even more, because they can keep coming up with new products to sell to you. With six or seven channels they can have a field day and empty your wallet six or seven times more quickly.
Perhaps if we had six or seven ears this might be appropriate, but we haven't. Mother Nature agreed with Alan Blumlein that two channels is all you need to realistically capture a sound field. It is also all you need to reproduce a sound field. Think about it. When you are in the concert hall or opera theatre the sound emanates from the performers spread out in front of you. The sound you hear (through your stereo hearing system) is a mixture of the direct and reverberant sound.
That is the sound of the individual instruments and voices, plus the sound of the reverberant echoes as sound waves travel towards you, bouncing off reflective surfaces or being partly absorbed along the way, thus giving you positional information as well as the sound. When the soprano sings, you don't hear her voice coming at you from 5.1 or 6.1 directions - God and Verdi never intended it this way. No, you hear her precisely located in space, with her voice reflecting the particular acoustic in which she sings.
Similarly with a good jazz ensemble. Part of the enjoyment in a good jazz club is seeing and hearing the musicians interacting with each other on stage. Imagine how this would be if each musician was in a different corner of the club with you sat in the middle? This is not how nature intended jazz to be played - so why try and recreate it this way?

You might argue that much modern music is recorded on multiple channels (often electronic instruments directly injected with no natural reverberation) and can therefore be mixed anyway you like, including surround sound via 5.1 or 6.1 channels, with special effects flying around like bees on a hot afternoon. Yes indeed. But what has this got to do with recreating a musical performance? The musicians weren't whirring around the studio at ninety miles per hour, playing their instruments as they go. Neither were they scattered around the building, coming from every which way for a solo.
Furthermore, in the average domestic room, setting up a system like this can only create an un-natural listening experience. Of course, there will be those that will say the extra channels can be used simply for reverberation and therefore re-creating the original acoustic space, although it is highly unlikely that any multi-channel recording will be made for this reason. But why? When you can already do this with two channels, why add more complication and distortion?

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against multi-channel cinema sound for movies where special (but entirely un-natural) effects are included as part of the surreal excitement package. But this is not Hi-FI. Let me say it again - THIS IS NOT HI-FI. Similarly, if individuals wish to (try to) replicate this cinema experience in the home, then fine. That is their prerogative. But it is not Hi-Fi.
So let's stop calling it Hi-Fi and confusing the line between Alan Blumlein's wonderful invention and the more cynical marketing ploys of the contemporary consumer electronics industry. The danger, and it is a very real danger, is that genuine stereo recording and reproduction will disappear as the marketing machine concentrates on "home cinema" for the mass market.

At first, the intellectually challenged mainstream Hi-Fi media will include coverage of home cinema as a valid music reproduction mechanism, even giving glowing reviews to such components, with all their inherent phase problems (this is already happening). Before you know it, they will hardly be covering stereo at all, except for some largely irrelevant "high end" components.
Then they will be deriding stereo recordings as being "old fashioned" and concentrating only on media for multi-channel reproduction. Eventually, there will be no proper stereo and no realism. Just artificial musical happenings, fired at you from every corner of the room. When this happens, the magic of Blumlein's invention will be lost forever. It will no longer be possible to close one's eyes and transport yourself to a great musical event at La Scala or the Albert Hall. Future generations will not know what it means to faithfully re-create a musical performance in the home. Note, that this was the original goal of Hi-Fi, hence the name "high fidelity" as in high fidelity to the original performance.

That is why I say SAVE OUR STEREO. We must preserve the magic of true stereo sound for future generations. We must lobby the mainstream Hi-Fi media to concentrate on Hi-Fi, not home cinema. We must lobby the mainstream Hi-Fi component manufacturers to continue to support two channel sound. We must lobby the broadcast community to preserve and support true stereo recordings.
We must lobby the mainstream music companies to preserve and support true stereo recordings. If we stand by and keep silent, in five years time there will be no affordable Hi-Fi components (I exclude the plastic one piece "mini" sets retailed in electronics stores and supermarkets from this description), just home cinema kit, and some exorbitantly priced high end stereo components, out of reach of all but the well heeled.

This year (2003) represents the centenary anniversary of Alan Blumlein's birth. Let's celebrate it in style by championing true stereo and standing against the onslaught of the artificial multi-channel noise being foistered on us by an unscrupulous electronics industry. We are now organizing an on-line register of true stereo supporters, in order to demonstrate to the consumer electronics giants that we don't want to lose this particular piece of magic.

© 2003 Copyright Julian Ashbourn - www.tnt-audio.com

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