It's the Music, Stupid!

It’s the music, stupid. This is what I try to remember whenever I start worrying about audio. Is that midrange a little honky? Is this subwoofer doubling on the loudest low E’s? Does this 192/24 file truly sound better than the CD? It’s the music, stupid.

For those lucky souls too young to remember, it’s a paraphrase of Bill Clinton’s 1992 watchword, “It’s the economy, stupid!” with which the campaign reminded itself, via innumerable Post-Its affixed to cubicles, podiums, and shaving-mirrors, to stay on point and on message. And it’s good advice today. All the sound quality in the world won’t make bad music good, or a routine-ized performance special. Nor will any sum spent on audio-reproduction hardware (or software) make living-room playback a live-music experience.

In a previous life I was a “serious musician,” and among other things a member, for a while, of one New England state’s eponymous symphony orchestra. In a decade or so spent kicking around that world I met scores or perhaps hundreds of musicians and composers, most journeyman hackers like myself, some of real talent, and a very few genuine artists, including a handful of world-famous ones. How many of these could be called “audiophiles?” Exactly one (a horn player in the BSO). Almost to a man and woman, the capital-M musicians I know use music-playback for content, not experience. They recognize, most without thinking about it, that recorded music never passes one simple test: when you hear it playing in another room do you mistake it for live musicians? Of course you don’t. The ear knows better: It’s the music, stupid.

I can think of no better way to convince yourself of the wisdom of my mantra then to spend a few hours poking around Wolfgang’s Vault, the home of the late Bill Graham’s bottomless collection of recordings, both audio and A-V, from the various Fillmores and many other venues he promoted (and other sources since acquired by the collection.) Yeah, I know the site has been embroiled in lawsuits from time to time, and various forums blaze with indignation that the once-free-streaming site is now a subscription service. I don’t care: It’s cheap, accessible, and legal. (It’s the music, stupid.)

There are endless thousands of live shows you can listen to. Many are crude soundboard feeds with lousy mixes in cassette quality; some are radio-broadcast productions of an eminently listenable grade. The performance quality varies similarly, from what-city-is-this walk-throughs to historic dates. But whatever you find to listen to, and however you listen to it, it ain’t gonna be audiophile.

Doesn’t matter; if you take some time to browse, and if you care about music, I guarantee you will find something that will electrify your musical core. I’ll pick an example out of my hat: a crude B&W video of The Band at Asbury Park’s (yes, that Asbury Park) Casino Arena from July, 1976, very late in the original lineup’s existence. It’s not necessarily The Band at its best (Richard Manuel’s voice is pretty well hosed, and he looks barely ambulatory), and very roughly mixed and sonically mediocre, but if you’re not moved by the sound of five all-time great players combining their mastery of various instruments, vocals, and live-sound techniques to work musical magic—without recourse to virtuosic displays, pyrotechnics, or MIDI or automation of any kind, you don’t get it. Listen to the amazingly distinctive three-color vocal palette (Robbie’s mic is turned below audibility, as always), to the best “feel” rock drummer ever, the late Levon Helm, to Robbie Robertson’s studiously raggedy guitar playing, as the group rips out one masterpiece after another.

And then tell me you didn’t like the bitrate. It’s the music, stupid.

stodgers's picture

I get what you're saying if there is only one source audio file available. But given the choice of having the bootleg version of a show recorded yourself, or the soundboard of the same show, which would you choose? The better quality version.

So worrying about all those details makes sense if you're looking at an album like Rush's 2112 or Moving Pictures, which are now available in literally every format available including 5.1 surround. And each experience offers something different. But it is pretty hard to argue that the bitrate doesn't matter if you're listening to a 128 mp3 file off iTunes vs. the 5.1 blu-ray, or even the lossless flacs on HDtracks. Music should be listened to in the best approximation of what the artist wanted you to hear.

Some might argue that the a good many artists on the Vault never wanted you to hear a recording of those shows, period.

Daniel Kumin's picture
No argument, but I guess all I'm saying is I'd rather listen to The Band via mp3/128 than Kiss at 196/24. WRT, "Some might argue that the a good many artists on the Vault never wanted you to hear a recording of those shows, period.", very true, but in that case they should've stayed home. Every time you get up on stage you've got to figure somebody's out there with a recorder (these days, _everybody_!). It's kept me up nights, but there it is....