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The first step in appreciating music is knowing how to listen

Many people may not know that most audiophiles have to learn from long experience and gather expertise in order to judge what is good or bad about recorded music.

Published on February 6, 2008

The first step in appreciating music is knowing how to listen

Wijit Boonchoo

They must also put considerable effort into training their ears before they can offer professional recommendations as part of a guide for buyers. Their ability is not a gift they are born with.

Music has varying degrees of rhythm, melody and harmony, which in turn consist of complicated frequencies from a variety of musical instruments. Even if they are playing the same note, a violin and a piano will produce varying frequencies. Our ears tell which frequencies come from which instruments by recognising the character or overtones of the notes.

When recording a variety of musical instruments, the overtones and character of the instruments, the dynamics of the location and conductors and organisers are all involved in constructing a work of musical beauty. Overtones contribute greatly to the timbre of a given sound source. And when it comes to studio recording, a sound engineer plays a vital role in "mixing down" the various sound sources on to a master track for tape cassettes or CDs.

Sound engineers normally use a technique called "multitrack recording", which allows for separate but simultaneous recording of multiple instrument sources or for sound tracks recorded elsewhere to be introduced in synchrony with the rest. The multitracks are then mixed down to create a cohesive master. Most commercial CDs and cassettes are recorded on multiple tracks and then mixed down to stereo.

With multitrack recording, any of the tracks, such as vocals, bands or instruments, can be recorded separately. But all are locked together in perfect synchrony and played back as if they were recorded together. Recording artists can go back and lay down fresh "takes" of sections of their performance, allowing them to get as close to perfection as possible.

In an audiophile recording, on the other hand, sound engineers prefer to record, for instance, a live band playing in a concert hall or studio, so as to retain an optimum stereophonic atmosphere. Normally, they set up two-point microphones for real-time recording. There can be no mistakes, or the band has to play the piece all over again. Sound quality on an audiophile recording is noticeably more lifelike than on a multitrack recording.

Listeners must learn to understand the rationale behind recordings, so as to train their ears. By trying to differentiate between live and multitrack or mixed-down recordings - in order to judge the image and soundstage quality as well as the timbre and depth - you will soon come to understand what contributes to creating good music. This is an important step towards selecting the audio-system components that suit you best.

By Wijit Boonchoo

The Nation

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