Functions of a Violin Recording

June 19, 2013 at 03:08 AM · In an earlier entry, John Cadd commented: “The tone of each violin is unique to that instrument. A single note on a good violin can be like a human voice. The character is built in.”

The thread changed to recordings of violins.

Is it reasonable for we who play violins to expect recordings ever to be better than good? In each decade, as technology has improved, violin recordings have become better. But compared to live listening, I don’t believe that recordings will ever be better than good.

What can you hear in live listening that is missing from recordings?

What would you ask a recording engineer set as goals in creating a new violin or orchestral recording?

What are the functions of a violin recording?

ABL (aka the Mezzofiddler)

Replies (44)

June 19, 2013 at 07:53 AM · That's a very complex series of questions, partly because what we hear involves so much brain processing, with the brain even filling in what it thinks is missing information. For example, we can remove the fundamental from a sung note, or one played on a violin, and listeners will still hear that note, even though it no longer exists. The brain synthesizes the missing note from the remaining harmonic series.

Or you can immediately recognize your father's voice over the phone, even though an ordinary phone cuts out tones below about a middle C, as well as much of the high frequency information.

In the other thread, I think Gareth mentioned a recording technique using microphones placed on each side of a dummy head, to better simulate a human listener. Now, they're even experimenting with tiny microphones placed inside the human ear, in an attempt to better understand or simulate our "biological microphones".

I don't know if anybody can predict where it will all end up.

June 19, 2013 at 11:33 AM · The only thing better about sound today than sound 30 years ago is no ticks and pops, and perhaps slightly more dynamic range, in most other aspects it hasn't got any better and sometimes worse. I still really comes down to the quality and how much you pay for your speakers and stereo, and the big trend, adjusted for modern dollars, is to pay less, Just as the quality of most consumer items has gone down, its likewise for stereos, most of the best sounding amps were designed or built in the 60s, the most expensive amps today are just copies of ones from the 60s and the cheaper amps are much worse than that.

Same for the best microphones, the really top recording studios are still using mikes built in the 60s or around there, and once again the cheaper modern ones sound worse,

The digital revolution is not a revolution of sound quality, quite the opposite, its a revolution of convenience, nothing more, Cds are cheaper to make than LPs, digital recorders are cheaper to make than analog tape machines, no wonder they have to convince you that digital is better than analog, because the whole music industries livelyhood depends on cheap digital.

June 19, 2013 at 03:09 PM · Another issue I forgot to mention:

In recordings, violins are rarely mic'd at the distance away that one would be sitting in an auditorium during a concert. That alone will make them sound different than at a live concert.

June 20, 2013 at 04:21 AM · Really early recordings of orchestra were mostly done with a single mono, or dual stereo mikes in the audience, then came multi miking up close to the instruments, which among other things, destroyed the stereo imaging realism, by the 70s the serious recording engineers were preaching against multi mikeing and going back to only a stereo pair of mikes in the audience, since the early 80s, I haven't followed recording techniques much, so I can't speak for whats going on now.

June 25, 2013 at 06:55 PM · Digital recording is not all upside. Look up "loudness war" (there's an example here). While mostly pop music is affected, many CDs (and CD remixes of older vinyl recordings) have much less dynamic range than older recordings. This is done in an attempt to make recordings sound louder, another example of the "more is better" mindset. Musically it's a disaster.

June 25, 2013 at 07:42 PM · That's a choice of the sound engineer, or producer, and doesn't have much to do with the recording format. It was going on long before digital.

June 27, 2013 at 12:18 AM · In my opinion, the best reproduction designs generally were done in the 1930's, when huge sums of money and some of the best minds of the times were working on sound for movies. Folks at Westrex and RCA were some the top engineers of the day. Those designs, with some modern components made with better tolerances today, are incredibly life-like. In the '60's, they most amps were push-pull, and the "little" speakers came into vogue (started by AR) that led to a demise in sound quality.

Some of the best recordings I've heard are from USSR where they used the whole power of the State to make them. Many smuggled Mravinsky/Leningrad Phil recordings are scary good.

Best quality on a modern, digital violin recording I've heard is Cecylia Arzewski's recent recording of Sonatas & Partitas. It's very rich and lifelike.

June 27, 2013 at 01:51 PM · i would agree that nothing is better than live for many reasons. I think the most significant is not so much the sound quality, but the soul or emotion that may be in a live performance. Since in the recording studio there is the ability to correct mistakes, overdub, etc. as for the audio quality, it has to do with the number of microphones used, the placement of the mics. The audio will vary depending on the listen or mic position due to acoustics (standing waves, absorbtion, reflection) that a microphone may or may not capture. As for recordings in the 30s, i beg to differ, the recording and playback equipment were not nearly as good as what was available in the 60s, and later. Frequency response signal to noise ratios, distortion specifications, etc were improved substantially as electronic components improved. Then of course how much people spend on their home sound system has a significant impact, as does home speaker placement, etc. Just like violin construction, and its impact on sound, you have many of the same complexities.

June 27, 2013 at 03:26 PM · Arnie, I didn't say "recordings" from the '30's, but "designs" for equipment. Also, the measurements like "distortion" were part of what led to the degrading of sound quality over time, imho. My stereo is praised by everyone who hears it as being incredibly lifelike, but the amps have close to 5% distortion at louder levels on a scope. They are Single-Ended Triode topology that was first designed by Western Electric back in late '20s, but built with modern parts. Engineers measure what they are able to measure, and then design to optimize those measurements, even though they may have no correlation to "sounding good." There is no measurement for that but the ear/brain. As in violins, there's pleasing distortion, in the beautiful overtones, and there's unpleasant distortion, which is painful.

June 28, 2013 at 03:29 AM · Tom, yes as far as power amps go, class A amps as you describe are the most pleasing sounding amplifers. I was refering more to the recording equipment itself ie magnetic tape equipment, which has iimproved substantially in terms of dynamic range, and signal to noise ratios, since the 30s. I beleive before noise reduction circuitry, max signal to noise on the best reel to reels was on the order of 65 db. 16 bit pcm is 96db. 24 bit which is also used now is much higher. but in general i think the recording technolgy was good enough in the 60s and the overall experience is now more influenced by the mic placement, and general acoustics. i have several of the mercury living presence cds which are very nice recordings and performances, which are now 50 years old

June 28, 2013 at 02:20 PM · John, im sorry, i dont understand your point. can you please clarify?

June 28, 2013 at 02:33 PM · not just Class A- push-pull topology w/ negative feedback can be made to operate in Class A, but still won't have the same overtones and realism that SET has. If you haven't heard a good SET system, try to find one in your area and check it out. The Living Presence records are classics, most all the good ones were made in the 1950's. There were a lot of advances made in recordings in the '50s, much of them due to WWII SONAR invention during the War. The Decca/London FFrr techniques were developed by a group of British SONAR inventors. They expanded the frequency ranges and sensitivity of the equipment substantially, without reducing the quality of recordings.

June 28, 2013 at 03:43 PM · To me, the transducers of sound into and out of the electronic jungle of recording and playback are the most difficult to design, manufacture and locate. With the exception of the esoteric tube amplifiers, design and mass producing electronic devices is comparatively simple.

Without the best possible interface with air, the value of the best electronics fail rapidly. Integral to the electronic jungle is the recording engineer who can and will skew the recording to what he believes will please the greatest audience. Unfortunately, we who fancy the violin are a very small minority.

John: My current thinking is that volume of the bass speaker cabinets should be based on room volume. Possibly one cubic inch of cabinet to one cubic foot of room volume.* The reason for my not tying cabinet volume to speaker size is that the amount of vibration needed to fill a room doesn’t change with speaker diameter. But the larger the speaker cone is, the better is it’s interface with the air. Yet the volume of air being pumped stays about the same.

*(I am qualified to this discussion because, in the fifties, I too built Heathkits.)


June 28, 2013 at 07:39 PM · Since the '50s, Thiele-Small have reduced speaker parameters to pure math...they figured out how to quantify the electrical and mechanical parameters of speakers so there properties can be precisely calculated. Box sizes are now calculated using these, plus the Helmholtz resonance desired in the box if it's a bass reflex or similar design. High-efficiency speakers generally require a larger volume box, while low efficiency speakers can be made smaller.

June 28, 2013 at 08:04 PM · Perhaps we are a lot closer than you think. High quality DAC either from disc or lossless MP3, audiophile grade passive attenuator and TA2024-or LM1875 based gainclone amplifier, driving a pair of the better Tang Band or Fostex full-range drivers in near-field setup will come quite close to live IMO. Better (more neutral) than just about anything, although SET and SEP amps offer a different perspective, I'll agree. Old "vintage" gear is variable, the best was quite good, and can hold its own after rebuild and upgraded caps, but for a fraction of the cost you could own an inexpensive rig capable of musical magic when properly set up. Violins will sound like violins, voices will sound true and accurate, piano will do as piano does, and full orchestra will impress any listener.

Larger rooms require more power and bigger speakers, so it's more difficult and expensive to do correctly. And yes, analog is still king, but for most of our listening audience digital formats are preferred.

June 29, 2013 at 02:17 AM · as for tv screens, its amazing crts lasted as long as they did. high voltage, high stress, high internal temperatures, and the inherent non linerities which have been engineered out via magnetic, electronic means, on top of overscanning (not displaying the edges), and 2 feet deep. good riddance. the only advatage ive noticed with analog screens is they handle fast motion better than digital. otherwise iplasma/lcd/digital tv is far superior. all that for an absolutely incredibly low pirce. Its amazing companies make any profit on those things

June 29, 2013 at 03:00 PM · John, sound and vision in nature are analog- and all digital sources have to rely on taking the signals apart, encoding them into binary, and then artificially reassembling them. It's hard to do all that and fool the brain, which is amazingly perceptive. They can program digital for more contrast, pop & sizzle, etc., but over time the brain fatigues. Marketing can fool the intellect, but over time people lose interest. For quality, I prefer my old CRT to my new flat screen, but I do like the larger size. And Arnie, never underestimate the short-term cost savings of a command-and-control economy and basic slave labor (no unions or OSHA where them are made!).

June 29, 2013 at 09:35 PM · "analog" movies, tv boradcasts are 30 frames a that analog or digital?

June 29, 2013 at 10:12 PM · Just a crude form of digital, I would guess.

June 29, 2013 at 11:13 PM · When we say "digital" vs "analog" do we really mean "discrete" versus "continuous"?

Eyesight could be regarded as discrete. In fact at some level quantisation suggests everything is and analog is really a useful idealisation (but often good enough). It would seem to be then a matter of resolution.

June 30, 2013 at 12:55 AM · I think the movie frame is akin to digital. In my way of thinking- not to say it's accurate, but just how I think- the more a sensation is "fragmented" or cut up by some process, then put back together, the less likely it is to "fool" the brain into thinking it's somehow real. So a movie at 10 frames a second would not come close to realism, but much faster than 30 doesn't seem to matter.

for instance, push-pull amplification, used almost universally, separates a sine-type audio signal into the positive and negative phases, amplifies them individually, then they're added back together in the output transformer. Frequently, there's a negative feedback loop added, which totally reduces the the distortion, because it cancels out all even-order distortion, but leaves odd-ordered distortion that doesn't seem to exist much in natural tones.

So to me, the more somethings separated, processed, then put back together, the more chance of it seeming artificial. I have a vacuum tube buffer in my CD players that the output runs through, and this makes the sound very smooth- even tho it's a digital source. Lossless digital, etc. is obviously very much processed and affected. MP3 is missing as much info as possible to reduce file sizes, but sounds ok in an iPod.

June 30, 2013 at 02:25 PM · Analogue video is 30 analogue frames per second, not digital. If the 30 frames are encoded digitally then you have digital. All this has absolutely nothing to do with sound quality.

June 30, 2013 at 06:47 PM · Push Pull is more like having one bow on top of the strings and another underneath!!!!

June 30, 2013 at 09:56 PM · oh dear!

July 1, 2013 at 03:00 AM · and the two bows have to be travelling in opposite directions......

July 1, 2013 at 06:57 AM · It's a specious idea that recordings capture much that's of any use. If you put an opera singing in front of my students their jaws drop! Put on a recording and they just go back to staring into their little devices.

July 1, 2013 at 11:12 PM · oh grief!

July 2, 2013 at 02:38 AM · so unlike the 30+ year old is better than memorex...

July 2, 2013 at 11:55 AM · "Gareth mentioned a recording technique using microphones placed on each side of a dummy head, to better simulate a human listener.

Now, they're even experimenting with tiny microphones placed inside the human ear, in an attempt to better understand or simulate our "biological microphones".

I don't know if anybody can predict where it will all end up."

I believe we can say where it will all end up.

Ie.-going back to basics, abandoning the bankrupt multi microphone+bling strategies, then using coincident recording techniques recommended by such interesting people as Michael Gerzon, with new innovations of reproduction recommended by J Watkinson.

(The above example is just ONE).

If other people here insist on writing things they know nothing about, may I suggest, their best ultimate cure is learning to read?

The internet really makes knowledge accessible despite the BBC destroying their own outstanding engineering and technical base in a mere 5 years.

Once knowledge difficulties have been overcome, then it's quite possible to become a fully paid up member of the AES.

Go to ask a few people who actually know you can manufacture the sound of nicely distorting radio valves with semiconductors, and visit a few shows.

Recording violins properly is a banal process by comparison with say.....

The guitar or the harp.

July 2, 2013 at 12:27 PM · Back in the late 70s I bought several LPs on the French Sarastro label using a dummy head with the microphones inside the ears, so its hardly a new technique, the stereo imaging was particularlly good on those recordings. And it did not need headphones to get the excellent stereo imaging on playback.

July 2, 2013 at 02:51 PM · "Binural" or "dummy head" recordings have been around for a long time, but have renewed interest with ever increasing use of headphones and in-ear monitors. Seems to me that portable media is lowering the audio quality, as it's expected you'll be listening over traffic and external noises. Quality matters less, especially since recording engineers are tempted to boost bass and treble to compensate. High-end audio is real and magical, but is sadly being replaced by mid and lo-fi alternatives, predominantly for convenience and sales revenue. Same with genuine art, replaced by posters and low quality reproductions.

For those of us still interested in a home-based system, good audio gear is still available by companies like Rega, VPI, Axiom (passive attenuators), and a plethora of great sounding DACs and amplifiers including chip based class-d, and many Chinese tube imports.

July 2, 2013 at 07:28 PM · ""Binaural" or "dummy head" recordings have been around for a long time, but have renewed interest with ever increasing use of headphones and in-ear monitors....?"

Recordings with "le tete artificiel" have been much developed by the French, so nothing to do with headphones or other stuff, as it allows easy pirating of live concerts from a simple listener's head.

You didn't mention this, but the specifications ideally entails use of 2 Bruel & Kjaer omnis.

The increased directionality comes from the ability of the 2 omnis to be very sensitive to time differences making a close approximation to the ORTF cardio pair without the colouration inherent in that technic when less than optimal.

Neumann actually make the entire kit, sold as ku100.

An interesting arrangement from Gerzon used 2 opposed facing figure of 8s, and he always used to maintain that this made the most natural ambience, as well as his pioneering of the Calrec and ambisonic soundfield microphone.


Jury is out, because it depends on the individual talent and ears of the engineer.

July 2, 2013 at 09:43 PM ·

At first thought, entertainment appears to be the only function of a recording. If one looks closer, there is education of the listener, by listening multiple times, the music becomes set in one’s brain, and part of your life experience. This is a great aid when you need to learn the same music on an instrument. The recording is an artifact of the performance that can be enjoyed when new or studied by future generations.

The recording serves as advertisement for the artist to increase his/her popularity and create desire for listeners to attend his/her live performances or buy more recordings. A recording provides income for the artist, the producer, the recording crew and the employees of the manufacturer. Income is also generated in the marketing organizations whether stores, internet or radio broadcast. They have all dedicated their time and effort bringing a certain amount of pleasure to you, the listener.


July 3, 2013 at 01:22 AM · One of the functions of modern recording is microphone proximity. We are in the same position that actors are in that transition from stage to film. A stage actor has to be larger than life to project in a large space with people watching from a distance. A film actor can be much more subtle in facial expressions and the like as the camera in in close proximity.

Likewise a microphone can enable a much more intimate performance than is possible if the violinist is playing at full pelt to project in a large hall over an orchestra. Think of singers; the age of the microphone has produced very soft intimate sounding artists like Astrud Gilberto as compared to a Wagnerian opera singer from the days of no microphones. This is not to say that Mr. soloist in Carnegie Hall, projecting to the people right at the back, has been replaced any more than film has replaced stage actors. Rather, we have a new range of expression open to us if we should chose it.

July 3, 2013 at 03:44 AM · "The recording serves as advertisement for the artist to increase his/her popularity and create desire for listeners to attend his/her live performances or buy more recordings. A recording provides income for the artist".

You must be dreaming.

And what if the artist is dead?

Have you any idea what the artist gets from a record label when they are alive?

It's peanuts if anything at all, never mind the vast majority of them who practically have to give them away at their concerts!

The record companies have always ripped off artists, then protested when their business model gets taken apart by a new distribution media like the internet.

July 3, 2013 at 11:14 PM · I'm late to this party, but maybe this old EE can chuck in a a couple of pennies.

About the original question, "Can electromechanical reproduction of the sound of a violin ever get better than good?"...

I guess that depends on how you define "good." Let's face it: engineering is all about trade-offs. You give up one quality to get another.

Cost is one factor here. How much money you have definitely affects how you spend on equipment. But even if you shell out millions for a setup, it still has SOME limitations -- at the bottom, it's just a recording.

Come on, there are knock-down-drag-outs over performers or venues or instruments. Sound equipment is yet another dogfight. So if someone is really happy with an iPod and $50 headphones, then for that person, what they have is "good." Give them something a little more upscale, and it's better than good. If they are happy with their choices, let them be happy in peace. :-)

So in a multidimensional matrix, each person gravitates to a preference point. They make decisions that they consider best for them. And to those people, "good" or "best" is THEIR decision point. It's kind of the same for instruments: if I like this instrument, it's the best. I you don't like the same instrument, you just don't understand. :-)

Analog vs. digital, class A vs AB vs D, Strad or DG, Walsh drivers vs large single woofer vs multiple small woofers vs electrostatic panel: they really boil down to a preference.

July 3, 2013 at 11:50 PM · John, you didn't leave anything to talk what are we all going to do??

July 4, 2013 at 05:43 AM · Does anyone make genuine aucostic recordings any more? I mean needles scratching surfaces?

July 4, 2013 at 10:55 AM · Arnie sez: >John, you didn't leave anything to talk what are we all going to do??

Put some music on and enjoy it?


July 4, 2013 at 02:09 PM · Bud, my albums have sat in the garage for years. I don't have any adversity to analog, the issue is the whole medium of vinyl, that may not be manufacured correctly, and degrades everytime you play it simply doesnt sit well with me.......but I need to drop...John told me I have to listen more......

July 4, 2013 at 03:07 PM · I finally donated my LP collection to the UNT music library. There are a couple that sometimes I recall longingly -- like the box set of Menuhin's complete S&Ps. I vaguely recall that particular recording was one of the first releases of the complete S&Ps, but I may be mistaken.

Oh, well. I have Milstein and Szeryng on CD. Guess I'll just to settle for them on digital. :-)

July 4, 2013 at 10:02 PM · I got Vol 1. of the Naxos historical recordings of Menuhin playing the Bach originally recorded in the 30's. Beautiful.

July 4, 2013 at 11:26 PM · Arnie: vinyl outlasts CDs when stored properly, and lasts hundreds of plays without degradation. I have some CDs that already show signs of rot, and others that start mysteriously skipping--just like records used to! If your playback equipment-- turntable, tonearm, cartridge/stylus is of good quality, vinyl is the most reliable storage medium, and potentially one of the best sounding.

Eric: Menuhin's early Bach recordings from 78s are expressive and powerful, I too am grateful for Naxos' efforts.

July 5, 2013 at 12:59 AM · vinyl's been making a huge resurgence, especially among younger crowd. Tons of new pressings, and old vinyl has very strong market at specialized stores and on eBay. I listen to it a lot. With a good turntable and phono preamp, it's very nice!

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