Every amplifier has a sound. Mankind is still searching for the audio grail of a “straight wire with gain.” What a great amplifier does is transfer the maximum amount of the information from its input to its output with as little damage as possible. This translates into full bandwidth, wide dynamics, and undamaged transients: the essentials of great sounding reproduction.
In the brave new world of the 21st century, technology has brought incredibly powerful tools to the everyday. Recording studios live in a laptop, and declining are the great temples of sound recording and the monks who populate them. We take music for granted. We take technology for granted. We want it all in a bundle. And very few people have the privilege of experiencing music in an ideal listening environment. Ear-buds, iTunes, and laptop speakers are a pale copy of a breathtaking audio system. As the audio chain gets dumbed down, there is all the more reason to give recorded sound the best possible vehicle on its way to immortality. Because after it is committed to a stream of digits, the road it takes back to sound will be challenging.
Equalization, compression, and the like are often reached for in an attempt to correct a sound source that is lacking. I have always been baffled by manufacturers who package a mic preamp, EQ, and compressor all in on package. If the mic preamp was good in the first place, then why the need for the compressor and EQ to fix the sound coming out of it? Note: Manufacturers spout specs and tech-speak, which may well sound impressive, but to the educated reader is often contradictory or plain rubbish.
Audio specs are like accounting: you can make them look like whatever you want. But specs don’t translate into good sound. There are plenty of horrible-sounding units out there with amazing specs. To cheaply achieve good bandwidth, hideous mechanisms are employed in the signal path. Using a large amount of negative feedback will drive the bandwidth into the nether regions of the sub and supersonics, and also completely kill the sound quality. People listen with their eyes these days, not their ears. How often do we find ourselves staring at the waveform while it plays back out of a workstation. It has become a reflex almost totally associated with the listening experience. The box looks great; it has to sound great. But that is not always the case.
Bryan Martin owns Sonosphere Mastering. Over his 20+-year career he has worked with David Byrne, Rufus Wainwright, Max Roach, Run DMC, and White Zombie. He can be contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or on the web at www.sonosphere.ca.