Classical critics need to talk sound sense

Many more people listen to classical music on streaming services than attend live concerts. Streaming is forcing important changes on recorded classical music, and these changes are little understood, or, in some notable cases, not understood at all. As an example, on the music industry-endorsed Slipped Disc classical influencer Norman Lebrecht gives an enthusiastic welcome to Apple Classical, saying: 

'In a Shostakovich tenth symphony from Berlin, the internal definition seemed to me clearer than the orchestra’s own-label recording and, weirdly, than my aural memory of hearing it in the hall. If this is to be the future quality of sound, bring it on'. 

In his linked article for The Critic headlined Apple of My Ear Lebrecht explains that he auditioned Apple Classical using the Dolby Atmos/Apple Spatial Audio format. So we need to dig down into the use of PR-speak such as "the sound on Apple is as good as it gets, actually better" by a prominent music critic. Back in the days when music criticism was a respected profession, high-end audio brand Quad, then with its original owners, used the strap-line 'The closest approach to the original sound'. Which is a good benchmark to use when considering the superlatives used to describe Apple Classical.

What Norman Lebrecht heard via Dolby Atmos/Apple Spatial  Audio may have been immersive and impressive, which in the non-classical industry is known as 'commercial'. But it differed considerably from the original sound. Dolby Atmos manipulates the original recording to add height and depth elements by isolating and repositioning specific frequencies, which allows instruments and voices to be moved from their positions in the master recording. At which point we should remember that the position of those voices was originally determined by a highly-skilled producer and musicians, not by a software algorithm.

Adding to the sonic confusion is that Apple uses their own software renderer called "Spatial Audio" to playback Dolby Atmos mixes, which further manipulated the sound. (There is a wonderful irony here. Norman Lebrecht is a serial denouncer of amplification and other sonically manipulative technologies. Yet he waxes lyrically about sound-shaped Apple Classical. If I was not so completely convinced of his impartiality, I would be puzzled by Norman's sudden shift in viewpoint.)

The diagram below comes from an excellent technical explanation titled Why Your Atmos Mix Will Sound Different On Apple Music This explains the problems caused by the manipulation of the original recording by remastering for Apple Music. Even the layman can see that the degree of manipulation considerably exceeds that experienced by the vilified acoustics of concert halls such as London's Barbican. That is even before considering the further manipulation inherent in rendering two channel master tapes into multi-channel Dolby Atmos/Apple Spatial  Audio. 

The purpose of this post is not to denounce Apple Classical. If its 'commercial' sound engages with a new classical audience, it can be argued that is job done. But as with Art & Son Studio's reimagining of iconic recordings for Warner, the downside of manipulating classical sound need to be understood, particularly by so-called 'authoritative' critics.

First, if Apple's endgame is to 'own' classical streaming, all references to the original recorded sound will be lost. Secondly, and most importantly, listener expectations will be altered by the more commercial, engaging and immersive sound of Apple's reimagined classical sound.  Which means classical newcomers in the cheaper seats at say, London's Albert Hall, will come away disappointed and disillusioned by the distant and unengaging sound. Apple's algorithms mix for the binaural - in head - sound of headphones, as mobile listening is now the default mode for consuming music. Concert halls, as with conventional stereo playback, present a 'proscenium arch' sound stage ahead of the listener. The two ways of listening are very different, and, for the newcomer conditioned by Apple Classical's Spatial Audio, the proscenium arch sound of a concert hall will be the poor relation.

This, in turn, leads to the question that no-one in the classical industry wants to face - is it time for concert hall sound to change in line with audience expectations? If live classical music wants to survive, should it meet the sonic expectations of an Apple Classical-educated audience? Or should classical music keep its head buried in the sand and expect new audiences to conform to 19th century sonic expectations. Apple Classical may not be the answer, but it does pose a lot of important questions.


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