Our ears are amazing things. Evolution has endowed us with an ability that allows us to determine the direction of a sound: left and right, up and down, front and back. We can tell how close something might be and whether it’s stationary, moving away, or coming toward us. In other words, we hear sound in 3-D. Very helpful for early humans on the plains of Africa who had to be worried about being eaten by a lion.
It’s this directionality that makes listening to music so enjoyable. The very same abilities that prevented us from being attacked and eaten allows us to appreciate music in all its glory, whether it be live or recorded.
With a live performance, we’re in the same space as the musicians, who our ears and eyes work together to interpret what’s going on. We’re able to pick out all kinds of individual details, including the bad stuff like unwanted echo and reverb. And we’re always at the mercy of whoever is controlling and mixing the audio for the gig.
But let’s focus on recorded music. How do you recreate the sound of a live performance, the illusion of sitting in front of a performer? I’m talking about the ability to close your eyes and visualize where everyone is onstage. The singer is out front. The guitarist is positioned slightly to the right. The keyboards are off-centre to the left. And you can tell that the drummer is further back than everyone else, but you also sense that parts of the kit seem spread out somehow. And the bass player is in there somewhere but seems everywhere at once.
For the last 60-plus years, technology has relied on a set of aural principles and techniques that allow recorded music to sound exponentially better than 99% of live performances–at least in terms of audio quality. Listening to music this way is designed to be an immersive experience using two channels: one for the left ear and one for the right. We call it “stereo”–and this is how it came to be.
Songs heard on this show:
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