Bring back the projectionist?

film

An article in today’s Telegraph makes a plea for cinemas to start showing film again, rather than the digital version they are solely equipped to show now.

To me, it seems just the same as the digital/analogue argument that rages in hi-fi. We have the same ‘sighted’ comparisons that of course confirm the simple folk-association of digital = soulless and artificial, resulting in the implication that true auteurs must always insist on the pain and expense of film because it is ‘real’, organic etc.

I don’t buy it. I think that, as in analogue audio, people are superstitious about the medium that produced great art in the past, wanting to believe there are spirits trapped within it that will help them to do the same thing today. As with vinyl, film technology is amenable to being crafted by “artisans”, old-school technicians and operatives in brown coats, and is simple enough for ordinary people to understand. They remember it from their pasts. This qualifies it to be ‘The People’s Technology’ and it is easy to see how a ‘movement’ could be started to push for the revival of analogue film.

All good fun, except that from then on, the superior digital option becomes second class in people’s minds: the experience of seeing the film in digital form is tarnished even though that is how most people will see it. A new premium price can be charged to see the film in ‘analogue’, and people who do this have their expectations confirmed, of course. The person with the huge OLED television who, really, could have had a pretty good cinema experience at home, has that pleasure taken away from him – just as the vinyl ‘movement’ has taken the pleasure of listening to audio perfection away from the only people who might care about it. In other words, by falling for these ‘revivals’, people sabotage their own experiences. Audiophiles could have enjoyed digital audio forever, but now most of them believe that it is a second class experience compared to vinyl. They either get on the rack of pain and expense – knowing that to even play a precious record damages it – or live with the regrets about what might have been. This is pure psychology.

And of course money is diverted from the further development of digital technology to be spent on this technological nostalgia trip.

I used to do my own photographic processing when I was young. There is nothing that would persuade me to do it again. I see no weakness in the digitally-derived prints that are produced these days. Scans of old slides and negatives seem to capture their essence perfectly well, and the modern high resolution cameras that we all have are superb. People forget how terrible most photographic efforts used to be, and how poor most cinemas were in terms of their projection.

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Hi-Fi’s high point was the 1970s – postscript

This article was being discussed in a couple of places over the last two days. Opinions were ‘mixed’, shall we say.

One thing is clear: I didn’t do a good enough job of saying what I meant. I wasn’t saying that the 1970s gear was better than today’s (although in one important respect I think the speakers were). I was trying to say that as a hobby and industry, things were more exciting and more positive than today. And in terms of my personal taste, I liked the look of the gear.

There’s no substitute for novelty, and of course hi-fi was relatively new in the 1970s. The passing of this is definitely part of my ‘lament’.

Some people made the valid point that things must be better today because you can buy all the vintage gear at knock-down prices and enjoy all the benefits of modern-day digital streaming, bluetooth and headphones. On a strictly logical, utilitarian level, yes – but you won’t find many people who share your love for the old stuff, which makes it a somewhat lonely preoccupation.

Someone made the point that today’s youth can have the high quality music of their choosing “all the time” because of their i-devices and decent headphones. Again, true, but one point I meant to make in my article was that although I do not mourn the passing of the ceremonial aspects of playing an LP, I do quite like the idea of sitting down in a comfortable room with large, effortless speakers to do nothing but listen to an album without hopping between tracks. I really wouldn’t want to be listening to music all the time.

In the 1970s, a civilian (non-audiophile) could bring someone back to their luxurious pad and impress them with their good taste and ostentatious audio system (which was de rigueur in those days), maybe playing some Kate Bush or other fine music. These days the host would place their phone in a receptacle, and rather more bland modern music would dribble out from the compact speaker.

Or at the other end of a very polarised spectrum, today’s audiophile would probably sequence the turning on of his dual monoblocks and pre-amp then, as they were warming up, carefully take out one of his playing copies of Take Five, avoiding tripping over cables you might expect to find in a power station raised on little ceramic pots, and put it on a turntable the size of a wedding cake, lower the arm and wait for the listening material to emerge through speakers that look like a snail or other trying-too-hard shape.

For the vast majority of people, hi-fi is a paltry experience these days, which it wasn’t in the 1970s. It’s either that, or they become a modern-day audiophile – which is something for a man to do in private and not to be shared with polite company.

Just my own impression of the situation..!

Meaningless Measurements

Look at any audio forum or magazine that has technical leanings and you will see an ongoing debate regarding “objectivity versus subjectivity” or the supremacy of measurements over listening. I think that these discussions in themselves are pointless because neither side will ever convince the other, but that wouldn’t particularly annoy me if I felt that one side was ‘right’. Neither side is.

Put simply:

  1. the people doing the listening (the “subjectivists”) have no solid criteria against which they make their claims. We only have their word that they have Golden Ears. Judging by some systems I have heard that are raved about by others, this means nothing.
  2. the people advocating measurements (the “objectivists”) have no solid criteria against which their particular claims can be demonstrated to correlate with sound quality. The measurements they brandish might be slightly useful to a technician on a work bench but are virtually meaningless in trying to determine a system’s overall quality.

As such, the two sides are not even having an argument, but merely talking to themselves.

The listening-only people cannot win the debate, but at least their argument is coherent. They can say: “If the whole aim of this audio malarkey is to stimulate the ears in a pleasurable way, then we can say that this has been achieved – at this moment and in the current circumstances for this particular listener even if it was all in his mind”.

In contrast, the only thing the measurements people can say is “If the aim of this audio malarkey is to reproduce a wiggly line faithfully, then in some respects we can show that this system does it better than some other systems – when judged against certain criteria that may or may not be important to the sound”. It is a very feeble argument.

Measurements can only cover a tiny fraction of the overall ‘information space’ that an audio system processes. To argue that sparse measurements of a few parameters using a few specific test signals under specific environmental conditions somehow encapsulates the performance of an audio system is completely bogus. It can only work if it is also argued that the device is utterly predictable and, in effect, that we know exactly how it works – in which case the measurements are superfluous: we could simply study the circuit diagram and simulate the whole thing in software. Using measurements to establish a design’s basic validity (which is what we are implying we are doing if we think that a few measurements can characterise a device fully) is a throwback to the time before computers.

And then there is the basic misunderstanding of what measurements mean. Simple two-dimensional measurements (that might provide limited information about the operation of an amplifier, say), are frequently abused in an attempt to tell us how speakers will sound in a room – which is a problem of multifarious dimensions and yet is probably much less critical than many people make out: over-simplification and over-complication at the same time, and never conclusive. Factors that defy simple measurement are the real determinants of sound quality. For example, compare the sound of an active speaker with that of a passive multi-driver speaker. It’s a finite difference, but not easy to measure and summarise in a couple of numbers. I would ask: why bother even measuring it? Just make the speakers active and forget about it!

There are other such factors that we know are detrimental to the sound without even measuring them and which are fundamental to antiquated designs:

  • non-DSP corrected speakers introduce large phase shifts and/or timing misalignments that are simply not in the original signal. Objectivists (those who know anything about it) accept on faith that phase shifts are inaudible, based on some dubious experiments carried out long before it was possible to even create a hi-fi speaker without phase distortion.
  • bass reflex speakers introduce many strange distortions to the signal, but are near-universally accepted as hi-fi by audiophiles of all persuasions
  • speakers that cannot reproduce bass fully, change the whole balance of the sound in a very artificial way, yet are embraced as High End nevertheless.

These problems can be eliminated at a stroke at the design phase. There is no point in agonising over them.

Conclusion

The religion of measurements is a red herring. A great system can be designed on paper without using measurements at all. When it is built it can be perfected using measurements of the right kind, but they are purely ‘tuning’.