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Positive Feedback ISSUE 13
may/june 2004


Tracing Error
by Eric Barry


In the first issue of my fanzine Tracing Error ( for more info), I wrote a history of the underground audio press that concluded that music lovers might not have much use for reading about audio, even though I argue vehemently that they should get a good hi-fi. What I didnít say or even think about when I wrote that piece is that I read every issue of two different audio magazines and frequently skim or even buy a few more, while I donít regularly read any music publications. And did I accept when I was invited to write for an audio publication? Yessir.

So even though a different article in the debut issue of my Ďzine attempts to obliterate the distinction between music and sound, I am clearly still carrying residual guilt for caring about sound, reading about sound, and spending a lot of money (at least by my meager standards) to get better sound.

I thought I had rid myself of this guilt, but Iíll table consideration of that issue to pursue a more practical one: why do I prefer reading the audio press to the music press?

One reason is that itís really hard to write about music, and consequently hard to read about it. The most lucid, detailed description of a song is not enough to tell you how you will like it when you hear it. What sounded like genius yesterday might sound limp today, and vice versa. So many factors influence our reaction to music, from the grain of the singerís voice to the sophistication of the arrangement, from the tastiness of certain chord progressions to who else likes it, from the cover versions in a bandís repertoire to their name, from the processing of the drum sound to the meaning of the lyrics. How do you do justice to all that?

When I do read about music, I prefer long-form history and criticism to the 500-1000 word record reviews that make up the majority of paid music writing. (I do like three-line thumbnail reviews.) But with longer and more serious music writing I can let my mind roam and my appetite whet. With my listening thus guided, I gain perspective on the music I hear. Instead of record reviews, the main fuel for my music purchases has become canonicity, the pedigree of the musicians or the record label involved, the sub-genre of music, the opinions of a few friends and writers whose taste I know inside out, and sometimes a basic curiosity about whatís up in our culture.

Most experienced audiophiles rely on the same types of things to guide audio decisions, but there are crucial differences between audio widgets and music widgets. First, thereís a lot more involved in fairly auditioning a piece of audio gear, especially at home, than in listening to a record. Second, the price of audio gear is orders of magnitude higher than that of recordings, even "audiophile" ones. If you buy a new piece of audio gear and it sucks, you lose a lot of money. But perhaps the biggest factor is time. You can meaningfully listen to many records in a day, but you simply cannot do the same with audio gear. So when we read about audio we are reading about something mysterious, something mostly beyond our reach, whereas when we read about music, the experience being objectified is only a few mouse clicks away, and sometimes even already on our shelves.

Another reason I prefer reading audio mags to reading the music press is that something as overwhelmingly complex as music is easier to think (and thus write and read) about by breaking it down into its components. Sound quality is only one aspect of music, and itís much easier to wrap your head around the sound quality of a record than its artistic value as music. Whatís more, sound offers an implicit underlying narrative of progression towards perfection. Satisfying answers to fundamental questions about sound are more available, or at least seem closer at hand, than they do for music. And itís fun to read about and ponder all the ways audio designers grapple with the quandaries of audio reproductionóitís like figuring out a puzzle. Thatís because audio is based at least in part on science, on empirically verifiable objective facts. As well, reading about audio is in some part a way to get practical ideas for improving the performance of your hi-fi. At the same time, audio writing, except at its most technical, is partly about music, which grants it legitimacy and relevance as a product of the pursuit of the musical muse.

In addition, audio writing can conjure the visceral excitement of music as sound. More than most people in or out of our hobby will admit, music is sound, and itís nice to see that acknowledged. Just as much as reading about music, reading about audio can quicken your appetite for music, whether to go home and play some records, or to go see a band. The Sirenís song of mythology shows how deeply sound appeals in our culture.

The great irony is that audio writing can actually provide more insight into music than music writing proper. Thatís surprising and counter-intuitive, so let me explain. Reviews of audio components usually contain at their heart an exposition on the records used as "test material," and how those records sounded. Sensitive listeners and writers, by journaling their reaction to music rather than just a checklist of sonic features, cut to the very heart of the practice of our hobby. The overarching topic becomes the listening experience itself, the form of writing refreshingly direct compared to the shamelessly stylized, hipper-than-thou shenanigans of the popular music press. Solipsistic? Woefully self-indulgent? It sure can be. But is it any more so than music writing? At the core, the audio review can describe the listening experience as it is actually practiced by listeners, one record after another, following trains of thought both musical and personal, zoning in and out of attention. Most record reviews, on the other hand, adopt a detached, free-floating perspective on culture, which hardly correlates to, much less evokes what it feels like to listen to records.

What Iím talking about here is not something that all audio writers are consciously doing, but rather a convention of the audio review that offers glimpses of possibility. Some of these glimpses are richer than others. But as I ponder my place in the fraternity of audio reviewers, Iíll try to keep in mind what can be achieved in the genre.

Iíll also indulge in some thank-yous: to Art Dudley for giving me my first crack in this business, to Dake Ackley, my co-conspirator at Tracing Error, and of course to Clark Johnsen and David W. Robinson, who have given me this forum at Positive Feedback Online.