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Positive Feedback ISSUE 2
august/september 2002


A Response to Gardner and Robinson
by Scott Frankland


I read your essay with much interest. In it, a large number of important ideas are organized in a manner that emphasizes a number of key points. Among these key points, I was most struck by your analysis of "taste" in audio. From now on I will be on the lookout for adjectives in equipment reviews that hinge on visual, auditory, and kinesthetic categories of perception! I was also impressed with the argument that unfolded from these distinctions. As I interpret it, this argument was meant to support your premise that fidelity to the live event as the goal of audio is inherently flawed:

"... reproduced music [does] not sound like the live event…."
"The process of recording music forever transforms it."
"At each stage, each transduction, a creative act occurs and the result is distinctly different from what preceded it."
"…with every ‘transduction’ we move further from the original event."

Your logic goes something like this: absolute fidelity cannot be obtained because there are too many transformations involved in the replication process. Hence, there is too much margin for error (what you call "creative acts"). Further, even if the live event could be perfectly replicated, we would never be able to agree on whether it was accurate or not, due to our individual hearing preferences. Your argument concludes with this summation:

"Since we are all quite different at the sensorium level, an absolute reference is simply not possible."

As you say, the act of recording and reproduction depends on transformations. These transformations depend upon transducers. By the same token, our perception of the world depends on transducers—our sensory organs are biological transducers. They filter and focus the world in specific ways. Now, as a rule, we trust them implicitly. Nonetheless, few of us trust our hearing to the same degree that we trust our vision.

For example, a large audience of listeners, seated in the same auditorium, can all agree that what they are hearing is live music. But what happens when you blindfold these listeners and lead them into the auditorium with the proviso that they will either be hearing live or reproduced sound? In many demonstrations during the 50s, it was found that a large number of listeners couldn’t tell the difference. (Editorial, Audiocraft 1:7, May 1956.) When we open our eyes, we can all agree that the sound is either live or reproduced (those of us who are not blind, that is). There is no disagreement because we can all see what is what. When we are blindfolded, however, disagreements occur.

Now fast forward the timeline of technology. When the time comes, holograms may be so sophisticated that they seem real to us. What then? If we cannot trust our own vision, what can we trust? I submit that what we will trust in the future, at that time when we can no longer discern real from virtual, is of the same nature as that which produces the virtual. In other words, we will trust machines—machines that have been programmed to tell only the truth, machines that have been refined to sense objects at far deeper levels than our biological senses'

I am postulating that there will come a time when we will trust machines to tell us when something is virtual, even when it seems perfectly real to us. That will be the day when none of us can be sure that what we are hearing or seeing is real or virtual—and that will be the day when an absolute reference breaks the tie. To put it bluntly, that reference will be confirmed, not by a set of ears, but by a machine. You say you don’t believe that day will ever come? Consider the following ad placed on the World Wide Web by Rio: "With your free Rio600 MP3 player get the latest bestsellers delivered right to your head!" In the future, this statement may literally be true. Now consider DSD. DSD is a transduction-like process (ADA) performed by a machine. Is DSD art or science? Clearly it is almost totally a result of science. So will virtual reality machines be, one day.

Everything else in your argument as regards art remains valid. There is no reason why science should subsume art, if art is what we prefer. And by the same token, there is no reason why science cannot be preferred. It is simply an individual decision. As you say, "There are many paths to enlightenment." For this reason, I ask you to please not exclude the path to higher fidelity. Scott Frankland (

Further Reading:

Davis, Tom. "The High-End at the Razor’s Edge," The Absolute Sound, No. 104.

Frankland, Scott and Brian Hartsell, "The Magic of Design and Synergy, Part II," Positive Feedback, Vol. 5, No. 6; continued in Positive Feedback Vol. 6, No. 5. This article was also published in The Audio Adventure, Vol. 2, Nos. 8, 9, and 10, 1995.

Frankland, Scott and Brian Hartsell, "Audio Impressionism," The Absolute Sound, No. 111.

Hartley, H.A. "Aesthetics of Sound Reproduction," WirelessWorld, July/August 1944.

Olson, Harry F. "Psychology of Sound Reproduction," Audio, June 1972.

Pearson, Harry. "The Audio Atheists vs. the Sound of Reality," The Absolute Sound, No. 101.

Reichert, Herb. "The Third Eye: Connoisseurship for the Next Century," Positive Feedback, Vol. 5, No. 6.

Rosenberg, Harvey. The Search for Musical Ecstasy, Image Marketing Group, Stamford, Connecticut, 1993.