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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 3
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The Higher End:"About That Rating Scale…"
by David W. Robinson

 

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It never fails… and, even worse, I knew it was going to happen.

As soon as I reinitiated the "Editor’s Choice Recordings" column in Positive Feedback Online and made the decision to supplement my written impressions and evaluations of recordings with a 10 point numeric scale, I reckoned that it would raise questions sooner or later. And I probably should have done more to introduce such a scale, though I made it clear at the beginning that I was doing this mainly "Ö for those who prefer the purely quantitative (for what itís worth!)Ö" (http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue2/robinsonchoice.htm).

So…let me clarify the scale that I am using here, and which you’ll also see in Dave Glackin’s music reviews here at PFO. In so doing, I hope that I make my assumptions clear...

As I practice it, this 10 point scale sub-divides recordings into a trinity of three main categories: Sound, Performance, and Music.

Sound is roughly equivalent to the quality of the recording itself, the sort of thing that stereotypically makes an audiophile (or hopeless audio geek, depending) say, "Wow! Did you hear THAT??!! This is a real [insert "jaw-dropping" somewhere around here] REFERENCE DISK!!"

More seriously, it combines the general fine audio categories of audio reproduction: viz., tone, timbre, soundstaging, imaging, dynamics (both "micro" and "macro"), detail (both "inner" and "outer" (?!)), etc., etc., etc. It is what sets a truly great recording apart from the general run-of-the-mill recordings that sound mediocre… or terrible…no matter how much we might wish to love the musical content or performance therein. In the "great audio chain of being," this is the place for the producer(s), the audio engineer(s), the mastering engineer, the recording equipment, the hall/location, and so on. Audio as an independent art form is recognized in this category; this is the world of the audio arts.

Performance is the domain for the appraisal of the general mastery and accomplishment of the musicians/musical artists. This category evaluates the musical artistry of the ones whose work has been recorded, and assigns a relative grade to that work. As Rick Gardner and I noted in our article, "The Creative Art of Recorded Music—Translation, Transduction and Transformation," (see Positive Feedback Online, Issue 2, at www.positive-feedback.com/Issue2/RecordedMusic.htm) once a performance has been recorded, it passes from the mode of the performing arts to that of the concrete arts, passing from one art form to another. Transformation occurs; the metamorphosis moves from the score (compositional and concretive, at one level of sophistication or another) to the performance (incarnation and interpretation…breathing the "breath of life" into the body of the work) to the recording (a new concrete form—audio as art). At each transition, art shifts its form, and new possibilities occur.

Performance is the category that recognizes the "breath of life" stage of our music and recordings; this is the world of musical artistry.

Finally, there is the realm of Music. This is the category that evaluates the relative merit of the music in the sense of composition, significance, and emotional impact. It is music as a compositional art form. At this level, one is attempting to weigh the worth of the music itself, and to appraise what my good friend and fellow PFO writer Tom Davis aptly calls "the claim of the music." (See his excellent reflections in at www.positive-feedback.com/Issue2/davisresponse.htm.)

Some music is humble, touching some of us for a moment, then passing, perhaps to be forgotten forever; other music reaches us more deeply, living on at a higher level. And some music seems to be "classic," reaching to us from the heights and the depths, and living in the hearts of mankind for generations. These are the true works of genius in all musical genres—jazz, gospel, R&B and rock ‘n roll as well as "Classical," Baroque, or Romantic orchestral work. In this section of my appraisal, I seek to approximate the relative musical worth of a recording, as I feel it to be. As far as I’m concerned, Janis Joplin, Jacintha, John Coltrane or Miles Davis might be just as likely to do well in this category as Bach, Mozart, Debussy or Rachmaninoff.

I can summarize this trinity of categories by saying that "sound" corresponds to "audio artistry"; "performance" to "musicians’ artistry"; and "music" to compositional artistry.

The Ten Point Scale

Within these three categories I use a rather simple 10 point scale, enumerated as n/10.

I consider "10" to represent "superlative," though at times I’ve been tempted (and will be tempted in the future again, no doubt!) to facetiously assign an "11/10" for work that I consider to be truly transcendent in a given domain.

At the other end of the scale, a "1" would equal "utterly execrable/worthless." Please assume that I will not waste the time to publish a review of such a recording… nor, for that matter, would I bother with "2-4" unless there were some overriding merit (possibly historical interest, or the category of "Music" or "Performance" in the case of some reissues…for example, "Sound" in the case of the Robert Johnson reissues on CD that were released years ago would be well below "5," but "Music" and "Performance" would be marked as superior) in other categories.

Splitting the difference at "5" I would place the evaluation "mediocre; some redeeming qualities, but nothing to write home about." This is why you’ll very rarely see recordings in my columns rated 1-5… enough said.

Ratings of 6-7 indicate fairly good to good in a given category. Not absolutely the best, but if other categories are more promising, then they may trump a 6 or a 7. You’ll have to decide whether or not it’s worth a listen based on those other factors.

Once you get to an "8," you’re in to my "very good" range. In any category, an "8" indicates that I was pleased… and frankly, a fair number of recordings that I hear would never score above an "8" in any category. (Some would need a tail wind to achieve a "6", but that’s a different editorial…) If a recording is rating "8"s, and you like the music, then it’s a safe buy.

As an example, in our last issue (www.positive-feedback.com/Issue2/ccrsacd.htm) I gave the test pressing SACDs of Creedence Clearwater’s Willie and the Poor Boys and Cosmo’s Factory a "Sound" rating of 8/10, though I raved heavily about these masterful Analogue Productions transfers to SACD. "What gives?" you might wonder.

Well, the music and the performances represent truly superlative rock and roll…real "classics" a generation later, and undoubtedly well into the future for the genre…and thus merited a "10/10" in both of these categories. Anyone who would disagree with me on that is politely invited to go suck an egg.

Nevertheless, even an exceptional transfer cannot hide the imperfections of the audio arts practiced in the original recording of these works. It is "very good" for what it is—but it is no more than that. When I finish listening to and grading the 20 (!!!) Stones SACDs that are in for review from ABKCO later this issue, there will be some discs that will scoring in the 6-7 range when it comes to "sound"; even Bob Ludwig’s very fine mastering cannot change the reference that some of these master tapes gave him.

With tears in my eyes, I am quite sure that should we ever have the Beatles transferred to SACD (may I live to see the day!), I would also have to evaluate some of their master tapes in the 6-7 range. I can certainly live with that…and it wouldn’t change their timeless status as classic rock and roll recordings… but the grades in "Music" and "Performance" (both 10/10 in the case of most of what the Beatles did) cannot efface the limitations of the master tapes, or of the LPs/SACDs made from those tapes.

A "9" indicates an "excellent" rating, one that is noticeably better than "very good." In this range there is no doubt that it’s a safe buy for quality… and it’s worth a listen even if you aren’t familiar with the artist/the music.

I reserve "10" for those truly "superlative" recordings. In each category, these are exemplary ratings, indicating an exceptional response/assessment on my part. In the category of "Sound," this means "a true reference recording"; in "Performance," it indicates "an exceptional or immortal musical artistry"; in "Music" it demonstrates "superlative composition."

Or, to look at the upper end of the scale another way, think of "8" as cum laude, "9" as magna cum laude, and "10" as summa cum laude. Another way to view it would be to use my editorial phraseology of Ye Olde Editor’s "recommended," "highly recommended," and "highest recommendation" as being roughly equivalent to 8-10.

Enough! I hope that I’ve made myself more clear—and "enough" regardless!

You don’t have to agree with my evaluations, of course—"de gustibus non disputandem" noted the Romans ("there’s no arguing about taste")—but at least I hope that you understand the rationale for their organization and results more clearly now.

(Responses to this column are, as always, quite welcome. You can email me at editorpf@attbi.com; we’ll publish thoughtful work in our "Reverberations" section.)

 

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