Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is quite animated when discussing the current and future state of recorded music. Back in the early months of 2000, Anderson and I sat down in a hotel restaurant in New York City to discuss similar topics. It's interesting to see how things have progressed since then - or not...
So: Surround sound or stereo?
Two channels seems to be just right. We've got two eyes, two ears, two nostrils - we're binary creatures by nature, so stereo sound works for me.
You were among the pioneers of recording in quadraphonic sound.
That's right. By 1975, I was recording in dedicated four-track - two front and two rear channels - but I came very rapidly to the conclusion that the only way to do that correctly was to use the rear channels for live-performance ambience. That meant carrying only 60% of the room sound in the back speakers in order to give the idea of music being performed in an acoustic space. But that's kind of underutilizing the rear channels, isn't it, if that's all they do?
What do you think about recording in surround sound now?
Well, you don't want me sitting on your shoulder breathing on the back of your ear. That's not going to make the music sound any better. It's going to be disconcerting. What works best is when you very gently suggest being in an environment with the artist, but he's still a performer and stays on his side of the footlights. This may be an old-fashioned point of view, but I think it's important not to cross that strange borderline between the performer and the listener. That would be like going to the art gallery and stepping through the frame and being a part of a Turner painting.
I think there are some fundamental truths in terms of presenting entertainment and art. If it's sheer entertainment, by all means, have multichannel sound and be surrounded by the Arnold Schwarzenegger experience: total absorption, total immersion. But if I want to listen to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or a great piece of pop or rock music, I'd rather sit on this side of the footlights and have it presented to me so I feel I'm in a natural acoustic space with only some of the information coming from around me. Frankly, you don't need multichannel discrete audio to do that.
Analog or digital?
I hate - hate - analog! And I hate vinyl! If I have to choose, I'll go for the CD every time. Most irritating to me is the turntable rumble, the scratches, the general noise. There is no such thing as a great-sounding vinyl record. It's impossible. You try scratching a wiggly groove in a piece of lacquer with a sharp needle and tell me that's art - forget it. That's just making the best of the available technology. It's a helluva compromise. And besides, now comes the next 15 years worth of hi-fi quality: SACD, DVD-Audio, and beyond.
But we're not allowed to switch to it just yet - not until the Pioneers and the Sonys and everybody else have emptied their warehouses of all the VCRs, CD players, and cassette players. The technology exists, but we consumers cannot take advantage of it because the political and economic realities dictate that things have to take their time getting through the system until we're allowed to have the new toys.
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