AUDIO EXPERIENCE FROM FRANCE
This is my interview with Philippe Teissier du Cros, a sound engineer with thirty years of experience and over a thousand albums under his belt. We discussed his perspective on his field of work, and he shared some no-holds-barred opinions and described how he views the HIFI market.
How do you view your work as a sound engineer?
My passion for music was my primary reason for getting into this business—I come from a family of music lovers and I took lots of music classes—and my love for music was later complemented by my interest in technology. I have always wanted to put the artistic side of things first, which I think is the case for anyone who has found themselves manning a soundboard. My job consists of making choices regarding how the sound will be “shaped.” It is work that really requires a great deal of creativity that is, of course, guided by familiarity with and even a mastery of technical tools, in terms of both recording and mixing the sound.
Because of their ability to balance sound, their relationships with the artists, their placement of the microphones, their work at the soundboard … sound engineers play a crucial role in determining sound quality, an infinitely greater role than is played by cable quality or the subtle work of a converter.
Isn’t it true that there is some confusion surrounding what sound engineers do and the “promises” made by the HIFI sector regarding sound quality?
It is important to make a clear distinction between those who create sound and those who manufacture or sell sound reproduction equipment. HIFI retailers are primarily motivated by commercial interests, and I find it really unfortunate that too many of them are rather poorly informed when it comes to the products they are selling. They don’t always know what they are talking about. Something else I have noticed is that many brands promise that they can recreate the sound of acoustic instruments. This makes no sense to me. It expresses a lack of respect for what sound engineers do—they exploit their full range of skills to carry out an artistic endeavor and shape the sound that the listener will hear. Let me give you an example from the realm of photography. Do you imagine for even a second that someone would complain about a beautiful portrait of a woman whose face is lit in a particular way, saying that it is not a natural representation of her face? When it comes to “manufacturing sound,” the idea is the same. If you think that you can recreate natural sound, you are deluding yourself; it makes no sense at all. Pianos or violins, for instance, can produce thousands of sounds depending on the specific instrument being used, the musician, the location, the acoustics, the artist’s intentions…I could go on. I also often hear the comment that such and such system will reproduce the sound of a concert. I consider this promise to be even more absurd: which concert are we talking about? Most concerts, whose sound systems are particularly bad or whose acoustics are entirely inappropriate? Where is the listener supposed to be located in the concert hall—in front, in back, to the right, or to the left? Come on, let’s be serious.
The sound is “interpreted” when it is recorded and mixed. A HIFI sound system needs to allow the listener to hear what is actually on the disc and not an interpretation thereof. In any case, a good sound system needs to be able to reproduce almost all types of sound. A musician who wants to know how a recording came out can use a very simple system. However, far too many listeners, in spite of their so-called high-end systems, too often confuse mixing with recording, a performance with the text upon which it is based, a vacation snapshot with a photographic work of art. All this aside, it is always a pleasure to listen to music with certain audiophiles who are very sharp; they are above all music lovers who are brimming with curiosity and who are often very cultivated.
What was your experience when the CD arrived in the 80s, and what do you think is behind the public’s resurgent interest in vinyl records?
The CD became successful very quickly after arriving on the scene. I think that people were seduced by the novelty of it—that sheen of the brand new. I expressed my misgivings from the beginning: the first CDs were poorly mastered and the converters were far from being fully developed. However, people were mostly interested in the format’s convenience. At that point in time, it was commonly felt that all CD players were of equivalent quality. It took ten years before the two formats—digital and analog—began to live side by side. You cannot deny that when the first CDs came out, analog sound was much better.
As for the return of vinyl records, I have to admit that I still find it a bit mysterious. Vinyl’s success among young people largely stems from the DJ club scene; as for the other vinyl lovers, there must be some sort of “vintage” appeal. From a sociological perspective, I find it fascinating that a community has sprouted up around this medium. Vinyl is very interesting if you want to listen to excellent works cut from analog tapes, such as the legendary recordings produced as part of the Mercury Living Presence series or the Blue Note LPs being reissued by Acoustech. Since vinyl’s revival, some very skilled experts have produced some excellent reissues. When you are listening to a high-quality vinyl record, you rediscover the virtues of ½-inch tapes with 76 cm/sec play speed. Watch out, though, because you need good quality equipment to properly appreciate vinyl. There is also cutting and pressing of terrible quality: there are fewer and fewer people with the necessary know-how and highly skilled engineers in this domain can command high prices.
Do you personally prefer CDs or vinyl records? Transistor or tube amps?
I am a vinyl buff, but I recognize that it has its limitations. Many people who listen to vinyl records don’t realize that they sometimes have been cut from digital master media. The result produced by a recording originally digital in nature will best be read by a D/A (digital to analog) converter; as a result, you are still in the digital realm. In the opposite case, you are talking about an entirely subjective experience that is shaped, for example, by distortion introduced during the cutting process or the spin added by the player being used (e.g., cartridge, arm, preamp…), which can create different impressions or sensations. From a financial perspective, I think that, compared to a CD player of the same price, a good analog player will probably have a greater chance of satisfying a listener’s sound quality expectations. It is important to recognize that high-quality CD players and converters are rather expensive. When a converter doesn’t do its job right, it becomes a source of displeasure. In contrast, a record player that does a minimal job will always procure a certain amount of enjoyment, even if some information is left out.
When it comes to amplification, I am on Team Transistor because I need to hear all of the information contained on the disc. I have no desire to listen to an interpretation at that stage. When I listen to anything using a tube amp, I hear the specific sound that is produced by the tube amp. As a result, I am not hearing the disc in its entirety. In general, audiophiles prefer the supposed neutrality of a recording that will subsequently be interpreted by their high-fidelity system. Personally, as a sound engineer, I am looking for the exact opposite! I recommend using high-quality, neutral equipment that will reveal the sound engineer’s work and, consequently, the real vibrancy produced by the collaboration between the sound engineer and the artist.
During a sound recording with avec the pianist Alain Jean Marie and the singer Annick Tangorra last january 2014
Do you have any favorite HIFI brands?
Based on past experiences, I can be rather happy with a simple system that costs 2,000 euros and that will perform better than many huge systems that produce unsatisfactory results. For instance, I have noticed that the bass can be all over the place because many audiophiles don’t realize that they are listening to the room they are in rather than their speakers because their acoustics may not be right. I have developed a very interesting collaboration with Devialet; they are professionals who are truly interested in faithfully reproducing audio signals and, on my end, it is crucial that I be able to hear all the information that is contained on a disc. When it comes to speakers, I use ProAcs, like many other sound professionals, because they render clear verdicts about a sound’s quality. I also use a system that I designed myself . I have a real admiration for some French brands whose products are truly the fruit of passionate and skilled craftsmen. I have a great deal of respect for the work being done by Thierry Comte of Atohm (his GT1 speaker is extremely high performing), Jean-Jacques Baquet of Klinger Favre, and Gilles Milot of Leedh. Milot is introducing lots of innovations into the world of acoustics, and I particularly admire his attitude and his work.
Over the last few months, at the request of Architekt Of Sound (AOS), you have developed software that can be used to edit music and videos; why have you decided to add images to sound?
In fact, this project was the product of brainstorming with some friends who are also in the profession. You have to understand the importance of images in our society—they have become omnipresent in our lives, a trend that is explained by the major role played by the internet. We want to reach out to a new segment of the public that has very high standards by offering up HD sound and images. It is also an artistic endeavor that is grounded in the extensive freedom offered to musicians, and the artistic side of the project is very important. We are recording sound and video at locations where the acoustics and the aesthetics become key elements in the process, an approach that is, for the moment, rather unique.