Stereographic Apparitions with Herb Reichert

I remember the voice of Roy Rogers coming from the bottom of my parent’s television set. Bing Crosby sang from behind the grill-cloth of their colossal wood radio. The Beatles shouted through holes in the top of my ’63 Chevy dashboard. Those Beatles sounded small. Their voices appeared to come from inside the glove compartment. And then, everything changed... my friend’s dad put a second JBL L100 speaker in his rec room bookcase and voila! James Brown was singing from some sort of stage-like platform behind wood shelves stuffed with bowling trophies.

Can you remember the first time you heard a recording and consciously noticed a three-dimensional illusion of a singer or an orchestra? I can. I remember wondering, am I the only person who perceives these audio apparitions?

My first stereo speakers were a pair of Dynaco A25s sitting on wooden milk crates on either side of a freshwater aquarium on a black iron stand in my basement bedroom. I remember a live radio broadcast of some pianist playing Franz Liszt in the radio station studio. I remember thinking, holy cow, that is so clear, it sounds just like a real piano in a real room.

As I listened, I “saw” what appeared to be the specter of a diaphanous piano – right there, reduced in size; sitting exactly where fish were swimming in my twenty-gallon tank. Intrigued by this phenomenon, my attention vacillated between the physical reality of the fish tank and the mind-generated illusion/apparition of a piano. The illusion part was ghostly, but consistently accessible and reliably holographic. Each time I looked I saw the same-sized piano in the same location. I had no previous experiences to compare this too.

I realized then: stereo audio was the first of what would become an endless series of evolutionary discoveries leading ultimately to a very blurred line between mirage-like illusion and materiality.

Nowadays, all audiophiles take these illusionary experiences for granted. In fact, most of us judge audio equipment (at least partially) on the scale and quality of the apparitions it can generate. But no one ever asks: what is the significance of these stereographic illusions?

I get the obvious: two strategically placed microphones will make a recording that when played back through two strategically spaced loudspeakers will make sounds that my mind will decode as a relatively three-dimensional illusion. The two recorded channels can have distinct time-of-arrival and sound-pressure-level differences that my brain can triangulate into a Cartesian-mapped spatial illusion. For me, this spatial mapping makes simple stereo (or binaural) recordings beautiful to observe in and of themselves. Think cathedrals with choirs and pipe organs

However, most all the music most people listen to is not natural from nature two-microphone stereo. It is made from a multitude of highly-processed mono tracks whose individual left-to-right channel amplitudes are adjusted in the studio to create an entirely artificial “stereo” soundfield. Besides its inescapable artificiality, “pan-potted” stereo delivers virtually no height information (unless there was leakage between microphones at the recording session). It has left-right coordinates only. It can never convey that specific sense of a dome-like three-dimensionality we experience normally while walking down a street. What I am referring to here is more sophisticated (and important) than these artificial productions.


OneCreativeMan's picture

Herb, my uncle played RCA living Stereo records on a big Magnavox console. He was a furniture salesman and had this killer console. The wood was beautiful! Big (in my experience) speakers front and side firing. From the moment he set the automatic record player in motion everything changed. Wonderful writing thanks.

Ortofan's picture

... single/mono point source?
Why should you necessarily need two speakers/channels to properly reproduce it (by creating a phantom center image)?
That situation might change if you are, for example, a fan of the sisters Labèque, the brothers Kontarsky, or Ferrante & Teicher.

pbarach's picture

Haven't you ever listened to one in a room? You're getting lots of directional cues from room acoustics and from the direct sound radiation off the open lid of a grand piano.

There is no point source of music except mono output from a synthesizer recorded directly to a digital file without the use of a microphone.

Everclear's picture

If we use the new Beats wireless Bluetooth headphones, we can hear true stereo separation, ie. one piano in one ear and another piano in another ear :-) .........

rschryer's picture

Our audio listening brains are aligned, Herb. Great article, written, I might add, from the perspective of a born constructor; you worked in construction, and now spend your life "constructing" art, written narratives, and 3D sonic illusions (in your listening room).

Herb, liberate us from the Machines!