Giving Epoca de Oro music room to breathe

In the last few days I’ve been listening a lot to the 1935-38 D’Arienzo recordings transferred by TangoTunes. These records are really the essence of tango. I’m not saying that the others aren’t great or important. But this is really where the tango journey needs to begin and it remains a constant point of reference for everything else, much as Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue is the central point of reference for modern jazz, the place where you would want to begin in that genre.

For the Argentine tango people I guess it will be something like Pugliese or Troilo, but for milonguero dancers it must be the early D’Arienzo. It’s pure dancing music with enough swing and drive but without the slightest excess or pretense, just the perfect dose to get you moving.

The other thought I’ve been having is that this music demands the “headroom” to be allowed to breathe and rewards thoughtful curation. These recordings reward creating a sound system that milks every ounce of available nuance.

What I mean is, there’s music that sounds pretty much the same whatever your sound system. Even in high resolution files and a great DAC you just don’t get that much detail or sense of space. It’s still very two-dimensional. I find this with a lot of electronic music or processed jazz like Nicola Comte.

By contrast, every improvement in my system down to the connectors and room acoustics is rewarded by Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue: the soundstage, timbre, resonance and detail. It’s very enjoyable.

It is the same with the early D’Arienzo. On a budget sound system it just sounds small and flat. Get something medium range and it sounds tolerable. But give this music attention and room to breathe and it comes into it’s glorous fullness. This music demands attention, but if you invest some money, thought and the effort you are rewarded.

What do I mean that you need to give the music room to breathe? It’s a metaphor which is this: whereever there is a bottleneck in the listening system the music is sort of crushed into an indistinguishable mash of sound with little detail, separation, space or depth. It just becomes a flat blurred image, a facsimile of the original thing.

You basically get the content of the music in the sense that you can hear the melody and the harmony, but none of the physical sensory richness that is there in the original performance as captured in the recording. Your ears quickly get tired of listening to this auditory junk and you probably decide to listen to something else.

Now, the bottleneck can happen anywhere in the whole chain from the musician to the listener:

  1. the music itself might be inadequate (musicians, instruments)
  2. the space in which the music is recorded (studio acoustics)
  3. the process of capturing the music (microphones, recording medium such as tape)
  4. the process of mixing and processing (mixers, filters)
  5. the process of transferring the recording to a digital medium (transfer process)
  6. the digital medium itself (music files resolution)
  7. the computer player software for reproducing the digital medium (iTunes, Mixxx, Traktor, Audirvana)
  8. the device for converting from digital to analogue signal or DAC (internal, USB audio interface, dedicated USB DAC)
  9. connectors/cables
  10. amplifier
  11. speakers
  12. the acoustics of the listening room

We can divide this chain into two parts:

  1. from the recording to the transfer into the digital medium (steps 1-5)
  2. the reproduction of the digital medium (steps 6-12)

As consumers of music we only have choice in the selection and reproduction of the digital medium, and so the question concerns the choice of music that is well recorded such that investment in high quality reproduction will pay off.

For a long time I have believed what I think many people in tango believe, namely, that the Epoca de Oro recordings are of poor quality whereas the newer recordings made by orchestras after that period are much better. I now think that this belief is false and confused logic.

The reason for this belief is primarily the equipment that is used to reproduce the music. More recent tango recordings do sound in a certain sense better on a wider variety of equipment, including on budget equipment and software and played from MP3 files.

This probably has something to do with the way in which they are mastered after the recording. But there is cost to this in that there is a lot of subliminal information that is lost in that process, information about space and timbre which the EdO recordings retain.

There are number of reasons why the Epoca de Oro recordings have been difficult to reproduce at a satisfactory level. Assuming that steps 1-4 result in a recording on a shellac record that is satisfactory, it is necessary to transfer this recording from the shellac medium into a digital form.

This has not been really satisfactory until recently audio engineers started transferring this music onto 24bit/96kHz FLAC files at TangoTunes and some also at Archive.com. This is to my knowledge the first time that we have high resolution transfers of this quality. Previous transfers to CD don’t come anywhere near this and their deficiencies are the reason for the false belief that these recordings don’t sound very good.

But this is just the beginning, because even with these transfers in hand I think that it takes a lot of care to present this music adequately. The system for reproducing music in the digital medium comprise the following parts:

  1. player software
  2. digital-analogue converter or DAC
  3. amplifier
  4. speakers
  5. connectors
  6. room acoustics

The music player software on the computer needs to be designed with the aim of quality reproduction of high resolution music files. I use Audirvana but there are others. The biggest mistake seems to be to use player software because of low cost, convenience or ease of use, such as iTunes, Traktor Pro, Mixxx, etc. The goal is to have the best quality reproduction of sound, and this requires using software that delivers the best sound quality.

In terms of hardware, it seems to me that the most money needs to be spent on the DAC. I myself have not understood this for a long time, mainly because I was still stuck with ideas about high gear that I got from the 1980s. I falsely assumed that the equivalent of a record player or tape deck is the player software on the computer. In fact, it’s the DAC which transfers the digital into analogue signal.

But spending a lot of money on a DAC won’t pay off if you’re using compressed MP3 files on iTunes. A high quality DAC like the Chord Qutest takes the high quality sound from the HiRes 24/96 files on Audirvana or equivalent and turns it into magic. It’s the DAC that creates the sense of space, depth, detail, etc. that is available in a quality recording of a musical ensemble playing classical, jazz, or EdO tango.

What you then need is an amplifier-speaker combo that is able to take this magic and move the air in your room to deliver it to your ears. Again, the amplifier needs to be designed for quality music reproduction and have the power to drive the speakers. The speakers also need to be made of quality parts and need to have a combination of woofer and tweeter with a quality box and crossover.

It all has to be well designed. The amp should drive at least 45 watts into each speaker depending on sensitivity and the speakers should provably have 6-8 inch cones to move enough air. The power and the cone size need to be adequate to move enough air fast enough to deliver the sound. It’s generally not a bad idea to use active speakers, either active studio monitors or quality active PA speakers, that have the amp already built in.

Two things that most people probably don’t think about but that are discussed and debated at length by audiophiles are connectors and room acoustics. In general, I would say that you don’t need to spend 100s of dollars on these things but you do need to give this some serious consideration. You will be probably losing sound quality if you’re using cheap cables:

  • power cables
  • USB cable from laptop to DAC
  • connector from DAC to the amp or active speaker
  • speaker cables

These should be reasonable quality, with quality copper wire, shielding and plugs.

The other thing is room acoustics. Even if you invest time and money into all that I mentioned above it won’t sound very good if you’re listening or dancing in a room with naked walls, windows, mirrors, and floors. These are reflective surfaces for sound, and the sound reflected off the surface will arrive at your ears at a different time than the sound coming directly from the speaker.

Your brain will not be able to process this and the sound will be smudged and distored, with boomy bass, and sound that is not focused. Two things need to be considered:

  • the speakers should be placed well away from walls, probably around 1 metre
  • there need to be surfaces that absorb a good amount of the sound, especially off glass surfaces and walls, such as soft furnishings, sound absorbing curtains and panels.

All of this might sound like a lot, but it’s what you have to do to give the system headroom to deliver the music to your ears. Any bottleneck in this chain diminishes the music, makes is small, unclear, lacking in depth and resonance, losing detail. It’s all smudged, boomy and loud. The music requires the headroom to breathe and when it does it provides real satisfaction.

Otherwise you might just as well stick to playing electrotango on your Beats speaker.