Tango as musical experience

Music is the world of sound production and reproduction. When discussing the topic it’s hard to figure out where to start and it’s easy to get side tracked or bogged down. I had the same problem when approaching tango movement. The conceptual scheme is a hermetically sealed echo chamber and everything is prescribed by the tango establishment. When you do get your head out of that you find yourself in the echo chamber of the audiophile world and again it’s extremely difficult to say anything meaningful beyond quibbling about this or that piece of audio gear, music files, or some particular tango recordings and in the end all such discussions have a tendency to fall flat and fail to inspire any genuine progress. Nonetheless, the issue is so critical that I believe that it goes even beyond the questions of technique and politics. Yes, tango milonguero is about the embrace and about conviviality. But ultimately I’m of the view that tango is first and foremost a musical experience and the other things follow from that. If the musical experience is not happening then the other things can’t make up for it. Yes, the essence of tango dancing is the hug and the connection. But the essence of tango is ultimately the music and in particular it’s a specific sort of musical experience.

If what I say has validity then despite the proliferation of Facebook tango pages and posters there is really very little tango anywhere because the vast majority of the tango DJs outside of Buenos Aires apparently know very little about what they’re doing other than organising their tracks into tandas on their computer and perhaps getting a cheap DAC and pumping that into some cheap PA speakers in spaces with awful acoustics. The DJs in Buenos Aires have some intuitive understanding of what they need to do to produce the requisite sort of musical experience. They don’t always succeed but they rarely fail to the radical extent that is the case elsewhere.

The question is how to specify the goals and then the means in a way that is more useful than just telling people what specific piece of gear to buy. Music production is performance for a live audience, performance in a recording studio, and the performance of music reproduced from a recording. What all of these have in common is that the artists ideally aim for a particular sort of musical experience. They are in the business of designing the sound that reaches the ears of the audience.

As I’m writing this article I’m sitting in a cafe with retro interior design, with vintage tables, chairs, lamps and bookshelves. Someone designed this interior to create a particular effect, which is sort of art deco vintage mixed with some other interesting elements. It sort of works except for a picture on the wall which is a large photograph of fish on a bright blue background in a square black frame, which completely clashes with and contradicts the vintage wooden decor. I know they exhibit modern art around here due to some regulation, but nonetheless the contrast is obvious. I don’t have to be a professional interior designer to know that the contrast between the cafe decor and the photograph is odd and jarring. It’s matter of being basically informed and having some decent taste. Not everyone has this and some will surely think that these pictures look good in this cafe. A lot of so-called modern artists are in this category. They are often teachers in schools, universities and art colleges and they ruin peoples basic sensibility and ability to make informed aesthetic judgements of any sort.

It doesn’t take a genius to see that some things are just aesthetically wrong, but it’s often difficult to say exactly why. These days people are so distracted that they rarely look around to even notice it. Also, the education system and art establishment convinces us to just accept whatever and not be “judgemental”.

As with interior design, the tango DJ does not have to be a professional musician or audio engineer to have a clue about designing an adequate musical experience for a milonga. But he does need a combination of basic technical knowledge and a basic sensibility. We can think of music reproduction as a DJ/audio engineer as analogous to playing music as a musician where the instrument is the equipment used for the reproduction and processing of the source file. That is why I think that if the DJ is not a musician or has no musical background at all (eg., is not an audiophile) the learning curve will be steeper and longer because a musician or an audiophile already has some basic listening skills and knowledge of what musical instruments, spaces, and audio equipment sound like. He has an idea what to aim for and just have to find the equipment to produce a particular acoustic effect. If you’re starting from scratch you need to start listening for things: instruments, spaces, tonality, timbre, etc. It’s not something you can really do part-time, it has to be a vocation. Sound is your canvas and you’re a painter. If that sounds hard or tedious leave the task to someone else who will put the necessary energy to create an adequate product.

The ultimate goal is to produce a certain quality of musical experience. The question is what type of musical experience you’re delivering. This raises the problem of specifying this musical experience. How many people are able to specify the quality of musical experience beyond what they like or don’t like? But language is kind of necessary. The interior designer needs language to explain why the picture clashes with the rest of the decor: the lines, textures, colours. The soft wooden browns of the furnishings clash with the saturated bright neon blue, the photographic texture clashes with the soft patterned texture of the walls, the hard edges of the black frame clashes with the sound shapes of the lamps and chairs, etc. Or something like that. I’m sure that a professional interior designer would do a better job than me, but I can give it a go even as an amateur.

The tango musicalizador also needs to start finding ways to describe qualities of sound and identify what is satisfying and what is lacking, what makes something—a tune, and piece of gear, a space—sound good, and what makes it sound bad, and what is good about it. One of the biggest pitfalls that I see is the trap of relativism and egalitarianism, that is, the lazy habit of the postmodernist to label attempts at improvement as judgemental, elitist and closed minded and to insist that it’s all good and you should be open minded to a diversity of experiences. This line of thinking the reason for much of the mediocrity and chaos that we see in tango today. When you look at comments under Youtube videos like the one by Danny Richie from GR-Research (Some listening education for Argentine Tango DJs) it is clear that this divides the audiophile community into two hostile camps, and I’m firmly with those on the elitist side and have no time for any sort of egalitarianism. I find that the egalitarians have poor taste in music, ie., they clearly listen to pop and rock even if they don’t admit it. For example, they rarely emphasise the idea that you want to aim for the emotional impact of a live performance and a feeling of space and instead tend to focus on whether the gear sounds fun and whether the bass drum is punchy or the cymbals sound accurate.

Developing both as a musician as well as an audiophile I came to the view that being able to specify the quality of musical experience, to bring some of these under control so that you have an idea how you can perceive and reproduce the quality of musical experience, is the expertise of both the live musician and the DJ. The process of selection, which the tango DJs seem to be focusing on, is secondary to the task of reproducing a musical experience of a certain quality, such that when choosing the music you’re aiming for a qualitative experience of a particular sort. The music that you purchase and download to your laptop is the paints, the audio gear is the brushes, and the space is the canvas that you fill with the colour and shape of sound. What is it that you want to communicate to the audience? What do you want them to think and feel? What experience have you discovered yourself that you want them to get? How will that experience enrich their life? That is the task of the artist in the sphere of sound.

What that means is that you’re not merely focusing on the content of the music (ie., the melody and harmony), but its quality. I play jazz on a nylon string classical guitar that is amplified. This music can be played on un-amplified classical guitar or an amplified electric guitar. It can be played in a jazz club, outdoors, or a bar. When I started performing I did some open mics in pubs. The music was totally wrong for that sort of venue. I did the same set on the same guitar in a jazz bar and it was great. Different context, different quality. The acoustics of the venue make my set sound totally different. Playing outdoors vs. playing in a well designed jazz venue vs. playing in a poorly designed music venue all make my set sound completely different. Some situations like the jazz venue are close to ideal, others are only marginally adequate. It’s still me and my guitar plugged into an amp, but the results are radically different. Sound is a very fragile sort of paint and needs a canvas that will shape and contain it in the right sort of way. The gear, the music and the musician is just part of the story.

It’s always good to use analogies with food when thinking about music: when you eat you’re not merely concerned with the amount of protein, carbohydrate, and vitamins, but also the quality of these things both in terms of their health value (eg., bioavailability) and their palatability and visual appeal. Focusing on the content of the music without the quality is like focusing on the abstract nutritional value of food without the other things. As a musicalizador your job is to design the musical experience that is aesthetically and emotionally nourishing and satisfying. I’m discovering that to achieve that goal you need to be able to satisfy that requirement in your own life, you need to have great sounding music in your own house, even if it’s just a desk setup or a set of high fidelity headphones, you need to have a reference system that is a benchmark for you to be able to judge and evaluate the sound of some audio equipment in a given venue, and over time to be able to evaluate different sorts of venues.

Now I’ve been arguing in a number of articles that we should prefer a dancing education that teaches a type of dancing that is economical with the space and I understand that this may seem like a pet peeve, something that might be nice but is not really fundamental to anything. If we have access to a large amount of dancing space why bother with this? I think that once you start thinking in terms of musical experience and musical design, and you start playing around with gear you will start to understand the cost and difficulty of filling up a space with any decent quality sound. Thinking that you can fill up a large studio space with a couple of loud PA speakers is, to go back to the food analogy, like thinking that you can make quality food with a bag of flour and sugar whereas what you’re going to end up with is a lot of empty calories. Being loud and having bass is all too often confused with sound quality. You’re much more likely to be able to create a satisfying auditory experience on a reasonable budget in a smaller venue.

Getting quality sound does require a lot of quality speaker and amplification per square metre and these don’t come cheap. Large spaces are not easy to fill up with quality sound and are expensive to treat: large wooden floors, walls and windows will cause reflections, budget PA speakers will not provide enough detail in the highs, satisfying mids and tight lows. Room treatment is less of a problem when the space is filled up with people who will diffuse a lot of the sound but when untreated large empty spaces sound really bad (see also Do you find yourself having to shout at a milonga?). On the other hand, while sound treatment will alleviate unwanted resonance it will also eat up a lot of that sound, so what would sound loud but ugly in an empty studio space will be much quieter in a space treated with sound absorbing surfaces. So the speakers and amplifier need to be big enough and this is a big cost. You may find that the PA speakers in some large studio space are very loud but the point is quality of sound, not loudness.

To go back to tango DJs in Buenos Aires, it really helps that the milongas there are relatively packed. Unless you can make sure that your event has a good number of people you need to have a solid setup of speakers and room treatment to deal with the empty space. A large empty space with a wooden floor and naked walls with cheap PA speakers is a recipe for total failure. You’re much better off with a smaller space. The first thing in developing in this area is to develop an understanding and a language for describing the quality of sound experience and then making a decision on how to design and deliver this quality as an end-product. One way we can begin to think here is that we need to distinguish different sorts of music and different sorts of qualitative experience that can be delivered.

I noticed that audio reviewers tend to differ depending on the type of music that they prefer. Unfortunately they rarely fess up to what they listen to and when they do I finally understand why they like the gear that they do. The way we listen and experience different sorts of music is going to be different. Our goal in relation to tango is to try to place tango music on the spectrum of musical experiences. To reiterate my earlier point, this is essentially the same as what a musician is doing. As I mentioned, the bossa nova/jazz sound on my nylon string acoustic-electric will fit in a jazz club, a cafe or a restaurant, but not so much in a loud bar. The way people experience music is very different in a different sort of a context: bar, jazz club, concert hall, street, etc.

So the music and the gear will have to be adapted to that. Unfortunately, gear reviewers rarely inform us what sort of music they listen to. I try to follow audio designers and reviewers who focus on classical and jazz. But that is not exactly ideal because what I’m finding that tango needs a speaker setup that is a bit more forward and energetic that what you might want for classical or jazz. Christian Xell who runs TangoTunes told me that he uses Altec cinema speakers. The thing about these is that they are horn speakers which tend to project sound more forward.

Horn speakers, theatre/cinema speakers, PA speakers and guitar amplifiers have a more forward character which is probably better for tango. Many fans of vintage audio also prefer paper cone drivers.

In my own case I find that my Roland Acoustic Chorus AC90 acoustic guitar amp sounds better for tango than the ELAC Reference speakers powered by NAD D-class amp. In both cases it’s 45W per channel. The AC90 has larger 8 inch woofers and you feel more of the bass extension, and generally the speaker is more forward and the paper cones have the right sort of character that I would call “vintage”. By contrast, the ELAC/NAD combination is more a smooth and cerebral sound that’s ideal for classical and jazz audiophile experience. The AC90 has that sort of forwardness and vintage grit and fullness that is just right for tango, both for listening and enjoying or for movement. It’s not loud and aggressive but the fullness and bass is more tactile for lack of a better word. I also like the combination of my iLoud MTM studio monitor speakers with either the AC90 or the ELACs. The MTMs complement both being forward, lively and accurate. They seem to add the midrange to the AC90.

Currently, given the current state of my knowledge, I’d either use the AC90 together with the iLoud MTMs, and even a pair of AC90s for a small to mid-size venue. Otherwise I’d try to build a pair of theatre speakers. There are Youtube channels devoted to DIY speaker building. It seems that most of the cost of speakers goes into retail and labour, and that it’s possible to build speakers for a fraction of the retain price, like 10-20%. So you could build a pair of speakers that retail $5000 for under $1000. As I said, you need to a good amount of speaker and that means fairly big and efficient drivers plus the speaker box and electronics. All of that costs money. Remember, you’re not paying for volume but for quality. The size of the speaker is not to give you something that’s loud, but something that delivers a lot of detail and space without being too loud. That requires good quality parts and that’s what you’re paying for. So if I’m in the situation to do this I’m planning on getting a DIY kit and building my own theatre speakers for tango. Combined with a nice room with good acoustics and a good chain (DAC, amp, etc.) I think you’d get some really nice sound for tango.

You need a lot of speakers and amplification, even in a small bedroom: iLoud MTM powered studio monitors, ELAC Debut Reference DBR62 speakers, NAD C338 integrated amplifier, and Roland Acoustic Chorus AC90 guitar amplifier as a subwoofer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s