One of the persistent issues with tango music is the edginess. This is the most obvious with Pugliese. These are surely amazing recordings by great artists. They’re into the 40’s and the transfers are all very good. A lot of the harshness of earlier transfers has been solved by the more recent “Golden Ear” transfers by TangoTunes. And yet. These are not easy to listen to. There’s a brightness and edginess that makes them shouty and brittle. A sure recipe for listening fatigue. This is actually an issue with a lot of the 40’s recordings. I love D’Agostino’s Adios Arabal precisely because of the punchiness and dynamism. It’s really the epitome of danceable tango. And yet, it can be a bit in your face. There’s almost too much information coming at you if you’re just listening in your room. Or something.
In my journey as a musician and an audiophile, as I’ve been moving to ever greater heights of music production and reproduction, I find myself leaving a lot behind. I left behind the mp3 for CD quality FLAC only to abandon that for HiRes 24/96 files thinking that I’ve reached audiophile nirvana, alas only to then arrive at the holy grail of DSD. It was really an accident. I got a DSD256 quality recording by the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio Misty for Direct Cutting. I tried to listen to this but my fairly high powered Mac was nonetheless struggling. I had to quit apps and avoid using the machine otherwise it was skipping. So I wasn’t really spending much time on this. But then I gave it another go. I found my room turning into a jazz club. I was hooked.
I got a bunch of other DSD transfers of music I already had in 24/96. My eyes glazed over. 24/96 receded into the distance as I bathed in the warmth and silkiness of DSD. I had no idea that it’s possible to improve so much from 24/96. I’m in audiophile heaven. But then I thought, darn, those tango transfers are in the 24/96. How can I endure going down to such an inferior format. My tango experience will never come anywhere close to the heights of the DSD.
Then an idea popped into my head. I’ve been using x2 upsampling on Audirvana, so that a 96kHz would be doubled to 192kHz, which I found was a noticeable improvement. I remember that Rob Watts of Chord Electronics (or maybe it was the Dutch audiophile guy on Youtube) said that actually upsampling works well because the whole idea is to smooth out the curve, which has been chopped up by digitisation, as you turn it back into an analogue form. The upsampling function guesses which information, which parts of the curve, are missing. This is actually better done by the computer software because computers have more processing power than DACs. You just need a DAC that’s capable of taking that upsampled information and my Chord Qutest can take up to DSD256.
So I had a look at the upsampling function on Audirvana and found that it can upsample to DSD256. I gave it a go, and lo and behold, what a difference! I tried it on D’Agostino Adios Arabal, D’Arienzo El Flete, and Pugliese Amurado. Everything sounds way better, but the most obvious difference so far I’m finding is with the 40’s recordings. When I switch back and forth, with the upsampling turned off, Adios Arabal sounds in your face and shouty. Upsampling smooths it out but without losing any resolution, and it actually it adds resolution. And what a difference with Pugliese. All the edginess is gone, and there’s loads more resolution and depth. Twenty seconds into the tune there’s a line of 16ths with the piano in the background. All harshness is gone and the piano is much clearer in the space behind the other instruments. Emotional impact and listenability in bucketloads. No listening fatigue, you just want more. I think this is it, I’ve arrived. That is, until I get into tube amps or something.
In a recent video Steve Guttenberg of the Audiophiliac Youtube channel touches on two topics pertinent to this blog post: the history of the Super Audio Compact Disk (SADC), and what different people look for in high fidelity sound.
Also, the Cambridge Audio website have an article which explains why DSD/SACD, while it failed to take off as a replacement for the CD, has remained as a specialist format into the era of computer audiophile:
DSD also came into being for slightly different reasons to most other formats. In the 1990s Sony and Philips worked together to develop the replacement for the CD. The result was Super Audio CD, a format supported by our CXU Universal Blu-Ray Player. The high resolution content on SACD discs is encoded as DSD. SACD didn’t go on to replace CD and remains a specialist format, but the world of digital audio has moved into places beyond physical discs.
This left DSD a format without a medium, but the ‘character’ many people feel that DSD brings to music has meant that it has returned as a downloadable format that can be used via UPnP Streaming or USB. So what is this character? Many fans of the format say that there is a naturalness and tonal sweetness to DSD that’s not found in more conventional formats and that it’s easier and more forgiving to listen to. This is hard to prove outright but our view has always been to try and let people decide for themselves
Indeed, this is my experience, the music sounds smoother, more natural and easier to listen to without losing resolution or dynamic range. Perhaps this can be characterised as “euphonic sound” as opposed to detail, and many audiophiles look for that, and perhaps that’s what you want in listening to tango music.
I’ve talked about an audiophile milonga concept (Towards a music-focused tango: the audiophile milonga) arguing that tango music at a milonga should be treated similarly to the listening to classical or jazz on an audiophile sound system. Specifically, I argued that DJs should use high resolution transfers, high-end DACs like the Chord Qutest, audiophile grade software like Audirvana Studio, and should consider getting acoustic treatment for the dancing room. I also suggested that you need a lot of amplification and a lot of speaker power, ie., big speaker drivers. However, when it comes to amps and speakers it’s less clear that an audiophile type system is necessarily the best option because the situation at a milonga is different from that in a listening room. In particular, for events as opposed to listening rooms you need PA type speakers that, as I understand, are designed to project sound more forward.
Now one type of PA type system is a guitar amp. I have a couple of Roland Acoustic Chorus speakers, the AC33 and the AC90. The reason I have them is that they are designed for amplifying acoustic guitars. But recently I’ve been transitioning to playing an electric jazz guitar and for that the Roland speakers just aren’t suitable. So I started looking around for a new amplifier/speaker setup and came across an interesting alternative that may also be interesting from the point of view of setting up an audio system for a milonga.
A guitar amp has two main parts: the amplifier which call an “amp head”, which is just the amplifier electronics that you plug your source into (guitar, microphone, aux, etc.), and the speaker cabinet, called a “cab”, which is the box with the speaker driver. A “combo” guitar amp has these two parts integrated into a single unit. That’s what my Roland amps are like. However, it’s possible to buy the head and the cab separately, and to match them in various ways, connecting them with a speaker cable.
This is what I decided to try. After doing some research I decided to get a Quilter 101 Mini Reverb 50W amp head for USD500, and then looking around for a cab I discovered that one of the most widely used drivers is the 12″ 8ohm 60W Celestion Vintage 30. I was pleased to find a cabinet with this driver made by Wangs for USD130. It’s a big driver and is well matched with the Quiter. I find the sound very satisfying for my jazz guitar. So of course I was curious and decided to see how this works for tango music.
I wanted to plug my NAD C338 amplifier into the cab. The problem is that the standard speaker cables out of the amp don’t come with the 6mm audio jack that goes into the cab. Maybe that exists but I don’t have it. So I plugged the Chord Qutest into the Quilter 101, into the guitar input. I wasn’t sure what to expect because the guitar signal is as far as I know pretty small, so wasn’t sure if the whole thing isn’t going to blow.
Turns out no problem at all. The sound is fine. More than fine. It’s very cool. I found that I needed to cut the treble, but other than that, it’s very good. Totally a vintage sound. Now, the interesting thing is that the Quilter 101 is reputed to be the closest thing to a tube amp while being a solid state amp, ie., no tubes. Tube amps are loved for their wam sound which is not precise but is “euphonic” and which many audiophiles really love. The problem is, apart from cost, tube amps are heavy, get hot, and have tubes, which are made of glass. Not really great if you want to be moving around with this. The Quilter 101 is so great because, while getting that vintage euphonic sound, it weighs around 1kg, is compact, doesn’t get warm, and has no glass parts, but instead has a sturdy metal case that’s perfect for transportation.
So to sum up, you’re getting a tube amp-like sound in a very portable package. Then you connect that to a sizeable 12″ woofer that’s also like for a vintage feel. The Celestion Vintage 30 woofer is big and heavy, but at around a $120, if you have to move you can just buy another one. Unlike the Roland AC90 which costs something like $600 or more new. Try to sell this if you have to move and can’t take it with you on the plane. With the Celestion speaker you get two options. You could disassemble the cabinet, put the driver in a suitcase and then find a cabinet at your destination to put the woofer into. Alternatively, you can probably just buy another one secondhand for under $100. As far as I know they are quite common and you can probably pick one up cheaply on eBay or the like.
It’s a very satisfying sound in a very versatile package. I can’t say that it’s audiophile, in the sense that you’d want to listen to other genres of music, although I might try that. I’d call this sound vintage or steampunk audio. And I think this is what you want for tango. With this setup I think you can easily fill up a small to medium size venue, although that’s something I’m going to have to test out in the future. For around $600 I think it’s a very good deal.
I was recently doing a music jam and a young guy was very impressed with my guitar playing and asked me for some classical guitar lessons. He then asked me what I listen to. I told him that I basically listen to classical music. He then asked me whether I compose my music and whether I listen to contemporary music. I told him that I don’t listen to that because it ruins my ears. He then went on and on about the creativity of contemporary music and how all these contemporary artists are creative geniuses. I told him that I don’t think that contemporary music is very creative and told myself that teaching this guy is, at this stage at least, probably a waste of time.
One thing that I’ve learned both in relation to tango music and to playing classical guitar is that much of the process consists of ear training and that a major impediment to progress is having your ears ruined by listening to the wrong stuff. There are two areas of ear training: the actual music being listened to, and the quality of the equipment on which the music is being played. Listening to the wrong music or listening to it under the wrong circumstances will ruin your ears. Ruining your ears is like spoiling a child. You listen to musical candy on cheap gear and soon enough you’re incapable of informed judgement. You sound like a lot of these artists who carry on about creativity, or those people on tango forums who complain about the music but then can’t tell the difference. The major reason for so much bad music today is precisely that music is everywhere and it’s being fired at us whether we like it or not from all directions.
Ear training is learning to understand what to listen for. This is true both for understanding a musical piece or for understanding what we’re looking for in musical reproduction. As a musician I regularly have the experience that when attempting a piece of music I have trouble understanding what’s going on. It doesn’t make sense to me because there’s too much going on. Often you have to simplify in order to get it. I got started on a piece called “Duas Contas” by the Brazilian guitarist Garoto. It sounded boring when I tried to play through a page of the music. I then went to Youtube and found that there’s a vocal version of this tune by Gal Costa. It’s a great piece of music. Once I heard it sung it made complete sense. Another common issue has to do with the tone of the sound on my guitar. I play a piece of music in one position and it doesn’t sound very good, but in a different position it sounds great. The quality of the sound of the strings is different in different positions and that’s an important consideration. There are all sorts of other considerations and techniques to create a different feel or tone and this is as much a part of the training on a given instrument as the actual music written on paper.
So ear training is a matter of understanding a particular piece of music as it might be written down, how the melody goes, what’s the path taken, it’s geography so to speak, something we might hum; it’s also a matter of how that piece of music is interpreted in terms of the specific quality of the tone on a given piece of equipment used, whether it’s a specific instrument played in a specific way, or a specific piece of audio gear played in a specific sort of space. You have to take all of these into account in developing an understanding of the musical experience that is made available. The particular aesthetic experience of music is really the final product of these elements.
The basic problem that causes most tango people having their ears ruined is to play high energy tango music on substandard audio equipment in highly resonant spaces. This is a recipe for your brain shutting down to the music and merely using it as a prop for the emotional signalling for the exaggerated movements of the dancing lesson (see Using music for emotional signposting). If there’s no dancing going on the room and the sound within it is barely tolerable and makes people fidgety and restless. It is generally accepted nowadays that music should be big, and the bigger the better. Old music played on a handful of instruments without a lot of amplification is considered small and boring. When I told the young guy that most music today is highly processed and doesn’t sound good without all the gear he pointed to some singer who plays solo pieces on guitar and vocals. Sure, but even that is highly processed to sound bigger and more interesting than it actually is. Unprocessed performances will sound better but only on good quality audio devices and won’t sound as exciting. The goal of the musical industry is to make everything sound exciting even on cheap gear. This is the main reason people assume that the bigger, louder and more exciting the tango music the better.
We want to go in the opposite direction and aim for nuance. Recently TangoTunes made available transfers from late 20s to mid-30s by Di Sarli and Orquesta Tipica Victor. The Di Sarli transfers are surprisingly good. All are listenable and sound very good on a good sound system. I think that this is a major development because perhaps for the first time in our era we have access to tango music that is uncomplicated but very listenable. With D’Arienzo and onward we’re getting into a lot of complexity. It’s hard for the brain to process it all. It’s fast and there’re a lot of instruments. The arrangements are quite complex. If you’re just starting out it’s a lot to process. If you’ve never heard instrumental tango on, say, guitar and bandoneon duo, then this being y0ur first encounter will probably lead to overload. Following the music itself will be a challenge, but then on top of that finding a connection between the music and the many movements taught in a dancing lesson will be all but impossible. Understanding the music will be essentially out of reach. The result will be these so-called milongas where the music is essentially a vague background to a lot of pointless movement.
So I think these recordings by the early Di Sarli and OTV are very good for developing your ears for tango if reproduced on a decent sound system in a room with some acoustic treatment. I would follow them with the early D’Arienzo and later on add D’Agostino. Only much later I’d add Tanturi, Calo, Troilo, etc. I would avoid listening to all the different orchestras in one go. Generally, the way you listen to different sorts of music is going to be different. So the late-20s to mid-30s will generally sound similar when you get to the 1940s the way you listen to that is going to be different because the complexity and energy of the music will be much higher. This is not necessarily better. In fact, I would argue that developing the listening skills on the early music helps to understand the more challenging music of the 1940s. So a good amount of listening to the early stuff can help to retune your ears and provide a baseline for better interpretation of the more difficult later material.
Listening recommendations for ear training
Let me finish off by discussing the listening recommendations below. I suggest listening to the Beginner Tango list regularly before moving on to the Intermediate Tango list, perhaps several weeks if you’re listening most days. You don’t need to listen carefully, it’s fine to listen passively so long as the music is played at good quality and good volume. I also included a list of classical CDs that I think are helpful.* The way I arrived at this as a starting point for listening is my own experience trying and failing to get into classical music. Classical music is usually associated with orchestral music from the 18th and 19th century. At some stage I came across the CD by John Williams in a shop and found that it’s really great for doing focused work, whether on the computer or reading, as background music (in fact I’m listening to it as I’m writing this). At the beginning I didn’t really take it very seriously but over time I discovered that my enjoyment of contemporary music like a lot of jazz, funk and electronica was affected. I just wasn’t getting as much of a kick out of it. On other hand I noticed a positive effect on listening to tango and other classical music. (Well, it wasn’t all positive because I also became aware of how bad the sound quality at the milongas is and I started to pay more attention to the equipment they’re using.)
My point is that you might think that you like contemporary music and you don’t like classical and also that you like the new tango music and the old tango music sounds boring. There are a couple of things to say about this. My young musician friend above was very insistent on two things, namely, that creativity is very important, and that contemporary musicians like Pink Floyd or Nirvana are creative geniuses. He’s obviously high on openness as a personality trait and has an intuitive approach to music. Scott Adams pointed out that it’s probably better to have a range of skills than to focus on getting better and better at a few things. So my response to someone who’s high on openness and is very creative, but who has difficulty on focusing or sticking to one thing but is instead jumping around, doing improv vocals and that sort of thing, that perhaps he should invest in skills that he’s not that good at. In this case becoming more conscientious and perhaps actually learning and memorising some tunes and learning some music theory would counterbalance all that openness and creativity. The thing is that, if he does that, he might come to the conclusion that Pink Floyd and Nirvana, while competent musicians or at least interesting, are not the creative geniuses that he currently thinks they are. They just happen to appeal to that part of his personality that seems to be overdeveloped.
The point is that if you find it challenging to listen to classical music that is not a reason not to do it, and in my own experience I’ve found that the recordings of J.S. Bach and baroque music below are fairly painless ways of getting into it and enjoying it. Again, it’s not a problem to have these playing as background music so long as the quality and the volume are good. At this point you might say that you don’t have the technical skills to get a decent audio system. Once again, if this area is a weakness that is not a reason not to learn more about it, and even if you follow the most basic recommendations on this website and invest a few hundred dollars you can get really high quality sound, even if you start off with a pair of audiophile headphones and a headphone DAC/amplifier.
What you might find is that the way you hear not only tango but also contemporary music may change. You may become aware of the space around the music, around the instruments, and also of the timbre of the different instruments. One of the advantages of the Bach recordings is that they’re on solo instruments that are really well performed and recorded. They’re easy to listen to and do not fatigue your ears, and they’re easy to follow even though they take you through many different musical ideas. This may make it less enjoyable to listen to music that is highly repetitive, with relatively few musical ideas, and that is highly processed so that the spatial and timbral information is missing. However, this information will only be available if you’re using audiophile quality source files, DAC and headphones or speakers.
*All the tango music is from high resolution 24/96 files purchased at TangoTunes.com. The recordings of J.S. Bach can be found on Rutracker dot org in the following formats: John Williams 16/44.1 (CD quality), Glenn Gould DSD64 (Hi-res) as well as other formats, and Evangelina Mascardi 16/44.1 (CD quality).