– by Jeremy R. Kipnis
Music & Film – Audio & Video – Learning & Understanding – Art & Life
These word pairs, often forming apparent dichotomies in one’s mind, actually join together at the end of the equation known as life to form a perfect symmetry. They are the basis for appreciating the full flavor and meaning inherent within the historical context which our MEDIA allows us to enjoy so very much: the recorded arts & sciences.
As it turns out, this column in The High Fidelity Report came to be written after many, many years of my trying to work together with our publisher and editor, Chris Sommovigo. First, it is an honor to know him, and his keen mind and never ending imagination have been a repeating source of inspiration in my personal life and business pursuits. Second, is his creation of a “Break-in” test tone track. His experimentations lead me to write this, my very first column for The High Fidelity Report.
For the longest time in my hobby as an audio / videophile and then beginning in 1990 as a professional recording engineer & producer at Chesky Records, I have sought to understand and apply life lessons to the Art & Science of music & film (TV) appreciation. If the goal of enjoyment is to clarify the mind and body through enlightenment of the soul, then observing the sights and sounds associated with media are really historically archived life lessons that anyone can access and appreciate; especially now in our fast paced, ever increasing world of possibilities … through the internet.
Everywhere, someone is trying to sell you something, often with very pretty packaging and grandly executed language that is intended to make you feel better about your life. But often this is both ephemeral and largely meaningless in the true context of living one’s existence. And as an audiophile, in particular, there have always been “Snake Oil” salesman purporting to have come-up with yet another “Quick Fix” that will bring about serious change in one’s audio (and video) system’s fidelity. Some work to an extent, but frequently the change is just that: a difference, but not necessarily an improvement.
Change is, contrary to most opinions, good for society and the soul. And if change is the fundamental ingredient in the progression of time, then our appreciation of what makes music so enjoyable to experience must also be subject to change. So it was easy for me to get excited about Sam Tellig’s column in an issue of STEREOPHILE Magazine, way back in the middle 1980’s wherein he posited the playing of a frequency sweep (20 Hz – 20 kHz in 30 sec.) could transform and improve the sound of one’s STEREO. The improvements included expanded soundstage height, width, and depth as well as increased dynamic articulation (both macro & micro) resulting in a significantly more transparent (read realistic) reproduction of every recording he played.
This so called “Burn-In” signal would exercise the colorations out of an audio system, allowing it to produce a better and more immediate result while costing nothing! And for years I experimented with his frequency sweep as well as many other alternatives. By the early 1990’s, many equipment manufacturers and cable inventors had come up with their own spin on this formula; offering up many fine products that could improve the apparent sound quality of everything from cables and CD Players to speakers and even Phono cartridges. And they all worked to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the particulars of both the burn-in signal and the components and system it was used within.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to receive and host Roger Skoff (founder of XLO cables), here at Kipnis Studios for several very intense days of listening and discussion about matters of life, art, food, and particularly audio. As we sat in my living room listening to different music and commenting about the industries that we have tried to serve in our best capacities, the issue of Burn-In tests came to light. Neither of us could come up with a good explanation of why playing a specific track or test signal specially purposed to “improve” the sound of an audio playback system would make the slightest difference versus simply playing a track of music or sound that did the same thing. We puzzled and mused over it; even concluding that perhaps on my next Epiphany Recordings Ltd. (my label) Concert and Test Sampler that a variety of different Burn-In Test tracks could be created and then the end user might experiment and find the one that worked best in his or her STEREO (or Surround Sound) audio system.
The premise was that different AV systems (of notably high fidelity) would have different components and be set-up differently by each audiophile, and that their specific attention to matters sonic could result in different perceptions of what would be changed through the exercising of one’s equipment. So there might be a Burn-In signal that worked better on a KRELL amplifier based system versus a Jeff Rowland or Mark Levinson. And that the need for trial and error in the pursuit of audio nirvana is just another stage in the evolution of the art and science behind high-end audio appreciation. So it came to pass that I would explore this topic on and off during the coming three years while Roger embarked on a relentless quest to write about and educate the novice and practiced listener concerning the virtues of different types of audio cables; his particular forte as an innovator and music lover, in addition to a now formidable number of audio writing assignments for just about every magazine and internet source of audio knowledge.
And then . . . seemingly out of nowhere comes a text message from Chris Sommovigo; now living and working in Japan for the last 6 months or so. He asked me if I would like to comment on his latest experimentation with a “Break-In” track he had created and I eagerly agreed. The 96/24 Stereo WAV file he sent me was NOTHING like what I expected, since instead of steady state tones, sweeps, pink noise, and the like, his Burn-In signal struck me more as a beautiful composition of sounds and rhythms that often reminded me of the eclectic “classical” music of Stockhausen or Persichetti. It had a living, breathing quality that NO previous such system burn-in signal had ever produced in me . . . the desire to listen to it. And even my wife, who normally thinks of such tracks as pure audio “Wankerdom”, commented that it was quite fascinating and lovely to hear, and most importantly she did not go running from the room with her hands over her ears, like with every other version of this experiment.
What transpired after I carefully played Chris’ “Break-In” track for an hour changed my appreciation for this art form (which you can read more about in my Column over at Positive Feedback Online – At the Kipnis Studios (KSS)™: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Listening Room). The sound was indeed transformed in ways that I expected, But it was the quality of this change in system performance that really grabbed my attention: everything I auditioned suddenly sounded quite unique and individual; much like the differences one can hear with LIVE acoustic music wherein each venue and group of artists sound pretty entirely different from each other in ways that are palpable and obvious! And then I was compelled to write a Column like no other in my career.
After Chris had read my words and liked my approach to this terribly misunderstood area of audio “Wankerdom”, he posited a question or two concerning what is actually happening when we Burn-In a system. What components are being changed through the process of playing a certain type of audio signal through them and how does this translate into a repeatable expectation from the experience. This resonated with me, as so many things that Chris and I have discussed over the years and I suddenly came to THIS conclusion:
The purpose of the specific signal being used during a Burn-In session (duration may vary from system to system) is to both exercise the BODY (Physical Components: Resistors, Capacitors, Inductors, Wires, Transformers, and Circuit boards) and the MIND (Soul and source of life energy – PRANA – of the Music) in a manner that stretches, flexes, exercises, and linearizes the full electromagnetic and temporal capabilities such that the whole system operates in harmony with its intended function: the reproduction of MUSIC. Video can also benefit from this, even in an all-digital world where such things appear on the surface to fly in the face of logic and convention wisdom.
So in YOGA (particularly Vinyasa that teaches Pranayama) the MOST IMPORTANT aspect one learns is to concentrate and focusing one’s life energy through the cycle of the BREATH . . . Breath moves in, Breath moves out; over and over again, throughout the practice on the Yoga mat — an intrinsic principle that goes back as far as human civilization. And it is this repeated attention to the sinusoidal cycle of inhaling and exhaling with precision and mindfulness (along with the physical discipline of assuming the many different physical poses, called Asanas – slow and sometimes quick paced Calisthenics) that FULLY exercise (and explore the limits) of one’s existence in LIFE!
Chris agreed that my analysis and analogy was pretty much spot on – the more that the audio system has been ‘stretched out’ the better it is able to communicate the musical message and the less it will impose its own signature on the music we are listening to. My feeling is that being able to elucidate the mysteries of the UNIVERSE through Audio (and Video) reproduction is our DUTY to Humanity and the heritage of MUSIC & FILM, in general. That is . . . all the qualities we relish about the experience of listening and sharing music (both live and recorded) are really what living a complete life are truly about: the exploration of Emotions. In Douglas Trumbull’s landmark virtual reality film, BRAINSTORM, a pair of scientists played by Christopher Walken (Michael Brace) and Louis Fletcher (Lillian Reynolds) create a technology that can record and playback a “First Person Perspective” wherein the remote viewer (listener) experiences the exact same moments while playing a recording from within the person that was being “taped”, including their emotional state.
Thus it is with music and to a similar extent with movies, television, videogames, and other experiential forms of entertainment . . . they are historical documents of an acoustical, electrical, and visual nature that put us in touch with humanity’s essential ingredients that make life enlightening. Because the fidelity of these messages change depending on our moods and circumstance as well as the physical gear that we use to interface through to listen and watch them, we are always receiving their emotional and contextual messages in different ways as we move throughout our lives. Therefore, and like the practice of YOGA, each time one observes their favorite media it touches us (and our friends, family, and loved ones) in a tangibly different fashion; communicating and sharing the quality of existence in ways that remain largely elusive and ineffable throughout life!
So, by speaking about the technical & artistic sides of EXERCISING the Body, Mind, Music and Home Theater systems that we choose to embrace in our daily lives (even through your cell phone, tablet, or home computer), these ALL contribute to a greater appreciation of the fact we are ALIVE. Do not underestimate the importance that the experience of media (in whatever form) has on our lives as emotional and creative entities that we are, here on this small planet. And try to remember that the next time you sit and listen or watch your favorite form of entertainment (media), you might consider that both you and your AV gear are quite capable of changing where and how they receive and react to the stimulus that pervades or lives. The use of a Burn-In signal at regular intervals can and does have THE SAME effect as practicing YOGA (and many other forms of exercise) which is to strengthen and expand the possibilities inherent in our physical and emotional experience of the human condition.