Sound or Vision?
Imagine you are invited by the inhabitants of planet Zarg to travel with them to explore the universe. But this opportunity comes at a price. You will never be able to return to Earth. However, you will be able to keep in touch with family and friends. Unfortunately the intergalactic communication technology does not allow sound and vision together. You have to choose sound only, or vision only. Which medium do you choose?
It’s difficult to understand why this simple thought experiment (or variations of it) has not been part of main stream multimedia education.
During the mid 1960′s, I was in my late teens and early 20′s. Lenard audio was the primary provider of sound for concerts and outdoor musical events in Australia. Many US and UK sound suppliers tell humorous stories of this early history.
Entrepreneurs were willing to provide large budgets for lighting but were resistant to spending money on sound. Entrepreneurs were often ignorant in understanding power requirements for lighting and sound at concerts. A single extension lead from a neighbouring farm house or from a toilet block in a city park, if we were lucky.
A common conversation with entrepreneurs, 30 minutes before a concert went like this – “You can have sound or lighting, but you can’t have both”. Long silent pause was the response, followed by “Oh”. With nothing further to be said, the lighting crew packed up their gear and went home, and the show went on.
Many of these events, where no lighting could be used, were the most memorable concerts of all. Candles and torches were used on stage and sometimes ingenious techniques, removing car head lamps and using them as spots.
There was always sufficient power for sound, therefore loudness was not a limitation. But strangely, most bands played quietly. Every instrument could be heard directly. Between songs you could hear a pin drop and a close intimacy evolved between the audience and musicians. Unfortunately, these magical live performances, without lighting, were rarely recorded and have been lost forever.
Another common experience, during this era, was going to a friend’s home in the evening, with the latest Eagles, Zappa or Beetles album. The smell of incense sticks, soft lighting from candles and a bong with a bag of dope. Rarely were electric lights turned on, and if they were, it was indirect and subtle. The TV was always off.
Years later, experiments were done to investigate the psychological effects of sound and lighting. The results are inconclusive, but one simple understanding did evolve. Vision, therefore lighting, dominates all our other senses. Taste, smell, touch and hearing become diminished in varying degrees, in the presence of intense bright flashing or moving lighting.
The survival of our species is understandably dependent on our sense of vision. Looking for food, watching out for hungry carnivores, mobility, looking where we are going, driving a vehicle etc.
But in the stillness and blackness of night, hearing becomes our dominant sense. Sitting around a camp fire, singing and telling stories is part of our evolutionary heritage. Hearing is the sense that uniquely, through language, gives us a self consciousness, from which we able to question the meaning of existence and create and enjoy music.
But in a consumerist, self-obsessed world, where time is limited a commodity, we are forced into competitive behaviour to survive and our humanity becomes diminished. The visual sense, psychologically and economically, dominates our lives.
The pro-audio profession is obsessed with brand image and model numbers. Live concerts have become spectacle events where lighting is the dominant medium. Rarely do people close their eyes and just listen to the music.
Domestic audiophiles are obsessed with golden cables. Our discernment for hearing is diminished to such an extent that small low fidelity speaker systems, reproducing hyper compressed recordings, often from a poor resolution, low bit rate MP3 format, while watching a video screen, is what most people do.
How can this be turned around so full fidelity, un-compressed sound can again be the primary medium for enjoying music?