There’s always been a gulf between capture quality and reproduction quality. In the 1920s, Western Electric capacitor microphones and gravity‑fed lathes cut master discs of remarkable fidelity, which had the misfortune to end up as shellac 78s. Post‑war recordings made to magnetic tape captured frequencies that no playback system of the day could hope to reproduce.
The Compact Disc finally introduced a distribution medium that could do justice to the dynamic range and frequency response of typical master recordings, yet it was doomed to be heard mainly on Amstrad hi‑fis and car stereos. And today, our lovingly crafted music is consumed on Bluetooth earbuds and smart home devices. Convenience, it seems, is always doomed to trump quality.
As time goes by, moreover, the very idea of ‘capture’ becomes less and less relevant. No modern pop track is intended as a faithful representation of an acoustic event. It’s a confection, a glorious (hopefully) melange of the sampled, the synthesized, the treated and the warped. And to be successful, it needs to work on contemporary playback systems, no matter how flawed these may be.
You can get superb results from a free soft synth or a £100 mic, but confident mixing decisions still require a high‑quality monitoring system in a decent acoustic environment.
But ubiquity in the consumer world doesn’t turn a playback system into a reliable monitoring tool in the studio. If anything, the quality of our monitoring becomes more important, not less, when there’s no source event to be faithful to. Today, the saying “you get what you pay for” is more applicable to loudspeakers than any other part of the music production ecosystem. You can get superb results from a free soft synth or a £100 mic, but confident mixing decisions still require a high‑quality monitoring system in a decent acoustic environment.
That, sadly, will never be cheap; but the quality available at any given price is improving all the time. New technologies such as DSP frequency correction and phase alignment have made a huge difference, but what’s even more striking is that older electro‑acoustic ideas are now being successfully implemented in viable commercial designs. Coaxial drivers, ‘ribbon’ tweeters, passive radiators and the like are not new concepts, but they’ve really come into their own in the last decade or so.
The isobaric design developed by Antelope Audio for their Atlas i8, this month’s cover product, is another example. It’s an idea that has been around for years and has well‑known theoretical advantages — but translating that theory into practice is a very impressive achievement on Antelope’s part. It’s a reminder that innovation isn’t just happening in the digital sphere. Analogue circuit design, materials science and manufacturing technology all continue to move forward, and we are the ones reaping the benefits. Even if our listeners aren’t.
Sam Inglis Editor In Chief