Mystery piece, Glimmerglass

Road sign before GlimmerglassRoad sign before Glimmerglass     It’s percussive, graceful, and brimming with charm.

     Friday’s mystery piece came from the imagination of Edvard Grieg, whom many consider to be the greatest Norwegian composer ever. Orchestras around the world play his big-scale works on a regular basis, but he was most at home writing small-scale pieces such as Wedding Day at Troldhaugen from Lyric Pieces:VIII, Op. 65.  We heard pianist Andrei Gavrilov.

     Happy summer vacation!

     Opera fans love Glimmerglass, one of the top arts destinations in the Northeast.  I’m headed there today to see three productions and interview Francesca Zambello, the in-coming executive director.  She’s already announced plans to make changes in 2011.   I’ll have some features from Glimmerglass to air in about two weeks on WXXI-FM. What would you like to know about running an opera company?

    Carl Pultz will be spending early mornings with you from July 19-23.  Have a lovely week, and thank you for listening.

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Comments

Well At Least I Can Hear the Tune

bob laird's picture

For just a few days during the third week of July 2010, the sound of classical music on WXXI FM (both analog and HD) became pellucid. Gone was the perennial heavy handed audio compression that causes:

• Virtually zero dynamic range
• Tympani entrances knocking soaring string lines into muffled submission
• Solo flute just as loud as full orchestra
• Sustained solo piano notes gradually crescendoing (!) over several seconds while in reality they are decaying--as is the nature of the instrument
• A strange phenomenon whereby the only way a listener may tell that a crescendo is being executed by any instrument or ensemble is that the sounds become softer but brighter!

So I called and left a voice mail of gratitude for Andrew Croucher, Supervising Audio Technologist. “Thank you, Mr. Croucher, for curtailing WXXI's constant mega-throttling of the music, for finally allowing the sound of the music on WXXI to be as richly rewarding to listen to as is Syracuse’s classical WCNY 91.3 analog and HD, out here in Sodus, NY.”

Just a few weeks earlier I had flipped back and forth between the two stations during “The Moldau” on “Exploring Music.” No contest! WCNY’s audio, while lightly compressed, was relaxed and easy to listen to, and to listen ‘into’ in the best musical sense. But WXXI’s processing made the audio bombastic, bloated, monochromatic and more nearly opaque than what its neighbor at 91.3 was lusciously providing.

Of course WXXI also sounded discernibly louder than WCNY on this identical program material. This greater loudness is always the case with WXXI, and it has been so for decades. WXXI jumps out and grabs you, just like any properly raucous pop/rock station always does.

From across my dimly receding past I recall my conversations with a couple of different Station Managers over the decades. “Elitist!” they accused. “We need to constantly slam the music out to the farthest reaches of our signal so people out there won’t notice the analog hiss as much. Also, for listeners in noisy vehicles, we need to hold their attention against wind and motor noise.”

Can we all rethink this now in 2010, please? With HD, you either hear a noise-free signal or nothing at all when it drops out. Cars are by and large quieter than in 1970. The Internet provides a high signal to noise ratio to anyone anywhere anytime. But just as back in the dark ages of the previous century, WXXI FM continues to go slam-thunking along, breathing deleterious artificiality all over the music, masking it, getting in the way.

How many listeners just put up with this, knowing nothing better? How many gentle souls who might be open to a little delicacy in their lives simply tune past a WXXI that is merely one more sonic example of pushy FM broadcasting?

Old habits die hard. That very evening after I had left my message of gratitude for Mr. Croucher, the brief respite of a few days had ended. Did my grateful voice mail only provide a reminder to Mr. Croucher to check his settings and restore the full pizzazz? Darn, I should better have first cast the yarrow sticks and read a “Shut up and do nothing, you idiot” result . . .

Called Mr. Croucher two days later. Left a second message asking to talk with him. Nothing heard. He’s probably pretty busy.

Bob Laird

Audio Quality

jeannefisher's picture

Dear Bob,

Thanks for your inquiry about audio quality on WXXI Radio.

"To compress or not to compress" has been the question for classical music broadcasters for a long time. During prime time radio listening hours (6am – 6pm), 49% of listening takes place in cars, at work or at other locations, with 51% of listening being done at home. While many cars are quieter in 2010 than in 1970, vehicles are not concert listening environments. Neither are homes, which are filled with the sounds of electric appliances, children, pets or sounds that come in from the out of doors.

We take all of this into consideration when deciding on the compression levels we use in our signal processing. We also must consider the audio gain of the other stations in our market, so that they do not sound discernibly louder than WXXI when a listener is scanning the dial.

A number of years ago, we tried using less compression in the broadcast signal. We were inundated with complaints from listeners who were frustrated with audio that was much too soft or overwhelmingly loud. Once we restored the processing, many, many of these listeners called to thank us for "fixing" the sound.

The bottom line is that WXXI is a radio station, not a concert hall or even a CD player. We must bring the music to listeners where they are, not where we think they ought to be. And if listeners can’t hear the pianissimos, or are deafened by the fortissimos, they will tune away.

I hope this helps you to better understand why we broadcast in this way. And thank you for taking time to write to us.

Jeanne Fisher
Vice President for Radio

Audio Quality, continued

bob laird's picture

Jeanne,

Thank you so much for responding. Now that I've heard your rationale for strong compression, please let me clarify:

WXXI's modulation level and compression is truly excessive. WXXI (and WRUR) really jump off the dial at a person tuning past them.

In Sodus we receive four and occasionally five or six classical stations over the air. WXXI's audio always sounds the loudest of these, by a good 3 or 4 dB. The audio also sounds mushier and more nearly opaque (for want of better descriptors) than does that of the the others. The exception is CFMX at 103.1, which sounds about as bad as WXXI, although it is not quite as loud-sounding. On the other hand, CBC Radio 2 at 103.9 is a model of glowing clarity, subtlety and power. It sounds every bit as lovely as does "Classic FM" WCNY 91.3 in Syracuse.

Of course there are also tons of classical stations available online, as is WXXI. An interesting exercise is to open WXXI's stream in one browser and then in another browser listen to WCNY, or to some other classical stations via the revolving links or the search bar at
http://radiotime.com/station/s_27969/WCNY-FM_913.aspx One quickly notes WXXI's comparative overkill. In fact if you play WXXI and another stationsimultaneously through your computer's sound card, WXXI generally 'wins'. On "Exploring Music" [such a great program!], both over the air and online, WXXI always 'wins' over WCNY in terms of loudness. But it is a hollow victory at terrible cost to musical clarity.

What do these other, less pushy, classical broadcasters not know that WXXI has somehow proven to its own satisfaction? Or do the more refined stations perhaps understand that, throughout the realm of classical music, less is more--which then allows 'more' to be truly MORE when called for?

The attrition problem is really the opposite of what you propose. People who want a constant loud wall of sound to accompany their driving or their child-rearing or their blending of martinis (not necessarily in that order!) will still find the program material on WXXI lacking in that regard, compared with the plethora of available commercial stations. You won't gain listeners by emulating just the noise but not the content of commercial radio. A big factor, with which by definition you cannot compete, is that many people seek the listening ease of monody and explicit rhythm rather than the initially more challenging polyphony and implicit rhythms of classical music (broadly speaking). But you will not lose listeners by offering a bit of ingenuous friendly respite from the hubbub.

Seeking to compete purely at the level of emulating widely-available noise reduces the possibility that a casual dial twister will even be able to notice the valuable programming difference at WXXI. Also, dial twisters are getting increasingly rare. Nowadays people punch a preset or click online to a known favorite. Who has time to dial-twist?

BTW, just how are such commercial stations "in our market"? The stations "in our (classical) market" are those readily found all over the Internet, not those selling soap between 88 and 108 MHz. So why "compete" with the latter?

I don't doubt the demographics you cite, Jeanne, and I take your point about domestic noise vs. concert hall quiet. No doubt the past relatively extreme abatement of compression to which you refer did make casual listeners (of whom there are very many, and rightfully so) believe something was broken.

Compression is necessary and advisable, as I noted in one of my letters. Compression is applied at WCNY audibly but far more discreetly than is WXXI's surely unintentional in-your-face approach. WCNY does not attempt to offer a concert hall experience, nor should any broadcaster (at least via the simplest present state of the art). But somehow, without losing listeners en masse, WCNY does manage to provide at least a few dB greater dynamic range. Again, do they know something that WXXI does not? Or are they doomed eventually to oblivion after all these years of not being loud
enough?

The difference at WCNY is that there is a slower time constant applied to automatically ramping up softer passages, and such passages are never fully ramped up to the max as they always are at WXXI. Thus during a compressed forte or fortissimo heard via WCNY there is still at least a pretty good sense of dynamic contrast with reference to a preceding mezzo-forte. On WXXI the parameters and time constants simply provide no headroom. It's like being on the Titanic as the last bit of breathable air at the ceiling of a compartment is usurped by surging water. There's just no place to go.

Nothing is ever as simple as an amateur crusader makes it out to be. Matters are complicated by a certain variability in WXXI's audio-squishing, at least of late. For whatever reason a brief relaxation of your compression did occur in mid July, leading me to my initial star-crossed blog attempt. Since then there have been other very short periods of lessened compression. At times I have heard the audio level, and the amount of compression, vary briefly within a single phrase, as if a local engineer or technician were making manual adjustments in real time. One wonders if the compression controls are vulnerable to passers-by! Very lately though, the Visigoths have returned in full unrelenting force.

I hope this clarifies some matters, Jeanne. You seem to be arguing from an extreme past experimental circumstance of severely lessened compression which may have brought complaints "some years ago" but which did not exist during the relaxed July respite (were there complaints?). At that time no pianissimos became inaudible beneath the barking of my neighbor's dog (who truly has this barking thing down cold), nor did fortissimos cause anyone to flee. Such extremes and their consequences similarly do not ever exist on the more moderately compressed WCNY.

The only extreme in this picture is WXXI's choice to drown its listeners in fear of losing them.

Best,

Bob Laird
http://sirhute.com/wxxi-fm-classical-amusical-audio-compress...