Sept. 2003 Special Feature:
Books of Interest on Music and Audio

THE LIFE OF MENDELSSOHN by Peter Mercer-Taylor. Cambridge University Press, “Musical Lives” Series, 2000 (238 pgs., illus.)

I have always harbored mixed feelings for the work of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), wavering between an unbridled admiration for his First, Third, Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the Octet, Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and some selected overtures; while I gave grudging acknowledgement of his keyboard and concertante works, like the piano concertos, the Capriccio brillante, the D Minor Piano Trio, and selected Songs Without Words. In other words, I claimed Mendelssohn as a “sporadic” genius, one whose polish and sheer facility of form is equal to many of the best things in Mozart, but whose capacity for real, visceral passion and suffering in music remains limited. Mr. Mercer-Taylor’s studied biography, even given its rather terse economy of lively details, makes me wonder if some re-evaluation on my part is in order.

Mercer-Taylor has broken down the life of Mendelssohn into eight, nicely concise and historically rich chapters of approximately 25 pages each. In harmony with his subject, Mercer-Taylor’s own writing is extremely lucid, with a pointed capacity for the musical or qualifying turn of phrase: speaking of Mendelssohn’s “habit of almost compulsive revision” (117) in characterizing his later work-ethic; or in calling Mendelssohn’s conducting ethos (particularly that in Leipzig) one of establishing “a fixed, stable canon of German masterworks” (140), the author has a firm hand on the material and a good ear for the composer’s sense of effect.

One of the book’s major strengths is its sense of cultural history, especially in relating the familial continuity of the various Mendelssohns—Moses, Abraham, Felix and Fanny—to the unfolding context of German citizenship and European art. Each generation of Mendelssohns maintained an aura of sophistication and culture that made their home “a nexus of. . .intellectual activities” (11). Moses Mendelssohn’s publications, philosophical and didactic, receive attention and analysis in their intent to improve the lot of European Jewry. Besides Moses’ earning praise from the likes of Immanuel Kant (whom Mercer-Taylor quotes), there is a concise history of the middle-class salon culture that would eventually produce Felix’s Songs Without Words and the entire genre, the character-piece. If anything, Mercer-Taylor justifies, demonstrates Felix’s inherited “antiquarianism,” his compulsion to take Germany’s musical and literary past into himself as the bases for his own artistic endeavors. In the case of the music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he went beyond a fondness for Tieck and Goethe to include the most international of poets.

As a practicing musician and as a teacher of others, Mendelssohn was always inspirited by “exercises modelled closely after the style of the old masters” (179), a point Mercer-Taylor drives home in numerous anecdotes and liberal quotations from letters, with copious notes indicating his sources, with a comprehensive bibliography. An able story-teller, Merver-Taylor is a candid music critic besides; he does not demur on calling the composer’s music for Antigone “texturally colorless” (169). His descriptions of Mendelssohn’s interactions with composers Rossini and Berlioz are lively and amusing, especially of the latter, whom Mendelssohn found flamboyant and antagonistic to his own taste. Equally honest are the revealed dealings with his own sister Fanny, whose talents Mendelssohn suppressed in actions and words very much in the sexist attitudes that betoken the period and well beyond. And not least, Mercer-Taylor assesses some underrated pieces, like the late F Minor Quartet, as a work well worth serious performance and study. This is a well-rounded, extremely economical portrait of a major artist and his time, well told, credible, and eminently readable.

-Gary Lemco

Home Theater for Everyone -
A Practical Guide to Today's Home Entertainment Systems - by Robert Harley (Second Edition 2002). Acapella Publishing, Box 80805, Albuquerque, NM 87198-0805. Hard cover and paperback:

Robert Harley is an acknowledged expert on home theater and audio, having served with Stereophile Magazine and other publications and now Editor in Chief of both The Perfect Vision and The Absolute Sound. His initial edition of this guide received kudos from many different newspaper writers on AV, and the new edition (self published) updates needed areas of HDTV, surround sound, DVD, THX and the latest technologies. The nine chapters cover not just the basics but important details that could save the reader a lot of time, trouble and expense. And the technical writing is factual with completely losing the non-technically-inclined reader.

Harley begins with a home theater overview, continues with a section on surround sound and THX, deals separately with the source components, AV receivers, AV controllers and power amps, speakers, and the various types of video displays. The final chapters tell you how to choose your home theater components and lastly how to put them together successfully in spite of the often dizzying complexities involved (compared to plain two-channel audio). Some of his tips include how to find the one HT speaker system in 50 worth owning, how to make speakers sound better in a few minutes at no cost, and how to make your entry-level video monitor have the picture quality of a much more expensive model. Purchase Here

Spatial Audio - by Francis Rumsey. (Second Edition, 2003). Part of Music Technology Series, Focal Press, Butterworth Heinemann, 225 Wildwood Avenue, Woburn, MA 01801-2041,

Since the idea of SSfM [surround sound for music] is central to AUDIOPHILE AUDITION it makes sense to inform readers about this important text on the subject of spatial sound. It is an extremely comprehensive study that clears up many misunderstandings about the subject, and does it without requiring of the reader a doctoral degree in math or electronics. The author is a professor of Sound Recording at the University of Surrey in the UK and concentrates on the approaches and configurations most used in the field, including the latest technologies.

Among the subjects covered are the psychoacoustics of spatial audio, two-channel and binaural audio, multichannel stereo (3 front channels) and surround sound systems, spatial sound monitoring, and recording techniques for both stereo and surround sound. Two approaches often ignored in other textbooks - binaural and Ambisonics - are given proper attention by the author. Rumsey cuts through some of the common confusion and problems that are associated with spatial audio, and he includes the very latest techniques and technologies in the field. He argues that the enhancement of the spatial quality of sound is the only remaining hurdle needing to be overcome in the pursuit of really high fidelity sound reproduction. He notes that many engineers are confused by all the possibilities and configurations in recording in multichannel sound. There are very specific diagrams and plans provided for the proper construction and layout of monitoring facilities for surround sound recording. (Perhaps if these were followed by more of the major labels releasing in the new formats, we wouldn’t have so many annoying surround mixes to contend with.) Concentrating on the most widely used approaches, Rumsey provides a comprehensive text on the present state of the art in spatial audio.

Practical Home Theater - A Guide to Video and Audio Systems - by Mark Fleischmann (2002 Edition). 1st Books Library,

This is a shorter and less comprehensive book than Harley’s, and it has few illustrations, but it answers a lot of the basic questions about both home theater and audio and has some unique features, such as the Problem Solving section. This is arranged like the troubleshooting page in the back of many component manuals. There is a problem listed, such as “howling noise at high volume levels,” followed a check-list of possible solutions. The main chapters after the introduction deal with TV, Surround, Picture & Sound Sources, Accessories, and Connecting a HT System. Fleischmann has written on video, audio, music and movies for many different publications, including nine years as Rolling Stone’s audio critic. He was a co founder of the now-defunct web audio publication

5.1 Surround Sound - Up and Running - by Tomlinson Holman (2000 Edition). Focal Press, Butterworth-Heinemann, 225 Wildwood Avenue, Woburn, MA 01801-2041,

Tomlinson Holman is the man responsible for the 5.1 and 10.2 iterations of surround sound with the LFE channel, the idea of using dipole loudspeakers for surround channels, and his initials are part of the acronym THX, which stood for Tom Holman’s Experiment when he was in charge of sound at Lucasfilm. He currently heads TMH Corporation and is a professor Cinema-TV at USC. He has written previous books on audio, and is the founder of Surround Professional magazine. He explains in his introduction that the multichannel sound field is changing so rapidly that is difficult to write a book about it, and his magazine features more topical information.

He begins with a brief history of multichannel sound. Monitoring for surround is covered next, then multichannel mic techniques, multichannel mixing, delivery formats, and the closing main section is on the psychoacoustics involved in multichannel reproduction. The Appendix has sections on sample rate, word length and surround resources. Holman discusses the essential concept of “point of view,” which he indicates is one of both controversy and opportunity in multichannel recording. The point is whether to produce a natural presentation with only ambient sounds and reflections in the surrounds or to produce an “inside the source” perspective (such as AIX Records’ “stage” perspective.). He opens each chapter with a bullet list of Tips from This Chapter which is very useful for short attention-span readers. Purchase Here

[Tomlinson Holman’s Sound for Film and Television, 2nd Edition, is also published by Focal Press. It is 312 pages paperback and comes with a CD containing audio examples demonstrating key concepts in the book. Audio engineer John Eargle called it the definite book on sound with picture. Purchase Here]

Mastering Audio, the art and the science - by Bob Katz (2002 Edition). 320 pages. Focal Press. Elsevier Science, 200 Wheeler Road, Burlington, MA 01803,

Bob Katz has been a pro recording, mixing and mastering engineer since 1971 and a recognized leader in digital audio techniques. He is an inventor and manufacturer, with digital processors and support gear in use at studios worldwide. He has written for audio and computer publications and his own studio is Digital Domain. The design of the book is unusual; it is a horizontal format with a wide righthand margin in which occasional mastering “myths” are displayed. There is also a second color in shades of red used creatively for some headings and illustrations. The book’s sections are Preparation, Mastering, Advanced Theory and Practice, Out of the Jungle, and a large Appendix. Under these headings there are a total of 22 chapters. Some of the titles that resonated with me were How to Manipulate Dynamic Range for Fun & Profit; How to Achieve Depth and Dimension in Recording, Mixing and Mastering; and High Sample Rates - Is This Where It’s At?

Katz covers just about everything that is involved in recording and mastering, but the details he explains are actually useful and can be put to good use by readers. One of his cohorts says that independent performers often ask him what gear they should purchase to record at home; he tells them to get Mastering Audio first. Some of the tips are priceless, such as the fact that CD-Rs are OK for pre mastering but not for making glass masters for the final commercial CD. He spends much time on jitter concerns and it appears his expertise has not been accessed by many of the reviewers of various audiophile DA convertors or jitter-reduction boxes. He said that 95% of the time it is framing that is the problem in poor digital playback and not jitter. The Appendices include sections on making recordings ready for radio broadcast, the different computer file formats for audio, labeling tapes and files, how to handle needs for speed and capacity, and there is a list of suggested test CDs and a reading list.

Modern Recording Techniques - by Huber & Runstein (1997, Fourth Edition). 496 ppp. Focal Press, Butterworth Heinemann, 225 Wildwood Avenue, Woburn, MA 01801-2041,

A very comprehensive and authoritative guide to professional recording. It is heavily illustrated and explores in great detail the latest developments in digital audio, including hard-disc recording techniques, multitrack systems, MIDI, and the many electronic musical instruments which require an entirely different recording approach than traditional acoustic instruments. There are photos of many pro studios and closeups of examples of the latest pro studio components. Hand-on operation is stressed. The introduction includes a section on The People Who Make It All Happen, listing the responsibilities of the studio musicians, the producer, the engineer and his assistant, and so on. The remain chapters cover Sound and Hearing, Studio Acoustics and Design, Microphone Design and Application, The Analog Tape Recorder, Digital Audio Technology, MIDI and Electronic Musical Instrument Technology, Synchronization, Amplifiers, The Audio Production Console, Signal Processors, Noise Reduction, Monitor Speakers, Product Manufacture, Studio Session Procedures, Yesterday/Today/Tomorrow. There an Appendix on books, magazines, organizations and recording schools, plus an extensive glossary and index. The area of signal processing is especially well covered, including DSP-based noise reduction and special software. Everything a new independent producer/engineer would want to know about CD mastering and manufacture is dealt with. Purchase Here

Sound Recording Advice - For the Home Recording Studio - by John J. Volanski (2003 Edition). 332 pp. Pacific Beach Publishing, P. O. Box 90471, San Diego, CA 92169:

Another self-published paperback, this useful book is directed to neophytes and those with only beginning experience in recording who might wish to set up and operate a home studio. More and more musical artists are interested in recording at home instead of paying for time at an expensive pro studio. This has been made possible only in recent years by the proliferation of digital audio facilities in home computers and by the higher quality of recordings that can now be made digitally in the home without a massive investment in equipment . The author is an electrical and audio engineer who has operated his own home recording studio for over 20 years.

While not heavy on diagrams and illustrations, the book shows clearly how to get started in a home studio without going deeply into technical jargon. It is intended to be a readable basic manual for anyone getting involved in recording. The five major parts are: Electronic Studio Equipment (with basic systems from $500 to $5000), Studio Layout and Furniture, Modifying Your Equipment, Capturing Sound Recordings, and Tools, Advice & Miscellaneous. The modifications are basic and useful ones such as adding a remote control to a tape deck, a headphone jack or a power switch, or building a simple passive mixer for only $5. The section on miking and mixing different instruments covers each type of instrument separately. The studio section devotes space to possible interference from EMI, RFI and noise, and how to remove various types of noise problems, such as mic popping sounds. There is a very useful closing section on Other Miscellaneous Tips, with just a paragraph or two on subjects such as Tips for Burning CD-Rs, Understanding Guitar Effects, Sharing MP3 Files and Recording Vinyl LPs. This volume looks like a great place to start for anyone putting together a basic semi-pro home recording studio.

And lastly, we’re embarrassed to be so tardy in mentioning it, but anyone the least bit interested in audio would find this last book more than worthwhile...
The Inventor of Stereo - The Life and Works of Alan Dower Blumlein, by Robert Charles Alexander. 448 pp., 100 B&W photos. (Focal Press 1999).

Stereo sound owes its existence to British inventor Blumlein, who in the early 1930s developed not only stereo reproduction for films and for a single-groove record, but went on as a groundbreaker in associated fields such as television and radar, contributing mightily to the WWII effort in the UK. He was killed in a plane crash while testing radar during the war. His 1931 Patent for a Binaural Recording System (just one of his 128 patents) was so revolutionary that his contemporaries thought it was more than 20 years ahead of its time. His M-S stereo mic technique is still used by professional audio engineers worldwide. His 45/45 single-disc stereo invention didn’t finally become a reality until 1958. This definitive study of his life and works has been a very long time coming due to the secrecy that enveloped him ever since his death. His official biographer sat on key materials, preventing other writers’ access, for over 30 years. The biographer died a few years ago without ever publishing anything on Blumlein! So now here it is. Thoroughly fascinating insights in the development of audio, electronics and radar, not to mention telephony and even high-definition television! Some of Blumlein’s electronic circuit patents were critical to the development of the world’s first all-electronic TV system. The book is loaded with great photos of Blumlein’s inventions and research. Purchase Here

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