Archive for June, 2003


Thursday, June 26th, 2003

Leo Fung is one of the foremost audiophile recording experts in the world. His standing in the East Asian audiophile community is unchallenged. Based in Hong Kong, his production credits include Roman Tam, the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, George Lam, Jiang Zhou Drums, Wang Xiao Nan and some of China’s best musicians. Besides being a long-time mentor to singer songwriter Pete Teo, he also mastered his new album ‘Rustic Living For Urbanites’. We invited him to talk about the audiophile world and Pete’s record.

By Terence Lee & Jason Tan, Options2, The Edge (Unabridged)

Q: What is an audiophile?

Audiophiles believe reproducing music through high quality hi-fi equipment and set-ups can lead to a deeper and more enjoyable listening experience. They get tremendous enjoyment out of tinkling with hi-fi gear, often congregating in groups to experiment with newly acquired equipment. Over time, it is not unusual for what started out as a modest hobby to grow and become the predominant passion in their lives.

Q: What constitutes a ‘good sound’?

There isn’t a universal definition of ‘good sound’ in the audiophile community. When a group of audiophile fans gathers to assess any particular set-up, there is very little chance of arriving on a universal conclusion because peopleís preferences differ so much from one another. There are too many ‘good sound’ benchmarks out there to talk about a universal one.

My own personal ‘good sound’ benchmark is based on the meaning of the words ‘High Fidelity’. Thus, in my assessment of ‘good sound’, I seek authentic reproduction of the musicians’ performance, the physical context of the performance and the instruments played. My ultimate aim is to reproduce ‘what actually happened’ as faithfully as I can. So, the whole thing is about ‘realism’ for me.

Generally, I get an objective benchmark of a ‘realistic’ or ‘authentic’ sound by listening to musicians ‘live’ as they are playing. This is particularly so in the studio, where my encounter with musicians and the sound they make is very intimate and comprehensive. I can listen to the musicians in a lot of detail and understand the sonic characteristic of an instrument or performer. In the control room, I can replay the performance repeatedly and try to re-create on tape what I’d just heard in real life. Over the years, this has given me a very thorough understanding of what is ‘real’ and how to achieve it on tape. I guess that’s why I fell in love with audio recording. I love the process of capturing and maintaining an authentic sound right through the different stages of record production, and hope even more that my recordings can be reproduced faithfully in subsequent hi-fi reproduction.

Q: Is audiophile reproduction crucial to the appreciation of music?

The answer is ‘no’. I believe the question of high fidelity and quality of music are separate issues. Good music will still be good music even if you listened to it in mono. However, I do feel that, if audio reproduction of the music is clear, dynamics good, and soundstage precise, the experience of listening to it is much more involving. So I’d rather listen to good music under the best conditions as opposed to unflattering conditions. This often means playing the music through good audiophile set-ups and properly tuned rooms. I feel that music listening is largely about sensory immersion, and good high fidelity reproduction gives the listener the best chance of achieving that.

Q: Why are audiophile CDs so expensive?

As you know, audiophile records sell in much smaller numbers than mainstream records, and thus a higher margin is required to maintain feasibility. Thus, the issue of pricing is really dependent on each producer’s production and distribution policies, and how much they try to popularise the genre. As it is, different audiophile producers have different policies – it is very hard to generalize.

Q: What about audiophile hardware? They’re expensive too…

As a rule of thumb, it is true to say that the more expensive the gear, the better the performance – but you must also remember that the quality-to-price ratio in audiophile equipment is not proportionate or linear. Once hardware reaches a certain level in price and quality, you might have to spend a disproportionately large amount of money just for a very marginal improvement in hardware specifications. Thus, despite the fact that some audiophile set-ups cost over hundreds of thousands of dollars to put together, I believe you can assemble a very good set-up for below USD5000. If that is still regarded as ‘pricey’, then I suppose there is nothing else anyone can do because better gear does cost more money to manufacture. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that you can get a lot of value for money if you ignore blind brand following and knew exactly what you wanted.

You can also compensate for lower quality gear by knowing how to set up your listening room / environment. It is important to note that the hardware itself only accounts for roughly 30-40% of your listening experience. The suitability of the listening environment and the audiophile quality of the CD being played is equally important. As such, just knowing how to set up your speakers properly or tune your listening environment to suit your equipment often improves things far more dramatically than upgrading gear per se.

(Editorís note: “Leo’s claim to fame in the audiophile world is precisely the above philosophy. His following is made up of people who have taken ‘budget combination & room setting’ recommendations from him that yield comparable result to hardware that cost many times as much.”)

Q: Will the audiophile scene survive the Net?

Audiophile producers generally do not look at file sharing or MP3 as a problem for the time being. If even normal CDs can barely satisfy the audiophile qualitative requirement, how can the comparatively lower audio quality of MP3 be a factor in the audiophile market place?

At the end of the day, the target market for audiophile producers are audiophile fans, and audiophile fans have not shown any tendency to save money by adopting MP3 technology – something which falls far short of their quality expectations. Rather, the tendency for audiophile fans is the opposite – which is – ‘I will only buy the best in reproductive quality’. The rapidly expanding market for SACD (Super Audio CD) is a good illustration of this behaviour. It very common for audiophile fans to buy the SACD version of a CD they already own just to hear that ‘upgrade’ in sound that SACD brings. Thus, until the internet can offer the sort of audio quality that audiophile fans expect, it is not going to be a problem to audiophile producers. Given the pace that the internet is evolving, that day will come – but it will not be for a long time yet.

Q: Do you believe in ‘absolute sound’ (both the journal and the concept)?

Amongst so many audiophile writers, I respect HP (Harry Pearson – founder of audiophile journal ‘The Absolute Sound’) the most. Early TAS was brave and credible. But however credible or insightful the publication or writer, one manís meat could be another manís poison. Does HP’s view represent your own choice? I talked earlier about the problem of objective benchmark for ‘good sound’ – i.e., that there is none. Thus, there is as much room for differing taste as there are different publications and their stand on it. I guess youíll just have to decide which one makes the most sense to you. Absolute sound only exists when the musician plays. The only absolute sound is the real thing.

Q: How different is the audiophile music business from the pop business?

Both deal with music, but the kinds of music they deal with are vastly different. This is because they each appeal to different demographics. Pop tends to attract teenagers and young adults whereas people above 30 make up most of the audiophile market. Thus, audiophile records tend to be in adult oriented genres such as adult contemporary, classical, blues, jazz and world music. There are a few pop / audiophile crossover artistes, but they are very rare. The audiophile music business also relies a lot less on mass media promotions than pop. Audiophile music sales tend to be based on print reviews and word of mouth.

Q: Are there technical differences between pop records and audiophile records?

Yes, definitely. Audiophile records seek to reproduce realism for the listener. Thus, the imaging of various sound sources within a mix and their positioning within the entire soundstage becomes paramount. Audiophile listeners expect audio staging of the performers as though they are actually playing in front of them. They also place extreme importance on dynamic reproduction and detailing. But these things can only be achieved by playing audiophile recordings through audiophile hardware.

As a contrast, pop productions emphasize upon ‘first-impression impact’ instead of realism. There is a good reason for this. One of the primary considerations for pop producers is the need to compensate for the sonic limitations of consumer radio and tv equipment. Thus, pop records contain abnormally boosted high and low-end frequencies so as not to sound weak and lifeless when broadcasted. Since successful airplay is vital to the commercial prospect of any pop album, this sort of sonic over-compensation has become the norm for the genre.

There are proponents and critics to both approaches, but there really are no rights or wrongs about this, only different manifestations of market requirements. Still, there is a rising trend for adult-oriented artistes to cater for both markets by releasing both CD and SACD versions of their records.

Q: Your association with Pete Teo, how did it start?

I stumbled into a record by the name of ‘Autumn Dance’ in 1990. It was made by a duo named ‘Mid Century’, one of whom was Pete Teo. The music they made was brave and different, and it caught my attention immediately. When we finally met, Pete and I chatted through the night in my apartment in Kowloon. We talked about ‘Autumn Dance’, his musical vision, my recording philosophy, and our respective ambitions in music. I eventually did some re-mixes for ‘Mid Century’, and we recorded an unreleased album – but that first night was the basis upon which our friendship was built.

Q: How did ‘Autumn Dance’ do?

It wasn’t the best record ever made, but it was a cult hit. Many were moved by the passion in Pete’s compositions. I, for one, was completely bowled over by Pete’s musicality, passion, and artistic voice. But what really stood out for me were his words, which seemed to touch upon the fundamental commonality between people at a deep level. It was obvious that this was no ordinary songwriter.

Q: How did the latest Pete album come about?

It has been on the cards for a long time. Even when Pete left Hong Kong, and supposedly gave up music, he shared with me his personal troubles and his struggle to find a matured voice. So, I knew from this that he never truly left music. When I heard the first of his Marianne songs two years ago, I was deeply touched, and told him that we should release a record based loosely on the Marianne theme. In between then and now, he has worked very hard on getting back into music in a way that is connected with a community as opposed to just being a media entity. I remember him telling me one day, “after writing the 6th song of the record, I know I can never leave music again.” I am truly happy about that.

Q: What’s the difference between this record and the Mid-Century record?

This record is different from the ‘Mid Century’ record as Pete sings all the songs. Before, he did everything but sing. He actually suggested that we make this a ‘Mid Century come backí record initially, but after I heard his demo tape, I realised that no one could possibly interpret those words as well as himself. So I advised Pete that he should give these compositions his own voice. These are very beautiful and somewhat personal songs, so the decision was a logical one. Beside this, one other difference is that Pete is backed by world-class musicians on this record, whereas the ‘Mid Century’ record was very much midi sequencer based.

Q: What was the production approach to the record?

I suppose the main production characteristic of the album is the fact that almost no digital technology was used in its making. Apart from a little digital sound processing during mixing, everything on this album is analogue, and most of it vintage analogue. This gives the record an unusually warm and intimate sound. I believe the running gag during production was that the album is state-of-the-art in 1969. Other than this, Both Ronan the producer and Pete also didn’t want an over-produced sound for the album, and so a lot of imperfections were left on the album, just as if it was a ‘live’ record.

As for my role as mastering engineer, it was clear from the beginning that ‘Rustic Living’ has potential to be a pop / audiophile crossover record. So I had to ensure that the record would sound as good as possible in audiophile equipment as well as consumer hi-fi sets. I think we’ve achieved a very good balance there. I am very excited by the record and hope that it will do well. I know Pete will certain work hard to ensure that it will do as best as it can, if anything, so that he can keep on making music.

Q: Pete cites your pivotal role in his ‘come back’ often. What can you tell us about that?

I was nothing more than just a catalyst. If Pete really wanted to leave music, I couldn’t have done anything about it. As it is, I am very glad he is involved again. He is a rare instance of an artist with a strong creative voice and an ability to be focused and go-getting.