Soundstaging and Imaging: The Delusion about The Illusion


Soundstaging in a recording—be it a live performance or studio event—and it’s reproduction in the home has been the topic of many a discussion both in the forums and in the audio press. Yet, is a recording’s soundstage and imaging of individual participants, whether musicians or vocalists, things that one can truly perceive or are they merely illusions that we all are imagining as some sort of delusion?

https://www.stereophile.com/content/clowns-left-me-jokers-right

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I will speak for us all and say we truly perceive and may be somewhat deluded from time to time, but not always.
Mightily grateful for you taking that first pitch and hitting it out of the park.

💥💥💥👏🏻👏🏻🍿
 Cylinder, you might want to read Meditations, by Descartes.
Here’s an article, on finding out if your system’s at least doing what it’s supposed to, performance wise: https://www.stereophile.com/features/772/index.html And, a link to the LEDR(and other good info links), should you not want to spring for a test CD: https://www.audiocheck.net/audiotests_ledr.php
@rodman99999,+1 for the reference.

Who is Cylinder? 🤔
Odds of survival go way down if you can't tell from which direction the sound of the lion comes. Swap out the lion for a guitar, the ears for a microphone. How does that really change anything? Its as real as real can be.
Thankfully, I listen to my audio system with a double-barreled shotgun in my lap. All good. 

We have two ears, we have two eyes, two legs, two arms. We are creatures of stereo by design. We listen in stereo regardless of what our "audio system" produce. Reading stereo is an illusion is almost weird to me seeing we are wired in stereo.

"we are just imagining things" ?

nope

"we are experiencing things"

Sometimes (many times) in this hobby we attempt to re-write the rule books, instead of playing by them.

"is soundstage important" ?

well

"we live in a sound, visual and other senses, stage"

Fortunately we were born into a life of soundstage. More fortunate is that audio designers early on implemented stereo in playback.

All the rest is us talking about it.

Michael Green

Stereo reproduction is an enigma by default. Original performance is not in stereo, but the reproduced performance is in stereo. If we have two ears to detect true sound imaging and soundstage, then by default we are deluding ourselves in believing that reproduced sound is a facsimile of the original.

Both Bob Carver and James Bongiorno created products to address this issue. Yet, here we are, still on the path of delusion that reproduced sound can possibly recreate the illusion of the original performance.

"Stereo reproduction is an enigma by default."

I don't find stereo enigmatic at all.

"If we have two ears to detect true sound imaging and soundstage, then by default we are deluding ourselves in believing that reproduced sound is a facsimile of the original."

I guess I'm not sure who says a recording is the original live performance. Being a playback recorded version of a performance is obviously not the actual performance. I say that in both a negative and positive way. There are many things a playback version gives us that the actual performance doesn't and the opposite can be true as well. But why people attempt to call the two events the same thing is odd.

MG

Its no delusion. Whenever I drop something small on the floor first thing I do is stop and listen for it to stop rolling around. Then I go and look and it is always right where I knew it would be by sound alone. When someone walks up to me out of sight I know they are coming, how close and how fast, by sound alone.

The XLO setup CD has a great track where Doug Sax walks around a room talking and clapping and when your system is really well set up you can clearly hear his voice and clapping coming from exactly where he says he is, including as he walks around to the sides and even when he goes behind you!

There are a lot of delusions the OP may well be suffering from but hearing the realistic portrayal of a sound stage is probably not one of them.


It’s often helpful to read the original post, including the cited article, before jumping to conclusions and apparent attacks on my mental health. Lol
Funny how folks skip over the main point of my penultimate post: Original performance is not in stereo, but the reproduced performance is in stereo.

☝🏻That’s the enigma. 
Agree. No one is debating the fact that we have two ears.
All live recordings should be in mono to reproduce the event as you would actually hear it if you were in attendance I suppose.My brother's system is actually set up like that.A wall of sound that is a blast to listen to:)
Right. I remember walking into The Record Collector in Hollywood about thirty years ago (at its old location) and after talking with the owner about a few records, mentioned that his speaker position- one located in one room, another past an arch in another area- wasn’t so good for imaging. Hey said "bah, stereo-- a gimmick."
This was in the days when mono records sold for almost nothing. I should have bought more.
To stereo-- listen to those old jazz records from the dawn of the stereo era- no center image- hard panning left and right with a hole in the middle.
When I have visitors who have never heard higher fidelity stereo, they usually remark on the sound coming out of the middle--the phantom image. Is it a parlor trick? Sure. Does it contribute to a greater sense of realism? Maybe.
I was very much about imaging in the ’70s- when I started listening to the original Quad- a speaker with vast limitations, but mostly suffering from sins of omission. The image was almost everything! It could be spooky in its sense of realism on the right recording, along with that coherency that comes from electrostatic panels (sans the add-on woofers and tweeters, which I would use to make up for some of the shortcomings of the Quad).
For the past dozen years, I’ve been listening to horns- and image they do well, with SET amps, no crossover on the mid-horn and judicious placement.
But, imaging is only one factor in trying to create the illusion of real music. Tone is very important to me, as is timing in the attack and decay of the fundamental and harmonics. All are cues that trick our brains into believing more.
Is it ultimately an illusion? Of course!
Is there something better? Probably. Weren’t there three channel experiments back in the day?
I used to add a delay line and a small set of nothing special speakers -ala the old Hafler method- it worked better on some records than on others- to add a 3d dimension to the proceedings. (I don’t really bother with discrete multichannel sound, though I guess I could on my home theatre system).
Ralph Glagal also developed a fairly elaborate playback method that, I believe, used conventional recordings but was able to present the information in a way that was supposed to better recreate the live music experience. (He lived not far from me in NY and I should have visited when I still lived there).
I doubt we need more formats at this point- getting consensus among CE, the rights owners of content and ultimately, consumer buy-in makes for big scale investments at high risk. (Look at all the failed formats over the years and the huge controversy over more recent approaches, like MQA).

I’m also not interested in re-buying material, much of which is out of print, and in many cases, has never been reissued, at least legitimately.

I’ve come to the conclusion, after spending many years, a lot of time, and a considerable amount of money and effort ---that not everything will sound great- if some of it does, wha-hoo! I’ve focused more on getting the most out of average recordings, not "special" ones- and accept the fact that it is a poor substitute for the real thing.
I will say that after attending Crimson’s show here almost two years ago, I played some of the sides from the Live in Toronto 2016 set the next morning and was very impressed with how well my system and this recording acquitted themselves. I could not, of course, reproduce the size of a 3,000 seat hall, or the power of the bass (their sound team was amazing-- they never overloaded the room, which is common in most amplified music shows).
I have musicians visit occasionally, and we can get a decent approximation of an acoustic guitar over the system. Piano is much more difficult to reproduce convincingly and much has to do with the recordings in my estimation.
Where things start to get challenging is when the the material gets complex (big orchestral passages with lots going on) and starts to sound cluttered-- I don’t think it is simply an issue of dynamics, but may have to do with the ability of the phono cartridge through the electronics through the speakers to unravel all that is going on and present it in a convincing way.
I also don’t listen at terribly loud volumes- I like to try and get the energy, bass and dimension at less walloping SPLs.
Short answer, to me, is imaging is a factor and perhaps not even a necessary one to create the illusion of live music, recognizing that no reproduction is quite the same as the real thing; this is so, for me, even when the reproducing system, recording, room, set up and all the other factors, including mood or frame of mind, are most conducive.
Two legs, two arms, two eyes and two ears...yet one brain having two hemispheres that are cross-wired for interpreting sound. Go figure mono might have been the ideal sonic reproductive medium rejected by those who apparently knew better. And those who were wiser recommended quadraphonic sound, yet we all know where that led...

"Two legs, two arms, two eyes and two ears...yet one brain having two hemispheres that are cross-wired for interpreting sound. Go figure mono might have been the ideal sonic reproductive medium rejected by those who apparently knew better. And those who were wiser recommended quadraphonic sound, yet we all know where that led..."

I personally enjoy mono, stereo and multichannel. I do want to mention one thing though, orchestras are multi-source presentations.


@whart said it all.

By the way Bill, The Record Collector in Hollywood was the best Classical music LP store I’ve ever been in. Domestic, import, the owner had it all, and was an expert in the music. The best non-Classical was Village Music in Mill Valley, not far into Marin County after you cross over The Golden Gate Bridge. VM specialized in Roots music (Blues, Jazz, Hillbilly, Country, Bluegrass, Rockabilly, Garage, Psych, Reggae, etc.), and sent out a great regularly-published (bi-monthly, iirc) catalog in the 1970-80’s. They had a separate room just for 10" 78’s. All the good Bay Area musicians shopped there, as did those passing through town on tour. One day that I was there James Burton came in; it was surreal!

Both shops went drastically downhill after they emptied their shelves of LP’s and filled them with CD’s. Same with Rhino Records (the retail store, not the record label) in Westwood. Remember Phast Phreddie?! Aw, the good ol’ days ;-) .

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Mg opens the door, steps in and hears someone calling produced music "Parlor Tricks" then Mg quietly backs out of this clubhouse to find a place with listeners exploring recordings. LOL
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Ever notice this correlation:
the more undefined terms that appear in an original post,
the less real content it likely contains.  After reading it
for the fifth time, for me, it is hard to answer,
"What is this person saying?"

So, future responses to the post are doomed to be imprecise,
confusing, and ultimately empty of meaningful ideas.  

Just my opinion, of course.
(Cat chasing its tail.)
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@kosst_amojan--the terms have an accepted meaning. JGHolt published a glossary many years ago that was long used so that people could speak the same language when describing reproduced sound.
I learned to understand both image and soundstage from using the old Quad ESL beginning in 1973. This was a speaker that excelled in the midrange (with some real world limitations) but remains a reference.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to florid language in audio-speak that became common in reviews, but Holt was known for his no-nonsense approach to subjective reviewing. Here’s a link to his glossary as republished by Stereophile (he started that publication and it was erratically published, no adverts and unlike the slick glossy today).
PS: You'll note that there is a difference between image and soundstage. I can hear that difference in the use of my phono stage, which places instruments in very precise positions in space, top to bottom, front to back and dimensionally, so you can hear the body of the instrument, as well as its position relative to the mic, if it is there on the recording.
Obviously, a multi-tracking pastiche of tracks and overdubs with no natural acoustic space being represented will rob a recording and its reproduction of a natural soundstage, although it can be created as an artifice through slick engineering, something that started to occur in the '70s (if not before) when tracks and lots of outboard processing invited mischief in popular recordings. This also coincided with the rise of the engineer as auteur and the use of the studio as a crutch- no longer was an engineer a 'recordist' but an artist themselves, and the musicians, some of them not as capable of playing through the entire sound and nailing it on a take, could go back and 'fix it' to the point where the recording is a  confabulation- sometimes wonderful sounding, but bearing no resemblance to what might have actually happened in real time in a room. 

dMaybe this will add some clarity....

OP asks:

is a recording’s soundstage and imaging of individual participants, whether musicians or vocalists, things that one can truly perceive
YES!

depending....

can we actually, from a recording only, determine different musical instruments?

of course.

if not, we desperately need to upgrade our systems, or we ought to take up building ships in botles or fishing.

can we differentiate between vocalists, instruments, and their relative locations on stage or in the venue?

with decent hearing, and a reasonably well setup system, of course.

can we localize where these instruments are on stage from any recording?

depending on the integrity and ability of the recording engineer and the equipment he or she used., with respect to the aforementioned and while in possession of some sembalence of sanity and good hearing, very likely.


OP also asks:
...or are they merely illusions that we all are imagining as some sort of delusion?


I was, and have been, delusional but I got better.

were I delusional listening to 'Harlem Nocturne' could be 'precieved' as perhaps, a Wooly Mamoth seeking a mate in the shadows of a moon lit night.

or a storm of mellon sized flagelant butterflies coming thru the walls of my house while singing Frankie Goes To Hollywood tunes.

.... were I truly delusional all bets are off.

there is art in commercial recordings and why some recording engineers are sought after and some are not.

there are techniques in mastering recordings and in the setup or approach as to the locations of microphones not dedicated to individual instruments or vocalists which help capture presence and artifacts of the venue.

the tricks are in the mix.

maybe another insightful theme could address should live venue recordings identically or very closely emulate the original concert in order to be considered a quality recording?

in some cases it seems this latter notion contains things impossible to properly mix down into the final product.

some aspects or things simply should not or can not logistically be promoted to specific locations.

take the Moody Blues for example. They add from time to time, an orchestra presentation aiding their own artistic content, and they are not the only ones that do this.

The Beatles. Rolling Stones.spirit. Pink Floyd. Quicksilver messenger Service. Spyra Gyra. ' Zepplin. Willie Nelson. Sinatra. Striesand. etc.

should the orchestra be placed in front of the group, behind them, or under them?

if Firesign Theater made every recordign mono would their albums involve the listener nearly as much?

Effects! tricks. techniques. they all add up to the experience we enjoy as a habit, er, uh, pastime.

reproducing and as such, acquiring the 'illusion' with as much inherent organic . tangibility as is possible is the goal for an audio system to routinely exhibit.

we are seeking goose bumps. Jaws on floors. utter disbelief in hearing what we know for a fact is not real, but the presentation has propelled us beyond the threshold of disbelief.

Being deluded can NEVER be a component in qualifying or quantifying these hair raising experiences.

well, not accurately.

as for the idea live concerts are all mono exploits I strongly disagree and ask, Have you ever been to a Pink Floyd show? ever heard a live symphony? heard a Barber Shop Quartet?

in fact, from the rear of the hall it might sound like a monaural demonstration but right down front it is not.

I think the underlying and more important theme here is 'was the recording enjoyable or not?"

indeed, some 'live' concert recordings are not front to back at just one venue, recordings. Little Feat 'Waiting for Columbus' was a compilation taken from various shows during one of their tours. . I so dig that album.
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Curiously, the stereo- prefix means solid.

I wonder how it got baptized that way, over the other possible alternatives: biphonic, diphonic, ambiphonic, etc.

BTW, this discussion needs to take a big side-trip through biaural.

Those expressing confusion about my original post should try placing my post into the context of the link I provided. Yes, it requires one to click a link and read an article. If one has the energy to type a response and click the “post” button, then one would likely have sufficient energy to read the Stereophile article. Soundstaging and imaging are both discussed and differentiated there.

I suspect the trolls won’t expend that energy, as the energy expended on posting their hit piece was likely sufficient for their purposes.
Both opposing views expressed in the article are wrong and pedestrian. No offense to anyone intended.
If I understand the specific question you ask about the individual participants appearing distinctly, that seems to be how well placed the microphones are to catch the differences in intensity and reflections within the recorded space. The disbelief factor I get from the sense of depth of layering makes me go for your illusion description. I believe delusion is when someone insists that their sense of reality is real when others disagree. I get the biggest chills from the distance front to back I perceive, not width or left-right distinction that stereo was originally consumed with proving. Stereo played in mono still gives a greater sense (illusion) of depth of field than mono recordings to me. Many listeners I know like a forward sound that seems closer to them (more intimate), where I prefer the depth illusion (but not at the cost of dynamics). Because I heard recorded music many years before attending a live symphony, I prefer to sit front row to maybe a few rows back at most. But that interesting depth of field effect from stereo reproduction is where stereo magic lies for me.   
Just to mention that soundstage has three dimensions, not just depth. It has depth, width and height. But Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nobody said it’s easy to get Boston Symphony Hall to magically appear in your room. If it was easy everybody could do it. Once you can get all three dimensions in their full measure you will feel as free and happy as a Swedish teenage girl.
celander says:
Those expressing confusion about my original post should try placing my post into the context of the link I provided. Yes, it requires one to click a link and read an article. If one has the energy to type a response and click the “post” button, then one would likely have sufficient energy to read the Stereophile article. Soundstaging and imaging are both discussed and differentiated there.


If they're confused, maybe it has something to do with the way you confused the issues in your original post? Because the word you used, "delusion", never appears in the Stereophile article. Instead, its just another rather straightforward classic John Atkinson piece on recording, playback, and loudspeaker technical evaluation:
You have to cut through this philosophical confusion by using a recording not of music, where you don't know the provenance, but of an artificial signal such as the dual-mono pink noise I created for Stereophile's Test CDs. This signal should be perceived as an infinitely narrow point of sound at all frequencies midway between the loudspeakers. If that's how it sounds, then by inspection you know absolutely that the information on all recordings will be produced without spatial distortion. If the pink-noise image isn't narrow or consistent with frequency, then, even before you listen to music, you know that the loudspeaker has problems, regardless of your preferences.

Seems to me you liked the sound of "delusion about the illusion" so much you went and used it even though it has nothing to do with the article. You made it sound like anyone hearing imaging is deluded. Or even worse, that its deluded to think that soundstaging and imaging even matters. 

Maybe next time try a little less clever and a lot more clear?


If we are built for stereo, why are mono pressings (done right) so much better than the stereo versions? I have been in many demonstrations where they have played a stereo version then a mono version with a much cheaper cartridge and the mono version sounded so much better. 
Addendum to previous post on Soundstage 3 dimensions. Not only is the soundstage on mediocre systems not three dimension, the dimensions are not recreated as they were recorded. The soundstage evolution as one progressive improves the system, including speaker placement, room acoustics treatments, isolation, tweaks, what have you, the soundstage expanding sphere of all three dimensions should, ideally, approach 🔜 the room dimensions of the recording venue, including a more organized, less congealed and more detailed panorama of all the musicians. As signal to noise + distortion ratio is improved the soundstage height should go through the roof.
You guys have WAY too much time on your hands.

Maybe volunteer at a local children's hospital or homeless shelter?

Stereo live for sure.
You guys can back to sleep, now. An obvious case of snarkolepsy. Sleepwalking and still snarky. 😴
In my simple way of viewing of things, "imaging" is when a speaker disappears so that sound is non-directional and more akin to a soft focus. I find this more achievable by 2 way speakers than 3 ways. 
That’s pretty good, but you might have missed the point of the OP, which is is imaging real? Sorry for the two is’s in a row.
I’ll accept that it might be possible for two ears to perceive the location of a source in relation to distance, but I’m not sure that the effect can be recreated with only two speakers. I’ve seen lots of mixing boards with a knob for right and left placement in the mix but never one with near and far or high and low. Probably because there is no way to do those.
@geoffkait ... I really don't think I missed the OP's point. Imaging is real based on the disappearance of the speaker, IMHO.
@tostadosunidos - but if the performers are positioned front to back,  and the recording captures that, it should be reproduced. I can hear such placement and it is not the result of mixing left or right-
Soundstaging implies a 3 dimensional representation of a musical event.  It can acoustically compensate for our inability to localize sound through a “stereo” via the eye-ear-brain connection.  The result is more satisfying because it helps orient our brains into making more sense of an auditory stimulus.

Hi tostadosunidos

Recordings are actually 360degrees. When you place the speakers in front of you that's what gives you the frontal stage. 2 speakers can easily give you the 360 sound, it's the room you're hearing keep in mind.


mg

Just skimmed so far.

Auditory distance perception in humans: a review of cues, development, neuronal bases, and effects of sensory loss

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4744263/
Recordings are actually 360degrees. When you place the speakers in front of you that's what gives you the frontal stage. 2 speakers can easily give you the 360 sound, it's the room you're hearing keep in mind.

Right, so by recording reverberations and all you should still have all of the auditory cues outlined in the above study that I posted. But I think you would have to look at that paper and consider yourself blind. I would expect that having experienced a performance live and being familiar with the venue would help in deciphering the information available in a 2 channel recording.

No being into classical music, I don't really have a lot of relevant personal experience.  
BTW, I read the poorly written article.  It would appear the author is as confused as most of the posters here.  We are animals, who by design need to make sense of our experiences.  No matter what technology, source or venue supplies the stimulus, we instinctively try to figure out as much as we possibly can.  No reproduction is accurate, but if it supples more cues or information for us to determine the why, what, where and how about an event...acoustic or otherwise, then our brains are happier!  
BTW, I read the poorly written article.  It would appear the author is as confused as most of the posters here.  We are animals, who by design need to make sense of our experiences.  No matter what technology, source or venue supplies the stimulus, we instinctively try to figure out as much as we possibly can.  No reproduction is accurate, but if it supples more cues or information for us to determine the why, what, where and how about an event...acoustic or otherwise, then our brains are happier!

I agree that it is poorly written (don't have time to fully read it now), I did a quick look for a better source but haven't turned one up yet.

I do think that the article identifies the cues used, and I believe that sight can be a big part of placing distance.
Imaging is science. Our stereos are using our own physiology to trick us into believing that a sound is coming from a certain direction and distance by juggling phase and volume. This only occurs in a line perpendicular to the axis between the speakers exactly midway between the two. When in the right position the image locks in and magically appears....if the system is set up correctly which is the fun of this hobby, making our systems sound whatever we think "right" is. Getting a system to image correctly is not easy. First reflections have to be dampened and the speakers have to have exactly the same frequency response which they hardly ever do. If one speaker is louder than the other at 400 Hz the image will smear to that side. Then there is the talent of the recording engineer as others have mentioned. I love the drummer with 9 foot arms. We have all heard him, Tom on the far left, cymbal on the far right. Most popular live shows are recorded from the sound board. What you get is a studio recording with all the musicians playing at the same time and muted background applause. To gauge your systems ability you have to fall back on classical and some live jazz. 

I to believe Waiting for Columbus is the greatest live R+R record of all time done by, as Bonnie Raitt claims the greatest R+R band of all time.

I hope you all enjoy this hobby as much as I do. Music is the way.