The educated Tanguero

Essential Tango Knowledge

Quality of Music for Tango Events

Hello all. As a Tango DJ, I have sworn to a credo: “Always play the best possible quality songs for your audience”. Full stop! This is the general path, DJs follow. Especially for Tango music, which is way more delicate than common House or Salsa music. Tango people typically deal with music between 1930 and the late 1950ies. This music is typically mono, limited in frequency spectrum and full with adverse acoustical artifacts. So it is a real challenge for us to play that in a reasonable quality, which does not tire the ears of our dancers. Tango music from this EDO (Epoca de Oro) is also heavily remastered. So typically, we do not want to play this music with a smiley curve of the equalizer and a monster bass. We have to rely on our equipment to generate a more flat type frequency response curve. All this is a real challenge to DJs and we are all doing our very best usually with technically limited consumer or semiprofessional equipment.

So why setting up a new discussion regarding quality ? The discussion starts with some articles describing the need to use audiophile equipment and techniques for a true tango sound. Audiophile means, the optimization of listening experience by using only the best possible equipment in the whole chain of signal transfer and conversion between electrical and acoustical signals. Today a whole industry has been built around that philosophy and in general I agree with that. It makes a lot of sense to use good speakers and quality equipment in your living room to maximize the sound quality. This is a mixture of science and art, and I am really between impressed and envious, when listening to such a highly tuned equipment.

The idea is now to transfer this philosophy to the Milonga. Some fellow DJs as a consequence promote the only use of lossless audio files and complain about the low quality of speakers at milonga sites. In this case, I would like to look a bit closer at this matter.

Typically DJs get their material from remastered CDs, so in general, the only influence here is the pick of labels with more or less success of this process. We have to know, that the technology of recording has changed significantly between the recording technique of the 30ies and 50ies. Music labels are trying very hard to restore the musical quality of the original master discs (if not destroyed) and to provide a quality sound for listening and dancing. So there is not very much, we can do.

The point is however – a DJ typically grabs these recordings into a compressed file to store it in his track library. With today´s prices for Terabyte storage, compression is not a big issue. We have to know, that computers typically compress the digital signal into a special format (using a special algorithm, which takes the psycho-acoustical reception of our ear into account). This type of music compression (the mostly used one is MP3) is widely used by consumers and DJs. Technically, this format reduces the quality, since data is lost from the original. A good indicator here is the bitrate, which shows, how much data is removed from the original. Generally, the higher the bitrate, the better the quality. The best quality is assured by using a so called lossless compression format (like FLAC). Many people with “golden ears” tell us, that they can exactly tell the difference between compressed and lossless. As a scientist, I belief in statistics, so I took the so called ABX test [1,2], which is made to check the quality of comparison between two files in a statistically safe way. I have used my professional monitor speakers to discern a modern recording of Fabio Hager Sexteto “Dramatico” (from his 2012 CD Retorno) between lossless and different MP3 bitrates. As a result, my (slightly worn) ears were able to truly discern between 96 kBit/s and lossless, but I was not able to discern if the bitrate was above 128 kBit/s. This is, what many people describe on the internet. So give it a moment to let that seep into your brain.

The second problem of using audiophile philosophy is the quality of the sound chain and the speaker systems. I know about the importance of good speaker systems and I also feel comfortable with good monitor speakers, when I prelisten my tango music at home. The point is: we as DJs typically not deal with a small living room, but we have to fill a venue for 50+ people with sound. This is a completely different task, than just tuning your living room. Admittedly, the active speaker systems (1000W sattellites and a 1400W sub) I use are crappy measured with the attitude of a true audiophile person. The point is, they are made for a completely different task. The same applies to the audio chain. If you want to listen to Mahlers 5th symphony in your living room, do not use a professional mixer and do not use professional active speakers made for DJing.

As a result, I do not feel to be a bad DJ, just by using my semiprofessional equipment and by not using FLAC only audio files. FLAC files are of good quality and have a reasonable compression, but they only have a limited compatibility with mayor DJ software (like Itunes and Traktor). As a result, I still encode my audio files with a high bitrate of 320 kB/s and I try to reencode some older songs which I had encoded with 125 kB/s many years ago [3]. I trust in my audio equipment, because it is designed to play in different venues and I can adjust it to the needs of the room acoustics. It is generally recommended to provide the best possible sound, but we also have to keep in mind, that we should do that with a reasonable amount of effort in terms of equipment and money. I personally believe, that the best way of starting with this approach is not to instantly buy expensive equipment, but to think about your actual situation and how to improve it. If you really need to buy equipment, get help from a professional and buy good and modular equipment tailored for your venue needs.

Again, everything is depending on the way you use your equipment. Blowing up the bass with a subwoofer or increasing the highs are mistakes made by DJs and not a systematic problem of the equipment.







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