In Setting the Record Straight Colin Symes argues that the phonograph helped democratize classical music by enabling it to be heard at home, away from the concert hall. In a similar way, advances in technology have also democratized the recording of music (i.e. musicians of lesser means/abilities now have the tools to make extremely high quality recordings). Along with an increased availability of technology has come an increase in the use of that technology by new or relatively inexperienced recordists. Questions arise, such as:
“What should be the goal of an art music recording, anyway?”
“Are we trying for something more musical than the typical camcorder audio captured from the balcony?”
“If so, what?”
Below are some of my ideas about common practices in art music recording and the modern culture of simply listening to music.
Authenticity has been a buzz word in art music recording since the beginning and for good reason. An authentic recording (one that closely resembles the experience of actually sitting in the hall) is almost always going to be fabulous – assuming it involves an elite orchestra in the best concert hall and $200 per seat tickets. I suspect that it was in just such a setting that the standard for art music recording was conceived: the stereo pair. This usually consists of two expensive omni-directional mics up in the air behind the conductor at a variety of spacings. The stereo pair is certainly responsible for many famous art music recordings. And many more awful ones. Authenticity is probably an approach that is at it’s best when someone like Carlos Kleiber is directing a group like the Vienna Philharmonic in a place like Musikverein Golden Hall. An authentic recording of a junior high band in the gymnasium might benefit from some extra… flattery.
Cinematic recording tends to be a bit more adventurous than the purist’s attempt at the authentic recreation of an event. Authenticity certainly has a place in sound for film, but so does exaggerated studio trickery. When one listens to the soundtrack of any movie, you can bet the focus of the audio production team was more on the creation of compelling audio and less about the authentic characteristics of the sound stage where the orchestra performed. Dozens of microphones are used to isolate groups or individual instruments providing more control and offering new possibilities for the sound team.
Even popular music production has influenced the recording and production of art music, because it has redefined what the masses expect to hear when they plug in their earbuds. Pop is very often as inauthentic as it gets. Why? Because in many cases there never was an original performance, so to speak. The studio builds the song one track at a time. Acoustic drums (if real drums are even used at all) are morphed into cannon fire. One guitar is layered upon itself a dozen times. Vocals are stacked and processed and auto-tuned. To the purist this all sounds quite sinister, bordering even on immoral. But there are some very good reasons for such radical “pop” processing – even in art music – which I hope to explain next.
Most modern listening occurs in the worst possible environment, the automobile. It’s an art music engineer’s worst case scenario. The listener is not equidistant in front of two speakers, the road and engine noise destroy precious amounts of dynamic range, and the speakers are usually designed to accentuate certain frequencies to “help” the sound cut through the din. Cut. Like a knife. Running a close second to the automobile for worst possible listening environment is the laptop or computer. Unless the listener has assembled a computer system with audio in mind, the sound will be exactly what YouTube has trained the masses to accept: astoundingly low-resolution.
The one bright spot among modern listening environments is the mobile device. Yes, they often employ compressed formats, and lots of data is lost compared to the 24-bit master recording. But the ubiquitous earbuds (look around a college campus sometime) are a big improvement in delivery over the average laptop speakers. And for those who care to push the envelope a little further, there are options for even better-sounding mobile files and higher quality ear buds. Still, even this falls far short of a set of excellent speakers positioned well in an acoustically treated room (where every art music engineer would like to believe his mixes are heard).
Pop music positions itself within the very top few decibels of the dynamic range, ensuring that all but the very tail end of the fade-out is audible at 75 mph. Even with radio station compression, a listener loses the softer sections of a symphony orchestra performance around 35 mph, and may be blown out when the triple forte section hits. Because it has been juiced to sound as big and full as possible, pop music translates better over those anemic little laptop speakers. Even cinematic music exploits the advantage of being balanced over speakers by an engineer (the way listeners will eventually hear things), as individual sections and soloists are mic’d up. The natural blend may be spot on in the hall, but the question is – does it translate to the user’s listening environment? An engineer lacking in purist ethics can help ensure that it does in many cases.
It would seem reasonable that a competent musician is one of the prerequisites of a good art music recording. Presumably a musician cares about musicality, tone, technique, dynamics, phrasing and so on. Presumably a musician has spent countless hours working to obtain a command of those elements. Musicians, however, are not all audiophiles. But I think they should be. Wikipedia tells us that an audiophile is “a person with a strong interest in high-quality sound (usually music) reproduction.” Audiophilia is entirely insignificant if a musician is such a purist as to only ever listen to live music in a real concert hall. If, however, a musician makes the foray into sound reproduction – especially for her own performances – it would follow that she would desire a level of care in the treatment of that sound reproduction reflective of the level of care she took in learning to create the live sounds being recorded. In other words, it makes sense for a musician who listens to recordings (or makes them herself) to be an audiophile, don’t you think? If people are going to listen to the recordings we make (and we hope they do) those recordings should be made with the listening environment in mind. It may even be that in order for some performances to translate “authentically” they might require judicious intervention from the audiophile musician and her trusted side kick: the audiophile art music engineer.
Back to those earlier questions. What should be the goal of a good art music recording? Well, yes, we are trying to improve upon the camcorder in the balcony approach. Several things come to mind. How about clarity (but not so much as to put the listener in the first trumpet’s lap). Then there’s depth (which might be considered spatial clarity or location). And ambience (but not so much as to destroy the clarity and depth). Tonality and detail is largely dependent upon the character and placement of the microphone (after the performer has created the sound, that is). The stereo image (how wide the ensemble sounds) depends on the angle or spacing of the microphones in relation to the ensemble, and the size of the ensemble, and the size of the room.
There are several parameters that can be tweaked, and if you start to develop an ear for those things, congratulations! You’re becoming more like a recording engineer or an audiophile musician – which I think is probably what God intended for you.