Dr. AIX's POSTS — 31 March 2015

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As a recording engineer and music producer, I’m often confronted with the question, what is the ultimate expression of my craft? Is the goal to capture and recreate the sound experienced at a live concert through a set of headphones, a high-end stereo system, or finely tuned automobile playback system? Or maybe the ideal is to recognize the timbral accuracy of a human voice, piano, or French horn? Many have offered their thoughts on this question and I don’t think one response is more correct than another.

I read Paul McGowan’s thoughts about this in a response this morning on his daily blog site. He answered, “My definition of sound is simple: how real does it sound in the room? How close to what my own memory is of live music, or recorded music sounding live. Human voice is an easy one for me and most people because of our familiarity with it. I use that to judge if it’s better, worse or indifferent.”

His definition is quite common but in actuality it doesn’t hold for the vast majority of commercial recordings released by record labels or independents. The record making process is as varied as the styles of music in the world. One size doesn’t fit all. I can tell you that the vast majority of all recordings released don’t strive for sonic reality…for voices or instruments.

Let’s start by thinking about the sound of a live music event. Unless you attend an acoustic performance of a jazz or classical ensemble, the sound that you hear has been amplified. The microphones or direct feeds from the band are routed through a mixing console, blended, balanced, and output to an array of speakers.

I happened to be in the bar of the Doubletree Hotel in Grand Junction, Colorado last Friday evening as part of a large family gathering. They had a very talented singer/songwriter providing entertainment for a few hours. He alternately accompanied himself on the piano and guitar and had the support of an acoustic bass player. The accompaniment was not amplified but his voice was. Is this the sound that an audio engineers would want to capture and recreate? Would I use a simple stereo pair of microphones and record the live balance as presented? Or maybe it would be better to place microphones in front of the acoustic bass, inside the piano, and immediately in front of the singer? Maybe a binaural head setup at the front table would be best?

These are the choices that engineers make all the time and none of them will accurately recreate the sound of that singer and those instruments as I experienced it in the bar. But amplification of a live ensemble is required to balance levels among performers. The vocalist will almost always be miked, processed, and amplified. The processes routinely involve, compression, EQ, de-essing, and of course, amplitude gain.

And how about the spatial distribution of the amplified sounds? The vocalist is going to come from the speakers not the physical position of the artist. The guy at the bar had a single speaker column near his position. It worked pretty well to convey his location but I can remember hearing Bruce Hornsby not too long ago and his voice was completely disembodied by the sound system. I might as well have been sitting in my media room playing a recording.

Personally, I’m not interested in recreating the sense of a live concert. If you want to experience magic of a live performance…attend a live performance. As far as recordings to, I want to hear wonderful productions that reflect the skill and experience of the producer and engineer and of course, the artist. If it just happens to sound close to live sound…well then OK fine.

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About Author

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

(16) Readers Comments

  1. Good article. As I’ve sad before, the hoary old “live vs.recorded” paradigm is senseless. While live music and recorded music run closely parallel to each other, they rarely intersect. On a really excellent system, the only music that MIGHT come close to facsimile if and only if the recording is up to it is small -scale acoustic music, be it folk, jazz, or other.

  2. I agree completely. A live concert usually has all kinds of compromises in sound quality. Some live recordings are really great because the live setting was properly set up for recording. I’d much rather hear professionally recorded, mixed and produced music live or not.

  3. I’m with you on this, Mark.

    I’m often irked by reading comments criticizing a surround recording mixed for a stage perspective for not recreating the experience of sitting in an auditorium with the musicians hundreds of feet away, and I’m occasionally moved to respond by saying that by that standard, movies are wrong not to recreate the experience of watching a play from the middle of the audience.

    Nonsense. Just as film outgrew its early experiments with filming theater to become an art form of its own, recorded music did the same many decades ago. Many of the same effects we’ve become used to in film – close-ups, changes of perspective, etcetera have their analogs in music recording.

    I want to hear the instruments as clearly as possible – which means close-miking, not distant. I want the instruments arrayed around me so I can hear them each as clearly as possible without being crowded into two loudspeakers.

    And that extends to the dreaded “loudness war” as well. Part of the reason for the narrow dynamic range of commercial recordings is to avoid letting quieter voices (instrumental as well as human) be lost behind the lead voices, or simply because the listener has adjusted the volume for the louder voices. Not everyone has the benefit of a quiet environment for listening to music.

    But also (dare I say it?) because we often turn to entertainment media as relief from the boredom of real life. We want the audio MSG, not reality.

    For jazz – and I’m an amateur jazz pianist – I want the “God’s Ear View” your stage perspective mixes provide, and I think that string quartet fans might agree, but for rock and roll, which is entirely a child of amplification, to paraphrase MTV’s original slogan, “I want my MSG!”

  4. I know what my goal has been all along since I started enjoying listening to music attentively and tinkering with audio equipment over 40 years ago to arrive at a sound that will not tire me, quite the contrary will keep me tied to my listening chair enjoying the fine aural texture of instruments and voices, and induce the various emotional experiences as a well crafted book or a great movie story would. Let the music flow for the sake of music without further analysis. Would this be analogous to a “live” concert? Maybe not, as in many cases it may be much better.

  5. Yesterday, I attended a performance by “Pink Martini” at the Esplanade Theatre in Singapore. The musicians of the group are all very talented, however, the music was all processed and played through an array of speakers. It sounded as one big centre channel though the ensemble was spread all over the stage.
    The finer moments were lost.
    Just as you mentioned in the article ,the processing killed the emotion of the instrument ..

  6. I’ve always thought the old Quad slogan of “The closest approach to the original sound” as being the neatest expression of what the goal of any audio system should be.

  7. Mark, I couldn’t disagree with you more. The job of everyone on the other side of the mic is to do their best to be as invisible as possible. What is High Fidelity about in the first place, to deliver to the end user an experience as close as possible to being at a live performance. It doesn’t matter if that performance is acoustic, amped, or a combination of both, performed before a audience or in a studio. The musicians are the artists, and good or bad the engineers/producers job is not to be creative but to re-create a moment in time.
    Paul got it right this time and the minimalist engineers of the past decade have been the shining lights of “The Absolute Sound”. With all the advanced tech we have today we seem to get further and further away from what is IMHO the goal of High Fidelity. Many audiophiles today preach that it’s the older tech that sounded better but that’s where they’re mistaken, it’s the more minimalist recording approaches that made the recordings sound so much more real.

    • If the Beatles had listened to you we wouldn’t have “Strawberry Fields” or “A Day in the Life”. Please just tell us what your opinion is not what you perceive everyone’s “job” is. Your concept of what that is is much too narrow.

    • Sal, there is a lot…dare I say the majority of all music releases…are imagined, crafted, played, and captured in the studio using non-performance tools and techniques. The impact of engineers and producers pushing the technical limits and experimenting with new sounds etc have given us incredible sonic experiences. Capturing things live and striving for accuracy is only one approach among many…and it is a minority technique.

      Saying that High-Fidelity should provide an end user experience as close as possible to being at a live performance is nonsense. I also refuse to accept that engineers and producers are not part…and essential part…of the creative process.

      You’re certainly entitled to your preferences…but they only apply to you and are not universal. I don’t think minimalist recording approaches make the best sounding or most real tracks. My recordings are certainly not minimally miked and sound more real than anything I’ve every heard.

  8. One thing people often overlook when comparing the impressions from listening to an audio only reproduction versus a real live event (or even maybe a combined visual and audio recording) is that visual clues, when present interact with audio clues in a very complex manner because of how our brain works. These visual clues provide space, directionality and focal information to our brain often compensating for auditory imbalances. For example, listening to a classical music concert from a somewhat off-axis audience seat is not equivalent to listening to an unbalanced recording of the same performance. Selective audotory focus is also assisted by visual clues. When visual clues are missing it is the job of the recording engineer and the reproduction system to provide alternatives to the missing space and directionality clues. It is always going to be both an art and a hit and miss afair.

  9. I’m less concerned about a recording sounding live than I am about it sounding “alive.”

    • Recordings should capture the inspiration of the artists composing, creating, and performing music. I believe musicians do it better than machines…but if the expression is delivered, then music comes alive.

  10. “As far as recordings to, I want to hear wonderful productions that reflect the skill and experience of the producer and engineer and of course, the artist.”

    I’m quite in agreement with you on this one. In fact, what I hear at some live performances is quite disappointing.

  11. If were talking purely acoustic instruments, then, from my perspective, a recording should capture what was heard at the event. This could be difficult as the venue acoustics come into play and whilst we tend to filter out those acoustics when were present at the event the recording equipment captures these acoustics. I was recently allowed to recorded some brass band music played in a relatively acoustically dead hall. My aim was to capture as much of the dynamic range as possible (and a brass band has HUGE dynamic range) and also to keep the room acoustics to a minimum (recorded at 24/96 and managed just not to clip). Listening through headphones (Sennheiser HD25-1 II) the resultant recording still didn’t sound like the original session, purely because it couldn’t capture the sheer scale of quiet to loud, but I think it was pretty good, and so did the band.

    • Unless we’re talking about appropriate acoustic music, there will always be technology involved. A folk singer can’t equal the sound of his or her ensemble without a PA…that’s using technology.

  12. One other flaw (for me) is that most live performances are filled with noise litter, someone blabbering about whatever, chairs screeching across the floor, and I’m sure I add to that “litter” as well. Maybe my profuse middle section absorbs something that shouldn’t be. I recently saw Alan Parsons in St Petersburg, Florida. We lucked out by getting seats directly in front of the board. I don’t think a better seat could be had, not even on the stage. There’s so much to capturing a performance and a whole other set of magic voodoo to reproduce it in a pleasing way too. Electronics have come a long way. I used to “burn out” on speakers after just a year or two. I’d pick out their deficiencies, sometimes the amps and source equipment too, and the HiFi dealers kids got braces. Dolby B & C created more audio angst for me than probably anything else I can recall. Once enabled, no amount of treble (or any EQ) could ever seem to get the cymbals back into the drum sets. I’d almost have traded even my Dragon for an 8 track with an adjustable azimuth:) Playback isnt as difficult to find my happy place like it used to. But we also didn’t have the recording maladies and artifacts (like perfectly manufactured loops) because we didn’t know any better, our limitations weren’t of very wide range like what’s possible now . I still use some recordings from way back when to audition equipment. I know what to expect from those 60 Db of range, how much noise, and the parts that still tax some speakers pretty hard. I like the watching the salesmans face to see if he or she even noticed. My favorite thing about being a audio enthusiast is I’m expected to be the strange person the industry pushed me into being ! Hahaha

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