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.