Sound Breaking BBC Series
The past week my local PBS station has been broadcasting an eight-episode series that explores the impact of the recording industry on modern culture. It’s called SoundBreaking: Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music and was the final project produced by legendary record producer Sir George Martin before his passing in early March of this year. I haven’t watched every show yet but I highly recommend the series for those interested in learning about the process of making commercial recordings and the forces that have influenced music production and the business. It’s very compelling stuff to hear from artists like Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt but all the more informative to listen to producers like Robert Margouleff, Don Was, and Rick Rubin talk about the stuff that was going on behind the scenes. Most music documentaries don’t present the huge contributions that producers and engineers make to the ultimate sound of the records we love.
The focus on the role of record producers, the introduction of electric instruments, the magic of multitrackings, and the special environment of a record studio make this series worth the watch. I learned about the series from my friend Robert Margouleff a couple of years ago because he asked if Maro Chermayeff, who co-directed and produced the series, could use my main studio as the backdrop for his interview about introducing Stevie Wonder to synthesizers. The end result is very good — and I haven’t finished watching all 8 episodes.
What I found interesting is that there is almost no mention of fidelity or accuracy. Instead, it’s clear that the right musical motif or “hook” or the connection between the lead vocal and the audience are among the most important factors in the success of a hit record. This shouldn’t come as a big surprise — it certainly didn’t to me. Engineers are tasked with capturing the best rendition of the sounds produced by the musicians on their instruments. And those instruments can be acoustic or electrically amplified, synthesized or sampled, pristine or distorted beyond recognition. George Martin and The Beatles experimented with tape in very compelling ways. The ran the tape backwards, made tape loops or varying lengths to produce repetitive patterns, and edited segments of acoustic recordings out of sequence. The results were new sounds and textures that pop/rock records hadn’t possessed previously. Although, avant garde composers and sound artists had been doing this kind of thing for a couple of decades before Sir George and the fab four brought it to a popular audience.
There is magic to be heard when Giles Martin, Sir George’s son and a very well know producer and engineer in his own right, solos some of the tracks on the Rubber Soul album. Listeners of final mastered records never get a chance to hear all of the component parts AND the imagination and work that went into crafting them. The process is painstaking and requires artists to be musicians, engineers, sound artists, and critics at the same time. It turns out that the right combination of sounds at just the right time far outweighs the necessity for high fidelity. From all I’ve learned during my 40 plus years of making recordings it all boils to that. A great record doesn’t have to sound good to be a hit.
20 thoughts on “Sound Breaking BBC Series”
I have seen three of the broadcast episodes, and will generally agree that the presentation is interesting. Unfortunately PBS just can’t help themselves when it comes to limiting the political commentary. If the recording process is the main focus, then stick to the subject matter and stop trying to attach some outside event into the story.
Kudos to Geoff Emerick (and Norman Smith before him) for their innovative engineering on those Beatles classics!
Hopefully, one day Jimmy Miller will get his proper due on his brilliant production during the Stones’ strongest musical period ’68 – ’73.
What a genius!
I watched the second episode yesterday.
The one, where George Martin says, that the goal of recording previously seemed to be to ‘take a picture of what is happening in the studio’. And that all the new possibilities gives the artist and the producers/mixers/engeneers the opportunity to ‘paint a picture with sound’.
Personally I think that good (recorded) music requires a collaboration of the (skilled) artists and the (skilled) producer etc etc.
It is, when the producers take over and create something with (often) less skilled or uncritical artists, that the trouble begins. When producers and the guys from the record companies are in charge – oh geez!
Definitely going to watch the other episodes as well.
‘Is torturing an electrical signal covered under the Geneva conventions?” There seems to be a disagreement about the importance of fidelity in making recordings. I knew a couple of photographers who used the images on their film as a starting point. By the time they were done, you’d have no clue as to what the photo was originally about. Creative destruction.
Personally I viewed the problem of duplicating what I heard live as a purely intellectual challenge. I was only interested in the sounds I liked, live symphonic concerts, choral works, some operas, and some other classical music including piano, violins, cellos, string quartets, and operatic voices. Others weren’t worth the bother. For them there is no right answer and therefore no best solution. Whatever floats your boat. But when it comes to adult music, don’t tell me the best this industry can do is very good because it isn’t, at least not to my ears.
Musicians, engineers, and producers can do anything they want to arrive at a “sound” that they want. I think it’s more important to them in many commercial instances than fidelity. Artists can and should push the boundaries of creativity without restrictions. Who says that using tape loops or distortion can contribute to a compelling sound? One man’s destruction is another’s inspiration. You seem to desire the sound to match the real world event — a sort of sonic documentary. You said it best with the statement, “whatever floats your boat”.
Once upon a time those who were interested in the serious end of this industry called their equipment high fidelity promising a successful if long march to being able to recreate the sounds of live performances of the most demanding and greatest musical performances of music by the most ingenious composers in what I call documented recordings. Manufactured recordings which are the mainstay of the market for recordings use increasingly clever and sophisticated methods to manipulate other kinds of music to appeal to a less sophisticated audience. There’s nothing wrong with that. This is not to say that documented recordings didn’t use manipulation but that was done in the service of getting what the engineers felt would be closer to their goal.
That was a long time ago. The truth is, to be perfectly blunt, the problem of understanding and engineering solutions to the goal of high fidelity has beaten all of the best minds who made a serious effort at it to a pulp. They’ve made very little progress in the last 50 or 60 years. They are about as clueless as they ever were. They just keep doing the same things over and over and over again trying to improve the results of their badly flawed models. Frankly I’ve met some of these people and I’ve also been surrounded much of my life by some of the best scientists and engineers in other fields. Sorry to say it and I know they will take it as in insult but IMO they are not even remotely intellectually up to the task. It’s small wonder they’ve failed so badly.
As for the mass market it is doing just fine with compressed downloads of the likes of Taylor Swift mp3 files played through earbuds. No more retail stores, no more middlemen, bits for cash in instant transactions over the internet.
“But when it comes to adult music, don’t tell me the best this industry can do is very good because it isn’t, at least not to my ears.”
Modern recordings sound far better than even the best in-concert performance. Today’s audiences are more distracted and disruptive than ever and I wonder why they even attend concerts if they’d rather play with a smartphone [sic] like a bored child. The last time I enjoyed a well-behaved audience was a recital by Vadym Kholodenko performed just weeks after his ex-wife murdered his daughters; maybe the morbid sense of occasion kept everyone alert and in the moment. He was interviewed post-concert and remarked that we were very respectful and appreciative, and we were: we applauded like crazy and he rewarded us with three encores.
Watching musicians play their instruments is about the only benefit of live concerts these days — virtually all SACDs and Blu-Rays, and even some RBCDs, are sonically superior to the real deal.
If you want live music to sound more like a hi fi set because that is what you are most accustomed to hearing, then you’re right. It’s a matter of taste. I prefer unamplified music played in a great concert hall like Carnegie Hall. To my hearing these beautiful sounds cannot be duplicated by hi fi equipment. Sounds from hi fi sets sound like pale imitations coming out of a box or panel Multichannel systems don’t work either. Everything about them is wrong. Wrong tone, wrong dynamics, no envelopment. Evidently those with a lot of money agree, otherwise why would they commission the construction of concert halls that can cost a hundred million dollars or more and hope for the best acoustics only to be frequently disappointed in the results. From your point of view they might just as well go to a place with a sound reinforcement system. Of course what I call children’s music needs electronic amplification because without it, most of these singers’ feeble voices wouldn’t be heard beyond the third row.
As for acoustic isolation, architects use special techniques to exclude outside noise and building systems like HVAC systems from intruding on the sound while still being effective. There are Architectural Institute of America standards for quietness of empty concert halls. They are usually specified as something like NIC 27 and are A weighted. The results are measured and compared with the specifications. Unfortunately those interested purely in architectural statements often overrule those who are knowledgeable about acoustics when concert halls are built. Avery Fisher Hall still has awful acoustics after 50 years and countless tens of millions of dollars of remediation later is a prime example of the disastrous results when that happens. You are right though, some in the audience can be rude and inconsiderate by unnecessarily making noise that reduces the enjoyment of others who are only interested in hearing the performance.
Let’s stick with “it’s a matter of taste”. I would agree that live concert experiences — including those featuring “adult music” — are routinely disappointing to this listener. I’ve attended many hundreds of live classical concerts in venues around the world. The sound in a large hall — even those with superior acoustics — is IMHO way too distant. The diffusion of the room blurs the details and tonal characteristics of individual instruments, reduces the impact of dynamic changes, and presents a very narrow spatial image. A live concert experience is about the magic of the moment, the glorious realization of a composition under the direct control of the conductor, soloist, or musicians. I’ve seen Yo Yo Ma in a small venue and that was much better but still not ideal. Can a recording provide accurate tone, impressive dynamics, and immersive envelopment? — absolutely! You and I are going to have to disagree on these points. I would much rather listen to my 5.1 recording of the Old City String Quartet playing Mozart or Bryon Pezzone improvising on “We Shall Overcome” on a Steinway Model D 9-foot Grand Piano than sit 30 feet away from the artists in any hall I’ve ever visited. Is it a different experience? Yes, certainly. Is it equally valid? Also yes.
Yes Mark, we will certainly disagree. Which experience is better? There is no such thing. For me it’s the live music when it is well performed, music I like, and in a place with great acoustics. For you it’s from a hi fi set. Nothing wrong with that but our goals are different and to be sure the qualities of sound are also very different.
I would however point out that many communities, colleges philanthropists, governments shell out a hundred million dollars or more to build a concert hall and a lot has been done to study them to find out why they sound different not only from recordings but from each other. There are no unanimous opinions on which is best or even an order to their relative levels of qualities but a couple that stand out is the Grossesalle Musikverein in Vienna Austria and Boston Symphony Hall. There is a large body of informed opinion that Boston Symphony Hall is the best room for listening to music in the United States and one of the two or three best in the world. One who holds to that opinion is Leo Beranek.
You’re right — designing and building mega million dollar performance venues (or sport stadiums of museums) is a big deal. But the recorded music industry is larger by far. They are two completely different market segments that share the art of music.
Mark, it all depends on how you define music. For me music is a direct communication between human beings. Recordings are merely facsimiles. For many if not most people recordings are also music. If nothing else even for them, the recording is a filter. Why do recording engineers sweat so much over getting exactly what they want in post production, that is after the “musicians” have performed? It all depends on what you have to work with. Often, in fact most of the time these days, IMO recording engineers have little or nothing of substance as starting material to work on. But luckily for them they have a vast array of powerful tools to work with. Too bad Accu-tune pitch correction equipment wasn’t around for Barbara Streisand. Evidently it didn’t matter to her fans that she couldn’t sing on key. IMO they couldn’t tell the difference anyway. For people like me, her voice makes us cringe. And things have only gotten worse since, much worse.
Mark, recording and production are also processes that require skill, creativity, technical skill, and imagination. It’s a very different process than capturing a live performance — with different goals. One isn’t necessarily any better than another. The particulars of an individual artist and the technology available at the time are variables. “Evergreen” written by my friend Paul Williams and sung by Barbara Streisand is a masterpiece in many ways.
Acoustics of venue affects many things, tonality being one of them. Timbre is only one part of tonality. Perceived power of the source is an example of another.
In a concert hall, it can take up to two seconds or more for sound to die out at 1 khz. But high frequencies die out faster. Typically a concert hall might have an RT 60, the time it takes sound to decay by a factor of 1 million 2 seconds at 1 kHz, 1 second at 8 kHz. The first arriving sound has the highest ratio of high frequencies to the rest of the spectrum. The sharp transient attacks give sound clarity and impact such as a cymbal crash. The more rapid falloff of high frequencies makes the sound mellower. Where the reflections are largely lost, that is in recordings, clarity and mellowness of tone appear to be two diametrically opposed qualities as designers struggle to get a suitable balance. In the 1960s Edgar Villchur rationalized the high frequency rolloff of his speakers by comparing them to the steady state transfer function of concert halls typically measured with what’s called an ILC fan. In the 1980s, BBC made the same mistake. It’s a dilemma of heads you lose, tails you lose. The timbre of sound is a dynamic phenomenon that cannot be duplicated by a steady state analysis and design based on it. The tone of musical instruments heard at a live concert in a large venue cannot be duplicated by current recording technology except binaural recording systems that fail for other reasons.
When powerful sounds like a full symphony orchestra play at loud levels, they create the impression of a very large powerful source filling a huge space for a considerable time, 2 or more seconds for each note to die out. This is why composers create and conductors exploit grand pauses, an orchestra building to a crescendo and then stopping waiting for the echoes to die out building tension for the next note. It is for the conductor to judge by the acoustics of a particular venue how long this should be which is why orchestras usually sound best “at home” in acoustics they are familiar with. With a recording that does not capture this, the rest (pause between notes) becomes a discontinuity destroying the effect the composer tried to create. An orchestra or other large source of sound that is so powerful sounding and enveloping in a large hall becomes an blaring, blasting, annoyance from near by small sources, that is loudspeakers in a small room from a recording. These are just some of the enhancements to sound suitable listening spaces create for live music that our best technology today cannot duplicate. There are many others.
I have been watching it so far…a very good series. Very interesting to see the history of advancements in recording and how they affected the music
The Decca Tree often used by BBC with a ton of other mikes that grew from acorns that fell from the tree.
and another idea
My music teacher and I are having a hard time locating this sound breaking series. Does anyone have a link?
Look on your local PBS station. That’s where I’ve been watching them.
You can watch these online on the pbs.org website.
Depending on your geographical location, you might need some kind of VPN service, though.
I watched all 8 episodes. Great series – I learned a lot.
Unfortunately, at least in the Boston area, this series was available to stream from the PBS website only for about two weeks, ending on November 28th. Other PBS shows are kept available for a year or two, or David Eagleman’s very provocative series on the brain, which was shown last year and is available for nine more years.
I find the debate about whether recordings are illegitimate if they don’t strive to duplicate the sound heard from a seat in the audience – with the ultimate expression of a binaural dummy head placed in the center of the hall, yielding a very muffled sound in my opinion – or can be a “god’s ear view” like AIX’s stage perspective surround mixes – or a completely “assembled” work of art like the later Beatles records that could never exist except as a recording ignores the lesson of the history of cinema.
Cinema may have shown stage performances from a seat in the audience in its early years, but rapidly moved to closeups, location shooting, and special effects. To say that modern film is not an art form independent of the theater would be laughed at – and the insistence that no recording is legitimate other than the placing of a binaural head in the center of a concert hall is no different.