A few friends have turned me on to the American Epic series currently being broadcast on PBS. The programs, which are hosted by Robert Redford and produced by Jack White and T Bone Burnett, trace the earliest days of electrical recording in America. I find the investigation into growth of the music industry, the search for new talent and forms of music, and the incredible technology applied to making recordings across America fascinating. These treasured recordings provide a glimpse into our musical heritage, the development of recording techniques and technology, and the music industry in general. The programs are definitely worth your attention.
This morning I turned on my Apple TV and noticed there was a new installment of American Epic. With Charlie out with his “pack” for the morning, I watched a series of contemporary sessions done with the only remaining functional, gravity powered, cutting lathe. There was Jack White, NAS, T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos, Elton John, The Alabama Shakes, and others gathered around a single condenser microphone playing and singing. Yep, the very same technology that was used to record the Carter family in the 1930s has been put back together at VOX Studios in Los Angeles. The American Epic program reached out these artists and convinced them to record a sub 3-4 minute track using this archaic system.
What does it take to make a new recording using a gravity driven cutting lathe? It takes musicians that can sign and play a complete tune. I requires a lot of set up time to arrange the instruments, amplifiers, and singers in a sort of virtual “mixing” console. As Jack points out to one group as they walk into the studio, “moving closer to the microphone is like moving a fader on a console”. It also means that the fidelity of the freshly cut lacquer disc is decidedly LoFi and monophonic. Listening to the tracks through my 5.1 home theater system was of historical interest but not engaging in the least when it comes to fidelity or emotional attachment.
I can certainly appreciate the love and dedication it takes to resurrect the machinery, but the resulting recordings are of no artistic value IMHO. They are curiosities for 21st century musicians — exercises in musicianship and a trip in the way back machine. I really don’t get it. Why not bring these very same musicians into an acoustically rich, live venue and record them with lots of stereo microphones, real room ambience, real world frequency response and dynamic range, and capture them with high-resolution audio equipment. That would be worthy of Sir Elton John or Willie Nelson’s time. But wait, I actually spent 17 years doing exactly that! And I shot video during the sessions.
Celebrities can make things happen that I can’t. They can get funding, they can excite other celebrity artists, they can get international distribution through PBS and other outlets. And it seems they can energize a segment of the audio community to the value of limited fidelity, mono recordings, on pieces of spinning lacquer.
Respect and reverence for the past — and even revisiting the processes and technology of the past — are laudable pursuits. But ignoring new and potentially revolutionary processes and technology to enhance musical enjoyment makes no sense to me. There’s a role for both ends of the experimental continuum. Things like real high-resolution recording, mixing in surround, and projecting beams of binauralized audio using a smart bar should be the focus going forward.
Yesterday morning, I collected, reviewed, and edited a 90 second video of reactions from attendees that sat and experienced the YARRA 3DX smart bar at the LA Audio Show. I can tell you that there was not a single negative comment — everyone from Neil Gader of The Absolute Sound to Jonathan Novick of Avermetrics had nice things to say after experiencing immersive, 3D sound from our little array. Check out the uploaded video on YouTube. If looks like our Kickstarter campaign is going to launch on July 11 AND the folks at Kickstarter have agreed to help promote the campaign. It’s going to be one of their “Projects We Love” and will be send to their community. If you want to get in on the VIP early bird special price, be sure to sign up at www.yarra3dx.com.