The aesthetic of classical music recording & mixing

This week I’ve been thinking about the different places of pop and classical musicians within their respective record-making processes.

Dr Amy Blier-Carruthers’ 2013 paper about orchestral players’ dissatisfaction with the studio experience, “The Performer’s Place in the Process and Product of Recording”, details the tensions classical musicians feel about recording:

[There are] many examples of early recorded performers approaching the recording horn with trepidation and anxiety. But what is striking is that even after over a century of commercial classical recordings, many of the same issues are still in evidence today – distrust of the technology, dislike of the process, doubts about whether you like what is captured, disillusionment with the editing process, the thought of your performance going somewhere where you are no longer in control of it, the thought of a disembodied performance existing at all. […] Basically, even the biggest and best orchestras are in a way victims of the status quo: they are not getting the time and money and support necessary to give them the opportunity to get something that they are really happy with down on record.

For a musician like me, working in the field of popular music (and more specifically, rock, folk, pop and country), these issues are of very little concern. In an earlier post, I talked about the portrait-painting-vs-photography analogy to demonstrate a couple of prevalent record-making philosophies within pop music. To restate this as briefly as possible, most producers and engineers who work with popular-music artists are comfortable with the idea that, like portrait painters, their job is to construct a representation of reality in which aiming for exact adherence to the measurable world is only one possible approach; that is to say, a painting may capture the emotional truth of its subject without being anything close to a photo-realist depiction (as in, say, the works of Lucian Freud).

Or to put it another way, “To me, the evolution of the recording studio has made possible the record as a piece of self-contained art. A good record is a piece of art in itself, not just a document of some other ‘more valid’ art form” (Jack Endino, recording engineer famous for his work with Nirvana, Mudhoney and Soundgarden).

Think about this for a second. When you record a relatively small sound source such as a drum kit in a modern studio, most likely you’ll use multiple microphones (say, 8 or more) hung both close and at a distance, and an arsenal of sound-processing tools. As a result, the scope you have for presenting that sound source in different ways is immense. You can use mainly the close mics and present a tight, dry version of the performance. You can lean on the ambient ones and blow up the sound. Or you can blend the mics together to present something that cannot be experienced live: a drum performance with all the attack and nuances that the player hears from their stool that also has all the size and bloom that you would hear if you were standing 10 feet away. This isn’t achievable in real life unless you’ve found a way to exist in two positions at the same time (in which case, you’d better give Stephen Hawking a call). And you can also hear the drums in massively exaggerated stereo, with preposterous amounts of wave shaping from compressors and equalisers. In effect, you hear the drum kit turned into a cartoon of itself. Yet this is the aesthetic we’ve grown used to over the last hundred years of recording, and so it doesn’t sound weird to us. And when we see a band play in a pub and hear what a drum kit really sounds like, that doesn’t sound weird either. In this sense, if in no other, popular music exists in a state of grace. It is not hung up on notions of fidelity to the original sound or performance and it intuitively understands that the record and the live performance are separate and not interdependent

Blier-Carruthers argues that classical music has never really come round to this way of thinking. When recording, she says, performers “carry the live aesthetic with them into the recording session”. The majority of listeners share this aesthetic with the players, expecting recordings to present the music as they would experience it at a live performance, but to be without blemish, which a live performance by any group of musicians playing challenging music for 60 minutes or more never will be.

But there are several things to unpack here. Irrespective of the fact that the overwhelming majority of the audience would not hear a mistake (unless it was a soloist dramatically blowing a note, say) during a live performance, performers are aware when they’ve made one, and it’s only natural that this would be unpleasant for them to hear over and again while listening to a recording. Blier-Carruthers quotes some students as believing that the insistence on perfection in recording is hurting not only the recorded product, which tends to become sterile, but also the musicians’ ability to perform effectively in the concert hall, as they become concerned more with minimising errors than with playing expressively.

However, Blier-Carruthers seems to me to assume that classical listeners and players are an entirely separate breed to their pop music counterparts, which I don’t think is really true. There is a huge overlap. I’ve played folk and rock and country with numerous musicians whose training and background is concert hall and conservatory rather than pub and rehearsal room like my own, and the ability of most of them to move seamlessly between the two worlds is a defining quality of what makes these people great musicians. Not only are these players catholic in their tastes and repertoire, they’re technologically literate, too. They understand software editing of takes, and they know what is achievable using the modern tools of audio recording. They know that the recording is not a simple presentation of a one-off musical event; that it hasn’t been for a long time; that a producer employing an edit is not a condemnation of a player’s musical proficiency; and that the fact of your having been edited during recording is in no way a judgement on your ability to go out and play in an orchestra in front of an audience, doing so both expressively and technically correctly.

Indeed, it is often forgotten that throughout the history of recorded music, huge technical and theoretical strides in the recording of music have been achieved in the service of classical, rather than pop or rock, music. One thinks of the conductor Leopold Stokowski’s experiments in the early era of electrical recording with engineers from Bell Labs, searching for ever-greater volume and impact in recorded music; of Jack Somer’s work producing stereoised versions of mono recordings of Mussorgski and Dvorak for RCA in the early 1960s; of Thomas Stockham’s Soundstream recorder (the first digital recording system) being employed by Telarc’s Jack Renner for recordings of Holst and Tchaikovsky; and even of the oft-repeated (but still unverified) story about the CD being created to hold 74 minutes of music so that it could accommodate Beethoven’s Ninth.

In the early 1960s, the pianist Glenn Gould argued controversially for the need for classical music to develop an aesthetic of recording separate to that of the live performance:

The generation currently being subjected to the humiliation of public school solfège will be the last to attain their majority persuaded that the concert is the axis upon which the world of music revolves.

It is not.

In “The Prospects of Recording”, he details how he achieved this in his own recorded work, giving an example of edits made when recording the Fugue in A minor from Volume I of Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier*. It’s easy to fool yourself that you can hear the tape splice at bar 14, but given shift in the mood of the music – which was why Gould chose that moment to make his edit – the release of the pedals and the move up the keyboard of the right hand, I think the temptation to interpret that briefest of silences as an audible edit point would be a mistake; rests of that nature occur in music on all instruments with extreme frequency. As an engineer, I know all too well the experience of listening to a soloed vocal track, hearing a shift of timbre and assuming an edit between two takes occurred, only to look in the media pool in Cubase and find no such edit occurred and that that change of timbre was part of a live performance.

Gould, then, was extremely prescient:

When the performer makes use of this post-performance editorial decision, his role is no longer compartmentalized. In a quest for perfection, he sets aside the hazards and compromises of his trade. As an interpreter, as a go-between serving both audience and composer, the performer has always been, after all, someone with a specialist’s knowledge about the realization or actualization of notated sound symbols. It is, then, perfectly consistent with such experience that he should assume something of an editorial role.

He constructs an analogy to the work of Van Meegeren, who in the 1930s began producing Vermeer-like works that had an uncanny stylistic resemblance to the paintings of the master, which he then sold as Vermeer originals to German private collectors during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Later charged with collaborating and selling national treasures for profit, he revealed they were not the work of Vermeer but his own work, but was nonetheless imprisoned.

Gould claims Van Meegeren as a personal hero, and argues he was treated unjustly – “The determination of the value of a work of art according to the information available about it is a most delinquent form of aesthetic appraisal. Indeed, it strives to avoid appraisal on any ground other than that which has been prepared by previous appraisals” – and goes on to conclude that:

As the performer’s once sacrosanct privileges are merged with the responsibilities of the tape editor and the composer, the Van Meegeren syndrome can no longer be cited as an indictment but becomes rather an entirely appropriate description of the aesthetic condition in our time. The role of the forger, of the unknown maker of unauthenticated goods, is emblematic of electronic culture. And when the forger is done honor for his craft and no longer reviled for his acquisitiveness, the arts will have become a truly integral part of our civilization.

This was extraordinary stuff for a classical musician to be writing in 1966, and Blier-Carruthers’ work interviewing young players tends to suggest that the world has not yet come around to Gould’s way of thinking. Young musicians are still being taught that the recording of a work shall be a representation of a concert performance of that work, and while all sorts of tricks are employed to produce the blemish-free representation supposedly required by producers; Blier-Carruthers does report producer Stephen Johns’s contention that he routinely gets asked by musicians to perform edits he deems unnecessary, as the musicians can’t live with releasing anything that could be judged not “perfect”.

As the world of classical music hasn’t yet established its own recording aesthetic separate to that of the concert hall, its critics, its listeners and many of its players remain babes in the woods where modern production techniques are concerned. A Joyce Hatto scandal could not happen in any field of popular music (and maybe not even in jazz). Pop music fans and critics do not as a rule care about such notions as the integrity of an individual musician’s performance, and even if they did, would not have bought William Barrington-Coupe’s cover story about splicing in tiny fragments of other recordings into otherwise genuine Hatto performances recorded in a shed in the bottom of their garden simply to cover mistakes and extraneous noises – how could a recording made in that environment sound anything like one made in a much larger acoustic space on an entirely different instrument with much more (and much better) technology employed in production? The willingness of some critics to entertain this possibility even for a second suggests a merely rudimentary understanding of what is possible today, even in the world of digital post-production, and a disconnect between the levels of recording literacy, so to speak, possessed by the older generation of fans and critics and the younger generation of fans and players.

I raise all this not to criticise the classical music industry and the way its musicians and critics are trained. Yet as I read back this week through Greg Milner’s magisterial Perfecting Sound Forever about the accomplishments of Stokowski, Thomas Stockham and Jack Renner, it’s striking that the most recent of these advances was still the better part of 40 years ago. It’s fascinating that an academic such as Dr Blier-Carutthers still needs to argue for “musicians and producers to work out new ways of conceptualizing, capturing and disseminating recorded music”, and even more so to wonder what might be accomplished if a record label decided that to try a method of recording and mixing that didn’t aim to replicate the real-world concert-hall listening experience. Are opportunities being missed, leaving today’s musicians caught unsatisfactorily between two worlds?

concert hall

*The next time you’re listening to a recording of a recording of a piano-led piece, listen hard to the stereo image of the piano. While anyone who isn’t sitting inside a Steinway grand facing the pianist will hear the piano as essentially a mono sound source within a stereo environment (the room – at least, as long as the listener can hear in both ears), it is, like the drum kit I discussed earlier, routinely recorded and presented in perceptible stereo. This is an example of a way in which classical music has taken a small step away from a prevailing naturalist aesthetic, but to nothing like the extent of rock and pop music, which, as noted above, often treats acoustic instruments in a wildly exaggerated and cartoonish fashion.


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