studio microphone on a black background

The illusion of sound

When we listen to a recording do we hear something that never happened – and does it matter?

What makes a great recording? Is it the sense of being in there, in the middle of the music, where you can hear everything? Or is a great recording one which is so technically blemish-free that it creates music that represents what the composer or arranger heard in their head but could never be performed?

What if we could hear what Robert Johnson or Enrico Caruso actually sounded like? The sound that we hear in our heads when we think of old recording artists comes is characterised by the limitations of the media with which they worked. Successive technologies have given us more faithful recordings and released constraints on the artist and the sound engineer. For example, there could be no crooners before the introduction of the microphone.

﷯As another example, the adoption of magnetic recording tape from Germany into the US after 1945 meant that the clicks and hisses that had been part of recordings disappeared. This, incidentally, meant that Bing Crosby could record his radio shows and spend more time on the golf course because there was now no difference between recorded and live sound.

But since the introduction of digital sound, and with the growth in computing power, things have really changed. A day or two of frantic activity at Abbey Road or Air Studios with an orchestra is followed by weeks of intensive post-production work, as we clean, polish, hone, shape and polish the files again. Like a man snipping alternate ends of his moustache, it’s sometimes hard to know when to stop.

Particularly when you start using a software tool like Izotope RX4, which is to sound what Adobe Photoshop is to images – and then some. In the hands of a skilled operator noises, distortions, hums, clicks, reverb and ambient noise are whisked away, as if with a wizard’s wand. Recordings made in different places can be made to sound the same. The result is pristine. But even Playboy models don’t look like Playboy models in real life. And sometimes recordings are beautiful but they are not accurate evidence of what happened.

So how far should you go in the pursuit of perfection? Doesn’t a bit of grunge actually add something? That’s real ambient grunge, not the digital stuff you add in after you’ve cleaned everything up.

‘ There is an unquantifiable magic about live recordings that appeals to many people. But of course, at the expense of letting the light in on the magic, even live recordings get the treatment in post-production. But it’s the stuff that gets left in that adds something.’

Bob Dylan’s concert at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1966 became infamous for the exchange between Dylan and a young heckler who calls him Judas. Dylan replies by calling him a liar and then instructs The Band, in industrial language, to turn up the volume somewhat. The result is an incandescent outpouring of anger from the artist that could never have happened in the studio and would have made no sense if the heckle had been removed from the recording.

Some records are made never to be performed in a truly live sense. Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound relied on live recording of multiple instruments played in unison to create a dense aesthetic that was at its best when heard on cheap audio. The inevitable tiny time lags between players created a unique sound.

In his autobiography, Life, Keith Richards bemoans the fact that the Stones’ most exciting recordings were made when the technology was at its most primitive. They ”would record the room.” Now he says every element and instrument is recorded and months are spent putting all the elements back together to recreate the original sound. He has a point, but there is no right or wrong answer.

Of course, some live performances should never be heard. If you can stand it, listen to Britney Spears live microphone feed from her 2008 tour.

It’s a rule in show business that you should never work with animals or children. I volunteered to record the local school’s Christmas carol service and was disconcerted to hear the right channel mike clearly pick up some speech from one of the tiny young singers: “ I don’t like Johnny, he smells.” I left the comment in – sometimes the magic of live recordings wins out over the search for immaculate sound.

The technology at our disposal these days is superb – although I think that even RX would struggle to deal with this example of a live recording going horribly and hilariously wrong.


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