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Essay - "The Recording Process: A Labor of Love" - February, 1997

By Colin Miller


Like the cutest of puppies and kittens, the vast rewards of high fidelity audio drag with them a variable sum of shed fur, blood sucking parasites, and unpleasant odors. Besides the associated cost of quality playback equipment, the dizzying hype of occasionally misleading marketing campaigns, and the task of simply putting aside the time to sneak inside our fragile cove of auditory bliss, there remains one small, but sturdy, immutable catch. Unless some genius has found a way to get around the laws of entropy, (randomization of energy, noise, heat death of the universe at an estimated 4 Kelvin, etc.,) you're not going to truly improve the original source, i.e., recording, to anything near its full potential. You can try. You can redo the EQ, saturate it with euphonic distortions via whatever pleases you, add more compression, even dynamically expand it, but it's all plastic surgery and eventually your adorable cherub will end up a worn out Hollywood has-been.

Granted, as a consumer, these ointments are the limit of our soothing abilities for any given piece of software. But, although it may perhaps serve well as a bandage, it doesn't serve our ultimate purpose - the best sound possible. It must sway, it must convey, lift, entice, and satisfy. I'm not speaking merely of interpretive preference. I refer to the all too occurring less than adequate recording. Salt the steak every shake you like, but rotten meat will remain rancid no matter what the spice, until it dissolves by natural processes into dirt. Then it's compost. Who, besides worms, (or your neighbor's misguided child) eats compost? For illustration, Bjork's last album, "Post", tickles my occasional whiskers when I can bear it. I adore the musical content, but the recording is, ummmm... awful. One of the worst vocal microphone jobs ever, a cross between gasping, rasping, and piercing sibilants as if they wanted to record her tonsils but scraped against the teeth instead. The subsequent mixing of the album exposes a hint of what might have been effort, but didn't reach fruition for reasons I can only speculate. Perhaps the captain of the mixing console had a really horrible cold. Maybe a bad recording is an intentional artistic statement. Sure, whatever. I can't do anything about it.

On the other side of the seesaw, my father once bought me an album of Celtic folk music from one of those knickknack-selling nature stores. It didn't wear the badge of any recording company I recognized, nor had I any interest in Celtic music, but the recording quality surprised me to the breadth that I gave the material half a miserable chance and I grew to like it, a lot. Consider my horizons expanded. So how is it, though, that a major recording studio with mucho buckaroos ejects such flotsam while those who hawk their wares as yuppie background music produce something really excellent? One could propose more than a few reasons why, but I think one will do in general. It's difficult to produce a good recording.

While the home enthusiast must find a suitable location for his speakers in relation to the couch, the recording engineer butts his head with and sometimes against what can seem at times like celestial variables. Some get tired of the battle and figure that it doesn't matter since most playback will occur on a dinky boom box. Some can't differentiate. A minority of these professionals, more skilled because of talent, training, luck, and/or old fashioned perseverance, hammer through obstacles to construct an enjoyable rendition of whichever material interests our bilateral auditory organs. What's so hard about recording? Everything. Not that I'm an expert on the topic, but it interests me. I got pulled in by my ears at the consumer end out of frustration. As I improved audio equipment in my own system, it became annoyingly lucid that my the quality of my CD's stumbled unpredictably from label to label, artist to artist, especially in popular music. This frustration luckily grew a handle after meeting with Andor Izsak, a fellow audio nut who runs a small recording studio, Unreel Productions, out of San Mateo, California. Thanks to some discussion about fundamental recording techniques and their audible effects, and playtime with various recording tools, I realized that blaming my home equipment, and drastically running from different technologies to others to accommodate unpredictably imperfect recordings would quickly drive me penniless, if not batty, first.

Andor Izsak began dabbling in recording on his own as a DJ in Hungary while also experimenting with home audio projects of his own. "I've made both tube and solid state amps based on schematics published by our (Hungarian) HiFi magazines, modified speakers, turntables, experimented with cable insulation, and so on. In Hungary, we couldn't get most of the stuff you have in America, and what we could get was damned expensive, so I got the best stuff that I could get and made it as good as it could be. My father was an engineer for the government, so he got me military spec components." After arriving in the United States, he did his research and carefully selected some of the best values in professional gear for under five figures - well chosen, but cheap by professional standards where a microphone can set one back more than many persons' yearly salary. After hearing the quality of work on projects which encompass many popular styles, as well as acoustical instruments and small groups of Hungarian folk musicians, it dawned on me that good equipment is beneficial, but it's only the platform. The recording engineer must carefully work his/her way through dials and knobs galore, knowing that any misadjustment might cause an irreversible detriment. Let's take a quick hypothetical ride with Mr. Engineer and start at a hypothetical beginning.

Although the electrical path usually begins at the wall socket, the musical signal just as usually begins with an artist. This is as critically important as it is ridiculously obvious. An artist, in all cases I've known of, is a life form, and most life forms are sensitive to their environment. Tom, a rather massive musician who favors acoustical guitar once explained, "As soon as that record button is pushed, I freeze up." Tom, a not so hypothetical musician, has a very real problem, and the recording engineer must respond by becoming more than an engineer. One of my first lessons in recording techniques with Andor involved learning to talk to the musician, and more importantly, listening to him, making it obvious that one is doing so. "Are you feeling comfortable? Can I get you anything, a glass of water, perhaps? Is the room temperature all right?"

An engineer, while working with the artist, must coax forth a worthwhile performance from the relocated performer in an unnatural environment. And which unnatural environment is that? Take your pick. The recording studio provides the versatility made possible by DSP (Digital Signal Processing) technologies to create artificial reflections and reverberations, in addition to other sonic effects, with as many options as algorithms. A real world venue, however, such as a local concert hall, relieves the engineer of DSP decisions, but includes room reflections of that hall, club, or garage, in the final product whether desired or not. Sometimes the best combination is a mixture of the two. In fact, many of the algorithms found in professional DSP processors are modeled after real world locations. Either way, the sound of the room, comprised of reflections and subsequent reverberations, provides dimensionality for the recorded source. It is essential that the engineer picks an appropriate acoustical environment, real or artificial, and balances between the sound of the chosen venue and the source so that they compliment and highlight each other. Mistaking novelty for artistic judgment in either direction of the application can leave the impression of a dry dictation machine or a clumsy weekend bootleg project.

If you choose the real venue, once you've selected the particular location, all you can do is move on, and if the DSP won you over, you've got experimenting to do later. Can we record now? Sure, but with what? Unless we're using electronic instruments, we need to transfer pressure waves into an electrical signal. Microphones fit the parameter quite well. Which kind? How many? Where will you position them, and at what angles? Condenser or dynamic, which kind of directional patterns, which associated pre-amps to provide gain, and how will you set those? Microphone selection and placement affects the sound as much as the instrument, and should be given equal attention.

Once you get your signal onto the recording medium with a designated track, the mixing board, the professional version of a control amplifier or "pre-amp", will allow you to enhance or ruin your work in progress. Besides providing the route for microphones and DSP processors, the mixing console ties together compressors, saturators, equalizers, noise gates, level and panning controls, midi devices, other instruments, and even computers. We could get into the particular functions of each, but the point is that with all these tools and options available, the engineer has numerous potential recordings of a single performance, and every option introduces a potential screw-up. If you're fortuitous enough to actually find recordings done without any identifiable mistakes, it came from a very competent, or very lucky engineer.

At first I wondered how a professional recording engineer could let a mistake pass through the recording process without correction. There are a few valid reasons, but the most applicable is time. It is finite, and so is the money that the producer will shell out for a project which may or may not prove profitable. After all the clams come home to roost, the recording industry is big business. It takes that precious time to reap a good performance which may never surface again, and it takes time to evaluate and adjust all those critical options which can always go wrong. In the end, like most commissioned works of art, there is compromise. The skill of the engineer lies in maximizing the allotted resources to minimize that compromise. If given more freedom and the motivation, most experienced engineers could deliver results vastly superior to the common fodder. Then again, there are always exceptions.

In the aforementioned album "Post" by Bjork, the recording was so horrendous, I wonder if the engineers were even listening to it. On the fourth track, "It's Oh So Quiet," I clearly hear a ground loop hum. It's not so quiet. In fact, it's irritating. I don't believe that they heard it, and I don't believe that they're deaf. Unfortunately, and ironically, industry standards for monitoring equipment, especially in pop/rock circles, do not significantly surpass, if at all, the consumer mid-fi market, let alone the high-end. Thus, the poor dedicated audiophile, in all anxiousness, is doomed to experience ten fold the blunders of the more ignorant recording professionals.

Sure, while the high-end is full of nonsense and voodoo marketing, specialist audiophile engineers like Gabe Weiner have setups most coveting audiophiles would shed blood for. Dolby Labs, Lucasfilms, and Tom Jung of DMP use very competent gear. There is good monitoring equipment available in the professional market. Genelec powered speakers and Hafler amplifiers come to mind, but many choose not to use these because of unwritten industry standards. In an issue of Mix magazine that I can't seem to dig up for reference, an interviewer asked award winning recording engineers about their favorite monitors. One, who recorded primarily classical music, cited B&W 801's and Martin Logan electrostatic panels, generally respected as fairly accurate and revealing transducers. However, the majority chose a popular professional near field monitor, to be left unnamed, that sells for roughly $300. The consumer version, almost identical in response, can't even compete with many popular speakers on the consumer market for the same price. The first time I heard them in a studio I thought out quite loudly, "How do you know what you're doing?" The attending engineer replied, "We use the Sennheiser 580s or the NS-1000s. These are just to hear what it will sound like in 90% of the other studios out there." One could argue that a recording should sound good on a cheap boom box. I would argue that it can't, and if you're listening to music on an appliance purchased from a drug store, you probably won't expect it to, so why introduce yet another compromise?

Maybe I'm just picking at straws. As one of those award winning engineers stated in his interview, summarized as per memory but true in effect, "It's not what comes out of the speakers that matters. It's what goes in that counts." Maybe so, but how could he tell what went in?

Colin Miller

Copyright 1995, 1996, 1997 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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