Recording by Ear, part 1: Live & Dead

(To the tune of “Maria”)

I search for a way of recording.
I found an engineer,
But nothing’s very clear
To me!

He’s got his own way of distorting.
And suddenly I’ve found
How dry my gorgeous sound
Can be!

Play it loud and it sounds like braying!
But too late! It’s already past praying.

I’ll never stop hating recording!

Just say the word recording and musicians get anxious. And why not? Everywhere we turn, people who claim to know more than we do are telling us what to do and how to do it; blinding us with science. But do they know enough to capture our performances, our interpretations, our precious sound? No, not always. Not even most of the time.

We need to remember the one big strength we can draw on: that what matters most in recording is what matters most in making music: good ears and musical judgment, the very things we’ve worked so hard to train.

It’s true that most music, heard by most people most of the time, is recorded. And more people may well hear our recordings, if we make any, than attend our concerts. When we’re asleep, a concert manager may be enjoying our sound and deciding to hire us. As we’re learning new repertoire, the dean of a music school may be realizing that she wants us in residence. When we’re taking a day off, listeners may be discovering that our playing gives meaning to their lives. So, yes, recording is important to us, and we want our recordings to present us at our best. But what does “best” mean?

I have two recordings of the same pianist. In the first one, she and her audience are obviously caught up in the moment. Her playing brims with insight and overflows with feeling. Audience members’ involvement shows in their attentiveness and eager applause.

In her other recording, the whole level of feeling is lower, and the insight is more pedantic than poetic. As for audience response, there is none; for there is no audience.

#1 carries me away. #2 is boring. #1 makes it obvious she’s a superb pianist, expressive interpreter and exciting performer. #2 leaves me uncertain about these, and not caring much either way.

We can identify what makes the difference between the two recordings. No doubt you’ve already done so; but just to put things in context, it wasn’t the pianos: both instruments were fine. So were both tunings, and the acoustics of the two halls. Nor was the difference due to something random in the recording process: “Sometimes it comes out good,” opines the wise old engineer, wisely shaking his wise old head, “and sometimes it comes out bad.” No! It wasn’t random.

You’re impatiently whispering, “It’s the audience! The difference is the audience! What you’re describing in #1, we know from our own expaudience—experience! It’s not just the adrenalin but the whole sense of occasion: playing for fellow humans, recreating the composer’s meaning. Being a time traveler from Then to Now and into the Future! The medium at a musical séance!”

Of course I agree. The audience is everything.

Let’s also notice that #1 cost the pianist no money and no work beyond the preparation and performance she was already doing for the concert. It was a routine taping of her very much not-routine faculty recital at a conservatory. By contrast, #2 cost her mucho moolah for renting the hall and hiring the recording engineer; and lots of work in the recording sessions and the editing (which can range from no editing—almost unheard of—to the musico-permutational hell hilariously described by Jeremy Denk in “Flight of the Concord,” The New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2012).

So! When you and I perform and record together, are we agreed we’ll record ourselves in concert? Yes? Good!

to be continued…

Tags: acoustic recording, guidance for musicians, recording for musicians, concert recording, studio recording, recording engineer, how to record yourself, optimal recording, editing audio recording  

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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