Recording by Ear, part 3: The Hope of Perfection

I’ve been asked for recording advice by fellow musicians ranging from gifted 12-year-olds to young professionals to established performers in mid-career. I no sooner mention recording with audience than they assure me it won’t work for them. I say, “You’re doing concerts anyway. It’s not much additional trouble to record; and if you’re streaming the concert, it’s no extra trouble. The potential benefit is huge. Why not try it?” They’re not convinced.

Besides a hesitation about concert recording or broadcasting, I think they have a positive attraction to the studio, which they see as offering note-perfection and a chance at an ideal interpretation.

But we’ve seen in Part 2 that concert recordings can also be note-perfect, or made so; or close enough. And to those who say that only perfection is “close enough,” I respectfully point out that every “repair” may introduce defects of its own.

In the illustration, the top line represents a portion of an unedited recording with performance errors. We replace these with error-free material—either as discussed in Part 2, if it’s a concert recording; or from another take, if we’re in a studio. Now the passage is note-perfect, as represented in the next line of the illustration, but—with risks!

Discontinuities in background noise at the edit-points can cause low-pitched thunks, easy to miss in the editing process but annoying in the careful listening we hope people will give us.

A mismatch of dynamics between an insert and the body will stand out. Can dynamics be altered in editing? Sure! But remember they must make sense not only at the edit-point, but in relation to other spots in the piece, some nearby, some farther away. Do-able, perhaps; but with work.

“Cross-phrasing”: Phrases 3 and 5 are mostly in the main recording; phrase 4 is mostly in an insert. Perhaps the melody is marked détaché in all the phrases, but you played it more toward staccato in the insert; more toward legato in the body. This creates a difference between phrase 4 and the phrases flanking it, with a risk of undermining the musical meaning.

Or maybe something in an insert—who knows what?—just doesn’t carry out the subtlest musical implications of what precedes it, or doesn’t create the right implications for what follows it. When I compared Sviatoslav Richter’s electrifying live recording of “Pictures at an Exhibition” to his boring studio recording on Melodiya, I could not identify what made the difference, yet the difference was there and it was big.

Richter called studios “torture chambers,” but Glenn Gould famously abandoned concert-giving in favor of the studio. I’m uncertain of the moral of the story, however; for when Gould played Beethoven 4 with my home-town orchestra (the Toledo Symphony), I heard what his pronouncements would never have led me to expect: playing so charming, witty and gracious—so joyous—there could be no doubt of his response to the audience, which responded in return.

We talk about subtleties, but an accumulation of subtleties can give rise to problems that are gross. An awkward moment occurred to one performer when friends played him their ensemble’s new studio recording. Listening with growing embarrassment, he finally burst out, “But…there’s no tempo!”

I’m concerned, too, that young musicians may be learning all the wrong things from recordings whose “perfection” comes with significant negative results. We might say these studio recordings have been, not perfected, but perfectionized. As my friend Doug Sax says, “The perception of a performance as opposed to a perfect rendition is for the few and unfortunately far between.”

The Feedback Loop: Another common problem in the studio interferes with how we instinctively adjust tempi to room acoustics. For busy passagework in a reverberant space, we may set the tempo somewhat slower for clarity. In a dry space (like most recording studios), such passages will work at higher tempi, while slow passages must not be too slow, or they will die on the vine. So! We choose an appropriate tempo for a Beethoven adagio; and then, because the studio’s too dry, the engineer adds artificial reverberation, making nonsense of our tempo and interpretation. Making us sound as though we have no ears.

The engineer offers us headphones so we can hear the whole thing, and now we really are floating free of reality; for the sound in those headphones never existed in any space, and the recording is no longer a capturing of any acoustic event. Perfectionizing strikes again. Once again, a performance becomes a rendition.

Absurdities like this are common in studio work, and I think this is connected with the fact that the studio is the Realm of the Engineer. You can foul things up the same exact way in concert recording; but it’s less likely because, first, it requires the engineer to bring more gear to the venue, which he hates doing; second, you’ve chosen the venue for its excellent acoustics; and third, the concert-hall is psychologically the Realm of the Musician.

It’s also the Realm of Intimate Communication, not just because of the audience—you can have an audience in the studio (I was once an audience of one for a fellow pianist in a direct-to-disc session; “on mike,” on a creaky chair!)—but because the psychology is different.

Have you ever had an intimate conversation interrupted? You’re just getting to the nub—the revelation that will explain all—when someone intrudes, and it’s all gone. If this has happened to you, you know how hard it is to get it back; and how the feeling that remains between you and the other person may be, not just less intense, but altogether different. You can try to “prime the pump” by saying what you were saying before the interruption; and it may work—sometimes—but it’s hardly reliable.

And yet this is the process that we expect to work in the studio when we continually interrupt our own playing and then try to assemble dozens or hundreds of takes into one intimate communication with our listeners.

Running into a pianist-producer I know, I asked him how things were going with his studio recording of another pianist. “I could tear my hair out!” he said. “He won’t play more than four bars at a time. He wants my opinion about each take, as though you could have an opinion about four bars. And he expects me to edit this mess into a coherent performance.” That pianist, like our friend with her #1 and #2, really “bought” the dogma of the studio. With the noblest of artistic goals, both of them chose a path that all but guaranteed falling short.

Don’t fall into this trap!

to be continued…

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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