How Recordings Are Produced, and What It Means to Your Hi-Fi | The Ivory Tower

Reality Is Overrated











Reality Is Overrated When It Comes to Recordings

In my never-ending mental obsession with the conceptual side of music recording and playback, I started thinking about what makes hi-fi components sound different and what that means for the wide range of recordings I play. What is the ideal that designers are designing for?

Something happened recently that kicked started my monkey brain. I sent an audiophile friend of mine a reel-to-reel tape that I made from a recording of some tunes I mastered a few years ago. The recording wasn’t a purist, audiophile type of thing, but also not heavy-handed by any means. I considered it to be a very well-done, modern, vocal/jazz affair. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when he related to me everything wrong with the recording that rendered it unlistenable for him.

Words and Photos by Dave McNair

This reaffirmed my impression that a lot of audiophiles think that most (if not all) recordings should be done with as few microphones as possible and no equalization that could destroy the natural sound. And let’s make sure the performers are playing together live in the studio. And we want to get the FULL dynamic range of the musicians, so no pesky dynamic processing. This event can then be reproduced at home to present a credible approximation of what it sounded like in the studio or performance hall. Total reality.

This might be an admirable concept but for one thing: it doesn’t work very well in the real world. Why not, you ask? Well, based on my 40 years of experience as a recording engineer/mixer/producer and currently a mastering engineer (with one leg in the audiophile world), I’ll tell you what I have experienced, and see how many folks I can offend in the process.

Creating a recording is all about stirring emotions in the listener. Not all artists think about this when they write and record stuff, but that’s what it comes down to.

When a group of young lads from Liverpool got the chance to record their tunes, the LAST thing they wanted was for the white lab coat-wearing engineers at Abbey Road to impose management-mandated “best practices” for their recordings. Those practices were arrived at from primarily recording classical music and musicals–distant microphone placement, minimal or no eq (equalization) and dynamics processing. Anything thought of as studio trickery (except crazy amounts of tape editing) was considered off-limits for the kinds of stuff for which EMI had developed a solid reputation. Read Geoff Emerick’s fantastic book for the full story.

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The earliest Beatles records actually WERE them playing live with no additional overdubs. I’ll grant you there is a certain charm and excitement to those records, but I’d much rather hear the studio trickery of say, Revolver.

The Beatles were huge fans of Tamla/Motown records (among other American chart-toppers). Those records sounded amazing on a table radio, in the car, jukebox, console hi-fi, etc. Okay, a lot of that amazingness was due to the talent of the performers, producers, writers, etc. but a big part of what makes old Motown records compelling is the sonic vibe, meaning their particular style of hyped sonics. Well, maybe not so sonically compelling on your pair of Wilson Audio Chronosonic XVXs, and therein lies the rub–but I’ll come back to this later.

So in an effort to impress The Beatles, Geoff (against fears of being fired) breaks the EMI rules and shoves a mic inside Ringo’s bass drum, cranks the eq all the way up, smashes all the drum mics through a Fairchild compressor, puts John’s vocal through a Leslie organ speaker and Beatles records (and just about everybody else’s records) were never the same from that moment on.

Before I go on, a few definitions of terms used in recording:

eq – Short for equalization. Fancy tone controls. The term comes from when eqs were very simple and intended to correct or equalize deficiencies in microphones or loss from multiple analog tape generations and such.

Pan or Panning – Short for panorama which describes where in the stereo field an instrument or sound is placed, left, center, right, or anywhere in between. The knobs for this on a console are called pan pots (panoramic potentiometers). This isn’t just for a mono source–stereo sources can also be panned. Some very old recording consoles at the dawn of the stereo era didn’t have pan pots, just assignment switches for hard left, center, or hard right.

Compressor – A device used to automatically reduce the dynamic range of a signal. When the loud parts are turned down using compression and then that compressed signal is turned up, it’s perceived as the soft parts being brought forward. Almost as important, different compressors and how they are adjusted imparts a sonic signature or tone (beyond simple dynamic alteration) to what passes through them. Compression is probably the most powerful creative tool available in a recording or mixing situation. It’s like sonic crack for recording engineers and musicians. Not to be confused with data compression – used to make a digital file into a smaller size.

Spectral Content – The distribution of energy across the audible spectrum. eq’s and compressors are commonly used to shape a recording to achieve a certain desirable tonal profile which I like to call spectral content.

Flat – Used to denote that no processing (usually eq) has been added to a signal. For example, during a recording, the signal from the mics may be eq’d and /or compressed or left flat. The music production meaning of flat is not to be confused with other situations where using the term flat denotes a linear frequency response of a particular component, especially loudspeakers.

Dry – A close mic’d signal that has no additional room ambiance added. If ambiance is added to a dry signal, then it’s considered to be wet. This added space or wetness may be “natural” or artificial. When using a separate microphone(s) placed distantly from the sound source to explicitly capture the sound of the space, one might call this natural ambiance. Commonly referred to as room mics.

Artificial Reverb – May be either a mechanical plate/spring reverb/dedicated chamber type device or a digital program. Digital programs these days are very sophisticated including some types called convolution programs that are digital snapshots of real, acoustical spaces.

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Going on, as foretold

Earlier in my career, I experimented a lot with using purist recording techniques on all kinds of pop, rock, and singer-songwriter, jams. Things like very minimal mic’ing, not using any eq or compression, bypassing the pan pots, etc. It always sounded incredible cranked up loud on the studio monitors but when played anywhere else it’d sound like toasted Wonder Bread with no butter.

That phase didn’t last long for me, especially after hearing Hall and Oates’ “Kiss On My List” in my girlfriend’s VW Super Beetle ’cause I was ALL IN. But play that sucker on some Magicos and it sounds congested, super-bright, harsh, airless, thin on the bottom, and lacking in dynamics. Who’s right, the recording or the speakers? Both!

One thing I have noticed is that older ’60s or ’70s era pop recordings done entirely on tape and analog consoles can still be listenable on hi-rez systems even though there is that extreme type of processing that was designed to make the song jump out of the factory audio system in a ‘67 Chevy Malibu. Magnetic tape, vacuum tube or discrete op amp-based solid state eqs and compressors can be mighty forgiving even when used to an extreme.

On the other side of the audio production coin is today’s recordings, which are almost entirely digital. Once the analog signal leaves a microphone and mic preamp and goes into an A/D converter, in today’s world it seldom ever becomes analog again until it emerges from your home system’s DAC. If we assume good microphones, engineering techniques, etc., this style of recording with so little distortion and purity of sound should recreate a hair-raising illusion of the performers right there in our listening rooms, right? Not so fast, Mr. Audiophile.

So why don’t more modern recordings have the sonics designed to create the illusion of performance in your living room? There is a pesky little thing that almost always precludes a bonafide, audiophile-approved recording. It’s known as—the artist.

I’m not in any way bashing musicians, singers, or even the drummer–without our talented and creative friends, we wouldn’t have great recordings of great music. But recreating a musical performance in a room full of pricey Hi-Fi gear is the LAST thing on their minds.

Think of it this way: you are in an art gallery looking at an Ansel Adams print. Let’s say it’s a small size print. You intuitively get close so you can see every minute detail. Maybe there is a bright halogen light shining from above the picture to enhance the detail. Maybe you even don some reading glasses to see more.

In the next room is a large Warhol or Lichtenstein painting. What will be more immediately impressive to a casual museum-goer? And using the same viewing techniques employed on the small Adams photograph wouldn’t be appropriate and might even give you a headache.

Most if not all recordings are made to communicate or evoke an emotion. It could be through dazzling instrumental or vocal chops. It could be through a lyric sung over a very simple musical backdrop. Maybe by musicians crafting a captivating tonal or rhythmic instrumental landscape. Occasionally it’s a combo platter of things. But it’s very, very rarely intended to be a naturalistic, you-are-there kind of thing. Why?

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I think there are several reasons. Musicians and singers can almost never allow themselves to leave in the flaws that go along with a recording session that is designed to capture an event. Especially if they aren’t virtuoso performers.

They also love to sound bigger than life. The you-are-there thing never seems to outweigh the I-want-to-sound-perfect-and bigger-than-life thing that is all too available in non-linear, computer-based recordings. And in today’s world, that’s pretty much ALL recordings. Even in classical and jazz, computer-aided perfection is the norm although not as blatant as in other genres. Even the amount of tape edits found on Glenn Gould recordings is insane, beyond any pop or rock production. And Glenn WAS a virtuoso!

Additionally, musicians’ natural existence IS the live performance of music so they are almost desensitized to that as a thing. They are rarely audiophiles, at least the sort that quests for realism in home playback. To a typical musician, a highly realism-based recording is not even part of their thought process. Studio and live are always considered two totally different things. Musicians and singers mainly just wanna sound GOOD on a recording. And what’s more tempting than the perfection attainable in computer recording?

There’s another subtle aspect to purist-style recordings. Unless the artist or entire musical ensemble is very comfortable with performing AND playing as mistake-free as possible, an “audiophile” recording can feel pretty bland. Nobody wants to risk blowing the take so they play it safe. That results in a very different feel than when a singer or instrumentalist totally goes for it, knowing they have a wide safety net.

Do I pine for the days of linear, analog tape recordings? Sometimes. But not as much for the sonics, but rather for the built-in governing factor which only allowed so much editing and manipulation. And, it was much easier (and commonplace) to make the leap to essentially play live as a group in the studio with minimal fixing, provided everybody was talented enough to pull it off—which was often the case. Those kinds of recordings, even if quite sonically hyped for dramatic effect, still have a style of reality that seems to be missing from most of today’s jams. Depending on your age, this either comes across as quaint or essential.

To be sure, as an audiophile, I can marvel at a recording that seems to transport me to the recorded musical event. I just don’t think it works for most artists outside of the classical genre or some varieties of jazz. So, of course, it’s unrealistic to expect that to be the norm. However, when it DOES work, like on recording engineer John Cuniberti’s One Mic Series, it’s magical. For those that aren’t hip to John’s series, do yourself a favor and check it out. In general, though, I’m more than happy listening to a skillful lie for the sake of a more emotionally compelling, or tonally expansive presentation. Especially when the production is as much a part of things as the tunes. But that’s just me.

Circling back to what all this means to our choices in speakers and components, what are we asking our system to do?

For me, the ideal is a system that is accurate and transparent enough to be able to (when called upon) hint at a credible illusion of a you-are-there style of recording. But it’s more important to me that the system be able to satisfy my ear with a typical “fake” and somewhat hyped style of recording. Cause that’s the majority of what I like to listen to. I consider that system to inhabit the ideal point in my imaginary accuracy/listenability matrix.

What’s your listening ideal?

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About the author, Dave McNair

Dave McNair has been a professional recording engineer, mixer, producer, audiophile, and for the last 20 years, a multiple Grammy-winning mastering engineer. Since his earliest days, music has been a constant. Starting with seeing The Beatles live on Ed Sullivan to studying classical guitar from age 11, then later a series of rock bands, his love of music, sound, and tech, lead him to a career in music recording. Concurrent to beginning his engineering career, he sold high-end home audio in several locations including Innovative Audio and Sound By Singer in NYC. After years of residence in NYC, Los Angeles, and Austin, he now resides in Winston-Salem, NC where he operates Dave McNair Mastering and spends his free time listening to records, reading, meditating, cooking vegan food, hiking, riding road bikes and swapping out hi-fi gear in search of a better sound.