When Recording Technology Distorts Musical Meaning

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When Recording Technology Distorts Musical Meaning

“You’ve got to read this,” said Peter McGrath, his voice perceptibly shaking. It takes a lot to disturb the normally unflappable McGrath, but the independent recording engineer (and Wilson Audio National Sales Manager) was clearly disturbed.

I was in Miami for a family wedding, and had met Peter for dinner in his hometown on a free evening. He handed me the February 2015 issue of Mix magazine, one of the most popular publications for recording professionals, and directed me to the cover story—a feature about a new multichannel recording of Beethoven’s Ninth by the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, led by its music director Andrew Litton in a live performance last November. By the time you are reading this, the CSO’s recording of the Ninth Symphony, plus Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, will be available on a Blu-ray Audio-only disc.

The lead engineer for this project was Mike Pappas, who has recorded the CSO frequently in its problematic venue, Boettcher Hall in Denver. Engaged as producers were Leslie Ann Jones, director of music recording and scoring for Skywalker Sound, and Wolfgang Fraissinet, president of the venerable Neumann microphone company. Plans were, Pappas explained, to produce “both a conventional stereo mix and a 5.1 because, frankly, the future is in surround and when you start looking at the penetration of home theaters, a large swath of America has them.”

Sounded good to me. Multichannel enthusiasts know that well-made surround sound recordings can vastly increase the realism and sense of occasion associated with large-scale music. When surround is done right, one gets a specific picture of the hall and the deployment of the players on stage, as well as that magical sense of musical presence in the air between the performers and the listener that one experiences at a concert. Unfortunately, however, that was not the goal of this recording.

Employing a German-made Stagetec Aurus digital mixing console, the production team settled on a total of sixty-six microphones, a formidable mixture of Neumann and Sennheiser digital mics and some Neumann analog devices. “Highlight” microphones were used liberally, one for each of the first three desks of first and second violins, one for the principal flute and oboe, several for the brasses, shotgun mics for each vocal soloist, and so on.

Sixty-six microphones. Why did Mike Pappas think this was a good idea? “Back when I started recording the Symphony in 2004,” he explained for the Mix article, “I’d do this with eight or nine microphones...It was that big, diffuse London Decca recording sound—Zubin Mehta conducts the L.A. Philharmonic kind of thing. About five or six years ago, I woke up with the horrible realization that people don’t listen to music that way anymore. Certainly with the widespread adoption of home theaters, your recording better sound as good as a film score, and if it doesn’t, people are going to be like, ‘What is this?’” Pappas continued: “I want [my recording] to be like watching high-definition television. You watch golf on HDTV and you see every blade of grass; I want you to hear every string in the orchestra, hear every flute, every harp, every part of it. We have 80 musicians on stage; if you add up all the years they’ve been playing, it’s centuries of experience. I don’t want a single one of those people, who spent decades honing their craft, to get lost in my recording. I want every one of them to be presented to his or her fullest ability.”

Mike Pappas, well-meaning as he is, is just plain wrong. The ideal recording of an orchestra, any orchestra, should sound like that orchestra fulfilling the function for which it exists—to present a unified and coherent musical statement. Andrew Litton and the members of the CSO are proud and dedicated artists, eager to have their collaborative efforts communicate a composer’s meaning, both in the hall and on recordings. They aren’t interested in a technologically distorted version of those efforts, brought into line with some irrelevant sonic comparator like a film score. They certainly don’t require a recording of their ensemble that makes each player audible as an individual when that’s contrary to the intended musical effect. Critical listeners will continue to receive the message of great music of all stripes only if engineers and producers remain true to the goal of rendering a musical event as it was experienced by a receptive audience in real life. That, of course, is “the absolute sound.”