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The Art of Recording

The Art of Recording

Recording music consists of art, the artistic decisions of the recording engineer or producer, and technology, the workable mechanical devices utilized to achieve a goal. 

The primary artistic decision of any recording engineer is to decide what aural experience is desired as the end result.  Is it a natural sound approximating the sound of musicians in the original recording environment with an original sense of that space? Or is the desire to create a beautiful sound not necessarily linked to the musician’s original recording and spatial environment? Both are wholly valid visions but lead down different paths. 

Examples of natural sound are Bill Evans’ Village Vanguard recordings; many of the Mercury Living Presence recordings; Rachmaninoff, Symphonic Dances featuring the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Charlie Haden/John Taylor, Nightfall; and Charlie Haden/Chris Anderson, None But The Lonely Heart (the last two recordings are brilliant).

Examples of a created sound are Miles Davis, Kind of Blue; Pink Floyd, Dark Side of The Moon; Patricia Barber, Nightclub or Café Blue (engineer Jim Anderson); Kenny Burrell, Midnight Blue; Cannonball Adderley, Somethin’ Else; Donald Byrd, Byrd In Hand; Joe Pass, Portraits of Duke Ellington; John Zorn, Film Works VIII 1997 (slightly avant-garde film music brilliantly recorded by Jim Anderson direct to two-track DAT); George Adams, Old Feeling (Jim Anderson again); and Richard Wyands, Half and Half (the latter containing fabulous music and excellent digital sound).

While very few recordings could be said to bridge both arenas, those of engineer Roy DuNann come to mind, including Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West and the Hampton Hawes Quartet’s All Night Sessions (wonderful piano sound and fabulous jazz with Jim Hall on guitar).

Interwoven in this decision is whether to record to analog or digital. Some believe analog tape gives a more organic presence to the instruments than digital and a more natural tonality. But others believe the lower noise, “better” bass, and greater transparency of digital outweighs the apparent loss of that natural tonality and organic presence of analog tape—if they even believe that an analog naturalness exists at all.  This is a somewhat similar divide to what you find in the discussion of tubes versus solid state in the audiophile community. 

To be clear, I favor analog over digital because I hear a more natural tonality and especially, an organic presence and space surrounding individual instruments that I don’t hear in digital. This preference is despite hearing certain advantages to digital sound noted in the above paragraph. For me, those digital advantages are desirable but not a priority over the analog advantages I hear.  When listening to a newly recorded analog master recorded with custom high-quality tape decks, microphones, and electronics, the sound of instruments in a real space is magical and for me more enticing than the advantages of good digital sound. This reproduced instrumental tonality and organic presence is a major part of my personal vision and my priority as a recording engineer.  

But, whether recording to analog or digital, the decision remains whether to create a sound reflective of the original recording space or that of a sound unattached to the original space. I have an associate who records strictly digital using the outstanding Nagra VI digital recorder with minimal microphones, high quality Nagra VI internal mic preamps, and superb (solid state) vintage microphones, resulting in natural recordings along with the priorities inherent in digital. Some might argue that his recordings would be even more natural if done to tape, but then he would also lose what he admires about high quality digital sound. Whether to record to analog or digital lies with the preference of the producer or engineer, but either method can lead to natural recordings or recordings untethered to the original space.

Before we look at what this pivotal engineering decision leads to, there is one subject vital to this decision not related directly to art per se, but which often precludes and affects a vision or goal in recording. And that is the unparalleled convenience and near ubiquitous presence of digital equipment and engineers. The convenience is in both size of equipment involved but also in the ability to maneuver or adjust the sound. For example, after recording to digital the levels of individual instruments can easily be adjusted, unwanted sounds can be removed, mistakes edited out, songs sequenced, reverb added easily, and all the while visually observing the music on a computer screen. Adjusting or editing the sound on an analog recording is much more involved and many times impossible. How many engineers can physically edit analog tape to remove one note or one extraneous noise?  With digital you can manipulate the note or noise to be removed with just the movement of a mouse whereas with analog tape you must employ a razor blade and your hands to edit tape. How many people have the time and circumstances to learn how to do this? Few is the answer. The difference between the convenience and widespread availability of digital and analog is huge and, that alone, leads most engineers to choose digital, and often with it, a created sound due to its omnipresence, efficiency, and ease of control.   

But whether analog or digital, if the engineer chooses the path of tonally and spatially natural sound, it will dictate the following in recording:

1. Fewer microphones used in the recording and placed with some distance to the instruments. (Placed too closely loses the ambient room or hall sound just as if someone put their mouth right up to your ear, diminishing the room sound). 

2. A very good (natural or at least neutral) sounding space to record in.

3. Not completely isolating each microphone from each other, such as recording instruments either in an isolation booth/room or recording instruments one at a time rather than with all the musicians present and playing together. 

4. Near-audiophile-quality recording equipment, including microphones, wire, AC grounding and conditioning.

Let us look at each one of these factors which will clarify their inclusion: 

1. Generally, the more microphones used in a recording the less spatially natural the overall result will be. Whether this is a result of the human having two ears we won’t speculate, but using many more than two microphones will flatten the soundstage, bringing the back of the group or orchestra forward. Use 25 microphones on a symphony and although you’ll capture each instrument directly, allowing optimum control, spatially it won’t sound like the original recording environment.  Not to mention being able to afford 25 superb microphones is unlikely, thus putting in question the tonality of the sound of each instrument.  Use two high-quality microphones to record the group or orchestra, and if done right, the sound will be more natural, capturing the spatial clues of the original venue.  The disadvantage is loss of control over the individual sound and volume level of each instrument.  

Another factor related to microphones is placement in relation to instruments. Place a microphone very close to the instrument and you reduce the bleed from other microphones. But if each mic is very close to each instrument, you’ll get less room sound recorded, which lessens the aural experience of natural space. But when using two microphones or even a few more than that (and not too jammed up against the instruments), the room or hall sound is picked up surrounding each instrument, with the result that one hears the ambient sound more naturally.

2. Unexpectedly, finding a space with very natural or neutral sound is harder than finding good microphones or equipment. It takes a lot of searching to find the right space to record in. Most rooms or studios do not sound neutral or natural when recording music in them and sound dead or in some cases too live and hard. If you’ve taken the path of natural sound with minimal microphones, the space used to record in is more vital than any other aspect of recording. In 1980, when I was asked by a European record label to record a classical pianist playing Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony transcribed for solo piano, I spent weeks listening to solo piano vinyl recordings made in the U.S. until I found what was for me the perfect ambient sound captured by the engineer.  It turned out to be a church in New York, which is where I ended up doing the Beethoven recording to stellar result. Today I only use one location to record jazz in, which is neutral and slightly alive sounding, perfect for small jazz ensembles. This one aspect of finding a suitable recording space takes more time and effort than any other factor in this article.  

3. When natural sound is not the priority, an engineer will often partially obviate the sound of a space and bleed from other microphones by putting certain instruments in their own little room (isolation booths) to prevent that instrument’s microphone from picking up the sound of other instruments in the larger room. This gives the engineer better control of each instrument’s sound but isn’t spatially natural sounding.  Another technique that avoids room sound is to maximize control of each instrument’s sound by recording each instrument one at a time without the other musicians present, so you eliminate any possibility of hearing the other instruments “bleeding” into the microphone in question. The engineer records one instrument after another, building the songs as he goes. This can be heard on recordings where each instrument is in its own little bubble with no real connection spatially between the instruments.  This is partially “solved” by adding artificial space to the recording later, which is called reverb. Reverb is used to sort of “glue” all the instrumental space together minimizing that isolated bubble sound and giving a certain sameness to each instrument’s “space.”  This is one of the situations where creativity is displayed—how much reverb to use, what kind of reverb, whether to EQ (add or subtract frequencies to the instrument), whether to compress an instrument so it doesn’t get too loud, etc. For example, ECM employs reverb on most of its recordings. Many people love that kind of created sound, but no one would say it was a natural sound, representing musicians in an original recording space.  It is a created space.

If instruments are not put in isolation booths and the musicians record at the same time, by and large, the recording will sound more natural.  However, most recordings are not done with all musicians in the same room recording all at once.  Only one or maybe two or three instruments are recorded at once and often in isolation booths, thus eliminating the room sound and bleed from other instruments that occurs when musicians play all at once in a shared space. 

4. Further, and key to a natural recording (whether analog or digital) is minimal yet superb equipment, including microphones. This is no different than what most diligent audiophiles go through in putting together a superb playback system.  Unfortunately, most engineers do not have the time, make the effort, or have the financial resources to match the quality of many audiophile systems. But a few engineers do use the finest equipment and the results speak for themselves.

Going through the list of possible high-quality equipment for a recording engineer would be like trying to list the finest equipment for an audiophile home system—too many choices and many of them a matter of priority, taste, or financial resources.  An engineer dedicated to finding the best equipment for recording will keep at it until he gets the sound he’s after with each piece of gear, as I did in discovering the best sounding analog tape decks, microphones, mic preamps, and monitors. And as an added note, engineers, like audiophiles, must decide whether to use tubes or solid state in choosing microphones, mic preamps, or other studio equipment.  

The quality of every piece of equipment used in making a recording is a major contributor to the final sound quality, no different to an audiophile playback system. 

In summary, an engineer must envision what final result is a priority—natural sound reflecting the original musical space or a created sound detached from the original recording environment, and within that umbrella, whether to record to analog or digital. And within that sub-umbrella, what equipment to use, including tubes or solid state or both.

Hopefully, this article will help the listener choose his or her listening priorities as well. 

Jonathan Horwich has been recording, producing, and mastering jazz and classical music since the mid-1960s. He has worked with such musicians as Stan Getz, Benny Goodman, Ravi Shankar, Chick Corea, Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Gary Peacock, Clare Fischer, Gary Foster, Carmell Jones, Frank Strazzeri, Tony Williams, Richie Beirach, and many others. His current focus has been recording jazz performances directly to analog tape as he did in the 1960s and 70s.


By Jonathan Horwich

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