A musical challenge


Martha de Francisco

McGill University

CIRMMT Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music Media and Technology

Independent Record Producer/Tonmeister

I      Introduction

Sir Neville Marriner said once: “If the concert performance belongs to the conductor and the musicians, the recording belongs to the record producer.” I understand this concept. The influence of a record producer in the process of recording a musical work can clearly help define the artistic quality of the recording. It can be enhanced by the work of the producer, as it can also be negatively affected by bad producing work.

During a classical music recording, the recording producer is, together with his colleagues the engineers in the control room, the first listener of the recording. He is the one who can judge whether the intention of the musicians (and the intention of the composer) and the realization of the recording match. In the course of the recording session you are sitting in the best chair in order to assess how the work is going to sound. You are in control of this side of the dividing line between recording hall and control room, between the place where the music is generated and the place where the music will be listened. It is the choices that you and your recording partners make – musicians, engineers – that determine how the music is going to be captured and ultimately how it will be transmitted to the listeners.

Much of what you do in recording as a producer or engineer will affect the impact the recording will have on the listener. In fact the entire profession or Sound Recording revolves around taking the right decisions in order to preserve the musical impact and completeness of the performance.

I want to talk about some of the technological and musical challenges that we are currently facing in music production. How are emerging technologies affecting record production? And with the help of advanced recording technology, are we getting closer to the ideal listening experience of recorded music? Of all innovations in modern recording technology I have chosen two topics to concentrate on here: one is digital editing, the other is multichannel audio. Through the introduction of such new technologies the need arises to redefine the rules of aesthetics of the recording.

II    Historical setting

I would like to give you a quick overview and place the moment in which music recording is right now in a historic perspective.

Let me take you on a quick Time Warp –to use a Star Trek expression– along a couple of catchwords associated with important stations in this development.

SLIDE 2 Time Warp

•    Phonograph, wax cylinder
•    Recording Horn
•    Gramophone, lateral cut
•    Shellac Disc
•    Microphone
•    Valve Amplifier
•    Radio Transmission
•    Magnetic Tape
•    Long Play Disc
•    Monophonic
•    High Fidelity
•    Transistor
•    Stereophonic
•    Electronic / Techno Music
•    Digital Audio
•    Compact Disc
•    Internet
•    High Definition Audio
•    Multichannel/Surround Sound


III    Recording Quality and the Perception of Performance Quality

Never before have we been able to achieve such an accurate registration of music as we do today, never before has music been recorded to such high standards of quality and fidelity as today. With the widest frequency response, an excellent dynamic range, the most accurate impulse characteristics of the signals - that helps define the attacks of sounds, almost nonexistent distortion, with our recordings we are closest than ever to capturing music as it happens in real life. Is has been a long process to get here.

Recording people have always been busy searching for new ways to capture music with the help of technology. And beyond the pure representation of sound waves, we need to find ways to maintain and to transmit the artistic intention of the performers and the emotional content of the music. Whether a piece of recorded music is going to leave a more or less lasting impression on the listener, is in most cases connected with the way how the recording sounds, with the way how the piece was recorded.

Gidi Boss, a producer/engineer from Israel, presented an interesting study in 1996 where he demonstrates how the way a musical work is recorded can give a different impression of the performance of that piece, causing the listeners to perceive the recording made with the better or more advanced recording means as musically more valuable.

He asked the test persons (who were not trained musicians) to compare the musical characteristics of two recordings of the same work, evaluating dynamics, articulation, tempo, and expressiveness. He also asked them to express judgements like emotional/rational, static/vivid, interesting/boring.

What Gidi Boss did not tell his listeners was that he made both recordings simultaneously, setting up two sets of microphones in front of the same performers. 1.) a mix of three modern Neumann pairs U87s, 2.) a Mono-Mix of two vintage RCA ribbon microphones (from 1930) + added hiss from a 78 rpm phonograph record.

The audience clearly responded more positively to the more modern recording and judged its musical value as higher than that of the other recording. The vintage microphones may sound wonderful on their own, but in the case of this study, the difference was perceived as negative.

I believe that recorded music needs to be seen as a combination of interpretation and sound.

IV    Authenticity in Music Recording

Reality and the recorded performance
•    Trying to transfer a concert hall into the living room
•    Trying to capture the excitement of a concert
•    Following reality or creating something new?
•    An attempt to stay close to the performance
•    What about editing?

The ideal performance
A synthesis between spontaneous musical expression and the completeness of all elements intended in the work

The problem of recording classical music
•    Music recording is a medium on its own
•    An attempt to stay close to the live music performance
•    Giving the illusion of a similar experience
•    A recording can be    
•    guided by a performance
•    guided by the score

V     Music Editing

First of all: let’s get rid of a misconception: Lots of editing does not mean that the results will be less musical or less valuable artistically. But editing is an art. It requires skill and experience to do it right.

In order to illustrate how times have advanced let me remind you all of the time before digital editing had been introduced. I have here a scan of a page of my first Philips recording, back in 1979. The editing was made in analogue, actually splicing the tapes. As a contrast here we have a page of the editing score of one of my latest Decca releases. As you see the splices are still marked in similar points. But in addition to the splices on obvious points, the modern recording is more daring in the position where edits are marked. We are able to edit on points that were impossible in analogue times and which would result in very bad, audible splices. What has changed is the technological means that we have for the editing of this project, the use of hard disk digital editing, a non destructive way of storing the recording information and accessing any of it at any given time, allowing lots of control from the side of the engineers and producers.

Here is a screenshot of the editing of this project.

Sensible Editing
•    Editing is an important factor that determines the quality of the recording
•    On the way to the ideal performance
•    Staying within the budget
•    What needs to be watched:    
•    problems in timing
•    changes in colour
•    changes in pitch
•    broken continuity
•    too little/too much editing

Editing score for analogue editing
Editing score for digital editing

Multichannel Digital Editing
Using Pyramix Editing System – Merging Technologies

With contemporary editing we can control not just the levels on any track for the mix individually, but also characteristics of timbre on the whole and on single tracks working with selective equalising of excellent quality, The sound of the recording can be modified at any time in the course of the editing process. Crossfades can be made between takes on different spots on the different tracks. This gives great flexibility to the editing process. We can control the precise position of the splices up to the smallest increments. Edits may be on different points on the different channels. Pitch control can also be applied, this is another potential source of extreme departure from reality. It is easy to do “stretches and tucking” in order to correct a small tempo difference between the takes to make the edit work. This is particularly interesting for instance when you are editing between two different takes of a live concert against the rehearsal before, with and without an audience. With our new means of digital editing you can edit in the most unusual and impossible places and make good splices that remain inaudible. Hard disk editing is non-destructive, the original material remains unmodified during the entire process.

Difficulties that we face nowadays are that artists know how easy it is to modify everything afterwards. And they may expect the producer to improve artificially on many details, even the smallest ones.

VI       5.1 Multichannel / Surround Sound

SLIDE 11  Multichannel Recording 5.1 Surround Sound
ITU Recommendation


Surround Sound: The most generally used multichannel format, 5.1 Surround Sound, has established itself as a standard for the recording and reproduction of sound/music using five discrete (separated) audio channels and one optional low frequency effect channel. It is becoming widely adopted as the norm for professional and consumer audio and for cinema and television.

VII    Analogy with the Perspective in Art

SLIDES:  Piero della Francesca
•    Polittico della Misericordia    1455
•    La flagellazione                1465

Polittico della Misericordia    1455
Renaissance painting, no indication in which space the scene is set. The Virgin of Misericordy spreads her coat out to cover humanity.

La Flagellazione         1465
Using perspective the painter achieves not only a more accurate description of the space where the action is set. In this case, the space becomes the carrier of the main action. There is a much richer sense of reality in this painting compared with the previous one. It is more lifelike.

Piero della Francesca became my inspiration when I first encountered the creative possibilities that Surround Sound opens to music recording.

VIII    Effect of Surround Sound

So far recorded music could only be expressed in two dimensions. A strip of sound pulled between two loudspeakers, left and right. But even in monophonic times, we have always been able to represent a sort of depth of the music sources but determining the distance of the instruments to the recording horn or the microphone. This early methods of representing depth were refined in the course of the decades and received a great impulse with the development of stereophonic recording.

With the introduction of Surround Sound and Multichannel Recording we face new challenges. Adding an extra dimension of spatial reproduction to the conventional two-dimensional recording and thus opening up the sound to the front and to the sides, presents new challenges unknown to us in stereo recording. There is the need to adjust our usual stereo recording and mixing techniques to include this new spatial component.

I believe that recording in Surround Sound is not just a technical process, but it can have also artistic implications. Surround may turn out to be a means to recreate the emotional dynamics of music in a more advanced manner than ever before in history. The way we use Surround Sound can have a clear influence on the musical message of a recording.

The introduction of new technology like this requires that we redefine the aesthetic parameters of the recording.  

IX    Classical Music and the Impression of Room

Classical Music is defined in our audio world as music playing almost exclusively in a natural acoustic environment. As the interaction between direct sound and diffuse sound, the reflections of that direct sound on the walls, the floor, the ceiling of the place where the musicians play.

Classical music lives from this interaction. The blend of the instruments in the acoustics is a major component of music. It is associated with classical music in particular. And because the spatial components are so important to classical music, then necessarily new techniques to represent the space of a recording in a better way will have a dramatic effect on classical music recording.

X    Surround Sound in Classical Music

The essence of acoustic music recording as most of us engineers and producers agree, is to capture an acoustic event in the most accurate and lifelike way. That means we strive to follow the given parameters and the given proportions in the hall where music is being played regarding balance between instruments, balance between direct and indirect sound and all this in agreement with a given musical source that in most cases is established by a music score that contains all the instructions of how the music needs to sound.

SLIDE 16 Question 1 •  Does a spatial configuration of the musical instruments that differs from the ‘live’ concert performance lead to a different artistic experience than in stereo? Should we search for the most spectacular effect with crazy placement of instruments all spread in the Surround panorama?

There are many compositions of the Classical and Romantic period written with certain acoustical conditions in mind, even with certain concert halls in mind. The composer intended the melting of sounds of different instruments or groups of instruments; this is an essential element of the composition. This music works only well when you follow those spatial conditions, or else you will be breaking the intended musical effect. For those works, the answer to my question is definitely NO. But with other music genres we have more flexibility and we can make full use of the Surround possibilities. Think of music theatre, opera, musical, medieval or renaissance theatrical music, where groups of instruments and singers alternate, coming from different areas of the church or the hall. These are the cases where Surround recording will allow your imaginations to go wild.

SLIDE 17 Question 2 • How does the impact of a Surround Sound recording compare to that of the same recording in stereo? Are artistic effect and impression on the listener any different in Surround and in stereo?

When heard in Surround Sound the sound leaves the loudspeakers and spreads out in front of you. The instruments achieve a more spatial, third dimension; they seem more clearly distributed within the sound stage. In particular the low frequent elements of such instruments as the organ unfold in a much more complete way in Surround. The entire balance seems to have shifted from the predominant melody to cover the entire width of the score. The natural acoustics of the cathedral becomes amazingly well defined. The reverberation that in Stereo seems to be behind the speakers, can now be heard in front of the speakers. In this way you feel surrounded by sound. The experience of spatial hearing with Surround Sound is much more natural than the one in Stereo.

XI   Conclusions

With Surround Sound the world of music recording has reached a point of unexpected, both technical and artistic possibilities. The way ahead is wide open. It is exciting to participate in this worldwide movement to find out how best to represent music with the help of these new techniques.