The lost art of audio recording

The other night, Tim and I watched a fascinating show on PBS about George and Ira Gershwin. The show had some great interviews, but also included wonderful performances by current musicians. Both of us were enthralled. We started talking about how the concept of seeing live performances has changed dramatically. Recording technology has experienced an even more dramatic shift.

Thing you need to know: Tim records music. He did live sound in clubs for years, worked in several recording studios, and has a studio in our house at the moment.  The room people think should hold our master bedroom is Tim’s office. He’s got a recording console, numerous guitars, cables, a closet full of microphones,  and a bunch of gear covered in knobs, switches and blinking lights. I don’t touch anything. Our basement is full of amps.

Tim’s been working with one band for a while now. They finished mixing on Sunday and took the album to get mastered on Monday. Tim and Nick Z, his old college roommate and the record’s mastering engineer, talked about the trend toward super-engineered records…everything pitch-shifted and autotuned and reworked in the mix so that the final product sounds NOTHING like what the musicians originally performed. Tim and Nick prefer to work their magic live, finding the right mic placements or instrument adjustments to give bands the sounds they want. While they’re both certainly capable of ridiculous Protools shenanigans, Tim doesn’t feel good about that.

A tape machine in Nick's mastering space. Feels '70s to me.

Consider the origin of the verb record: “to set down in writing or the like, as for the purpose of preserving evidence.” Evidence. Archives. A snapshot of an actual event. Early musical recordings documented performances. The phonograph and the gramophone brought “records” or reproductions of those performances into living rooms around the country. The advent of microphones and advances in that technology throughout the 1920s had an impact on recording, as did the development of the amplifier. The ability to record different instruments to different tracks and then bring them together to create one song, the sum of its separate parts? New territory, but still documenting performances. Creating something entirely new with software and special effects–no longer capturing performances. Something else, then.

Tim and his recordist friends hunt down tube gear: the difference in sound and feel makes their efforts worthwhile. It’s richer, deeper, warmer. Another aspect of recording I love as a non-recordist: the language. They talk about tones and songs being muddy, bright, crunchy, spacious. “I wanted to get some room in the mix.” “That guitar sounds nice and warm.” It’s a very sensual language, words the rest of us rarely associate with sounds.

New Alliance, Nick’s home base and one of the studios where Tim used to work, offers a fantastic juxtaposition of the old and the new. A new Mac sits next to an old tape machine. Artwork blending antique photos into construction debris overlooks state-of-the-art outboard gear. I love the contrasts. But music and recording are changing, and the idea that a record captures a particular performance is no longer a given. The kids want something different.