The Musician in the Middle
There has certainly been enough written about the sonic shortcomings of the commercial recording industry, with experts arguing over the attributes of minimal microphone technique, the effects of phase distortion, not to mention the digital/analog debate. While all of this may well be germane, nearly everyone has missed the point: unless the recording accurately reflects the artistic parameters of the original performance, and remains consistent with the performers' intentions, it really isn't worth a plugged nickel.
Before I raise the fur on the backs of those audiophiliacs who couldn't care less about the musical content and accuracy of any recording, please let me state my case. As a professional symphony musician I speak not only for my colleagues, but also offer some viewpoints not often expressed outside of musical circles.
Assuming that we are dealing with material originally intended for concert presentation, and not solely for the studio, the fact that composers design their works to be heard from a perspective in the theatre must be considered. The argument that many engineers and producers use, "that their ability to alter the original textures and balances can add to the musical validity of the performance," just doesn't hold water. When Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were alive and well, the microphone and tape recorder did not exist. These composers obviously had to rely on the performing artists successfully to represent their musical ideas and intentions to listeners. Composers such as Hector Berlioz and Gustav Mahler took great pains to specify the most minute shadings of dynamics and textures in their works, so as to assure the proper presentation of the various lines and voices to the concert-hall audience. For example, Mahler clearly specifies in several of his symphonic scores that, during soli unisons of trumpets and oboes, the former should play mezzo-piano, the latter fortissimo. He knew that the trumpet is a louder instrument than the oboe, and in order to assure an honest unison between the two, dynamic balances had to be taken into consideration. Unless the recording team is aware of such musical factors, and sensitive to the musicians' efforts to remain faithful to the composer's intentions, the final product will be nothing more than a caricature of the original.
Most people do not realize that a performer's reputation can be significantly affected by the way in which they are presented in the recorded medium. Highly acclaimed soloists with artistic power and control have the opportunity to ensure that they are favorably presented in the final product. Symphony musicians, on the other hand, who may be responsible for important, exposed solos, have no such personal input. The number of listeners hearing any individual player via a recording will undoubtedly be much greater than the number able to attend the live performance, and, of course, have no other method by which to judge the musician's capabilities. If this representation is an inaccurate, musically compromised rendition of the artist's efforts (which is often the case), the power of the recording engineer to dictate the performer's credibility becomes a potential editorial weapon.
This brings to mind an experience I had during a session in the not too distant past. We were recording for a well known European outfit, and I, being the inquisitive type, decided to listen to the playbacks. This was probably not the most intelligent thing to do, since it got me into a rather unpleasant situation. What I heard was not only sonically inferior, but didn't even begin to resemble what we were producing on the stage. When I asked the engineer if all of the 52 microphones were being utilized, I was told that indeed they were. Since the balances which we (the performers) created were not correct, they could render a more valid interpretation of the composition through their technology. When I suggested that perhaps the main purpose of recording was to make a sonic imprint of a performance without any editorial comment, the other party stated that I should mind my own business, and leave artistic matters up to the experts. On the other side of the coin was a situation related to me by Frederick Fennell, the conductor responsible for those magnificent performances of the Eastman Wind Ensemble on the Mercury label. At the playbacks of one of the earlier mono sessions, Fennell commented that the clarinets were not as prominent as he would have liked. When he asked C. R. Fine, the engineer, what could be done to obtain a better balance, Fine firmly suggested that Fennell tell the clarinets to "play louder."
Which of the above scenarios is more valid? I vote for the second, but perhaps there should be some sort of compromise that will give us good sound and honest music. Just as the cinematographer has the license to create a mood or atmosphere, the recording engineer should have a reasonable amount of flexibility in determining various sonic parameters such as soundstage dimensionality, overall perspective, and general ambience. It is important, however, that this not be at the expense of the composers' and performers' musical endeavors. Proponents of multi-mike recording techniques are quick to point out that since the human ear and microphone perceive sound differently (the former acting as an editorial filter and the latter not), many of the fine nuances and balances must be "brought to the fore" in order to reproduce the performance effectively. Their point is well taken, since the microphone does not have the advantage of a visual reference, which helps the listener to interpret the sonic and musical cues present in the live experience. The real problems arise when overzealous engineers or producers believe that they have the right to become part of the artistic chain of events, therefore placing their editorial stamp on the final product.
Some recording companies engage musicians to help in production, in theory an excellent idea. Unfortunately, these are often individuals who have their own sets of values. Many times they are at odds with the conductor and musicians, with definite ideas on what type of sound and performance their employers will accept. Furthermore, they very rarely have any practical orchestral performing experience, and therefore cannot deal effectively with the important artistic decisions required of them during the session. It would certainly help if recording personnel made more of an effort to acquaint themselves with the problems and performance philosophies of the musicians, in order to help, rather than hinder, the musical process.
Footnote: Lewis Lipnick is the Principal Contrabassoonist for the National Symphony Orchestra.