A Clash of Values?

In the April 1992 Stereophile, reader Hilary Paprocki expressed his belief that recording engineers are unconcerned about sound quality. Indeed, he went so far as to allege that engineers intentionally use inferior miking techniques so that they can bill clients for additional time spent trying to fix the sound. The example he used was the engineer who places a microphone directly in front of a guitar amplifier, a technique Mr. Paprocki felt captured only "4%" of the sound. Mr. Paprocki also likened recording engineers to "featherbedders."

Needless to say, his letter brought a response from the recording faction. In this issue, recording engineer John McCortney responds angrily to Mr. Paprocki's letter, and indeed, to what he sees as "bashing" of recording engineers by audiophiles (footnote 1).

But are recording engineers less concerned about sound quality than are audiophiles? If so, why? Isn't someone who has devoted his life to recording music more caring than the hobbyist audiophile? If not, why not?

Purist techniques are never even mentioned, much less taught, in most recording curricula. I should know—I learned recording engineering in a college program, and later as a studio owner and recording engineer. I was therefore far from being an audiophile when I first became involved in audio, but my values gradually shifted toward a purist approach to music recording and reproduction. Because I write full-time for Stereophile, I have since become what you might call a professional audiophile. I've seen the issue from both sides (footnote 2).

First, I share Mr. McCortney's frustration with Mr. Paprocki's dismissal of the technique of close-miking a guitar amplifier, and therefore the skills of all recording engineers. There is a certain bite and edge to recorded guitar sound when the amp is close-miked that is appropriate—no, vital—to some music. Although the vast majority of recordings are too closely miked, in my opinion, the technique is valid in some instances. A blanket condemnation of recording engineers who use close miking techniques is clearly wrong, particularly when issued by someone without practical experience in the matter.

But as Mr. Paprocki pointed out, there is a great disparity between the values of audiophiles and those of recording engineerings. Many audiophiles see recording engineers as less committed to sound quality than they should be. When we buy records and CDs that are overly bright, metallic, lacking depth, devoid of inner detail, and generally unmusical, the audiophile's first reaction is to question the recording engineer's skill or commitment to sound quality. This perception is reinforced by the apparent lack of concern about the signal path to which engineers subject the signal. The inside of a modern recording console would give an audiophile heart failure: hundreds of op-amps, carbon resistors, cheap capacitors, miles of pennies-per-foot wire—the list goes on and on. But does this mean that engineers don't care about recording the best possible sound?

Yes and no.

To understand the dichotomy it is necessary to know something about the requirements of a recording environment. Although printing a signal on tape is the result of a recording session, that goal can be almost secondary to the enormous procedural complexity of engineering a multitrack session. In addition to recording the dozens of signals on the multitrack tape at the right levels, the engineer must also get a monitor mix, route signals through a maze of sockets, adjust outboard devices such as compressors, find a headphone mix that the musicians are happy with (ha!), elicit the cooperation of the band members, take direction from the producer, and attend to the dozens of other details that make the session work. Moreover, he must do all these things quickly and efficiently. Clearly, these conditions dictate that function and control take precedence over preserving subtlety and nuance.

Footnote 1: It should be noted that by publishing a reader's letter, Stereophile doesn't necessarily endorse the views presented therein. Rather, "Letters" is where readers can express their opinions, however diverse.

Footnote 2: As has John Atkinson, who worked as a session musician in the mid-'70s, acquiring much hands-on studio experience in the process. In asserting that "You [Stereophile] have no idea of the expense and hard work that go into running a recording studio," Mr. McCortney practices the same brand of uninformed dismissal that he reads in Mr. Paprocki's letter. Mr. McCortney's assumption that Stereophile knows nothing of recording and recording studios because we're audiophiles parallels Mr. Paprocki's mistaken impression that no recording engineers care about sound quality.