Recording Rules for Orchestras

During my recent interview with the Sheffield Lab people in connection with their Moscow recording sessions (Vol.10 No.3), both Lincoln Mayorga and Doug Sax had some unkind things to say about the cost of recording an orchestra in the US. Their complaints are justified. It costs more to record in the US than anywhere else in the world, and these astronomical costs are detrimental both to symphonic music in the US and to the audiophile's pursuit of sonic perfection.

Orchestral music is the justification for high-end audio—its raison d'être. The sound of a real, live orchestra letting loose is one of the most glorious sounds known to civilized man, and the hope of bringing that sound into one's home, as intact as possible, was what gave impetus to the high-fidelity movement from its very inception. Although it cannot be denied that pop and rock music sound better on good audio systems than on indifferent ones, merely "sounding better" is not what high-end audio is all about. We're talking about fidelity, which means faithfulness, which in turn implies an original sound to be faithful to. And anyone who knows anything about pop recording knows that fidelity is simply not a consideration for the typical 32-track studio.

The concept of fidelity has meaning only in connection with musical sounds that can exist without electronic assistance, which means the sound of unamplified, unprocessed, acoustical (mechanical) instruments. But as soon as one starts to apply standards of fidelity to sound reproduction, it becomes much more challenging; the goals are much more difficult to achieve. And the difficulty increases in direct relation to the number and variety of instruments one tries to reproduce.

While it is possible with today's technology to reproduce a classical guitar with passable accuracy, the real sound of a symphony orchestra can barely even be approximated. There is too wide a variety of distinctive timbres to be convincingly portrayed by any one loudspeaker system, all of which, despite more than a century of refinement, remain as colored as the instruments they are trying to reproduce. Nonetheless, even the imperfect reproduction of a large orchestra in one's listening room can be almost as exciting as the sound of the real thing. An orchestra is the ultimate challenge for an audio system, as well as for a recording engineer.

Good orchestral recordings are hard to find because—as is well known to anyone who has tried—good places to hang microphones are also hard to find. In any given auditorium, there are usually at least two locations from which microphones will capture a decent recording, but the only way to find them is by trial and error. If the orchestra happens to be really worth recording—that is, if it is a professional group whose players are music-union people—you are prohibited from conducting any such trials unless you shell out at least $13,455 for the privilege. That's what it costs in America to record a 65-piece orchestra, whether for three hours or three minutes, and whether or not you have any intention of releasing the recording for public sale. It is also the reason why Sheffield Lab, and increasing numbers of other US record companies, do their symphonic recording overseas while American orchestras struggle to make ends meet. Why don't they just cut their prices for recording? They can't. It's against union rules.

How did this sorry state of affairs come to pass? Well, like most such institutionalized idiocies, it started modestly and reasonably many years ago. In 1942, live music in the US seemed in the process of being phased out. All over the land, radio stations, dance halls, and restaurants which had once relied on musicians were playing records instead. Unemployment among professional musicians was in the thousands and escalating, when an angry young man named James Caesar Petrillo resolved to put a stop to it. He proposed levying from the record companies (Columbia, Decca, and RCA Victor) a royalty on every record sold, for the support of unemployed musicians. The record firms were unimpressed, until Petrillo pulled out every musician in the US on a total recording ban which lasted two years.