On creaks and coughs and candy wrappers

The advantage of a highly resolving music system is that you can hear deeper into recordings. The disadvantage is that you can hear deeper into recordings.

For the last couple of nights, I've been listening to Promises, a recent collaboration between Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra. Almost the entire 46-minute, nine-movement album is built on two chords, played simultaneously on an acoustic piano and a celeste. The instrumentation swells and wanes—Sanders's intense sax lines piercing into prominence, the large string section turning cacophonous, a Hammond B3 doing its best Atom Heart Mother impression.

The recording is quiet and pristine, except for what I assume is the piano bench. The thing creaks. It squeaks. It even rumbles (although, on second thought, maybe the rumble isn't the bench but a keyboard pedal that needs a little TLC). I'm pretty sure none of it is supposed to be audible, but the studio mikes caught it anyway, so now, there it is, like a pimple on the Mona Lisa's face. Yes, these distractions are low in level. All the same, they are noisy little stowaways, auditory jabs that prevent transfixion.

I'll just ignore them, I decided many times. But that's futile, thanks to what psychologists call "ironic process theory": when you actively attempt to quash certain thoughts, you're more likely to have them. Trying to overlook the accidental noises is the audio equivalent of trying not to think of a pink elephant.

There are opposing schools of thought about these mildly pockmarked recordings. Nonscored sounds interfere with our enjoyment by breaking our concentration, argues the persnickety crowd. Such flaws enhance the experience by making the track more human and inviting listeners into the artist's acoustic space, answer more tolerant folks. I seem to have graduated cum laude from the first school, but I remain sympathetic to the second.

The more raucous the music, the less I care. There's a mean amplifier hum on Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Little Wing" and on "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by the Police. John Bonham used a Ludwig Speed King bass drum pedal that was sometimes dubbed "the Squeak King" for its famously noisy spring; the sound made it onto Led Zeppelin tracks like "The Rain Song" and "Since I've Been Loving You."

I prize every one of those recordings, warts and all. Cleaning them up is no more advisable than removing the oxidation from the Statue of Liberty.

In the end, it all comes down to genre, and to degrees of grittiness and chaos. The ceiling caving in during a Sex Pistols live session? That's instantly integral to the event; don't you dare edit it out. A few pages of sheet music falling to the studio floor when Reinbert de Leeuw plays Satie? As my teenage daughter would say, "Can you not?"

Speaking of clavier virtuosos: Both Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett (about whose loud humming and exclamations I shall remain agnostic) had famously creaky piano stools. There are music fans who love listening to The Goldberg Variations in part because they can "hear" Gould's body sway, courtesy of his loose-jointed, moth-eaten chair: To them, that's a feature, not a bug, but it drove the people in the control room batty.

In the liner notes to Gould's 1965 interpretation of Beethoven's Opus 10 Sonatas, producer Thomas Frost wrote, half-embarrassed but with a keen sense of humor: "[H]e has stubbornly refused to part with [his chair] in spite of all counsel and advice—and an offer from the Smithsonian Institution. It has come to this: Columbia Records has decided to call upon the powers of science to construct a facsimile of the famous chair which will have the same swayability without the noise. Until then: Glenn Gould refuses to give up his chair. Columbia Records refuses to give up Glenn Gould."

I subsequently found a video of Gould walking into a recording studio where you can briefly see the joints of his piano chair swaddled in rags—the engineers' apparent attempt to tame the wretched thing's racket.

And why shouldn't they? During classical concerts, it's not uncommon for audience members to glare at people who cough, or who denude a piece of candy in the middle of a quiet passage. Do the shushers and dagger-starers go home and enjoy recordings that contain random nonscored sounds? Unlikely.

Sure, the difference between a creaking piano bench and a rustling candy wrapper is that the former sound was made by the artist. But does that mean we have to embrace it? Would we feel closer to Chet Baker if he'd concluded "My Funny Valentine" by breaking wind?

Some lean in that direction, sort of. Richard Beaudoin, a music professor at Dartmouth College, loves the nondeliberate sounds that can get on the nerves of philistine 'philes like myself. In the journal Music Theory Online, he praised the "evocative sound-world" that Gould's chair helped create:

"Just as facial micro-expressions offer valuable and often revealing information that enhances the meaning of spoken words, the placement and density of Gould's chair creaks provide audio signals of physical activity. As such, they are integral to our interpretation of his interpretation." Fine.

I propose this détente between the two camps: Let's fix the issue before it arises. Before the engineer punches that recording button, have a stagehand or handyperson tighten the joints of the piano bench, and apply lubricant to unruly hi-hat or bass-drum pedals. As far as I know, there's no evidence that Bonham and Gould viewed the creaks and squeaks as vital, rather than incidental, to their art.

In the pursuit of peace (and, please god, quiet!), a screwdriver and a can of WD-40 will go a long way.

cgh's picture

I agree too. Production-wise digital, autotune, and quantizing just takes the humanity out of recordings. I find the perfection fatiguing. And the mistakes you mention, make them special. There's too many to name. When people recorded with tape they often had to do it in one take. So a handful of tries, but one take at all the measures.

I saw an interview with Dimeola the other day and they are releasing "saturday night in san fran", which is unreleased recordings from the same performance "friday...". Apparently it was MacLaughlin that told Al to release it, warts and all.

John Atkinson's picture
cgh wrote:
I find the perfection fatiguing. And the mistakes you mention, make them special.

I don't disagree about audience and musician noises. I'm not bothered about quiet audience noise, because it helps to preserve the illusion of being there. (Though I draw the line at obtrusive coughing.) But I do disagree when it comes to wrong notes. I discussed this in an interview with the late Wes Phillips, about one of mm live CDs of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. See www.stereophile.com/content/iserenadei-1996-santa-fe-chamber-music-festival-cd-page-2.

"Musicians are human. They do drop clams every now and again. I don't think it serves any purpose to preserve those for all eternity. But the better the musicians you have and the better the performances you're working with, the less editing has to be done."

John Atkinson
Technical Editor, Stereophile

Jack L's picture


"So I find the perfection fatiguing." cgh

I can't agree more: digital "takes humanity out".

But I disgree digital is of any "perfection" at all as it sounds "fatiguing" to you & to me as well, among many other audio fans.

Listening is believing

Jack L

AudioBang's picture

I'd like to add "Phase", in addition to creaks, coughs and candy wrappers...

Nice catch on the bass drum foot pedal squeaking throughout "Since I've Been Loving You", in addition to Jimmy Page's guitar amp buzz in that same recording.
Pertaining to phase on that same song, I hear the vocal, the bass drum and the organ bass pedal in the phantom center image and the rest of Bonham's drum kit between 30 and 0 degrees (outside the right speaker). The organ keyboard is completely out of phase. I have the Rives Audio Test CD with separate Left and Right Channel out of phase tracks which are properly played back on my system. I've been looking for an answer for a while now as to whether a drum kit showing up to the listener's right is an intentional thing or an engineer unknowingly hitting a phase button by mistake and not having the resolution in their playback to notice it...
A lot of 70s rock has some very tastefully done phase changes that really work adding layers in a spherical expansion from 0 - 180 degrees. Yes' "Fragile" and "Close To The Edge" come to mind. The song "My Wife" on Who's Next has Entwistle's lead vocal sound-staged to the listener's right (at 0 degrees). To what degree would sound engineers in the early 70s have been able to hear accurate phase reproduction through their studio monitors during those times?
It'd be an interesting set of questions for an Eddie Kramer or perhaps Bob Ludwig to opine on. I'm dying to know!

cgh's picture

Interesting that I was recently having a related conversation with John Taylor who, together with Norbert Kraft, are probably the better known engineers of classical guitar recordings. Reading your link made me think about how context matters, as it always does with music. We are talking about classical repertoire, for which the "right way" is clearly notated. There's an audiophile chestnut that I love and I suppose everyone here knows - the Sheffield Lab recording of Newman by Doug Sax. It's a direct to disc vinyl affair. I know Chaconne well. I don't maintain it at a concert level but, like most of the BWV for lute and violin cello, I play it and know every note. Newman makes some mistakes. It's a great recording. There are more flawless multi-tracked recordings of Chaconne out there than I can count, but that recording is fantastic. Of course it's Bach and there's a right way and a wrong way. Like rock we couldn't write off a wrong note as an intentional passing tone unless it happened to sound like an ornament in the right spot.

cwon's picture

I like to hear that a REAL human-being played the piece on a REAL instrument, all attendant sounds included. For me, that's what a hi-resolution system is supposed to reveal.
A lot of people must agree if they're willing to pay for outtakes and concert recordings.
Do real musicians mind incidental noises? Aren't the noises part of the process?

Jack L's picture


I do it all the time when my elder son, who is still staying with me, a classical pianist (by hobby, a graduate from my city's Royal Conservatory of Music with honour) practices/performs.

FYI, the perspective of any live music performance depends critically on the location of the audience.

From my in-person experience, the piano performance sounds so different when I stand closely behind my son when he practices in his room vs he plays the Boston (Steinway) mini grand on the podium of his church when I always sit in the front audiance row only say 8ft from the piano.

The piano notes sounds sooo rich, yet punchy & poweful that I can confident tell no reproduction systems can come remotely close !!!

I still recall in one live concert of Haydn Trempet Concerto (my very favourtie) decades back, the soloist somehow directed his trumpet towards my location (13rd row centre seat). WOW, the horn sounded so sharp & somewhat piercing my ears that I just can never recapture the timber & attack from my home system.

Listening is believing

Jack L

ednazarko's picture

I was so eager to hear Pablo Casals conducting the Brandenburgs... bought the reel to reel tape (yeah, I was one of those guys.) Didn't take long before I discovered that I couldn't enjoy it much, even though, objectively, the interpretation was quite spectacular. Casals moaned. And groaned. And moaned some more, over and over, throughout. It might have been funny if the interpretation and performance weren't so good.

remlab's picture

Keith Jarrett dropped his subscription to this magazine over someone poking fun at his jazz vocalizations that made it into print("Poodle in heat"). Probably not a bad idea to remain agnostic about that. He may bite your head off.:)

cgh's picture

That’s funny enough that it has to be true, even if it isn’t. Kieth Jarret, Glenn Gould. I was listening to Oscar Peterson’s Blues Etude the other day - not the one with Joe Pass but w/ Barney Kessel - probably one of the best jazz improvisations in that style. Vocalizations, mashed notes, couple of missed notes. Context matters - with the scales he was using to go over those chords mashing the major 6ths neighbor off the tonic isn’t really noticeable given it’s largely blues based and the overall performance is just a staggering display of chops. I wasn’t born yet when he played Ronnie Scott’s but it’s timeless and I go back to it just like I do Bach’s Chaconne.

ok's picture

what a "mistake" in art actually is. Great artists more often than not struggle against the available instruments of expression while trying to translate an immaterial idea in real-world terms. Faithful reproduction of the necessarily compromised final output gets us no closer to the artistic intent than a literal translation or a photocopy of the original to the essence of a foreign poem. That's the reason sometimes mp3 compression or tube distortion recreates the genuine feeling in a more straightforward way than the unattainable hi-end fetichistic manner of sanctifying the material means.

Jack L's picture


It depends on whoever "great artist s" are they.

For classical pianists, I nominate Lang LANG, a bearer of tons international artist awards & honorary degrees. He MASTERs any concert grand pianos (mostly Steinway, obviously) like his puppy pets.

Honestly, I falls in love with his mastery finger dancing on the keyboards coordinating immense feelings on his countenance.

Nooobody can come close to his piano mastery yet todate, IMO.

I dropped my jaw big bigtime when I watched his Beethoven "Emperor" concerto live performance via streaming YouTube. I was crazy enough to worry the piano could not handle his forceful finger-tip perfomance !!

Listening is believing

Jack L

cgh's picture

@Jack L. Living? It’s really hard to say anything definitive in this department but Martha Argerich comes instantly to mind for me. She may be the greatest living pianist from my perspective. She’s not from this world.

Jack L's picture


Yes, Martha A., now 80, an Agentinian, is ranked 9th of the Greatest Pianist of All Time. I watched a few of her recent performances on streaming YouTube.

IMO, she is getting too old today. Her fingers look too thick to 'dance with the music'.

Wait until you watch Lang LANG, half of her age, how his fingers dance with the music on dreamy melodic notes vs hammering mercilessly to regenerate the composer's strong feelings. So youthful so energetic !

Listening is believing

Jack L

Joe Whip's picture

When I sit in a jazz club as I did often pre Covid, the little noises like the clinking of glasses, the squeaking of the piano bench etc. never distracted from the performance and my enjoyment of the music. Loud inconsiderate talking by patrons usually who had too much to drink is another story. I have no issues with them listening at home. To this day, I am still flabbergasted that you can understand audience conversations listening to a Waltz for Debby and flabbergasted that the audience didn’t respect the musicians and the rest of the patrons enough to be quiet and appreciate what they were witnessing. In short, these little imperfections, if you will, are just part of the experience of live music.

Jack L's picture


Glen Gould, "A pianist of devine guidance" per New York Herald Tribune !!

Well, I happened to get Glen Gould's Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, New York Philhamonic, directed by Leonard Bernstein (Columbia Masterworks Label MS6262).

Glen performed beautifully & is one of my many favourites, artistically & sonically. So open so live !!

I don't seem to detect any non-musicl alien noises there. Let me try it again & report back to you !

Listening is believing

Jack L

mcrushing's picture

This comment might get long and it's coming so far after the fact that no one will likely read it, but I find Rogier's take on "Promises" to be so dramatically opposed to mine that I can't help but respond.

What Rogier is "pretty sure" shouldn't be audible sounds *extremely* intentional to me. "Promises" is quiet, contemplative, dreamlike. There's a ton of negative space to contemplate between the repetitions of that 7-note motif – SURELY the creaks and shuffles that fill the silences thru this entire 46-minute piece didn't go unnoticed. Perhaps someone who worked on the record will prove me wrong some day - but even then it won't change my impression that the sounds the musicians' bodies make on this recording are an organic and unpredictable counterpoint to the very regimented musical idea that underpins the composition.

Looking at Beaudoin's work, I think he'd agree this topic has nothing to do with genre. All musical instruments - and all musicians - make sounds that defy musical notation. I'd even go so far as to say that all recordings are field recordings - after all, each captures a specific moment in time and space, and the instruments played and the gear used and the room it happened in all play a role. 

If you get the chance, check out The Baptist Generals' "No Silver/No Gold." The first track, "Ay Distress," is like a haunted lullaby. It's just the lead singer's voice and a simple strummed guitar. There's a sharp room echo that gives the impression he's playing in an apartment that he just came home to find empty. Beyond a cello that joins in the third verse, there's *nowhere* to hide the flaws in this performance. It must have been very difficult for this musician to pull off - evidenced by the fact that he absolutely loses his mind when a cell phone rings during the take. The music stops, expletives are shouted, equipment is thrown around the room until a bandmate intervenes. 

That might not be Chet Baker breaking wind. But if deciding to put that on your album isn't an artistic choice worthy of reverence, I don't know what is.