A Clash of Values? Page 2

Although achieving a "good" sound is on the engineer's mind, the recording session is not the optimum environment for discerning differences and spending time (read "money") on what are considered matters of secondary importance. Recording engineers in a session don't have the luxury of sitting in a chair with nothing to think about other than the sound they are hearing. Further, the differences between cables, mike preamps, and other electronics are often more subtle than and of a different nature from the large differences introduced by changing or moving microphones. The first-order effects of tonal-balance differences between microphones tend to overshadow the second-order effects of cables and electronics. Finally, it isn't the engineer's prerogative to stop the session to experiment with tweaky techniques or components.

The primacy of control over sound quality is exemplified by the comments of George Massenburg, one of the most respected engineers working today: "I am sold on [digital]. Not because it sounds good, but because...it gives you tremendous procedural capabilities." Another engineer at the same discussion added: "Digital editing is what sold me on [digital recording]—the creative possibilities of being able to have almost an endless number of different versions of a recording and being able to fly tracks back and forth, and being able to change where drum fills are" (footnote 3).

But why is this level of control necessary? Why is changing where the drum fills occur more important than capturing the sound of the drums in the first place? And should the engineer be treating what the drummer played as mere raw material to be manipulated?

It's very easy for audiophiles to forget that, in the vast majority of recording sessions, those involved are there to manufacture a product for mass consumption, not preserve the qualities audiophiles find important. A recording's success is judged by the number of records it sells, not by how much space is captured, or how realistically instrumental timbres are portrayed—or even conveying the drummer's expression, to go back to the engineer's remarks quoted above. It's a completely different value structure. The end—manufacturing hit records—justifies the means.

Because most of the listening public hears the engineer's work on car stereos (sometimes in mono), there isn't the motivation to capture the signal as an audiophile would expect it to be preserved (footnote 4). Engineers assume that no one will appreciate the difference. After all, why bother? The unpleasant truth is that most music is recorded for the teenager with a boombox, not the audiophile with tube-driven electrostatics (footnote 5).

In the belief that the product must stand up over a 3" car speaker, engineers often process music in ways that are anathema to audiophiles. One technique of making sure the bass line is heard is to shift it up an octave and mix it in over the original bass. When reproduced over a playback system that rolls off the bottom two or three octaves, there will still be some semblance of a bass line. Remember, the goal of the artist, producer, and engineer is to create a product for mass consumption. Using this technique on the bass is thus a commercial decision, not an aesthetic judgment. To the listener with a table radio, the bass-shifting trick increases his or her ability to enjoy the music. To the owner of a Muse Model 18 subwoofer, the technique is a perversion of the recording art.

Another factor widens the gulf between audiophile and recording engineer: the recording community's general ignorance of high-end audio. Very few engineers, producers, or artists listen to their music through systems audiophiles would call high-end. Instead, they have scaled-down versions of studio playback systems that play very loudly, have low distortion at high levels, and are reliable. These systems also tend to be extremely colored, lack soundstaging ability, and have a very hard treble. Many in the recording community just don't know what a high-end system can do because they've never heard their music through one.

Footnote 3: These comments are from a workshop held at the 89th AES convention in Los Angeles. A full report on the discussion (including extended transcriptions) begins on p.81 of Vol.14 No.6.

Footnote 4: It is a depressing fact that the aftermarket in-car market in the US is larger in dollar terms than the market for hi-fi separates, which itself is much larger than the true high-end market.—JA

Footnote 5: For decades, recording mixes have been checked on a pair of Auratones, a single 5" driver in a tiny cube that sits on the console. Auratones are known affectionately as "Horrortones."