A Clash of Values? Page 3

Similarly, engineers have learned one way of recording and see no need to change. Many techniques that could be used in modern multitrack sessions are purist in approach yet wouldn't compromise the goal of making a commercial product. I saw an example of this in a recording magazine article that interviewed top engineers for their tips on recording brass instruments and horn sections. An engineer described an accident that changed the way he thought about recording. He was miking a horn section with his usual method: a mike at each instrument's bell, horns positioned left to right in the stereo image with the console's pan pots, and artificial reverb added to each instrument. This approach gives the engineer total control over the balance between instruments, spatial position (both front to back and right to left), and even allows the sound of a particular instrument within the horn section to be tailored with equalization. He also put up a coincident stereo pair away from the horn section to pick up some "room sound" that would be mixed in well below the direct sounds.

One day—quite by accident—the engineer pressed the "solo" buttons on the console, cutting out all sound from the monitors except for the signal from the coincident stereo "room sound" mikes. He was shocked to hear that they did a much better job of capturing the sound than the multi-miked, pan-potted, EQ'd, and artificially reverb'd technique. If he hadn't accidentally "soloed" the coincident pair that day, he could have spent his entire career not knowing that there was another way to record a horn section.

But can the audiophile condemn the recording engineer who makes products for mass consumption—products made at the expense of qualities the audiophile finds important?

Anthropologists hold that one culture should not be judged by the values of another—for example, an Eskimo visiting New York City and deciding that New Yorkers are stupid and unsophisticated because they don't know how to hunt seals. Likewise, audiophiles working with one set of values should be wary of condemning recording engineers because most of the latter hold a different set of values. The engineer's techniques—and the resultant sound—are entirely appropriate within his value system.

But look at what happens when the gulf between the values of audiophiles and recording engineers is bridged. Engineers like Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings and Bob Katz of Chesky bring an audiophile sensitivity to recording, elevating it from technique to art. They capture the music in a way that can only be described as magical. Their work, and the work of a few other like-minded engineers, dramatically illustrates the width of the value gulf separating sensitive listeners and most recording engineers. More important, their recordings reveal how much better the music can be preserved when this gulf is bridged.

This gulf needs bridging more often.