Encore: the 1997 Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival CD

"To be natural," Oscar Wilde said, "is such a very difficult pose to keep up."

When we refer to any recording as "sounding natural," we are, of course, employing an oxymoron. There's nothing about the process that is "natural"—except, perhaps, the use of a good-sounding venue and the choice of sympathetic musicians. Microphones don't "hear" music in the same way that ears do, and, far from being neutral, are actually chosen for their sound.

For instance, if one is recording violins, the polar distribution of radiated power along the axis of the violins' top plates is such that it will overwhelm any other sounds the microphones are intended to record—so one is forced to record from any position but one along that axis. Most engineers choose to raise their microphones well above it, since that solves other problems relating to the way microphones perceive the instruments on a stage.

To cite another example: Simply by using spaced omnidirectional microphones, an engineer can create an illusion of spaciousness that may not truly exist in the venue. The distance between the microphones affects lateral time cues on the recording; the perception of spaciousness can be profoundly influenced simply by varying that spacing.

So how can any recording pretend to an "absolute" sound when every choice made by the engineer can influence the final product? That is the dilemma facing anyone attempting to preserve a faithful record of the original event. The art (as opposed to the craft) of recording lies in making choices that produce the flavor of veracity, even while exploiting the reality-altering properties of the tools employed.

John Atkinson and I entered Santa Fe's St. Francis Auditorium on July 18, 1997, intending to record several performances over the course of the next two weeks in much the same way as we had in 1995 and 1996 (footnote 1). That is to say, we arrived full of the moral righteousness in simply recording the event that only the true believer can muster. We hung the four B&K microphones in the locations that past experience had told us worked well, and set about running cables, tapping power, and adjusting microphone preamps, D/A converters, and the ubiquitous Nagra-D four-channel digital recorder.

There was just one problem. When we began recording the rehearsal for the Saturday, July 19th program, we noticed that the sound was drier and far less rich than the sound we had recorded in the years before. We closely inspected our setup, which seemed to be functioning perfectly, then cast our eyes about in search of the culprit. JA determined that the acoustic shell, designed to throw the sound toward the audience, was much closer to the musicians this year. In 1995 and 1996, for instance, it had been halfway between the musicians and the rear of the stage. This year it was so close to them they could reach out and touch it.

Footnote 1: Stereophile has released two other CDs of works recorded in concert at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. Festival (STPH007-2) was recorded in 1995 and features the original chamber version of Copland's Appalachian Spring, Milhaud's jazz-flavored La création du monde, and the 1995 Festival premiere, Tomiko Kohjiba's The Transmigration of the Soul. Serenade (STPH009-2) was recorded in 1995 and 1996 and features Mozart's Flute Quartet in D (K.285), the Brahms Horn Trio in E-Flat, and Dvorák's Serenade in D Minor for Winds & Strings. To obtain Festival, Serenade, Encore, or any of the other eleven Stereophile recordings, see the "Recordings" page on this website.