Quality Rant

[This weeks the Sunday Supplement finds Matthew’s brother, regular Toad commentator, professional sound engineer and all-around thoroughly decent chap, Ben on his chosen specialised subject]

Let me get something out of the way quickly:  Digital audio is better than analogue, by some considerable distance.  When discussing how good a recording is, I think it is important to define two terms.  The first term I need define is ‘good’, and it’s cousin ‘quality’.  The second is ‘pleasing’, which only makes sense once I have defined ‘good’ and ‘quality’.  A ‘good’ recording happens when you put a high quality microphone in front of a musician, run that mic through a quality pre-amp and then send that to a capture device at a level that is clearly audible,  but does not degrade the signal.  What this provides is clear and honest recreation of someones art that you, and they can work with, and manipulate in the best possible way.  Now, unfortunately, a pure ‘good’ recording of high quality is rather uninteresting.  While a poor recording in a gym, into a banged up eight track recorder (which the Beatles used) is far more musical and hence ‘pleasing’.

Now let us come to a huge problem that music has in the modern world.  As all music is now distributed in a digital format that grime is gone.   And frankly, given that most people own a laptop, or home computer, the extra investment to being able to come up with a basic recording set-up is still fairly minimal.  You can pick up a second hand 8 channel interface which records from at 192khz/24bit for about 300 quid, and good mics retail at about $100.  For those of you who don’t know anything about sample rates and bit rates wikipedia describes them  better than I can but, briefly it is a the number of times a computer divides up a waveform.  The more times it chops it up, the more accurately it can recreate it in your computer.  Now a CD is more accurate than tape, and can store more information.  A CD samples at 44.1KHz/16bit, so for three hundred quid you have a device that can take a wave and recreate it four times more accurately than a CD.   So what is the down side to this, and if there is no downside why does so much music sound dreadful and, why do old records sound so much more pleasing?

Well, there are a number of reasons.  Firstly digital recording is brutally unforgiving.  If you overload an analogue signal it goes warm and fuzzy, if you overload a digital signal is becomes grainy and brittle sounding.  This means that the over exuberance of musicians and the desire to make everything more powerful manifested itself in a warm pleasing noise and lets everyone know that the musician was really putting his back into it.  It draws you in.  The same behaviour with digital will cause the computer to fragmet the signal which will grate on the ears and instantly make the listener detach themselves from the music.  Which means the rock and roll attitude to recording has been replaced by a much more scientific approach.  However, should you need ‘tape’ sound the digital realm offers you far more choices.  You can run your signal through a tape machine on the way to your computer.  You can run it through a tape machine afterwards and use both signals, deciding how much ‘tape’ distortion to use.  You can use a digital ‘tape’ emulator.  You can in fact do any number of things with any number of effects.  Which gives you infinite ability to find your sound and infinite ability to destroy your record if you don’t know when to stop distorting things.

Now with effects like reverb we see a different problem.  For all we can all afford a laptop, how many of us can afford to rent a barn, cathedral or brick walled attic.  A nice live space with character that adds depth and character to our music.  Let me give you an example of this.  Bruce Sprringsteen, who was famously involved in the recording process,  hated the sound of the drums in one session.  He told his engineer that he had seen two ‘room mics’ capturing the sound of the echo and reverb around the drums.  The engineer pointed to two faders on the board which Springsteen proceeded to push them up really high, and thus the sound of Max Weinberg was born.  What Bruce Springsteen was doing was giving the listener the experience of listening to the drums as he heard them, from a distance.  But this muddying of the sound was a choice, but a choice made using the one and only tool available to him, rather than the infinite number of effects, reverb units, reverb plug-ins and room mics available to the modern engineer.

In my profession clean clear and pristine is the goal.  Most orchestral recording should not be distorted, and certainly not compressed as it robs the composer and conductor of the depth of sound needed to use the layering of sound in most classical music.  In this environment reverb is much more vital as it suggests the grandeur of the space which one associates with listening to classical music.  You want as much detail captured and accurately relayed to the listener as you can because the wonder of classical music is the vast amount of detail and so recreating this detail, in an environment that suits the music is more important than what you do once you have captured It.  So here the detail, and the clarity available only in the digital realm is a massive advantage.  In fact it makes me quite sad that no one but me ever hears the full effect of the 92khz recording master that I get to hear before I compress it down to CD.

All this clarifies that the character of a recording has become an applied aesthetic.  There is no reason that even low cost home records should need to sound anything but clean and clear.  Thus, the effects can be applied like another instrument, but in this case to give character, context and depth to the music.  And because of the power of digital technology, you have the ability to do this with more accuracy, and versatility than ever before.  This new control and power is going to have be wielded by a new breed of artist.  It will require musicians versed in technology, and engineers aesthetically sensitive enough to wield their arsenal with artistry to aid and accentuation the music.  We will also need producers with enough power tell them both to stop playing around put down their toys and let the music speak for itself sometimes. This site discusses how we appreciate and even distribute music at great length but, if music is going to progress we need to understand how to create it better as well, and to do this we should all be constantly educating ourselves as to the tools at our disposal.