From Florida, Bob Katz has sent a test CD of the mastered version of part of my new recording. This morning I’m listening. He’s sent along a list of many clicks and noises he removed. There’s question about the basic sound. He’s chosen a dither he likes and done a bit of EQ and stereo image shifting. The underlying recording was too diffuse, he thought. He wants a bit more “edge” and a clearer sense of where the piano is on the stage. It’s veering toward being too brash I think. Now it’s “like a Yamaha instead of a Steinway,” I write him in an email. This recording includes music by Philip Glass and William Duckworth. In his own piano recordings, Glass favors a very pop piano sound. The mics are suspended right above the strings of the piano. Before my first recording of his music, he suggested I might use that kind of mic position. Here, I want a less analytic sound (more “classical”?) that gives more sense of the space of the auditorium. (This present material was recorded in a hall seating 1200.) Especially for Duckworth’s pieces, which feature long lingering drones, I want to hear the room.
Over a long period, recordings have become clearer and more detailed, just like the sounds heard in newer and newer concert halls. It is partly changing technology, and partly aesthetics. What’s the causal relationship? Pop is a strong influence. Each generation of listeners learns to hear recorded sound (as we learn to “see” photographic images). The sound of acoustic 78s gave way to electrical recording, then to LPs made from magnetic tape, CDs, and now MP3s.
I based some of my editing decisions last summer (which I drew onto a score for Nick Prout, my editor in New York) on listening to MP3s. All the takes from the recording sessions were loaded onto an iPod — perfect I thought, for the weeks I spent in Mongolia. To continue working all I had to do was keep the iPod charged — not so easy it turned out. I recognize a certain timbre in MP3 piano sound, but as the process of comparing takes is about their relative qualities and compatibility, it seemed it could work. (At times, I have worked from DATs, CDs, and even cassettes!)
There’s no other “producer” for these solo recordings. No one picking takes or edit points, or — in the recording sessions — telling me to do another take, or, more likely, telling me I do not need to do more than the many, many takes I already have! It pleased me to know, from Robert Philip’s book, that in the pre-editing 78 period, Mr. Rachmaninoff recorded Mendelssohn’s “Spinning Song” twenty-three times during a session…
The making of recordings depends on live playing. But as movies are different from plays done on stage, sound recordings can be and should be very different from the experience of live concerts. Classical musicians can be dumb when it comes to recording. Often, the mastering process — the finishing of the actual sound and the careful assembly of the finished art work, crucial steps — is handled very casually. I’m aware of classical projects, in which mastering is “bypassed.” An edited recording is just sent to a CD replicating factory where some default settings control the final sounds!