POP. Purity or posturing? We’ve all read those nauseating “pure window on the recording” descriptions. They’re leitmotif for audiophile beliefs. The recording is somehow sacrosanct. Pure. The unvarnished truth. So let’s hit ‘stop’ for a moment. Go into the menu and select special features.
Oops, that’s video. Never mind. What do we find? Behind the scenes glimpses into how certain shots or scenes were accomplished. Green screens. Miniaturized models. Wire-suspended actors. Amazing crane contraptions to move the camera into places human operators couldn’t reach. Multiple camera angles cross-edited after the fact. Endless sessions in the makeup, hair and costume departments. Software experts who apply photogenic enhancements after the fact. Music intercut and overlaid with foley tracks that include composite sounds alien to nature. Speech fixes re-recorded well past the wrap of filming.
The level of overall artifice is mindboggling. Of course half the action in movies these days is so fantastic that it absolutely requires such massive special-effects assist. For certain 15-second passages we learn that shooting took two weeks preceded by months of construction and setup and untold days in the editing room to massage to perfection. But even seemingly simple scenes are meticulously storyboarded, planned, blocked, framed, lit, rehearsed and repeated for as many times as it takes.
Spontaneity? Ha. Unvarnished truth? Not. It’s about layers and layers of shiny varnished perfection. Do we really believe for one moment that our treasured music is any different? Unless it’s an ultra-rare direct-to-disc production, all tracks have been… well, sorry to put it crudely, seriously fucked with. The spontaneous play-through captured by two simply microphones is all smoke and mirrors.
Instruments are multi-mic’d, multi-tracked and EQ’d and enhanced afterwards. Certain performers submit their contributions by email from another continent. Manipulate phase. Add reverb. Correct pitch. Splice multiple takes to remove performance errors. Apply compression. Dither. Put different types of microphones on different performers. Use reflective screens. Move virtual placement. The list is endless.
This extreme artifice is one reason why playback and live concert are as different as men and women or Mars and Venus. Recorded music worshipped on the altar of audiophilia really is extremely Photoshopped … er, ProTooled. Beyond certain ‘purist’ recordings done without any overdubbing, splicing or post-production equalization and processing, just judicious venue and microphone selection plus performer/microphone placement before ‘the tape’ rolled, our recordings are manufactured artifice.
We chase the recreation of the original event but there was none – just an endless assembly line of mini events combined into a final patchwork collage. We chase the recreation of the original venue but most the time there was none – just clinical booths in a studio, musicians wearing headphones to hear each other. Whatever spatial information there is was added artificially. Given how none of us were present in the recording studio or post-production facilities; or compared the authorized master tape/file to the commercial pressing of the vinyl slab, shiny disc or disseminated music file… we really have no clue about what’s on the recording versus what should be, i.e. how much has been lost in this entire recording-to-final process.
What really is our reference? Isn’t it quite the lie and intrinsically no different than centerfold perfection or anorexic runway models who propose a version of reality that’s completely fake? If we return to that tired “pure window on the recording” attitude, taken at face value it must mean that we’d see this recorded artifice for exactly what it is. We’d notice all incongruencies, all patches like different reverb times for performers who were supposedly jamming together in the same room. We notice microphone swaps halfway through a track. We hear splices. We hear timbre manipulations that go beyond an instrument’s physical abilities. We hear artificially goosed bass. We spot treble brilliance that’s achievable only with EQ or a microphone in such extreme proximity that no ear would ever hear it like that.
Do we really want to notice and thus know all of it? If our goal is the enjoyment of music as we would during a concert where one take is all the performers get, I’d say clearly not. Now down-to-the-bone analysis is fit only for the would-be sound technician or recording studio rookie who need an exercise in reverse engineering and to guess at certain decisions made during a particular production.
Does such analysis do anything for us to get us into the zone of the ‘musical flow’? Doesn’t it conflict with wanting to forget all its manufactured artifice so we might move into a place that feels real or at least emotionally meaningful? It’s inevitable that this line of inquiry would lead to the whole ‘musicality’ issue as an attempt to reconnect with the musical message and disconnect from both the delivery medium and the recorded artifice which fronts it. That’s not about more and more resolution. That would merely increase our sensitivity to everything that deviates from an organic uncut musical performance. It’s then fair to posit that a so-called musical system should somehow compensate for this fakeness and repair or disguise some of its worst offenses. That’s clearly a very long discussion for another day. It should also mean somewhat different things to different people. For today we simply declare that our cherished recordings (be they eternalized on vinyl, tape, disc or file) are manufactured. Exactly like major motion pictures, they’ve been pieced together and in the process manipulated intensely. Is anything about that so pure, spontaneous, organic, life-like and sacrosanct? Personally I fail to see it.