Saturday, October 3, 2015

On Recording

I am in the middle of a recording project this week and had some interesting experiences connected with it. As I think I have indicated in a lot of places, though not in so many words, I am a musical empiricist. No matter what ideology you have based your music on, or express in it, if I don't think it works as music, I am going to say so. Same with writing about music. I was critical of Suzanne Cusick's essay the other day because it was NOT empirically based on music or individual circumstances, but was instead a vaporous expression of her ideology. So, in the recording studio the other night, I had to deal with my own ideology!

Yes, we all have a little ideology running through our veins, even if we try to avoid it. Some people pretty much live their lives with ideology, but that's their problem. In principle, I am opposed to ideology. So what is the difference between principle and ideology? Some cynical folks might say that it is just a matter of perspective: I have principles, but the other idiots just have ideology. Not true. Here is an example of a principle: the proof of the pudding is in the eating. That is a nice empirical principle expressed in a folk adage. And a very useful and true one. Here is an example of an ideology: the environment is fragile and constantly being threatened by human action, the most salient example being anthropogenic climate change (global warming). The difference between the two is that the folk adage tells you to refer directly to empirical facts, while the global warming one simply assumes its conclusion.

Here is a list of characteristics of ideology taken from the Wikipedia article:
David W. Minar describes six different ways in which the word "ideology" has been used:
  1. As a collection of certain ideas with certain kinds of content, usually normative;
  2. As the form or internal logical structure that ideas have within a set;
  3. By the role in which ideas play in human-social interaction;
  4. By the role that ideas play in the structure of an organization;
  5. As meaning, whose purpose is persuasion; and
  6. As the locus of social interaction.
The purpose of an ideology is to control public opinion as is revealed in numbers 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6. It helps the persuasiveness if there is an internal logic of course. But there is something huge that is missing: empirical truth. Ideology does not have to be (and almost never is) true, it just has to be useful. It is always helpful, in evaluating an ideology to ask, first of all, if it is true, and second, who benefits from it. Examining the structure of the climate change ideology would be a very useful exercise.

But this is getting away from the real topic: music recording. The project is to record my twelve songs, written for voice and guitar. To this end we have brought down a very fine singer from Canada and booked time in a local studio. The owner/engineer of the studio is also a Canadian. I have worked with him a few times before and he is very good at what he does and has excellent equipment. Also very good ears!

The first day we ran into some real problems: the voice, in the upper register, was so powerful that it was coming through the guitar mikes as strongly as the guitar was! Let me back up a bit here and describe the setup. We were both in the recording space, a room about 20 feet by 10 feet with sound baffles. The singer, a soprano, was on a $4000 Neumann microphone and the guitar was being recorded with a pair of smaller mikes (I didn't notice what they were exactly) set at 90º to one another. This is pretty standard for guitar. But the blend was not good and the resulting sound was problematic. We tried separating the voice and guitar as much as possible and adding some sound isolating baffles, but there was only slight improvement and the sightlines were poor.

This is where my ideology kicked in. Nearly all my recording in Canada was done in CBC studios in Montreal and Vancouver. They achieved excellent results by putting everyone in the same recording space and positioning microphones appropriately. Also, if you look at photos of classical musicians recording, it is also done the same way: everyone in the same room with a small number of microphones acting as a kind of imaginary ideal listener:

The engineer wanted to go more the way that popular recordings are made: each instrument on a separate channel, which meant that we had to be in different rooms, with headphones and seeing one another through a window. I thought this was a terrible idea for ensemble and sound: classical musicians don't record this way. So I put my foot down and insisted that we try again, but using a different microphone placement. The results were ... terrible! The voice sounded like an amateur recording in someone's living room and the guitar sounded like it was in a barrel.

At this point the engineer begged us to at least try his approach. He did a couple of things. The guitar (played by me, by the way) was going to stay on the stereo 90º mikes, but for the voice, now in a separate room, he swapped out the $4000 Neumann for a small mike worth about $600! The reason being that the Neumann was just over-sensitive to the voice in a high register and he had had excellent results before with the smaller mike for voice. And so it was. When we tried a take with the new setup, we instantly adjusted to the separation and the voice and guitar, recorded separately, each sounded just as they should. An enormous added benefit was that if either the voice or the guitar made a small flub, that passage could be re-recorded separately. It's called "punching in" and saves an enormous amount of time and wear and tear on the musicians.

So I instantly tossed out my obsolescent ideology about how classical musicians are "supposed" to record. Turns out that the best way, at least in our situation, was to go with what the pop guys do: each track separately. Here is a video of a voice and guitar recording in the conventional way for classical musicians:

Wow, looks like two Neumanns plus two, maybe AKG? mikes on the guitar and a couple more Neumanns (with "pop" screens) on the voice. In a nice resonant studio. And maybe they did do it just this way. But, you know, I kind of wonder. The voice and guitar are too perfectly balanced. Anytime that the tenor sings a fairly high passage he is going to be about twice as loud as the guitar. So how do you balance that as his voice is going to be feeding strongly into the guitar mikes as well? I also know another recording by this same (very fine) guitarist, Xuefei Yang, the Concierto de Aranjuez with orchestra, and a notable feature of that recording is how overbalanced the guitar is versus the orchestra meaning that they used some kind of recording wizardry to change the natural balance. So it might have been the case with this recording that they did the tracks separated and then shot the video later, lip-syncing with the pre-recorded tracks. Or not, I'm not certain! Here is something we can compare. This is a video of Ian Bostridge and Xuefei Yang performing the same song at the 2013 Gramophone awards live, i.e. without any recording wizardry. Notice how the guitar is often covered by the voice, rendering what it is doing nearly inaudible?

So the bottom line is: what are the results? If you are not getting the right sound, then don't be afraid to try any solution, even if it is outside your ideological envelope. And listen to your engineer!

The mark of an ideology, as opposed to a principle, is that it does not conform to the facts in the real world, but rather to an idealized goal. Best to pay attention to the facts.


Marc Puckett said...

Very interesting! What would've happened, do you think, if the lesser microphone had been used for the soprano, without moving her to the other studio? I suppose the balance would still have been off somehow.

Bryan Townsend said...

There were lots of options that we never got around to trying! But yes, I think that the voice would still have been too powerful. The room has a lot to do with it. In the video, you can see that the room is a large, high-ceilinged one maybe 40X40 ft. Ours was much smaller. But here is another reason that the separation was good. It enabled the singer to re-do some phrases by herself without the guitar having to re-do them as well.

Christine Lacroix said...

If we could agree on what the facts are there would be a lot less conflict in the world. I'm not giving any examples....

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh, heavens yes! What I find so reassuring in the world of music is that we professional musicians nearly always agree on the facts! For example, I was judging guitarists at a music festival in Quebec once along with a guitarist from the Maritimes. I hail from Vancouver Island, originally. So we were two guitar professors from opposite ends of the country and, likely, completely different educational backgrounds. After the first guitarist, who was pretty good, if not perfect, he turned to me and said, "So, what do you think? Around 82 or 83?" That would be marks out of a hundred. To which I said, "yes, definitely." This has often been my experience. In the wider world of ordinary listeners, there seems to be the general feeling that everything is completely relative. But among musicians, we usually agree on the facts. As my above tale demonstrates, I think. Even though I was completely opposed to the separation recording method, as soon as I heard the results I completely changed my opinion. Bad sound is bad sound!

luk17 said...

It's an interesting example you present here about how to improve the recording. On your more philosophical notes, it seems that you are oversimplifying when talking about "paying attention to the facts". As another reader pointed out agreeing on the facts is hard. And I would say it's even harder to draw conclusions from those facts, even if they are known.
If you walk into a room and find me with a gun in my hand and a dead person at my feet, it's not these facts that matter but the action to be taken. Did I kill the person? If so, what should be done? Even if it's clear that the person is dead, it's not a fact that I killed the person. In these cases we resort to people, experts, whose experience allow them to interpret the facts, a medical examiner in this case. Is the Earth warmer than 100 years ago? Let me put it this way: if I want to read an excellent opinion on classical music I read your blog, not a climate scientist's. If I want know the best answer, under current knowledge, to that question (which might be wrong, but still the best available) then a guitar player and classical composer is not the obvious person to be offering such confident statements regarding climate change being fact or ideology. Unless you have spent the last 50 years setting weather stations around the world and conducting your own experiments, which I am guessing it's not the case. I would be interested to know why you would not defer to the experts in the field, in the same way that you insist on your opinion on musical matters to be superior to that of an untrained person. Not that I don't think it is, just curious about the asymmetry. After a few months of reading this blog, I had you down as a conservative but a rational one, with an emphasis of hard knowledge and experience over the current relativism of "everyone's opinion is just as valid".

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Luk and thanks for reading the blog. Boy, do I ever regret picking that example! Yes, your point is a good one. But here is the odd thing: the conventional wisdom about climate change seems very clear indeed. As they keep saying, "the science is settled". But there are some strange anomalies. For example, what got me thinking was reading about what actually happened with one survey of climate scientists. You know the one, they keep saying that 96% of climate scientists affirm anthropogenic climate change? But it seems what actually happened was they sent a questionnaire out to a few thousand scientists and very few of them actually filled it in and returned it. But of the ones that did, 96% agreed about ACC. I also noticed that there was another survey of climate scientists in which the majority said that the science is very ambiguous. So my doubts about the party line on climate change are not a result of having spent 50 years working with the data, but noticing what some people who have, have said.

But you do know that making the claim that any opinion I might have about climate change has to be wrong because I am not an authority is just another version of the fallacy of the argument from authority?

People might give my opinions about music some weight, not because of my 50 years in the business, but because I have learned some things during those years. And when I make a claim, I back it up with evidence.

You also know that all the temperature data for the last 50 or so years has been altered to fit the theory, right?

Christine Lacroix said...

Hi Luk and Bryan

So somebody finally challenged Bryan on his climate change statements. The first time I saw one of your comments on climate change, Bryan, I thought maybe you'd just popped that in there to see if we were paying attention. I was hoping that by ignoring that sort of comment they might just go away since I've come to your blog partly to escape dreary partisan politics and controversy ridden news sites.

'Facts' are tricky things. Don't the 'facts' that we notice, remember and give credit to tend to be the very ones that support our beliefs? And when some pesky 'fact' comes along that discredits our belief then either all sorts of mental gymnastics come into play to deny it or our brain goes mysteriously numb and we don't even notice it. And I suspect that right now you're thinking Bryan, YES, that's exactly what you're doing if you believe in climate change!!!

Personally when I'm not interested enough in a subject, or knowledgeable enough to research it thoroughly, I tend to bow to the wisdom of the specialists. So maybe you've had the knowledge, time and perseverance to delve thoroughly into the issue and maybe you've found a 'fact' that proves it's a hoax in which case it would be interesting to hear a debate between you and for example Al Gore (whose film I've been too lazy to watch) who seems to also, in addition to you, been motivated enough to study the subject with great attention to detail!!!

In the meantime I hope you won't get too distracted by the topic it because it will take your time away from your excellent posts on music!!

Bryan Townsend said...

About things like anthropogenic climate change I am, frankly, torn. On the one hand, to see the way that science has been turned into ideology for the benefit of certain groups is extremely annoying. On the other hand, yes, it is one of those tiresome partisan arguments. But it is fascinating to see how the advocates really don't want to have any debates! Still, at the end of the day, a distraction from why we all spend time here. Back to classical music!

luk17 said...

Hi Bryan, thanks for your reply, but above all thanks for all the time you spend writing this blog. I've learnt a lot so far, since I first stumbled upon your post on tempo rubato.
I don't normally comment on blogs (this might be the third or fourth time I've ever done it), I just did it because I really respect your blog and thought it would be worth saying something.
Please note that I never said any opinion you have "has to be wrong". But I did not express myself clearly and did not elaborate on that point. What I meant to say is that while it is possible that you are right, it's simply unlikely. Why? Because you are not an expert in the topic and many scientific associations officially endorse the opposite position to yours (a quick google search did not show any official scientific body supporting your position).

And this is not strictly about climate science, it's about any topic. While it might sound cool to challenge "conventional wisdom", the fact remains that 99% of well-thought professional opinions are correct, no matter what amateurs think. The fact that every now and then amateurs are correct, despite experts saying the contrary, does not change that statistically it's safer to bet on the expert. You found that out in your recording experience for example. The expert was right!!

All I want to say is it's ok to take a jab at climate science or other stuff every now and then, it's your blog and you're entitled to making fun of things (and having fun in the process), but please don't drag the point, remember that statistically speaking you're most likely wrong when opposing an expert. And that's a fact :-)

Bryan Townsend said...

Luk, let's let you have the last word on that.

Christine Lacroix said...

Look if you're new to commenting on the blog be sure to always click on the 'Email follow-up comments to .... 'box or you may never realize that someone has answered you! Usually ticking it once for a particular thread is enough but check every time. Your comments were interesting so continue!

Christine Lacroix said...

Luk I meant to say 'Luk' and not 'Look' in the last message. Sorry, it was autocorrected!