Thursday, March 10, 2016

Life: Where's the Microphone for That?

I was getting dressed this morning while listening to music on one of the streaming services, and the old song "Jackie Blue" by the Ozark Mountain Daredevils started playing. It's one of those songs that I never seek out, but I always enjoy hearing, especially since it only happens once every few years now.

A dose of nostalgia can be a good way to start the day, and I was really enjoying the moment, until I noticed that "Jackie Blue" sounded... different.

Music recorded before the digital age is "digitally remastered" before it is transferred to CD, or streamed on music listening services like Pandora or Spotify. The idea is that the remastering process improves the sound quality to make some of the old recordings more palatable to the modern listener. But, more often than not, I find that the process changes the character of the original version.

Here's a little Technology 101...

When recording a song, you have a recording engineer whose job it is to capture the best possible quality sound out of the voice or instrument being recorded. He helps arrange the speaker cabinets and place the various microphones methodically to achieve the desired result. After that, a mixing engineer combines the many tracks that might be recorded for a song, adjusts the volume levels of each of the tracks (so, the drums don't drown out the guitars, etc), tweaks the panning (shifting of sound from left to right or right to left in a stereo recording), and adds any post-production effects that might be desired. Then, a mastering engineer takes the final "mix" of the song and equalizes, balances and compresses it to produce the "master" recording - the final imprint of the song that will be transferred to CD's, downloaded as MP3's, or streamed through various internet sources.

For newer recordings whose original source is digital (the signal, when recorded, is converted to a sequence of numbers), this is fairly straight-forward. But for all those classic hits that began life in analog form (an electronic or magnetic representation of the actual original sound), this poses a problem. When your only source for a song is the original analog master recording, digitizing and remastering it changes it slightly, but noticeably. The original source recordings often have a certain warmth or depth to the sound that doesn't translate to digital formats. Something is lost in the process.

Back in the day, the original masters had their blemishes, but it was seen as inevitable, and, therefore, acceptable, or even desirable. They weren't perfect because the original recordings weren't perfect, but it didn't seem to hurt the music any. It wasn't about perfection.

As technology seeped into the very process of recording, it might have hurt as much as it helped. Nobody understands this better than Keith Richards. In his 2010 memoir, "Life", Keith explains how he began to view technology as a limitation rather than an advantage.

“Very soon after Exile (Exile on Main Street, 1972), so much technology came in that even the smartest engineer in the world didn’t know what was really going on. How come I could get a great drum sound (before) with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound that’s like someone shitting on a tin roof?"

As engineers were armed with better amplifiers and microphones, and the ability to record a seemingly infinite number of tracks, they detached singers from the band, and then they detached the band from each other, so that each sound could be recorded with no bleed-through from the other instruments. As Keith says, "...the bass player would be battened off, so they were all in their little pigeonholes and cubicles. And you’re playing this enormous room and not using any of it. The idea of separation is the total antitheses of rock and roll, which is a bunch of guys in a room making a sound and just capturing it. It’s the sound they make together, not separated. This mythical bullshit about stereo and high tech and Dolby, it’s just totally against the whole grain of what music should be."

I found some old pictures of the Stones recording in the basement of Keith's rented villa in the French Riviera in 1971, and compared them with a video of the Who recording "Who Are You?" just a half dozen years later.  In the video, the band members are separated from each other during the recording process. Bass player, John Entwistle, has to lean forward in order to see through the plexi-glass partition and, briefly, make eye contact with drummer, Keith Moon. Singer, Roger Daltrey, is literally in another room - the vocal booth - although it does have a window view. And they're not even hearing what's happening in the main room. They're listening to a mix of sounds going through the recording console and then being sent back down the line to their headphones.
It's great that digital technology has eliminated some of the mechanical flaws in previous playback systems, like the "rumble" of turntables or the "wow and flutter" of tapes. But, while actually recording new music these days, you track each instrument separately, and you can edit out every breath sound and every finger squeak on a guitar, and artificially tune any sour note with a few clicks of a mouse. You can easily end up with something that isn't necessarily true to the original entity. Sort of like Photoshopping a fashion model; sure, the magazine cover is attractive, I guess, but you know that's not what she really looks like.

Once, during a recording session for a band I managed, the engineer didn't like the sound of one of the rack toms on the drummer's kit. We recorded the drums anyway, but then, from somewhere or other, he sampled a drum sound that he did like, and, since each drum had been mic'ed separately, he was able to go back in ProTools, and digitally replace every one of the hits on that particular tom-tom with the sampled sound. I remember, at first, being glad that it sounded so clean. But I also remember thinking that this was becoming less like a band recording and more like an audio jigsaw puzzle.

Because Keith Richards was part of the Rolling Stones (meaning... able to do whatever the hell he wanted), he at least tried to escape the trap that most others fell into. "Nobody had the balls to dismantle it," he writes. "And I started to think, what was it that turned me on to doing this? It was these guys that made records in one room with three microphones. They weren’t recording every little snitch of the drums or the bass. They were recording the room. You can’t get those indefinable things by stripping it apart. The enthusiasm, the spirit, the soul, whatever you want to call it, where’s the microphone for that?"

Maybe this is why rock music is disappearing. Other genres seem to be able to survive in the presence of all this technology, and, some would argue, in the absence of real talent. But rock seems to really exemplify the cliché that the whole of something can be greater than the sum of its parts. Maybe the whole has been split apart and neutralized?

In theory, it's desirable to eliminate noise and distortion, but removing every imperfection seems to leave a void where there was once some indescribable but important part of the music. It's like a recently embalmed corpse. There's certainly a resemblance to what was once a human being, but there's no life.

Major artist recordings made in the digital age are almost always neat and clean, at least from an engineer's point of view. There is very little that is spontaneous or accidental. No paint is spilled on the audio canvas. Or, at least, there is no evidence of it after the process is over. When mistakes occur, they are erased, or edited out. It is, for lack of a better word, sterile. If, God forbid, I should ever need a major operation, I want the appointed surgeon to work in an environment like that. But not my favorite rock bands. I want them rolling around with strippers in a bourbon-filled pigsty with a few microphones placed discreetly nearby.

I've noticed, many times, that the new, digital versions of some of my favorite old songs were different. But, for some reason, it really struck me the other day while listening to Larry Lee, the drummer of the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, singing his heart out. It was clear and crisp and... kind of hollow. It's impossible to come around, decades after the fact, and use a room full of fancy machinery to take something that was good, but, by its very nature, imperfect, and try to make it perfect. It's like putting a filet mignon in a microwave rather than on a grill. It still gets cooked, but the high-tech method doesn't give you the same flavor.

When it comes to rock music, I'm very critical. But, ultimately, as long as you understand the limitations of remastered recordings - or the advantages, depending on your viewpoint - you can still listen, and enjoy, and let the feeling of nostalgia bubble up inside you like champagne.

This is what good music does to me. It's a catalyst for an energetic reaction that can be difficult to contain. It makes me feel different. It warms me. When I listen to a tune I really like, I'm often convinced that someone standing next to me must be able to sense what's happening inside me, or even hear it. And I wish I could capture those moments.

But there's no microphone for that.