And The Music Goes 'Round And 'Round...
I just saw a picture of a truly remarkable recording studio mixing/mastering console. It has 48 channels, 56 monitors, 1046 Routing Modules, four bands of EQ on every input, and, for only a little under two hundred grand, it has enough features, knobs and dials, special effects, toys, and goodies, to satisfy even the most control freak engineer or producer.
I loved it! And, when I was a Hi-Fi Crazy kid recording maven, back more than half a century ago, I would have lusted after it as the fulfillment of my every recording dream.
In those days of the 1960s, after being an audiophile since age 12, I had gotten into recording, and had bought, (all used, because college kids have no money), an Ampex 601-2, another 'deck just for playback, a Studio Supply Company two channel mixer, a number of fairly good microphones (including RCA [44BX], Capps, Shure, Electro-Voice, and AKG), assorted Atlas stands for them, and (you guessed it) a couple of hundred feet of Belden microphone cables, all hand-terminated, plus my regular system.
I had learned the basics of recording from books and from Jimmy Valentine, of Valentine Sound Recorders, in North Hollywood, who, among other things, did all of the Stan Kenton Big Band recordings. He sometimes let me help out — nominally as "Junior Engineer", but actually more as a go-fer, disciple, and set-up/tear-down person.
Although Jimmy gave great sound, I thought my own recordings were largely a failure: For example, when I recorded my girlfriend-at-the-time sitting in my parents' living room (I lived at home when I was in school), singing and playing her guitar, all it sounded like was my girlfriend sitting in my parents' living room singing and playing her guitar. That wasn't what I wanted.
Even when I put a speaker in the stall shower of one of the bathrooms and a microphone in the room with it, outside the closed shower door, to pick up the speaker's sound and provide a sort-of echo-chamber effect that I could mix-in with the original sound, it still didn't sound "commercial", and I longed for a "real" echo chamber device (at the time, the ones you could buy were mostly either plate or spring operated) and for some multi-band EQ so I could make my recordings sound more like professional recordings.
And that was where I made my first mistake.
As I grew older and more sophisticated, I came to understand that a recording wasn't supposed to sound like a recording at all; it was supposed to sound, just as my own earlier recordings had — like a person or a group of people singing and/or playing instruments in a room or some other venue. And that, if it's really good, it should make you feel like you're right there in the room or at the venue with them.
At that point, sonic truth, realism — or "believability" to, perhaps, put it a little better — became my audio goal. To make a recording "commercial-sounding", I came to realize, was in most cases the direct opposite of that truth, and much of the thrust of modern recording technology seemed to me to be dedicated not to music as it actually was, but to making music sound like somebody's idea (anybody from the artist(s) to the conductor [for classical music] to the engineer, to the producer, to some company "suit", to the final music-buying listener) of what it ought to be.
Using multiple microphones, for example — as many as one per performer (or, in the case of drums, even one mic per element of the drum kit) — though a common practice for decades, was not the ideal I had thought it to be. True, it allowed engineers and producers, even in the earliest days, more control and the ability to change orchestral balance or to get artificially close to a single performer or instrument for a more forward and "commercial" sound, but it wasn't the sound a real audience at a real performance would ever hear.
"Spot" mic'ing, too, another multi-mic practice used to bring one performer or instrumental section out from a group for special emphasis, was — even though such classical music greats as Toscanini and Stokowsky, were said to use it and even to instruct the engineers on their recordings as to how much and when — was just one more way to produce a sound different from that which might have been heard live in a concert hall.
As other things came along , like multi-channel recording (up to 64, in some extreme cases), graphic and parametric equalization, "phasing, "flanging", "sampling" and many more, engineers and producers came to have such total control of the recording process that it wasn't even necessary to have an "original" recording session at all. Instead, individual performers or sections could be recorded separately, processed separately, and stored separately; to eventually be assembled ("mastered") however, and as many times as might be desired. That was artistically acceptable. It was also economically desirable because it meant that musicians didn't have to stay (and be paid for) for an entire session, including re-takes for other sections, but could just properly play their bit and go. It's where the term "fix it in the mix" came from, and, until "audiophile recordings came along, it was, along with AutoTune (to correct vocal errors), the death knell for sonic realism.
Now, to at least a substantial degree, in at least some musical genres, that's come to be normal, and not even worth comment. In fact, it's simply considered a broader palette for creating a whole new kind of music that could never come about otherwise.
In the audiophile realm, though, other engineers and producers, other recording companies, and other artists are moving back toward simplicity of technique, minimalist equipment, and a quest for ultimate sonic realism. To any of them, that console to which I first referred would be regarded as purest anathema, with each knob, dial, and slider and each channel beyond two seen as a step away from the truth.
They might even be right, but as for me, I've come around to the point where I can take joy from both:
"Commercial"-sounding recordings are commercial because they sell lots of music to lots of people who like their sound. I'm one of them. Audiophile recordings present the glory of the music, itself, as it's made by real people in real acoustic environments. I love that, too, and I love the fact that my equipment can do that for me and make me feel as if I'm actually there, in the room with the artists, sharing their experience. They're both fine, and, either way, I can...