Hello and good year! I welcome you in October 2021, just before Halloween, in anticipation of stereophilic‘s publication deadline, but by the time this magazine hits your mailbox, it will be after the holidays.
If I hadn’t told you, you wouldn’t have known when I wrote this essay – and you still don’t know where I was when I wrote it: my office? In a plane at 36,000 feet? Likewise, I don’t know where you will be when you read it, or when: Maybe early 2022 in your listening chair; maybe you’ll find it in a box in an attic many years from now and read it next.
What I mean goes much further than the when and the or. It is also about What: Although we share a common language, the words I choose, alone and in combination, mean something slightly different to me than to you. And yet, when I write something, I want you to ignore the writing and absorb what I say. The analogy isn’t perfect, but the relationship between reader and author is a lot like the relationship between listener and sound engineer – and everyone involved in the recording, in fact, since the recording music is a collaborative enterprise.
I should take a moment to introduce myself. I’m Jim Anderson, sound engineer and producer. I’ve been involved in audio, on the “pro” side, for many years. I say ‘audio’ not ‘music’ because in addition to music of many genres, I’ve also recorded radio documentaries, film scores, and even, I’m proud to say, The Muppets.
Tome, kind of bluethe Miles Davis classic, could have been recorded last week, just as many recordings made today could have been made in 1959 when kind of blue has been registered. kind of blue is a perfect marriage of musicality and technology, and in its many reissues, the music and engineering stand up to scrutiny, thanks to the work of Columbia engineer Fred Plaut. There are many other recordings like this that don’t tell you when or where they were made. When you listen, what you hear is the music.
Of course, with kind of bluethe has been a when and a where. The musicians entered Columbia’s 30th Street studio on March 2 and April 22, 1959; they performed together and the total recording time was around 10 hours. The band rehearsed well and the approach left enough spontaneity to keep the music fresh for over 60 years.
Usually when we listen we don’t know much about a recording unless we read when and where it was made, or if the musicians were together in the same room at the same time, or if, instead, the music has been dubbed. track by track in different locations on different dates. Some recordings don’t even have good or Where when.
Duke Ellington said, “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. … The only criteria by which the result should be judged is simply how it sounds.” Something like this could also be said about recordings music, but who’s to say what’s good and what’s not? Baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams said in an interview that he worked really hard on one album in particular—Live at Mardi Gras— which received only two stars in low beat. It was my first Grammy nominated recording.
Audiophiles (and others) are throwing around words to describe the sound of recordings: transparent, crisp, balanced, dynamic, warm (but not too warm), whole, present, mellow, with lots of air and depth. For the discerning examiner, most of the words on this list correspond to sonic virtues (sweetness can go either way), but what do they mean to a sound engineer? Not a lot. There’s no “Mellow” button or “Vivid” button on the recording console (although professional audio devices containing knobs and knobs labeled “Warmth” do exist – and let the late Rupert Neve put a “Silk/Texture” control on several products).
In the studio, we speak in precise, quantitative terms. Decibels, frequencies, and milliseconds are the vocabulary I teach students in my critical listening classes at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, as well as a precise descriptive auditory language. Of course, there’s room in the studio for nebulous discussions about “air” and “depth” and so on, especially when engineers are talking to less technical people (e.g. musicians and some producers), but if we want to do something before the day is over, someone has to know how to turn a knob to change a level from X decibels to frequency Y, or set a delay to Z milliseconds or a reverb to K seconds with P pre-delay.
A good recording, like a good text, should not draw attention to the work that has gone into it. If you like to think of recordings in terms of air and heat, etc., that’s okay, but when I’m in the studio, my goal is to get you out of those things. I do not to want you think about my process, how the sausage is made. I want my job to be transparentalthough that word usually means something different to discerning listeners than it does to me.
With my listener hat in mind, a good recording is a recording that, at the time I listen to it, hasn’t made me aware of any recording technology. I don’t want to listen to microphone placement, panning, reverb, compression, or EQ. I want to listen music. My success in engineering depends on not letting you hear my struggles in the recording. I would be happy if, while trying to describe the sound of a recording, you found yourself at a loss for words. My goal as a sound engineer is to disappear.