Walk around to various hotel rooms at a high-end audio show and you’ll hear the usual suspects playing on the jukebox: “Keith Don’t Go” by Nils Lofgren, Brubeck’s “Take Five,” Stevie’s “Tin Pan Alley,” and so on. A musically-educated outsider might notice that much of what gets played is clean and minimalist. Not in the sense of the musical technique called minimalism, where a layered soundscape is built one layer at a time, but rather that the sound has space for tones to shine through and transients to be enjoyed.
There’s a certain kind of sound that is perfect for showing off audio gear, but admittedly, that clean approach is not present in the majority of music being created these days. The “loudness wars” and brick-wall limiting play a role in ruling out songs for use in a demonstration, but the choice isn’t only about recording quality. Dense arrangements, layered synthetic reverb and vocal effects can also distract from the goal of showcasing the better qualities of a fine instrument.
A manufacturer might only play one track from an entire album because it has just the right kick and oomph. For example, superstar speaker-designer Andrew Jones introduced me to American recording artist Jamie Woon at the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, during a quiet (rare!) moment in the ELAC room. Without gushing too much I’ll say the private audience with Mr. Jones was a highlight of the weekend for me, and I was able to pick his brain with a few questions I had stewing in the noggin.
But later at home, I listened to the rest of the Woon album and while I do really enjoy this new artist, none of the other tracks had the same magic as the one Andrew played for me.
Such is life as an audiophile, I suppose. We only get that “you are there” feeling when playing a track that was recorded to sound that way. And unfortunately, the priorities of most recording engineers do not revolve around an audiophile soundstage. So we reach for the next best thing: clean, well-panned recordings with space around the instruments.
Less can be more to audiophiles. A few years ago, I discovered an exciting band that I believe sounds better and is more exciting when stripped down to its basic elements. This is rare, as most of the groups that did a live track session with us were clearly better when set up with full arrangements.
When Zach, Brian and Kanene of Brooklyn indie-folk trio The Lone Bellow stopped by one Friday afternoon, none of our staff had heard of the group and didn’t know what to expect. In fact, the session was thrown together last minute, and I didn’t have any time to prepare.
They were referred to us by a friend at another Boulder music hotspot, eTown. If you haven’t heard of eTown, it’s a wonderful live music program recorded in Boulder, broadcast by many public radio stations nationwide.
The Lone Bellow were on a serious upward trajectory at the time of our recording, and it’s easy to see why. Their folksy sound is usually supported by a backing band that acts as an amplifier of their energy. But early in the band’s journey and far from home, they left the supporting band and extra instruments behind and brought nothing but two guitars, a mandolin, and their voices to my studio.
I don’t know if you’ve experienced something that both gives you immediate, fourteener-sized goosebumps and also blasts your system with adrenaline, but this happened to me the very second those three opened up their voices together in warm-up.
My goodness. You had the sense they knew this was their main hook — the organ sound of the unique blend of their voices. Talking to Kanene, I learned that all three had sung in choirs growing up. The three of them together was a choir, I thought, blending perfectly and being more together than individually.
My choral-conductor dad, in breaking down why their voices sound so good together, explained that a clean Baritone, a breathy Alto and a chesty Tenor is a really nice sonic combination. I think the balance of high frequencies and clarity on the bottom end of the midrange also makes them sound louder together, and makes them sound like a larger group.
Their latest album, Then Came The Morning, moves back toward the heart of what makes the group special, but it still is a different animal than what we witnessed. Personally, I prefer them raw and almost a cappella, but there is a charm to the rocking energy a full band can create with their songs.
A brief note about the recording choices. This was one of the first recordings in our jury-rigged live video studio, and we started out with really cheap gear. This was being funded by a newspaper, after all. Being early in our development we frequently confronted decisions that pitted the needs of the camera against the needs of the microphone, and in this recording the decision was made to not use pop screens because they covered the faces of the performers in the video. I still regret not using the screen, but I know we recorded something magical that day with The Lone Bellow.
Watching these videos still gives me goosebumps. Give their new album a listen, and see if you hear what I hear. If they stay together long enough I really hope they do a record that is stripped down and focused upon their harmonies. To my ears, that’s where their magic lives.