Micro and macro

November 29, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

While it might feel counterintuitive, it is often helpful to zoom in for a micro view in order to perfect the macro view: focusing closely on the smallest details of microphone placement in recordings or exacting speaker placement in the playback chain are both secrets of success.

But, like many endeavors, there’s the threat of a trap.

Focusing too hard on the smallest bits of a product or project at the expense of the whole can turn something great into a muddled mess.

The real skill in both the recording and playback arts is having enough experience to effectively balance the micro and macro.

And that experience is earned by making countless mistakes.

Which is why I am so delighted to making as many mistakes as possible (and I make a lot).

Zoom in, zoom out.

Get it right, get it wrong.

It’s how we learn.

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46 comments on “Micro and macro”

  1. It would be lots of fun indeed to learn the recording art!

    I guess the only problem is, the one‘s learning curve is the other’s (musicians‘) stressed patience. Good to own the label in this case 😉

    1. I don’t think a stressed musician is a good thing. The engineer and musicians should be a team. I’ve mentioned before that the chief engineer at Linn Records (40+ years of experience) is a Lecturer at the Royal Academy of Music and teaches young musicians how to work and perform in a recording studio.

      Many jazz and classical recordings over the decades seem to be produced over sessions lasting between 2 and 4 days, and usually no more than 2 consecutive days. I suspect any more than that and a loss of spontaneity and exhaustion sets in. To get say 90 minutes of music in that time must require a lot of skill and collaborative effort. Of course Bob Dylan could turn up worse for drink and record an entire album overnight, I suspect he was an exception (and you can hear the booze).

    2. That’s the dilemma. Experience needs to be gained but who wants to be the guinea pig.
      Do you want to be on the table when the surgeon performs his first heart operation.

      Which kind of reminds me, many years ago my dentist, how shall I put it, enjoyed a drink.
      My dilemma was, do I book a morning appointment when his hands might be trembling or go after lunch when he’s had a few. 99% true.

      1. I can assure you in the afternoon is the right choice. I have a condition call “motion activated palsy”. My hands shake when I move my arms. It is highly hereditary, both my father and my brother had the same condition. It slowly gets worse with age. I did not get a formal diagnosis until I was in my late fifties.

        When I was in grad school working on my first thesis project ( which failed ) I had to pick quartz grains from a lunar core sample with a vacuum tweezers. You do this looking through a microscope. When I did this in the morning I could always see a slight tremor in the vacuum tube due to my hands shaking ever so slightly. This was not noticeable to me without the microscope, but the tremor did make picking micron size grains really difficult. There was a group of us in the lab that would go to a local pub for lunch and have a sandwich and beer. In the afternoon the microscopic tremor in my hands was gone and I could easily pick the grains.

        When my palsy was diagnosed the doctor explained to me that consumption of alcohol reduces the palsy. True story!

  2. I was having a read again of the article on Simon Eadon I posted yesterday. He’s been a recording engineer for 52 years, 1,800 albums under his belt. 27 years at Decca, the first 10 learning the trade from the likes of Kenneth Wilkinson, Decca’s lead recording engineer for decades, who along with Arthur Haddy created the Decca Tree. Haddy led the team that developed Full Frequency sound in the early 1940s.

    I listen to so many recordings that he has engineered I’m not surprised that I have so few issues with sound quality. He describes a keep it simple approach, the fewer microphones the greater transparency, working with the performer to set up the microphones until it sounds right, which might only take half an hour. Tried and tested methods, no surprises.

    So it seems that all you need is a good teacher, world class musicians and decades of experience.

    I often find that the people who are the very best at what they do often describe it in very simple and uncomplicated terms, as if anyone could do it, certainly not in an obsessive manner, leaving nothing to doubt. I find it very reassuring.

    1. I haven’t a clue about studio recording, but I would imagine that once the
      recording engineer, & associated staff, truly familiarise themselves with the
      ‘sound’ of the studio, in this case the ‘Octave Records’ studio, then it
      shouldn’t be that difficult to know where to put the mic’s…generally speaking.

      1. Studios generally don’t have a sound, that’s half the problem with studio recordings. How to mic an instrument is another matter.

        Classical especially, and often jazz, is not usually recorded in smallish recording studios, but in real large spaces with good acoustics or concert hall size recording studios with good reverberation, and sometimes with an audience. Nimbus’ recording studio used by many independent labels can seat 500 people and is used for concerts. The Funkhaus Nalepastrasse in Berlin is a huge Soviet era construction and the Reitstadel in Neumarkt an 18th building, both acoustically modified to create fabulous recording venues. Another great one for Baroque and opera is Villa san Fermo in Lonigo, Italy, a former convent, now a hotel. https://www.villasanfermo.it/en/#eluid8c0e7072

        One of the recordings we were discussing was done during full lockdown in May 2020. It only needed 3 people – a violinist, engineer and producer. The recording was of Paganini’s Caprices, 94 minutes of the most impossible music ever written for violin. It took 4 days and won several awards.

        Because studios have no character of their own, reverb is often added in post-production to give the recordings life and space. Think Norah Jones. That, incidentally, seems to be a problem with studio DSD recordings, because you can’t add reverb and stay in DSD. We also discussed some great DSD recordings done in real spaces, notably Rachel Podger’s recording of Vivaldi violin concertos, one of the great classical recordings of recent years. It was a great feat of engineering.

        1. Thanks, Steven. At Octave, we routinely add reverb and we record in DSD. So, I am not sure what you’re referring to unless you mean to add it in post using DSP.

          In most studios, including our own, we route one or more of the analog microphone feeds through our analog reverb and record that output on a separate stereo track. This is important for several reasons, among them when a singer is adding vocals after the band has laid down a rhythm track. They will want to hear their voices in the headphones with reverb.

          Everything is later assembled in the mix.

          1. I know as much about recording as Martin, but I appreciate that reverb can be added during the recording, or afterwards. It can sound syrupy if overdone. A favourite is Candace Springs, wonderfully mixed. Nothing beats natural reverb. I was focusing on it this weekend in an Ysaye recording. I’ve been to concerts in halls where it can be radically altered but you need about a $500m budget.

              1. Thanks, but has KJ got haemorrhoids or some other unpleasant condition? He makes more facial gestures in 1 second than Emil Gilels did playing the entire Hammerklavier Sonata.

                The amount of “room” included in piano recordings does vary dramatically. The two halls I mentioned in Germany are used by Igor Levit for recordings and are just splendid.

                1. With all due respect, that’s the way that KJ stays in the moment by feeling the music. Perhaps, if you closed your eyes and just listened, you might have a different experience. I have gone to Keith Jarrett concerts several times and what you saw is nothing in comparison to what he really can do with his body where he actually gets under the piano with both hands still on the keyboard while he continues to play. I’m surprised you didn’t even mention all of the moaning and groaning he does in concert. That’s just who he is. My experiences listening to him live is that he is just as amazing in person as he is on disk, and that is possibly why he is rated one of the top jazz pianists in the world right now and will always be remembered as one of the greatest.

                  If I were to send you the audio only from the same YouTube video, I wonder what your reaction would be not knowing who the pianist is. The only reason I sent you the video was so that you could hear true reverberation and not for you to review your feelings about Keith Jarrett’s body language. It could’ve been anyone playing that exact piano in the same music hall with the same recording engineer, mixing and mastering. I was only looking for your reaction to the beautiful reverberation in this venue played by a true master that most people will never deny because of his gyrations. I wish that it was Ahmad Jamal who is playing that piece or Martha Argerich. I believe you would still hear and feel the natural reverberation, since that was my only reason to reply to your comment.

                  1. I did hear it, it is sort of there coming out of a speaker in a Mac mini under the desk. Unfortunately it’s a tune that usually winds me up, the exception being Johnny Cash’s version, which I listened to last week. I’m sorry, stage histrionics of that sort do nothing for me, others may like it I’m sure, and Keith Jarrett has largely passed me by.

                    Emil Gilels walked on the stage, slowly and without looking at the audience, played the piano for about 90 minutes, took one bow and left the way he came. He didn’t flinch one muscle that did not absolutely need flinching. It is the only performance I can remember that the audience (of 2,500 or so) were so mesmerised that when it ended no one clapped. It’s also one I remember like yesterday, and it was 38 yers ago.

                    At the time the venue, the largest in London, had too short a reverberation time (about 1.5 seconds) and was extended by a system of some 200 loudspeakers, which sort of worked. It was kept quiet and few people knew about it.

                    1. Really!… Seems that we’re hearing this piece very differently. I hope that we can respectfully agree to disagree.

                  1. I read that. He sounds a bit nuts. I was at a show a couple of weeks ago when a heckler started shouting at a young kid singing a long aria in front of a 2,200 full house. KJ would not have liked that. The kid took it all in, kept going, and got the biggest applause of the night.

                    We have that Koln Concert CD here, my wife brought it with her 30+ years ago, but tells me she hates jazz.

                    1. That’s another one of his idiosyncrasies. I don’t doubt it at all. He is a bit nuts yet just before his divorce his net worth was well over $300 million most of which came from his incredible abilities in his financial dealings. He sued Steely Dan for copying one of his pieces. Both Becker and Fagan claimed that they admired him very much and May have used that piece which gave him enough fuel to win in court and get his name added to the composition and receive royalty fees. KJ is one sharp cookie.

    2. Apropos Decca tree…

      if anyone should ever manage to record a performance with whatever space tech, sounding as good as the Royal Ballet Gala performances and similar Decca ones, he’d stand out for decades. So much for „recording technology after the 60’s” 😉

      But don’t try to hear that as PCM or DSD media…you won’t get the real magic for whatever reason.

      1. Someone mentioned those Gala performances recently. Checking on the Decca archive, I found one that was recorded in 1968 in Kingsway Hall, not at Covent Garden. I’d assumed they were live recordings. They just did a 60th Anniversary Royal Ballet Gala two weeks ago. The music was fabulous. I expect there will be a DVD of it soon.

        1. It is extreme 3D panorama and with the typical dynamics and directness of those recordings.

          If you compare the Classic Records or Analogue Productions vinyl release with any digital release of other reissue labels, you drop dead how much worse the latter sound. If you compare it with the Analogue Productions DSD release of the same, you still get noticeably less 3D, air, extension and transparency. The original vinyl is unaffordable, also great sounding with the usual positive and negative aspects of original vs. good reissue. But even my 9LP single sided Classic Records reissue meanwhile is near 1k at Discogs.

          If you buy a digital release you will get at least a hint of how spacious it sounds. Not sure if there’s a HDTT version. If so and one of their best efforts, it will probably be closest, but in my scenario typically lacking detail, extension and bite compared to the best vinyl release from the original masters.

          1. That’s a weird recording. Made in England, released in the USA, conducted by Ansermet who was never a Royal Ballet or Sadlers Wells Ballet musical director. He guested a handful of times. Two of the pieces on the recording disappeared without trace. The others are standards, save for Coppelia, which was revived in 2019 and is delightful.

            As you know, I don’t compare recordings or formats because I don’t collect them and one (or streaming) suits me fine! I don’t have a single Royal Ballet recording, but I have hundreds of memories.

            1. Long time I didn’t really listen to it as the music and waltzy character wasn’t my cup of tea. As my setup got much better, its sound exploded in a way that it opened up the music for me. It’s a demonstrational recording, not necessarily one to listen through on a reflective evening 😉

              But how good it sounds (besides the gear) strongly depends on the version/production to use (as always). It always depends so strongly that I personally don’t see the meaning of gear at a certain price level without caring for this (where one has the choice). A great production/mastering on an 15k setup definitely trumps a normal one on a 30k setup, as does one on a 100k setup vs. a 300k one etc.

              Aside of those just having one to look at it and have fun operating it, the difference of available quality masterings or originals is a main sound related reason for having a record player imo. There’s not much magic in listening to all the golden era classical and jazz stuff digitally unfortunately. The charm does not reveal itself (with the only exception to a degree for me of some HDTT direct tape to DSD transfers)

              1. The relevance of this recording at the time was probably because Dame Ninette de Valois brought into the repertory of her company Petipa and Ivanov ballets from the Imperial Russian Ballet, by hiring Nicholas Sergeyev, which were probably not known in the USA. They remain staples to this day. Some of pieces are real show-stoppers, like the Rose Adagio and the pas de quarte (I call it the chicken dance). The two newer pieces disappeared. However, this recording was made before MacMillan, so no excerpt from the best of all ballet music, Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet. An historical curiosity and I appreciate why it was made for an American audience. These days people watch the DVD.

  3. Could it be that the knowledge the ancient Greeks had about acoustic phenomena when building their theatres has been lost? They chose a most simple design and added a reflecting wall at the rear of the stage. These studios today now show many reflecting surfaces and closely and far placed mics. No wonder that there are now most complex acoustic problems.

    1. When we built Octave Studios we went for the opposite approach taken by many studios. Instead of an acoustically dead room our tracking room is quite live and diffuse. If you see pictures of it and its walls of wooden diffusers the room was carefully designed to be live.

  4. Sounds to me like the wheel is being reinvented. Why didn’t / hasn’t any of the recording minutiae been passed downed?

    I still haven’t heard articulated what makes a great recording or what makes one more right than the other. Lot’s of generalities, lots of innuendo, lots of ‘these’ things are wrong.

    However there is no shortage of enthusiasm around, mixed with a dash of embellishment, for new releases.

    Right now I could easily struggle with the idea of financially supporting an entity that seems to be just blowing with the wind and a captain who’s learning on the fly.

    1. It is all passed down, perhaps not at Octave.

      Perhaps the best known course in the UK is here. https://www.surrey.ac.uk/undergraduate/music-and-sound-recording-tonmeister Graduates from this course are highly sought after.
      Years ago John Borwick ran this course, he wrote the bible on recording studio technique, still in print after 50 years. https://the-ear.net/features/john-borwick-1924-2016/
      He also trained a generation of BBC engineers, where he was senior engineer. He was also an audiophile.

      You spend 4 years learning the technical stuff, get an apprenticeship at a studio or broadcaster, and develop your skills over the years.

      My advice is, if trial and error is your thing, take up pottery.

      1. Passed down is one thing. Executed, refined, and practiced to the point of perfection is quite another.

        Why is the question of what makes a realistic or great recording not ever answered?

        By your logic Steven everyone who graduates from that course should be qualified to be a ‘master’ in a relatively short period of time. Every recording they are involved in should become a reference.

        There are plenty of trade schools or education centers around whose graduates are highly sought after. While a good education, internship, and working with a ‘master’ are all good things. They in and of themselves don’t make someone the best. It’s personal drive, talent, an attitude, & sometimes a bit of luck that do.

        Any trade that involves a sense of aesthetics or artisan ability has its outstanding participants. Training with a master is not necessarily indicative of someone becoming a sought after master or even a good potter.

        An audio studio is a tool in support of a business. That business is to supply recorded music to all who want to purchase it. How many, other than the minuscule number of ‘audiophiles’, really care about all of this? I say this thinking of all the comments you’ve posted in the past regarding the majority of music consumers. ✌️

        1. The purpose of these courses, and my son did one, is that graduates hit the ground running and have the technical skills to work in a wide range of music-related environments. One of these graduates could have taught Paul how to use Pyramix, whereas Paul has learned on the job. In the old days people paid their employers to do an apprenticeship, because they were a burden. Those days are gone. Employers expect you to know the technical stuff, we all learn for decades thereafter with mixed success.

          I’m doing something with a place called Ravensboune, a specialist photography, sound and all that kind of stuff part of London University. Some people get degrees in photography, know lots of stuff and never get a professional job. A friend’s daughter went there and has her fashion images for top brands in magazines and billboards all over the world – and she’s just turned 25.

          Nothing beats a bit of talent, but in a technical profession you need the technical skills.

          1. You’re preaching to the choir so to speak. I had the equivalent of associates degree in electronics when I graduated from a technical high school. A full BS degree within a year and 1/2 of that.
            I ended up in a profession of where optics, light and electronics are all intertwined.
            Having a solid background to start in any endeavor is beneficial. How that education is applied and to what degree it is utilized is up to the individual. Education where and however it’s obtained is not a bad thing.

            In my lifetime I never heard of paying to be an apprentice. Paying ‘threw the nose’ for an education, then yes. Working for free to learn then yes.

  5. There are all kinds of skills that have to be learned by trial and error. They usually require a lot of practice to get it right. People like me usually do not do that well at these things. When it comes to things like this I find that people fit into one of four categories

    1. The are naturals, they have what we call talent. The pick up a guitar when the are eight years old and by the time they are nine or ten they can play almost anything the like.

    2. They are taught by a master. It may take years and daily practice but they eventually can appear as if they are a natural.

    3. They are almost completely self taught. Trial and error is how they progress. Their technique is often unique and thus can be captivating but not always.

    4. The last category is the one I am in. I have no musical or artistic talent to speak of. I am often envious of those that have artistic talent.

    1. Hey Tony. Thanks for this thoughtful note. I’ll add my two cents.

      I have never been a fan of the word or the notion of talent. I think talent is more myth than anything else. There are certainly some people that have an easier time learning a particular skill but it is still learned.

      If we remove those with physical or mental disabilities that limit their abilities I have never seen much in the way of evidence that learning a skill is much different for anyone. The “talent” thing is generally more about interest and hours applied to learning. Practice. Some people seem more comfortable becoming obsessed with mastering a skill. A young child that spends most of their day practicing the piano as opposed to the somewhat interested child that struggles to put in 30 minutes a day. The former eventually is called a prodigy while the latter winds up being just another no-talent kid. It had nothing to do with an innate ability to play piano. It had everything to do with hours spent.

      There is no doubt in my mind that anyone interested in becoming an artist or a musician or a physicist has what it takes to be world class if they are obsessed enough to put in the time.

      Talent = practice and hours spent learning a skill.

      1. Paul, You last equation needs to be modified, because there is such a thing as natural talent.

        A guy I worked with played football in HS like I did ( except he was probably better than me ). He played offensive tackle and he said his HS quarterback had so much natural talent that everyone ( players, coaches and fans ) knew that as long as he was not injured seriously he was going all the way to the NFL. That QB’s name is Joe Montana! Maybe you heard of him. 😉

        Thus what we have is:

        Talent + hours of practice to improve = Greatness

        1. +1

          There are also examples of wasted talent, such as Sergei Polunin. Widely regarded as the greatest young dancer in the world and pretty much threw it all away.

          Every Russian dancer is expected to train until their feet bleed and they can’t stand up. Artistry and talent is a completely different thing.

      2. Agreed, but there’s the odd amazing exceptions. Autistic savants who can replicate complete pieces after hearing them once, or compose their own music without any teaching or practice, it may be a cranial concentrated area anomaly but I’d certainly give it a title of talent. Perfect pitch at a young age – perhaps more of a skill than a talent. I have relative pitch but perfect pitch is truly an astounding thing. Rick Beato has an interesting series of videos on perfect pitch; how it can’t be learned or taught and is often lost with age. Very interesting stuff. His kid is, well, talented? Skilled? Gifted? Cool stuff.


      3. Way off the mark.

        I remember going to a recital in the 1980s by some 12 year old Russian kid bashing out a load Scriabin. It turned out he had a lot of skill and no talent, because he was never heard of again.

        Nowadays, loads of 12 year olds can bash out Scriabin, but they don’t put them on stage until they have discernible talent.

        Go to a few classical masterclasses and you will understand – one or more highly skilled students (possibly with some talent) sit down with a master and get shown what real talent and artistry is. When trying themselves they often fall flat on their face. They are great to watch as the audience gets to appreciate the finest nuances of interpretation and performance.

        The top musicians often take on students, sometimes to mentor their careers. There are hundreds with skills learned over thousands of hours each year, very few with talent. It usually takes a genius to spot talent. A good example is Paul Lewis, who was spotted when still a student by Alfred Brendel, and is now one of the world’s leading performers.

      4. I understand the positive thinking in this opinion.

        But in case you realize that putting 100 or how many ever people in a boot camp to learn a certain skill, there will be say 1-5% performing way better than the rest…you also must realize that your point of view is honorable but not more.

        My guess is, what you really mean is, everyone can lern everything to a certain degree. But that doesn’t prove the absence or relevance of talent.

        However, there are certainly skills, most everyone can learn up to a certain high level, like driving, listening, etc., but this already ends at playing an instrument, or most any other form of art or sports etc.

        Ignoring those differences imo is a honorable, throughout positive but superficial view on things.

  6. If you ask all the artists that have recorded some of their greatest work at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama , I don’t think they would agree that certain studios don’t have their own character or their own sound.

  7. With regard to playback arts, focusing on the micro is essential; resolving every tiny weakness is what eventually makes the macro comes to life, and allows every box to be ticked when listening. I have heard far, far too many ambitious rigs sound like, well, a muddled mess, because not enough ‘micro’ aspects have been sorted …

  8. There’s a saying from Leeds (capital city of the Republic of Yorkshire) that goes: “take care of the pennies, the pounds will take care of themselves”. If you went to Leeds and asked someone if they were macro or micro, I reckon they’d punch you in the face.

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