Recording vs. reproducing

March 29, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

As Octave Records grows it’s becoming more evident to me the difference between recording and reproducing.

On the former, we’re often using heavy hands to capture as best we can what happens in acoustic space: different microphones, preamps, EQ, reverb—everything we would never consider in the act of reproduction.

I think of recording as building a movie set. Hours, sometimes days are spent assembling all the pieces together so that the final image perfectly represents the vision in one’s head. We’re not as interested in being faithful to the moment as we are true to the vision. The best recordings use whatever is available to them to capture the perfect sound.

The opposite is true when it comes to playback. The best lenses and cameras, like the best audio reproduction chains, are built with only one goal in mind: to be faithful to the original.

It took chisels, hammers, and heavy hands to fashion from a block of marble Michelangelo’s David, but once crafted, very different apparatus to enjoy it.

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25 comments on “Recording vs. reproducing”

  1. I always thought a good recording would require a concert hall or a recording studio with best room acoustics and placing the stereo microphone at the best spot. Isn’t the crux of today’s music recordings based on the fact of mixing some dozens channels for getting the final stereo mix, a mix being controlled via a pair of nearfield studio monitors in the mixing room both being different from the far field listening room condition at home with loudspeaker designs and room acoustics not following studio standards. Not to mention the phase problems when mixing dozens channels.

  2. This is why I value producers and engineers in audio the same way I value the band members. You can be sure I’m always looking at those liner or production notes to find the team that made this great recording I just heard.
    Audio Engineers are like Potters while the band is the Clay. 😉
    Sorry I had to steal The great Alan Parsons analogy to dignify my point. 😉

  3. If it only were that simple…

    I think, already during the recording, the perfect sound is not only „captured“, but designed. As you say with EQ’ing, reverb, tube (mic, amp) usage and more.

    E.g. the famous records (especially classical) of the golden era even get their final magic just by the back then used cutting head and amp (that’s why the master tapes or reissues of them cut differently, sound much less fascinating). Truth to the original would mean worse sound here (because the original wasn’t perfect, as it never is so far).

    When we play back we “design” our home sound by the combination of speakers and room, the selection and fine tuning of very different sounding gear (certainly each manufacturer of this very different sounding gear options states that his is the neutral one, even manufacturers publishing different sounding firmwares for DAC’s probably assume all of those firmwares were neutral sounding).

    So with this in mind, are we on playback side really “faithful to the original” … and does this make sense at all or is it mainly marketing speech? It’s the only thing we can orientate on, but I think at the end with our playback gear we’re more or less continuing to “assemble all the pieces together for perfect sound” as it was done from recording to mastering.

    The story that for playback gear it’s most perfect for the final sound experience to be as faithful to the (compared to live experience always still lousy) original, simplifies things and makes it easy to communicate, but it’s again not thought far enough imo.

  4. Nice analogy Nephilim 81. Does that make our systems the glaze? 😉

    I love reading some of the great analogies we get on this site.

    Off topic but one I heard the other day about the Covid vaccine.

    Not having the vaccine is like standing on top of a burning building and refusing to get on a ladder because it doesn’t look safe.

        1. Not only is it not comfort to those who die, but to those who love them, and those who may have worked with them. Merely surviving Covid 19 is no assurance you will be free of consequences down the road. Do your best to not get it at all.

  5. I remember one composer of electronica explaining that most of his last album was “composed” on a computer in Business Class flying over the Pacific.

    As I’ve mentioned many times, there are numerous Victorian brick churches dotted about London that have been used for vast numbers of BBC, EMI, Decca etc. recordings for the last 100 years or even turned into permanent recording studios. One example is Air Studios, founded by none other than Sir George Martin, that can be seen in the film Bohemian Rhapsody when Queen were rehearsing before Live Aid. All these churches have distinctive acoustics and on a recent recording (Kolesnikov/Goldbergs) it was noticed how a change from his normal venue (Wyastone Hall) had noticeably impacted the sound.

    So the recording location may be fundamental, or of no significance at all.

    The reference to Michaelangelo’s David is a curious one. From the “recording” side, it is well-known that it was made from a block that had already been worked on extensively, had some faults and was very narrow, resulting in the sideways pose. Hence, it is as much a work of genius given the poor material he had to work with. With regard to the “playback”, it was intended for display high up outside the Palazzo Vecchio, where it remained for centuries. It is now in the Accademia, only a few feet off the ground, and you can’t see it well from behind because it’s located in a cupola, which one of my kids found very annoying.

    So the moral of that is that you can produce something truly wonderful with far from ideal materials and it can still seem wonderful seen from a view not intended by the artist. Kind of Blue is I suppose one classic example of a work of genius produced with limited equipment and time in less than ideal circumstances.

    Great technology never made a great recording, only great musicians.

  6. I’m not interested in the technical side of component design or the recording process.
    I like connecting various components, finding ‘the synergy’, setting up the loudspeakers properly, tweaking the crap out of the complete audio rig & then sitting back & enjoying the music.
    The best recordings are the ones that grab back my attention if I drift while I’m listening.
    A stunning recording will bring me right back to full attention.

    Paul’s ‘Studio Sterile’ post (March 23, 2021)
    ‘eatpac’ (7:32am) mentioned Cowboy Junkies – ‘Mining For Gold’
    It is still a brilliant reference track (one of my faves)
    Done in a church with two or three microphones.
    Which begs the question:
    Does setting up the recording equipment, & the room, really have to be so complex if these
    twenty-something year old’s can do such a magnificent job with so little recording gear?

  7. So if a recording / process of has the analogy of being like a movie set, then where and what is it best played backed on or with? Take a vision of a large epic show on a large imax or movie screen, then watch that same recording on a small tv. Is it true to the initial vision?

    Take a picture / portrait of the statue mentioned in today’s post. Does it represent the original just adequately or superbly? Obtain a replica of that same statue, is every single detail captured in the reproduction?

    There are differences in every part of the chain from the initial recording to the final playback. It seems to me only a few of those differences are controlled by the end user and their choice of recordings and equipment.

  8. “The best lenses and cameras, like the best audio reproduction chains, are built with only one goal in mind: to be faithful to the original.”

    Lenses and cameras aren’t analogous to audio reproduction, they’re parts of the recording technology. On reproduction I may adjust the color balance on my TV.

    By all means, tweak, fix, mix and equalize the recording. Be true to your vision.

    As a consumer, my goal is to maximize my enjoyment of your vision. If that means applying EQ, or cranking the subwoofer, it may distort your vision, but it’s now mine to enjoy as best I can.

    Some artist, in a medium I don’t recall, replied to the question “what does your work mean?” that the reader/listener/viewer is free to interpret it as they wish. It’s out of the creator’s hands.

    Maybe PS Audio should make a good, transparent equalizer.

    1. philk,
      About a year ago Paul mentioned that PS Audio are looking into
      a digital domain type of EQ with a form of AI.
      Could be a while though as the PS Audio loudspeakers
      are running a bit behind (Eye rolling emoji)

  9. For once, I totally agree with Paul. Interestingly, I said something similar a few weeks ago and the usual suspects jumped down my throat.
    You may still need “corrections” (DSP) to get that faithful sound in your home or you may decide to modify the artist’s intentions. But those are two different matters. The first is done objectively and the second subjectively.

  10. >>>It took chisels, hammers, and heavy hands to fashion from a block of marble Michelangelo’s David, but once crafted, very different apparatus to enjoy it.<<<<

    And recording can be very much like the skill of Michelangelo. He forgot that David was circumcised. Yet, many enjoy his masterpiece.

  11. Very subtle analysis Paul. I’m a professional photographer. I have often gone through heroic measures to make a picture look natural and believable. The basic dictum is to do whatever it takes to make an image interesting but without making it look overcooked. This takes not only technical skill but also taste. Reliance upon purely technical skill often results in ugliness, a common mistake of beginners. No one (other than fellow professionals) is interested in what you had to go through to get the shot. Only the result matters.

  12. Yes, it does take chisels, hammers, and heavy hands to rough out a block of marble (metamorphosed limestone, generally, although high purity CaCO3 fine grained limestones very similar to marble do exist, but they are uncommon; I’d have to research a bit for the quarry that sourced Michelangelo’s marble, but I digress). But then it takes skill, artistry, and finesse to turn that rough, only vaguely humanoid chunk of rock into a lifelike statue, let alone a masterpiece.

  13. A sound field is a construction in 4 dimensions, it has to fold in time according to the acoustics of the space. We have the facility to register the time and encode the direction of arrival of every reflection, even below the noise floor because we can assume the waveform is the same, except for the gradual loss and phase shift of high frequencies which is consistent and predictable.

    Chopping the music into tracks and then squeezing them into two channels is like sonic sausage – the grain of the sinew and the encapsulated flavors and nutrients are lost, and it turns from steak to stew. Pan pots are less than 1% of spatial information, and statistical reverb scrambles the sound in physically impossible ways that are either ignored by a brain conditioned to the fakery or confuse a brain that knows what real rooms sound like from experience.

    I can hear the difference between a movie set, a soundstage, a Foley stage, and a real location capture both live and in recordings. If that is your analogy, you proved my point. Eyes are much easier to fool than well trained ears, and we are trained from a young age to interpret flat images as the objects they represent. Likewise, we are trained to interpret 2 channel sound as representing space – except if you never listen to live acoustic music, you never learn what space sounds like.

    That does not make it real or as compelling as a more realistic capture – unless your goal is the fantasy world of manipulated sound. To me, this is like an opioid induced paradise.

    WAKE UP! The sounds of Nature, her materials and physics are more beautiful than the works of man, and the human signatures that authenticate real music are more immersive and communicative than the machine-perfect world of contemporary audio engineering and air brushed commercial photography.

  14. A recording studio can be an alien place for many bands if not sympathetic to their normal placements. In live performances if the trumpet player is say usually next to the sax’s, the keys near the drums etc now suddenly the drums are put in a soundproof cubicle and the auditory clues of bandmembers are all messed up. IEM’s are also alien to many musicians. In my opinion some of the best recordings are made au natural, i.e. with the band or group in their normal setting. I’ve seen this practice (and I do know the reasons why) a few times in studios and its often not that successful.

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