A Massive Can of Worms

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While I’ve made quite an extensive study of live versus recorded programming over the past couple of years, it’s a topic that continues to enthrall me.

Some of the pieces that are most arresting and effective live can have a disengaging, if not outright negative impact when recorded, and pieces which are enthralling in recorded form can be downright boring in a live context. How is it that we experience these two ways of listening so vastly differently? As I type this I am sitting in the kitchen of a studio in Iceland, where I am working on a new record of solo viola works. As my engineer and I work on sound concepts for the record this is perhaps the most pressing thought: how do we get pieces which translate so beautifully from stage to audience member to translate as comprehensibly to the intimacy of recorded media?

One of the many tools in the arsenal of the engineer is microphone placement—an obvious-sounding idea, I know, but imagine the following scenario: you are sitting in the dress circle at Carnegie Hall’s Stern Auditorium, listening to the Berlin Phil. There’s a distance there of maybe, what, 100 feet between you and the orchestra? You are listening to the warmth of dozens of live musicians being reflected by a hall with beautiful acoustics over a great distance, in the company of hundreds of rapt audience members. In many ways, this is the ideal place to take in an orchestra concert.

Now, imagine hearing that exact sound emanating from your headphones as you attempt to commute to work in the morning. In that light, the warm, rounded acoustic of a large orchestra in a live concert hall lacks any type of immediacy that would make it compelling at as close and intimate a range as headphones beg a listener to consider. The obvious solution to this is close-miking, but with that option comes more interesting challenges: miking an acoustic instrument, meant to project over the dozens and dozens of feet of a concert hall, very closely can be jarring, or rough, producing some unexpected results. 

That, in a nutshell, is the whole situation with recording these days—balancing the close and the far, the intimate and the grand. I was talking to a violinist friend the other day about vibrato; as young players we are taught that vibrato is meant to reproduce the sound of the human voice. However, if we limit the vibrato we use on string instruments to solely that sound, we are vastly limiting the colors available to us as string players. This is how I think of recording as well. If we limit ourselves to simply reproducing the experience of being at a live event, we are limiting the very artistic tools available to the contemporary sound designer.

On this show, I attempt to play pieces that I feel work in the recorded medium—music that itself is not only well-suited to the radio, but is recorded in a way that suits the format as well.