The Recording and Reality: Shaping the Recording Aesthetic

   By Sarah C   Categories: Live Audio ShowRecording

The recordist has many potential roles in shaping the recording aesthetic. The role of the recordist might be to capture a live event as accurately as possible in relation to the dimensions of that real-life experience, or the recordist might seek to alter the artistic elements of sound to enhance the quality of that real-life experience.

The recordist may even seek to create a new reality or set of conditions for the existence and relationships of sounds. Reality is simulated, enhanced, or created through the recording process.

The level of similarity between the recording and the live listening experience is central to the aesthetic quality of the recording.


Picture from Flickr user Sound Weavers

A recording may differ from the live listening experience by (1) the use of the artistic elements of sound in ways that cannot happen in nature, and (2) the presentation of impossible human performances and compilations of perfect performances. These may subtly enhance the impression of a live performance or sonically represent something that is outside the possibilities of physics and human performance, as potential extremes.

The aesthetic and artistic elements that most influence the life-like qualities of the recording are (1) environmental characteristics and the dimensions of the sound stage, and (2) the relationships of musical balance to the timbres of sound sources.

Sound Stage and Environments

All of our experiences of sound are with sound as it exists in space. We conceptualize sound, especially in the context of music performances, in relation to the spaces in which the sound is heard to exist. The recording process will provide the illusion of space for the music. With extreme realism, or very little, the recording will bring listeners to associate the recording with their reality. The recording will provide the illusion of a performance space or a physical environment for the performance—this is the perceived performance environment.

As we have learned, this perceived performance environment is an illusion of a space wherein the recording can be imagined as existing during its re-performance (playback). The realistic nature of the performance of the recording will play a central role in establishing the relationship of the recording to the live listening experience. The listener will subconsciously scan the recording to establish (1) environmental characteristics, (2) an imaginary stage (sound stage), and (3) a perceived performance environment. This information allows the listener to complete the process of establishing a reality (real or imagined) for the listening experience of the recorded music performance.

These three important characteristics need to be deliberately shaped or captured to precisely determine this aspect of the recording’s aesthetic. If not directly engaged, the recording will likely appear deficient in some way, though perhaps subtly.

The imaginary environments will be either the captured reality of the original performance space, an altered or enhanced reality of the original performance space, or new spaces that are created or selected for the performance through signal processing or plug-ins.

In recordings that closely match a live performance, environments of individual sound sources are typically very similar, if they are different at all. If environmental cues differ markedly between instruments, a sense of a live performance can be maintained if fusion of the source and its environment is complete, and there is an impression that they are one sound quality. Generally, having different environments for different sources will gradually pull the recording out of a “live” experi – ence and into a “created” one, as the number increases or as they become more pronounced.

A live recording will have realistic relationships of sound-source images. Sources will be positioned laterally as if they are in a performance situation, on stage. Image widths will be proportional to one another. Distances will be very similar, with some sources located only slightly in front or behind others. As a recording deviates further from these relationships it will become increasingly “unreal.”

The perceived performance environment plays a large role in determining the overall sound quality of the recording, and its illusion/reproduction of the size of the “space” of the recording. The listener’s position in relation to the sound stage (the stage-to-listener distance) plays a critical role in the impression of witnessing a live performance. A live listening experience results when the listeners find themself clearly located at a specific location within a clearly perceived overall environment. As recordings move from these relationships, the experience becomes less and less like a live concert.

Musical Balance and Sound Quality

The interrelationships of musical balance and performance intensity are integral parts of live performances, and are easily altered by the recording process.

Recordings that attempt to capture the aesthetics of the live performance will seek to capture the musical balance of the performers as they (or the conductor) intended. The changes in the sound quality of the instru – ments will be precisely aligned with changes of dynamic levels in the musical balance of the ensemble and to changes in musical expression. It is important to maintain these relationships to keep the character of the live performance.

Recordings that seek to enhance the characteristics of the live per – formance may contain slight changes in musical balance that were not the result of the performers, but instead are the result of the recording or mixing process. These alterations will be heard as changes in dynamic levels that are not supported by changes in the sound qualities of the instrument(s). This enhancement might take place in only a few instru – ments, or it may be used extensively throughout the entire ensemble. This enhancement technique may be quite subtle and difficult to detect, or it may be prominent. A soloist with an orchestra is a common example of when this might occur. These enhance the performance by making it “less live.”

Alterations in dynamic levels, and thus musical balance, that are not aligned with changes in performance intensities have become integral parts of music written for record – ings. Multitrack mixes frequently exhibit changes in musical balance that were not caused by the performers. These changes in dynamic level, then, are inconsistent with the sound qualities of the instruments in the final recording.

The relationship between the musical balance and the timbre of sound sources in many multitrack recordings creates a wealth of contradictions between reality and what is heard. The aesthetics of this type of recording leans toward redefining reality with each new project and is a stark contrast to the aesthetic of trying to capture the reality of the live performance.

The recordist’s approach to any project should include a conscious decision on a level of realism. How will the final sound relate to reallife experiences, and how will the characteristics of sound be shaped? What is the listener intended to believe, and how can this be achieved?

Excerpt from Understanding and Crafting the Mix by William Moylan © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.







About the Author

Dr. William Moylan has worked with leading artists across the full spectrum of jazz, popular, and classical genres. His recordings have been released by major and independent record labels, resulting in wide recognition, including several GRAMMY award nominations. A leading educator and an active recording engineer and producer for over 30 years, he is a Professor and Coordinator of Sound Recording Technology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.


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