Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the ProTools.



We are supposed to respond to every new technological googah with a gleeful ejaculation. Huzzah! A new phone that will wipe your butt as it dials up Skype and recycles your used kidney stones.


Have misgivings, you Luddite? Well, no doubt those will be washed away in the tide of history. Move over, Keats, cause you'll have to share space with millions whose names will also be writ in water.


Alright, let me gently steer this tirade back to jazz. To wit: when it comes to jazz recording, put me squarely in the Luddite camp. As far as I'm concerned, the simplest approaches to recording are the best. Increasingly intensive engineering intrusion has, to me, simply debased the experience of listening to jazz recordings.


Let me interject that I'm not talking here about the evolution of microphones or sound reinforcement techniques. (It's hard for me to say when mastering began to really alter recordings). Our friends at Neumann and others, partnered with innovators like Van Gelder, gave us a much clearer audio picture of what was actually being played. No, the problem lies elsewhere.


First of all, it stands to reason that the diminution of 'alternate takes' runs parallel to the increasing manipulation of recordings through technology. At first, this was probably just a razor blade and an editing block, but even this meant that the ensemble performance experience had been-as the boys in the quarterlies would say-mediated. The first time I noticed this was in the late 50's Gil Evans/Miles collaborations. It was clumsily done, in a way that became really irksome to me in the recording "In a Silent Way." I mean, christ, "Ascension" was done in 2 continuous 40-minute takes.


I remember a time when there was a debate about whether jazz should adopt the "track layering" approach that swept the rock industry. The debate has been over for a long time. When- around 1980? After that, jazz recording became largely bifurcated. Either an album was recorded "live on location," or it was a studio production, meaning all the gizmos in the engineer's tool kit were trotted out. Yes, there were exceptions, but they have become increasingly rare (I look forward to readers bringing these and other historical recording details to light).


Let me simply wrap up by saying that, if the disc is in decent shape, the experience of listening to the 'crudest' technology-78's-can be at least the equal of the most sophisticated multi-track digital recordings. In fact, I contend that the immediacy of a great 78 has not been equaled by any format yet created by those who would capture sound for later consumption.


You can have your IC's. Give me a tube anytime.

9 comments:

Chris Rich said...

Oh god that multitrack crap was to pump up arena rock records.

But here's a funny story. A dimbo producer at Rounder made money in the 80s finding semi retired RnB greats like Solomon Burke and 'getting them back in the studio'. The Burke Session worked out but another, with Irma Thomas was dreadful.

Dimbo took that nice aging lady and shoved her in a modern big fat studio situation and exhausted her.

If he did a bit of research and just recreated the circumstances of recording in her prime, it mighta worked.

Old local studio aces like Joe Harvard maintained that that crap was a waste and that for any music with a glimmer of vitality a four track recording, tops, is all you need. two track is fine.

Those splicing gimmicks made a hash of things. Ed Michel once had to reconstruct Tijuana Moods from the junk pile of splice messes and got two complete and restored sessions out of it.

The punk rock 'lo fi' rebellion was a reaction to this intrusion of bloat into sound recording.

rob chalfen said...

1. Electrical recording was born pretty much perfect out of Bell Labs in 1925 and as manufactured by Western Electric; it's still hard to beat the early records made with it by Victor, Okeh & Columbia, and as they tweaked it for their individual sounds by 1927. The apex is probably Okeh, the Blue Note of the '20s, after they finally adopted the Western Electric system in '27. The carbon mics were phase coherent and gave an amazingly realistic view of the music. Later ribbon mics gave a less precise sense of acoustic space - they had better bass but blurry overtones, which helped blend & unify the sound of big bands more 'phonographically', as an integral commodity. (This approaches where Adorno had a point)

2. Heavy studio tweaking seems to apply more to mainstream & commercial artists. Free jazz, being more organic, would not seem as subject to it.

Chris Rich said...

24 track recording with 2 inch tape was something that began with steely dan. The early beatles stuff was done with pretty basic equipment.

It was mainly driven by drum sounds as most rock drummers are crappy and flabby about their kit when compared with Jo Jones or Andrew Cyrille.

Getting drum sound 'right' is always the big cost and time factor in bloat based recording.

The old jazz drummers in the early days some times played hollowed out phone books in hot rooms to keep the wax right.

It couldn't be more ludicrous in an improvised idiom where there aren't really 'mistakes' so much as outcome variance.

A typical bloat session for some piece of crap like 'Foreigner' is trying to maintain an illusion of perfection by doing stuff over and over and over with little aspects like punching out a 'mistake' on a dumb tune so the guitarist or whoever can go back and dub it in right.

Stupid little egocentric rehashes of basic folk song forms pumped up to satisfy fussy narcissists is real work. The pig needs LOTS of lipstick.

We are lucky that jazz put its foot down long before these clowns showed up. Imagine sticking Bird in a 24 track lock out.

Free jazz needs a hand with larger ensembles and some orchestral scale things I've heard have recording quality issues probably driven by budget constraints.

Small ensembles with modern gear can sound utterly wonderful when recorded in the open room of the Outpost as David Lee proves every time he sets his stuff up.

eric dolphy said...

makes me think of mingus re recording/overdubbing his bass on the massy concert with birdbuddizroach.
terrible. i think there is a version with the original bass lines.

as for miles et al(not gil but teo) with the splicing i don't really have a problem with that. the tijuana splicing definitely seems overblown trying to get a "proper take" going but with miles i think they were going for something else. mingus was over editing but miles was making sound collages.

before i got into hip hop i think i had a problem with miles and teo but after i began to see it as after the fact(recording) collage techniques which can produce results otherwise not found.

Steve Provizer said...

Much to respond to--e.d.: I'd have to say that the Miles edits I'm talking about (in the 50's-60's, up to Bitches Brew)) sound choppy and unartistic. More about "what do we do now" than concerted aesthetic decisions. For comparison, look at Filles de Kilimanjaro, a beautiful recording by my lights. There's editing in there, but they seemed by then to make it work more subtly..

[be back-gotta go to work]

Douglas Watts said...

Since 1989, I've spanned 2-inch 24 track tape on a Studer/Trident to full digital and I do like better the sound of instruments hitting magnetic tape, esp. acoustic instruments. Maybe because we all have magnetite crystals floating around in our bodies.

That said, as a composer having to get folks to learn a goofy composition from scratch in the studio with the clock running, and far fewer musicians than the composition wants, having the agility of digital editing is useful, despite the sonic trade-offs. Chopping up 1/2 inch masters with a razor blade is scary, and the oxide falls off after a few years if you're not careful.

All mediums are fragile.

Steve Provizer said...

Douglas-your point is well taken. There are always trade-offs. But, it's not an unalloyed good that multi-tracking can be used to fill in parts-in this respect: I'm a composer/arranger myself and those few times in my life when I have been able to hear my writing played by a large ensemble actually brought me to tears. The emotional meaning of such events for a musician is profound.

The capacity to use midi/synth and record one person in a booth at a time-even to add parts from different corners of the world, as cool as that is- diminishes the drive and motivation to collect people together in an informal way to play or record new and original material. Note the diminution of the "rehearsal" band.

You can see by my previous post that I'm very pro-marching band. However, these bands come together for a specific entertainment purpose and play a repertoire that is, well, not evolving-with the exception of some New Orleans stuff. A group I play with-the Second Line Social Aid Pleasure Society Brass Band is pretty representative. We use a little bit of slightly newer New Orleans material and re-work another established-albeit expanded-repertoire-Baltic, gypsy, African...

Chris Rich said...

Mr Watts !!!
Welcome aboard. I was listening to some of your samples. Really haunting qualities to sound. My laptop sux for listening so I'll wait for a disc if there is one. I need to figure out how to put music on here.

Tape splicing is interesting.I coached my friend Oannes on the methods of radio production to add to the skills he has as a print journalist for Akwasasne Notes.

He was funny and compared splicing to withe weaving for making a muskrat trap.

I used to have fun making weird radio with chop splices. I'd edit out all of Tara Dunsky's "umms" from a segment she made of an interview with an actor.

I'd have all these random umms on the floor so I'd pick them up at random and splice them any old way and get sound texture of her lovely musical voice.

Matt Lavelle said...

every record Ive made sounds different sound wise..

sometimes all the tech in the world just cant compensate for the vibe even on a so-so recording..

I have had MYSTICAL experiences from music on cassette that somehow trumps "better" versions,.or really expensive studio stuff..