A challenging portfolio
The fiercely competitive field of high-resolution audio is a challenging job environment. The ideal recording engineer should have a keen sense of music appreciation, and strong knowledge of electronics and acoustics. A thorough understanding of microphones and their applications is an essential prerequisite.
One of the portfolio’s main objectives is to guide clients into making technically sound decisions, so as to optimize the overall quality of finished recordings. This is usually done in conjunction with the project’s producer.
Most musicians will accept good professional advice. Therefore, the recording engineer needs to instinctively appreciate the finely delineated balance between the words subjective and objective. By accepting tactful, prudent recommendations, musicians can avoid wasting money resulting from poor productions. This strategy generally ensures repeated business from satisfied clients and generates new opportunities through referrals.
However, according to Jack Renner (at his recording console in photo above right), who was the chief recording engineer of TELARC Records, "Many would argue that the producer on any project has more influence on the final outcome, musically speaking, than the recording engineer. The engineer is ultimately charged with delivering the final sound re-creation which satisfies both performer and producer."
Renner was also quick to distinguish between those who engineer recordings of classical music and typical jazz, pop, and rock engineers: "All recording engineering is not created equal." But Renner did emphasize that the model engineer "must have golden ears and be able to keep abreast of technological advancements."
Engineers need to be competent at basic troubleshooting, systematic diagnosis of technical faults, and must be able to concentrate for long, irregular hours. The difference between being good and being great in any discipline is that great craftspeople are not easily satisfied. Their intrinsically restless nature is fueled by curiosity and an urge to quench an insatiable appetite for maintaining a competitive edge.
Creating a sonic signature
Connoisseurs of music, whether trained or untrained, can recognize the signature of a great composer or performer from their idiosyncratic styles, instinctively knowing that a piece of music was written by Beethoven and not Mahler, Tchaikovsky, or Wagner. Similarly, the styles of trumpeters Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis are easily identified as being different.
Can a recording engineer develop a sonic signature that differentiates his or her creation from another engineer’s? For example, suppose a room and performers were available to record the same piece of music, and that two different engineers were permitted to use their preferred equipment and techniques. Could listeners identify individual efforts? If so, what factors significantly contribute to the creation of such a sonic signature?
According to Renner, "Choice of the signal path is very important. Microphones, cables and mixing consoles all have intrinsic sonic signatures that contribute to the finished sound. Also the placement -- near to the performers or farther from them -- and the number of chosen microphones, make a huge difference, especially with regard to balance of direct to reverberant sound."
The first consideration should be the room in which the recording takes place. The ideal recording space would be large, quiet, and well appointed, with proper balance between direct and reverberant sound.
I sought the perspective of Michael Bishop (shown in photo right adjusting a microphone at a Hiromi Uehara session in the former Allaire Studio A), formerly of TELARC and now a director at Five Four Productions. "Many recording engineers are using similar recording equipment and yet can achieve very different results in the same room and with the same musicians," he said. "Small and seemingly subtle adjustments of acoustic environment, such as orchestra shell panels and ceiling panels, can produce a different focus or diffusion at the point at which the microphones pick up the sound of the orchestra, as well as that of the overall performance hall. Adjustment of the acoustic environment onstage and in the hall will be at the personal choice of an individual engineer and/or producer. That’s just a part of the bag of tricks employed by a particular production team to get their desired result. There are then countless ways one may adjust microphone height, angle, and relative distance from the orchestra that will further contribute to an engineer’s personal sound.
"Of course, the microphones onstage will go through a mixing console on the way to the recording master. Mixing is an interactive process with the performance of the musicians -- it is not static, unless one is making a simple documentary recording of the event, such as for broadcast. The engineer’s fingers on the mixing-board faders are going to make small changes in the relative levels of the microphones in the mix that will become a permanent part of the recorded end result. In my opinion, these aspects that are under the control of the engineer are what will give an experienced engineer his or her own personal sound.
"It’s all very similar to the process that any musician or artist goes through to make their own sound. The successful music recording is the result of a great partnership of the conductor and musicians and the production team that is the producer and engineer. Ideally, the entire team is performing at a very highly skilled and experienced level."
One of Professor Keith O. Johnson’s favorite recording spaces is the Meyerson Symphony Center, in Dallas, Texas. I asked Johnson, renowned recording engineer for Reference Recordings and Director of Engineering for Spectral Audio Inc., for his candid opinion on why he considers this to be a world-class hall, and as usual, he presented me with a thorough analysis.
"At concerts roughly 70% of the sound we hear from a symphony orchestra is from the hall, its acoustic reflections and reverberations. The other 30% is from a direct path from listener to instruments. We must decode these sounds -- a very complex activity that includes feedback paths that change properties in hair cells of our ears as well as feedforward biasing from our vision and knowledge that summon experiential processes in our brain.
"Sonic learning includes familiarity with halls and instruments that have evolved and coexisted for hundreds of years. From this historical evolution and proper concert settings, a good artist can communicate as well as manipulate his audience to maximize the concert experience. Clearly, the hall must fit the scene.
"Violins project upward to often curved proscenium surfaces to achieve diffuse seamless string sound. Brass instruments project forward, so rear-wall bounce should help these instruments to be authoritative. Woodwinds need stage glow to fill out. A simple reverberation specification like three seconds doesn’t work, because good hall sound has directionality factors.
"Different parts of a great hall respond with carefully crafted sounds that should relate to specific instruments. The timing for this acoustic support to happen is crucial and complex, as our perceptual hearing has triggering and resetting properties that must occur from sonic events. Get these things wrong and our perceptual inhibition says Bad hall -- loud but can’t hear anything.
"Matters are worse when harsh coloration is added from flimsy construction that won’t hold sound. Put-up shells and wallboard spaces are often an insult to music. However, get it right, and contrasts between diffusion, clarity, and body will improve our perception, since mental processing becomes more relaxed as we sort and focus on sounds we have learned and expect.
"These and other sounds are more easily set aside, and then we can relax, and experience artists, instruments, and their music connections to our inner being. A good hall is simple. It is dedicated for music so that surfaces, their placements and textures, favor the directionality of instruments. The building, walls, and stage are very solid.
"Reflection behavior at the stage and at the audience is designed not to violate critical timing limits that cause human forward-backward inhibitions that destroy intelligibility. Then musicians hear each other and the audience hears the musicians. To prevent an overly dry environment, a secondary reverberation tier or multiple chambers are required to hold the sound.
"Then one gets solidity and ambient-reverberant support without loss of clarity. Famous European halls have these features, and they can be shoebox-, horseshoe-, or arena-shaped. Most have a common feature of an upper tier or colonnade, usually constructed of polished stone or heavy plaster, sometimes with shiny or gilt skin. An overhead oval or dome might be used. These upper peripheral structures hold sound and in many ways are equivalent to reverberation chambers that could be placed in a modern hall. These structures or devices create a second, or delayed, tail that is the familiar sound of a great space.
"Now consider Meyerson. Its form, a tall shoebox with semi-arena stage and overhead holding chambers, is much like the great halls. Solid construction and heavy leather sealed doors hold orchestral sound inside. A dome equivalent, the mother ship, is movable, as are curtains and doors to many sound chambers. In a way, the only thing new is a computer to robotically move these things and remember the best settings."
The author’s viewpoint
The selection of recording equipment is very important in defining a sonic signature. Assuming that our engineers all adhere to the principle of less is more, how can they be distinguished in this department? Perhaps one prefers tubed equipment to solid-state. Another may favor the DSD conversion process in preference to HDCD or DXD. Cables, interconnects, and line conditioners may be made by many different suppliers. The choices and placements of recording microphones are obviously major contributions to the ultimate sound. Mixing consoles can be specially designed, built, or tweaked to specifications of a particular individual. Each of these elements contributes significantly to the overall sonic signature.
What about monitor loudspeakers? Jack Renner: "Ideally, these should be easy to install and be able to perform accurately in a wide variety of recording environments." More than on any other equipment, the recording engineer relies on microphones and monitors, as these components contribute critically to the final creation.
Can the average audiophile distinguish the sonic signatures of different engineers? Renner: "The engineer must be able to produce the same identifiable sound in any acoustic space."
A day in the life . . .
A typical day in the life of a recording engineer begins with selecting appropriate gear for a session, packing it up, and getting to the venue long before anyone else. Before placing microphones and appropriately locating monitor loudspeakers, the engineer usually connects and verifies the performance of assorted equipment. I asked Renner to outline his thoughts about this.
"With TELARC, it was/is important to have the entire monitoring chain in place and in working order to check the integrity of the system. This includes proper placement of monitor speakers in order to check the entire system under real-life conditions. Once the control-room system is deemed to be in proper working and monitoring order, the microphone feed is monitored in order to determine that transducers, cables, and preamps are in proper working order."
Jack Renner (left) and Professor Keith O. Johnson.
Checks are performed after the system has warmed up sufficiently to attain a stable operating state. These include adjusting levels, optimizing placement of microphones relative to singers and players, and obtaining a proper overall balance. When everyone is satisfied, work begins.
Except when the recording is of a live concert, multiple takes are usually made, for subsequent editing together. There are usually session breaks during which musicians can hear samples of what they’ve just recorded. After the session, the tapes are usually sent to the editing, mixing, and mastering engineers.
The term mastering describes the final processing stages of an audio recording before it is commercialized. Mastering usually ensures that a finished product meets acceptable standards. The mastering engineer’s role is similar to that of the quality assurance engineer in manufacturing.
A musical recording is not optimized for pressing until it has been mastered. Mastering engineers are trained listeners who pay a great deal of attention to detail, definition, imaging, and musical depth. The process usually involves a series of precision calibrated adjustments to dynamic range, frequencies, levels, scaling, dithering, etc, and includes correction of any errors and anomalies made during the recording and mixing stages.
Jack Renner: "I cannot emphasize enough that most audiophile labels, for instance TELARC, do few or none of the foregoing mentioned adjustments, and would consider it blasphemy to do so. Our goal is to get it right during the original recording."
Once satisfied, engineers produce the final mix of a particular session. Sometimes, mistakes are made during the recording and mixing stages. These can result in distortion, overcompression, unbalanced sound levels, and other flaws.
Mastering enables an objective listener (one who has not previously auditioned a project) to make corrective adjustments to this final mix. Because the recording engineer has already made and lived with these mistakes, they are likely to be overlooked. Jack Renner: "It is the producer’s responsibility to ensure that all musical passages are covered without errors and to see that the roadmap is followed during the editing process. A roadmap is a musical score upon which the producer has made notations during the recording sessions and which is coordinated with a written log. This becomes the basis for the finished, edited master, which is subsequently created."
Insertion of PQ codes and other basic information is done during mastering. The final product is transferred to a data-storage device, commonly called a master, from which individual copies are mass-produced.
The future (of classical music)
All major classical works from Renaissance to the modern period have already been commercialized, with very little being composed today. Additionally, there is growing consumer demand for low-resolution digital downloads for playback on inexpensive equipment.
Pirated recordings and the global economic recession have both negatively affected the production and sales of recorded music, and especially of classical. Will the industry survive and prosper, or will its sustainability depend on the need to archive live recordings? Again, I sought the expert opinion of engineer and audiophile Jack Renner: "I believe that as long as consumers are attending concerts and hearing live music they want to hear again, there will be an ongoing classical recording industry. There are a number of fine contemporary composers writing extremely interesting music (Jennifer Higdon, this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, to name one), which I believe will help (not necessarily save) the classical industry. I also believe that there will continue to be a market for new recordings of the core repertoire of classical music. Only time will tell."
. . . Simeon Louis Sandiford