Innocent Ear

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If single point microphone techniques are so good, why does hardly anybody use them today?

       A very good question! We believe that this is largely due to the desire of engineers to be more involved in what they perceive as a creative act in the making of a recording, rather than any moral belief that multiple microphone techniques are intrinsically better than single point techniques. Some people go further and say bluntly that it is simply due to vanity!

Consider: recording sound naturally is essentially a passive role. The engineer's job is to capture the sound in the hall. With multiple microphone techniques, the engineer's role is much more involved, as has been described in detail in the previous sections. The use of multiple microphones and multi track tape recorders came of age in the 1960's in the field of pop music. Due to the sheer complexity of making a pop record (where there is rarely if any live acoustic performance) the engineer's input is far greater and even 'artistic'. Certainly more important. Also, most engineers suffer from the desire to play with all the wonderful (and usually very expensive) equipment that the use of pop techniques requires. It's a 'boys and their toys' thing. Hence these types of engineers are often called 'knob twiddlers'. This method allows the engineer to play God with the music. If they can play around with 2 channels, imagine what they could do with 5 in 5.1 surround sound recording. The mind boggles! Recording with single point microphone techniques uses just a fraction of the equipment (and cost) of pop techniques but you don't get to play with so much equipment!

One by-product of knob twiddling is that engineers always seem to seek the most complex solution to any problem, which gives them a chance to play with more equipment. Simple solutions are not generally even considered, as simple things are supposed to be just for amateurs, who are not supposed to be able to afford more than two mics anyway. This can lead to amusing results. For example a recent stereo recording of voice and piano was made with 6 microphones and a multitrack tape machine! Two were just three feet away from the singers mouth (try standing three feet away from a singer whilst he / she is singing and see how ghastly it sounds!), two were on the piano and two were for "air". The resulting mix down had the usual 'dismembered' sound between the singer and the piano and although the singer was not louder than the piano, every single breath he made was clearly audible and as he moved around whilst singing, the timbre of his voice and breathing changed very audibly indeed. This made for a curious and unsettling vocal sound. I spoke to the engineer and he hadn't even thought of the simple, natural solution, two mics 10 - 15 feet away from voice and piano (which would be correctly balanced at this distance), exactly how the audience would have heard it and with the polar pattern controlling the amount of reverberation.

Another factor was that critics by and large did not and do not assess the realism of the sound. They, like most others, were taken in by the louder, brasher, more exciting, more upfront character of manipulated sound than you might get from a naturally miked recording or real, live music. Today, after having 30 odd years of knob twiddled recordings for review, they are so used to the sound of multi-miked recordings and so unfamiliar with natural recordings, that everything else sounds wrong to them (probably including live concerts!). What critics and most engineers appear to prize almost above everything else is 'air', supposedly a sense of acoustic space. For this reason spaced omnidirectional mics are often used as they supposedly give this 'air'. However, it has been proved that the 'air' emanating from this technique is nothing more than random phase anomalies. It is not real at all. Natural microphone techniques, like those described below, give a much greater and more realistic sense of space in which the recording was made. 

There is an apocryphal story about a record buyer's first visit to a live concert.  He complains how dull the sound is by comparison with his records at home. He even compares them using Hi-Fi terms. Most critics are more concerned with the musical performance. So long as the notes and the tempo are right and it sounds roughly like the real thing, they let it pass. They are not really interested in sound quality. They consider that to be for engineers and Hi-Fi nuts.

The Spirit of the Age played its part too. We live in an age of 'perfection', where technology makes everything 'perfect' by eliminating wrong notes and enabling engineers to 'correct' musicians who cannot, it seems, balance themselves or play properly. It has to be said that some musicians demanded all these technical 'advances' when they heard about them, thus fuelling the onward march of 'technology'. Some musicians' vanity got the better of them when they realised that they could be more prominent than their colleagues. Certain famous soloists insist on being spotlit, even to the extent of specifying what microphone should be used on them. Perhaps engineers ought then to tell these soloists how to play! As Peter Craven said "People think that technology is good, therefore more technology must be better". It is a misfortune that, as an industry, we have sacrificed art to feed our own technical vanity. Do people really want to listen to a dry, often artificial series of notes in the right order, or to a real performance that gives them goose pimples and sets their pulse racing? As Mahler said "The music is not in the notes". Yet the notes appear to be all that people are concerned about these days. Repeating a 10 bar phrase umpteen times until the producer thinks it's "perfect" before moving on to the next phrase is soul destroying. A wrong note is considered disgraceful in this day & age (what would Schnabel have made of that?), so everybody plays safe and the soul of the music is never even allowed out. Add to that the fact that the average CD has 600 edits in it (work it out!) and you'll see that the industry largely sells note perfect CD's without any music on them. It's no accident that there is increasing interest in older recordings, made before the 'assistance' of modern technology. The music leaps out of the speakers in a way in which most modern recordings cannot compare, in spite of the fact that the technical quality is much poorer. No modern recording of Elgar's Violin Concerto is a patch on Sammonds' 1929 recording. Modern records are dull and in spite of good technology do not re-create the excitement of music in the home. Nimbus have an excellent attitude to editing. They say "We edit to save a performance, not to create one". Amen to that!

Another lunacy pervading the audio industry today is that recording studios are filled with various outboard processors and plug-in's for computers that "maximise", "emulate", "compel", "stress", "fatten", "de-ess", "excite", "saturate", "harmonise", "humanize", "flange", "modulate", "overdrive" and "finalize" (phew!) an audio signal. Don't you feel sorry for the poor signal? For the 'pop' industry these are par for the course, but for Classical music they are just more toys for engineers to play with and yet more processing to make the sound worse. But perhaps the craziest of all is that you can now buy a box costing thousands of pounds which digitally replicates analogue tape hiss, overload distortion and modulation noise. I spent 40 years of my life trying to avoid these things! Even if I wanted to add these things to my recordings, I'd pass the signal through my analogue open reel machine and get the reel thing for a tiny fraction of the cost. Are we nuts, or what?!

The computer industry has a saying 'garbage in, garbage out.' The quality of the microphones and the way in which they are used are fundamental to the sound of any recording. In our opinion this contributes far more to the sound than different digital converters or fancy cables. For example, Monteux' Ravel Daphnis et Chloe was recorded with just two stereo microphones - and that for a large orchestra and chorus. This would be almost unimaginable to the vast majority of modern engineers. We use the same techniques that were used to make these great recordings, but with modern, top quality microphones and digital recording equipment. Other classics of the gramophone in our opinion are Beechams Scheherazade (1958), Monteux Daphnis et Chloe (1959). Bob Fine's recordings for Mercury Living Presence, EMI's 'Stereosonic' recordings (which include much of Karajan and Klemperer with the Philharmonia Orchestra) and Roy Wallace's recordings for DECCA (which include much of Ansermet and the L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romand) are amongst the finest the industry has produced.