Panel – recording aesthetics #arpOslo2014

IMG_0807Panel – Amy Blier-Carruthers, Royal Academy of Music; Phil Harding, PJ Music Ltd; Pytten Hundvin, Norwegian Record Producer and Sound Engineer; Serge Lacasse, Université Laval; Susan Rogers, Berklee College of Music; Simon Zagorski-Thomas, University of West London. Moderator: Alan Williams, University of Massachusetts Lowell.

We begin this panel with a discussion of ‘pet hates’ in recording. The panel rises to the task impressively. Some hates include the loudness wars and issues of track compression (Pytten); horrible tracking rooms in the interests of authenticity; being precious about your ideas and resisting stretching them (Susan); and the boxy frequencies between 400Hz and 900Hz (Phil – “can anyone in this room tell me a good reason for boosting these frequencies, and tell me what instrument to do it on?”).

The opposite conversation (‘pet loves’) include a discussion regarding phonographic art. Simon ZT is a supporter of this view; Phil takes the view that phonographic art is part of a service industry. As a recording engineer, you are being paid to service a client’s need – as he says “when you’re onto your seventh mix for a fussy client, seeing yourself as a service industry is a better mindset than thinking about oneself as a maker of art”. This is not antithetical to an artistic definition of recordings, he says; work needs to be artistically beautifully in order for people to buy it! Simon concedes that all art is a business. Susan describes ‘bad art’ as a poor business model!

Alan manfully pulls us back to ‘love’. Susan’s view is that art should give the recipient a sense of momentum, and cites the opening momentum of ep.1 of Breaking Bad, applying the same logic to the construction of intros. Either change something in the intro, or keep it short, she says. Pytten talks about loving the opportunity to work with younger people than himself, and gives examples that justify never saying no to new ways of working. Serge loves singers that embody a character, and producers who can get this embodied character to tape effectively. Phil’s love is ‘vocal sessions, particularly when they are with a good vocalist!’. He did a recent session with Belinda Carlisle. After he had tracked a demo with a good session singer, and then could hear the immediate contrast when BC added a really strong characterful vocal. Amy’s ‘love’ is having time to craft an artistic opportunity.

We now get into a discussion of ‘changes of heart around performance flaws’, using the Prince song God, as suggested by Alan, because it has a distorted/overloaded vocal. It turns out that Susan engineered it. She describes the venue and signal path limitations in that particular session, and she asks why a signal path should be perfect. The performance, as she said previously, wins out over sonic attributes.

Simon tells an anecdote about the time he recorded Phil Collins. After hours of trying to get the 1980s ‘gated reverb’ sound (with real reverbs and gates) Phil suggested using a rack reverb (Yamaha SPX90) and use the gated reverb preset. It worked well. This leads to a discussion of room ambiences as a inspiration for performers. Amy’s research has led her to the conclusion that perfection is the enemy of great music. But paradoxically, the longer she spends in the studio with her students, the more producer-like and perfectionist she becomes.

Phil (Harding) changed his practice recently to mix ‘top down’ – that is, starting with the vocal, and he says it enables him to focus on the song. Pytten’s approach is, as he describes it, ‘very physical’ and he worries about filling up the mix.

There follows a lively Q&A, covering types of imperfection (Susan – there is a difference between imperfection and poor or sloppy technique, and there are ‘good mistakes’ and ‘bad mistakes’).

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