Top: vinyl quality is superior to that of CDs.
Centre: The mixing desk and its operator have come to take precedence over the conductor and musical director.
Above: The Queen's Hall, London, was renowned as having near perfect acoustics. It was destroyed in the Blitz.
The CD market today is severely depressed and there are several reasons why; most have been exhaustively discussed and understood. However, the potentially most likely cause is self-destruction by the industry. It’s a well-known fact, and appreciated by most, that the sound quality of CDs is inferior to that of the old vinyl LP. That is a situation that cannot readily be corrected. Nevertheless, it is essential to derive the optimum quality of sound possible from the CD.
It’s rather like a cup of coffee. When we moved from Italy to the USA in 2000, my wife and I were very disappointed to find that it was impossible to have a coffee that in any way compared with that which we had enjoyed in Italy. Previously, walking down the main street, one could locate the coffee shop by the glorious perfume wafting up to 100 metres. That was followed by the unique taste – we had one cafe cappuccino and one cafe espresso. In the USA we were limited to bland imitations of cappuccino and espresso. We returned to Europe in 2006 and were horrified to find that the same metamorphosis had occurred here. Coffee as we had known it had become an extinct species.
Sound media is an endangered species too. The more technical developments that are introduced, the farther away the music drifts.
There is one other even more important destructive force in the industry, which begins with the mixing console. When one has the privilege of attending an opera performance, live orchestral concert, chamber ensemble or solo instrument performance, one is accompanied by just one pair of ears. The auditorium was designed by an architect who understood the importance of the acoustic qualities of the ambience and took into consideration the subsequent presence of an audience. The sound we hear there, in the concert hall, is the sound we would like to hear, or at least the nearest possible representation, emanating from our very expensive high fidelity system.
Having visited the local CD stockist we have rummaged very carefully among the thousands of discs available and selected, without choosing a cheap copy, the work and artist of our choice.
We carefully place the CD onto the tray and press the play button. What do we hear? Probably a reissue, meaning yet more technical modifying. And yet even if it is the latest release, there is a 90% chance it was recorded in a ‘dead’ studio. In the case of a symphony orchestra, there were dozens of microphones placed among the musicians. Each microphone was fed to a huge console, where an engineer sat studying the score, as though he were the conductor. He faded in and out each instrument, group of instruments or the entire orchestra, according to its prominence at any particular point in the work. The resulting ‘mixed’signal was then analysed and corrected electronically and separated into two channels, which finally were burned onto the CD we had purchased. Considering the technical process, one might be surprised that the name of the conductor appears in the credits of the recording. Why do conductors not protest?
The entire process has got out of hand. The industry is offering CDs that are not faithful representations of the composer's work. They are technically constructed electronic sound monsters.
Those who have never heard music in a live situation cannot appreciate the extreme difference that now exists with recorded sound. Those of us who are not familiar with sound broadcasts of the 1960s and 1970s, and the vinyl LP, cannot imagine how much better the reproduction of music was. Rather like coffee, the metamorphosis is under way.
The Classical Music Recording Code of Practice, proposed below, is a set of guidelines for correcting the ills that have beset recording techniques in recent years and subsequently bring about a return to an honest, musically accurate, natural sound, just as the orchestra, conductor and composer intended. They, of all people, know how the music should sound.
Appeal to the industryWe ask you to consider and adopt the Classical Music Recording Code of Practice as specified below.
Classical Music Recording Code of PracticeThe classical music recording and CD manufacturing industry is respectfully asked to take a musical approach to the process of producing CDs. The process should be much less complicated than it is at present, potentially with lower production costs.
Record producing companies who adopt the principles of the Code of Practice and adhere to the following criteria will be permitted to add to each CD the following wording: 'Certified Natural Sound Technique Recording'.
1. Genre of music source
ii. Full symphony orchestra
iii. Chamber ensemble
iv. Solo instrument
v. Vocal of all combinations
2a. Microphone technique
Two very carefully positioned microphones capable of picking up all instruments of the orchestra over all frequencies with a flat response. Example: Earthworks SR30.
2b. Microphone positioning
Positioning of the microphones is determined by the venue. However, the microphones should always be suspended - to avoid physically transmitted sounds and vibrations, and also to take advantage of the effect of sound rising (with heat).
If the venue is a concert hall then an audience should be present, since the acoustics of the hall, in general, were calculated to include an audience. Should it not be possible to have an audience present, or should the recording be undertaken in a studio situation, then every endeavour should be made to simulate the natural ambient conditions of a concert hall with an audience. Addition of unnatural echo should be avoided.
Maximum record level should be established during the rehearsal, or at the very least a short test undertaken. Following this, no adjustments to level should be made during the course of the recording, the conductor being relied upon to take care of that particular factor.
If necessary, removal of tape hiss. Excessive coughing and extraneous noises should be removed. No corrections should be made to the musical content.
Direct transfer of the recorded material to the CD.
Earthworks SR30 microphones can pick up all the instruments of the orchestra over all frequencies with a flat response.
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