Unsung Heroes of the Industry
Don’t miss this piece in last Sunday’s LA Times about recording engineers for classical music. As the author, Constance Meyer, says, popular music engineers and producers are often famous in their own right, but most people can’t name a single classical music engineer or producer. “Yet just as in rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop, the engineer for such music — who is often, though not always, the producer as well — is the person who makes or breaks an audio performance.” Meyer goes on to profile Max Wilcox, Da-Hong Seetoo, Fred Vogler, and Armin Steiner, and to describe a bit of how the recording process works.
There’s even a modicum of disagreement. Steiner talks about recording the Bach violin sonatas and partitas in 1956, and recals that Szigeti would record a small section “10 or 15 times or more. So they had all these bits and pieces. There were at least 100 reels of 1/4 -inch tape. I spent three or four months editing those for him.”
Wilcox, on the other hand, says “While you can eliminate mechanical imperfections, you can’t make someone an artist by making 400 splices. . . You can’t give a violinist a more beautiful tone or a better conception of the music or a better idea of the tempo. You can make it sound mechanically and technically solid, but all the things that make ‘music’ can’t be fabricated.”
These statments aren’t necessarily at odds, but do seem to indicate two different approaches to the process. In fact, the cut and splice method requires a great deal of consistency, especially of tempo, in the source recordings. Providing modular pieces that fit together into a coherent whole is its own kind of artistry, as is making those pieces fit in the studio. Personally, I lean toward that strategy, but aiming for the consistency of long, uninterrupted takes has value too.