I attended a ‘Digital Salon‘ last night at the offices of Boulder Digital Arts. Featured was a presentation about mastering, the final process of tweaking a musical recording so it is ready for reproduction and distribution. David Glasser, owner of Airshow Mastering in Boulder, took center stage after a pleasant 45 minutes of schmoozing, munching and looking at great action photos of musicians from a variety of Boulder venues from over the years. Outside, the weather was turning cold and snowy, the initial punch of a storm that would last for 24 hours, but inside, the audience sat at rapt attention while David discussed the mixing process by showcasing several recent projects his studio had completed, one of which was the complete re-mastering of the Grateful Dead’s 1972 tour through Europe.
Before swinging into the the Dead, however, David illustrated the evolution of changes made to a more-or-less finished recording of a female songwriter. The audience was able to see, and hear, graphic representations of those sound files as they started to reach a level of audio maturity.
Of course, the question was raised about what a ‘mature’ standard counts as these days. If one listens to the radio, it is clear that music today has to have a quality that makes it stand out, whether it be volume or range of dynamics, or audacity, or some other quality. Those expectations are still changing, but it seems there is a trend to increase the basic level at which a music piece plays back, and still be clear. The history of recording music is not that old. Even in our lifetime, listening to a reproduction of a piece of music and the way we consume that music has changed. The New York Times just published an article about the music archivist Alan Lomax, who made thousands of field recordings which will soon be available for ‘streaming’.
What was clear from David’s presentation was that music deserves to be treated well when it enters our ears, and the amount of digital information needs to be present in sufficient quantity to have an effect on quality. File sizes for quality music are getting bigger, but at the same time mp3 files (which are convenient as they help us cram more music into our portable devices) are getting ever smaller, and in doing so can often take character out of the music. But do we even notice it? Personally, I used to listen to albums, then cassettes, then I would walk around town listening to my Sony Walkman, and now I have an Apple device, but I generally notice warmth and expression lacking when using those tiny white headphones, and my ears ring even more after listening to music this way..maybe he’s on to something.
It was interesting to hear about the Grateful Dead project. The Dead’s engineers tore apart a state-of-the-art reel-to-reel recording rig and modified it to fit even wider tape, so as to capture more of the sound. The Dead’s set-up in those days was straightforward and simple, even using what are considered today as inferior microphones. However, the performances were stellar, and the recordings were done well. Additionally, after employing a process called ‘Plangent Optimizing’, which reduces distortions in music by recovering a hidden high-frequency signal applied to the original recording and using that to correct for subtle speed variations, the recordings sound fantastic! (Okay, I admit to listening to a little Grateful Dead here and there in the past decades).
David mentioned a book he had been reading recently: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by David Kahneman, and mentioned its impact on his work as a sound engineer. I need to check this out as it seems to have implications in all sorts of fields.
In sum: a fun and informative evening, with some philosophical implications on how we re-create and share our creative moments. There’s something to be said for the ease with which digital recording has changed our lives..I can sit on the couch and record a song with my iphone, transfer that to the computer, apply a little reverb, slice it down as an MP3 file and put it on my reverbnation page..while on the one hand I am gaining something in the sharing of pure expression, the reduction of the process affects the output. Not sure how much that matters in my case, but interesting to think about none the less.
- Jonathan Machen