Post Production Dragon Indie Classical: CPR for classical music recordings

When I was in my 20‘s back in London everywhere you looked you saw the “Keep Music Live” sticker, a huge yellow disk with red and blue capital letters. It was everywhere, on backpacks, car windows, instrument travel cases, everywhere. I really didn’t get it. Didn’t they mean “Keep Music Alive”? Was this a commentary on the ever more boring nature of music, particularly the increasingly depersonalised performances of classical music? Who in their right minds, after all, was daring enough to invest their own personality into the music composed by geniuses such as Beethoven or Bach? Why would music need to be live or even more alive than it was?

How arrogant is a musician to even contemplate leaving an impression in the minds of the audience which even hinted at the performer’s ability to make decisions about the composition? “Play what’s on the page!” was what had become part and parcel of the classical music industry. The human foibles of performers seemed to be the only, albeit natural, variation permitted. But then what were my parents talking about when I was a young teen while discussing the then 24 year old Daniel Barenboim’s being “too young for Beethoven”? Could he play the notes or not? Surely, he could! And, for me, that was probably enough at that time. Wrong notes were certainly not for real musicians.

Time has moved along. Not a couple of years ago, I heard Danny Barenboim playing three Chopin piano concertos live with the Berlin Philharmonic in the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall. What an amazing experience. Wrong notes? Everywhere! And yet it was one of the most remarkable performances I have ever experienced, anywhere. To close your eyes, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Danny wasn’t playing plastic covered Steinway keys, but had stood up and was leaning over the keyboard and stroking the strings with his bare hands. Magic was in the air like stardust. Three encores he played for us, three of the Chopin preludes; the best postlude you could hope for. And between each of the preludes, wrought with magic—and wrong notes—came the screams of delight from most of the audience but audible ‘boooos’ from others. There’s no pleasing everyone!

When I was a music student in London, I went to one of my teachers’ performances and was shocked at an ornamental flurry he did and messed up. “No risk, no gain” was his response to that one. Really? Wrong notes were allowed? Another of my teachers told me that he expected to play no more than three wrong notes in any movement of a suite when playing live. But Danny Barenboim? Surely, the likes of the classical music legends can’t get away with that shoddiness, can they?

Well, that was more decades ago than I dare to mention. And in all this time I have asked myself how many live concerts have I played which went perfectly, just as I had wished, like a perfect studio recording. None that I could remember—and I am sure I would remember!

In a live performance, the distractions the audience creates, stage fright, one can overlook the occasional human slip. But what about the recording studio? “Put down three tracks first”, my teacher had told me, “three full ‘performances’ before going on to the ‘bits and bobs’ patches.” It seemed clear that even studio recordings were not note-perfect. Well, maybe Danny’s were, no? I witnessed this turning pages and tuning harpsichords for a teacher who did location BBC recordings in empty churches. Yup, the BBC would first record “the room” in silence and then do three takes, followed by patches; “…can we have bars 15 to 17 again please?”

Those were, still, the days of magnetic tape and razor blade cutting tables. Microphones were carefully placed in their carefully selected recording locations. Bits of recorded tape were cut up and spliced together. Reverberation was added by playing the recordings through metal plates or metal springs and re-recording it. Electronic graphic equalisation was added and the tone was brought back into the kind of shape it was supposed to have been recorded in; the shortcomings of the performer and of the recording equipment having been compensated for in the cutting room. A monster by the name of Post Production was born.

Post Production grew and grew. The dragon sprouted wings and a cleft tongue, spitting the flames of mistruth. Recordings “improved” so quickly it was hard to keep up with the pace of it all. Performances seemed more and more polished. Microphones appeared to be of better and better quality as records were replaced by cassette tapes and then by CDs and now, finally, by internet streaming.

Music within the “pop and rock” culture suffered even more. Drummers were replaced by drum machines. Singers’ voices are manipulated by AutoTune programmes to adjust every nuance of pitch the sound technician wants. Pop and rock music became a deficient art form without an accompanying video. Songs became mini movies. What had happened to the good old garageband, kids with instruments which were actually being played and played live on stage?

Some of my generation who were once avid rock fans are turning to classical music thinking it has somehow had the electronic musical revolution skip past it, over its head, and left it intact. Sure, you can still go to the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall and hear Danny playing live, and a lot of other people besides. But can the average audience cope with the reality of live performance? If so, what were the ‘booos’ at Danny’s concert about? People have started to expect live performances to match the hyper-edited recordings they listen to on their iPads. Musicians have become so reliant upon their almost mythical sound engineers to create magical performances from shoddy playing.

I clicked, rather foolishly, on a YouTube video a harpsichordist had recently recorded professionally in San Francisco. I was mortified at what I found. The musician had been recorded in what looked to be a comfortable living room with a harpsichord completely inappropriate for the repertoire with so much cutting and added graphic equalisation and reverberation that the sound was not only ludicrous in and of itself but when matched to the video of a living room it transcended from the ludicrous to the laughable.

Here was a harpsichordist playing 17th century keyboard music on what appeared to be a mutant 17th/18th century harpsichord hybrid in what looked to be a banker’s living room yet sounding like it was recorded in the empty silo of a disused nuclear power station. What on earth about this recording was “Early Music”? The builder of that poor harpsichord had gone to such lengths, I’m sure, to make an instrument which played and sounded in what he or she had thought to be an historical and/or musical way. Yet the performer might equally well have been playing a digitally mastered upright spinet piano or hammer dulcimer. Frankly, there can have been no way of recognising the sound the harpsichord builder had created. No composer of the Baroque would have known what planet this performer had recorded the piece on or by what interstellar wormhole it had been projected down to Earth. But, still, the performer could offer a faultless performance on a faultless instrument in a faultless acoustic even if the performance, the instrument and the acoustic were contrived completely. Yes, even classical music suffers under the proverbial “photoshopping”, transforming it from reality to pure fantasy.

So that was what the “Keep Music Live” sticker was all about? Keep music on the stage, keep it out of the studio, keep it off the cutters table? Classical music recordings certainly are sometimes live, particularly on the radio and even sometimes on CDs even if this is no longer the norm. But maybe it is possible to record and keep music live—or at least feeling live—without the audience in the room.

Today, even classical musicians have options. Not only can we get around the ‘middle man’, that being the middle management, the agent, the record label, even the Dragon of Post Production sound engineer, but all too often the classical musician must get around them. Funds just are not there to hire a recording space and a technician, with all their microphones, mixing boards and computers. Often we just can’t afford the cutting, mastering or even the pressing and distributing of CDs. But this is, perhaps, not such a bad thing. There are amazing computer programmes out there to do the job of the Dragon of Post Production right from our computers. Wrong notes, as tolerable as they are in a concert, a thing of the moment, can become quite annoying on a recording which you listen to again and again and so unless uncountable hours are spent in the recording session some cutting is inevitable.

Handheld recording devices, intended for journalists’ voice recording needs, have become standard equipment for musicians in recent years and often rear their heads at coachings or rehearsals. With clever placement of these new and powerful machines, and careful use of sound editing software, the classical musician can produce some very handsome results at home and on a minimal budget and then make the recordings public on one of an increasing number of internet music streaming and vending platforms. It’s now reasonably easy to gently assist a “domestic” recording with careful and subtle use of graphic equalisation and added reverb (some programs offering sampled reverb plugins from various locations and even famous performance spaces) by creating a sense of space, compensating for equipment insufficiencies, not letting things end up contrived. Most important perhaps, the musician who takes the time to learn how to use these new tools can have unquestioned and complete control over the outcome of the recording sessions. Sure, the recordings don’t sound like they were made with two professional microphones costing 4,000 € each, nor do they sound like a professional record label did the post production work. But who wants that today anyway?

Suddenly a whole new world of recordings is possible, recordings which sound natural, with accidental background noise, with the sound of instrument keys, human breaths and the gritty real feeling of being there, of sitting in a scruffy ‘black-box’ theatre, right up there an inside of it all, inside the music making a bubble. It’s almost a full-circle back to the old days of the 73 rpm vinyl records of yonder years. The almost timeless real feeling captured by the greats such as Caruso, Callas and Louis Armstrong can now find a home in the new classical music movement, the cutting edge world of the “Indie Classical” recording artist.

I’m quite sure only very few of us really ever wanted to have to play, record, engineer, post produce, distribute and market our own music. But, this is the way it has to be for many of us today. In some respects this is quite a positive direction. I saw a billboard advertisement in Berlin a few months ago with a medical doctor depicted with the words “I am a janitor. I am an accountant. I am an office assistant. I’m also a medical doctor.” Musicians are not the only ones to take on all aspects of their business into their own hands. We can only hope that musicians—and doctors—don’t end up the Dragons of Post Production they tried to—or had to—circumnavigate.

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