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Sounding Off

Tom Flint
Published June 2008
By Tom Flint

Did eliminating noise throw out the baby with the bath water?Sounding Off

About The Author: When he isn't writing for music technology publications, Tom Flint co-ordinates the East Anglian Mountain Rescue Team from his gothic castle on the edge of a precipice in Norwich.

If you regularly read product reviews, then the chances are that you can often be put off making purchases by certain key phrases. For me, when I read that a product has a 'clean sound' I frequently feel less enthusiastic about it — even though the reference is usually intended as praise. It's not that I'm a lo-fi nut, because I do covet high-quality gear. However, in my book, clean doesn't necessarily mean good.

In fact, in many respects, the less noisy and flawed my recordings have become, the worse they sound! Many people have commented that my recent tracks are very clean and that everything is well recorded. They may well be right, but those attributes are also problematic.

In SOS March 2007, Giles Martin commented that "Tape seems to join everything together in the way that digital gives you separation". When I first began tape-bouncing I longed for less hiss and less quality loss. The same was true when I got my first four-track cassette and eight-track reel-to-reel machines. Now, though, I find myself wanting more noise, more hiss, more distortion and more tape limiting, and I don't always want to hear all the instruments clearly either! I want things to bond together. Absolute clarity is not the answer, but neither is it restorative to bung on a load of distortion or tape-emulation plug-ins afterwards.

I refer you to the SOS interview with producer Joe Boyd (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jun06/articles/joeboyd.htm), in which he states: "To me, still, if I listen back to the records of the '60s, [The Doors '] Strange Days is the best-sounding record of the '60s. It's just an amazing job of recording". I'd always loved Strange Days, but hadn't singled it out in that way. However, after listening to it again, I began to realise what Joe was getting at.

The instruments on Strange Days are clear, yet they blend into the overall ambience, and even the sounds that seem really loud and powerful are actually quite soft. The album was obviously recorded extremely well, using some great equipment and brilliant musicians, and in lovely-sounding acoustic spaces. Nevertheless, it was made in an age when the technology set limitations that seem almost intolerable today.

Back then, multitracking was in its infancy, and many tracks were largely recorded live using careful mic placement. Distortion was inherent in the valves of overdriven amps and mics. There would have been oodles of spill, and plenty of un-editable hiss generated by all those valve amps, mics and early recording desks. Vocal effects came from dirty-sounding EMT plate reverbs. There was also the considerable inefficiency of tape, distorting and compressing audio, requiring noise-reduction systems that audibly affected the sound of the material.

It must have been a real pain in the arse fixing all of that temperamental equipment, positioning everything to minimise noise and spill, and then having to add copious amounts of high-end after each bounce, to regain clarity. You can't blame anyone for wanting more editing options (the lack of which made it necessary to get everything right in the room), more stability and clarity, or an undo button! Still, the equipment offered a winning combination of high quality coupled with bags of ear-friendly noise, hiss and distortion. This helped everything bond together, resulting in recordings that demonstrate a natural depth and homogeneity that is almost impossible to fake.

You don't have to look far to find examples of top professionals who still record bands live in a room, or enjoy the benefits of imperfect gear. I immediately think of Andy Green, producer of Keane's Hopes and Fears, who recorded their drums to analogue two-inch tape with Dolby SR engaged. Then there's the Nimrod team. They recorded much of the music for 24: The Game using an antique EMT140 plate reverb and, for orchestral ambience, hired Abbey Road studios to record in.

As for me, in my humble home studio, I'm certainly after high quality — but absolute clarity? No! I've far too much of that already.  

Published June 2008