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Off The Record: Blurred Lines

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

As expectations for live performances increase, the line between stage and studio engineering blurs.

Standing outside the Staples Center, LA, as rehearsals for the Grammy Awards show are underway, one notices a subtle but significant shift in the balance of things. The recording engineers — who often accompany artists who are nominated for awards — are still there in the remote trucks, but they tend lately to number fewer than their touring counterparts. The front-of-house engineer is steadily taking a more pronounced role on the technical side of artists’ careers, not least because so much of what is recorded now is done live, with Pro Tools systems bolted onto FOH consoles. The consoles themselves are also entering a new generation, offering the kind of management support needed for 80 inputs on stage, while also providing the kinds of sonic performance that was once expected only of studio desks.

Off The Record pen logo.A line is being blurred, if not crossed, here: just as the economic foundations of music as a business have flipped, with records increasingly becoming the stimulus for the purchase of concert tickets instead of the other way around, the personnel roles and the technology of tour sound are changing to accommodate that shift.

Derek Brener, the touring FOH mixer for the Weeknd and Bruno Mars, remembers when there was a clear distinction between engineers who toured and those who made records, one characterised more by mutual disdain than collegial admiration. “When the FOH mixer came into the broadcast or the recording studio, you could tell you were regarded differently,” he says. “You got the sense that they thought the road engineers weren’t as good as they were. But it was the same thing when a studio engineer came to a show...” Here Brener mimicked hands trembling above an FOH console work surface, portraying someone just then realising that they would not be able to stop the tape and get a second pass.

By now the road warriors have proven their worth. But they’re turning a corner on an industry culture that is expecting more of them. As the live show has become the economic focus, there is increasing pressure on it to be as spectacular as possible while also sounding like a record. That last requirement is more attainable than ever before — anyone who’s spent time in clubs and arenas and even the odd stadium or two knows that the sound systems there have gotten remarkably better than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Powerful, efficient subwoofers are commonplace and acoustics — the stepchild of pro audio for so long — are now often adequately addressed even in neighbourhood pubs. In short, live music is overall a much better experience for most consumers almost everywhere. And that’s good, right?

Quality Control

Well... General expectations for a live-music experience have steadily trended upward, even at the base consumer level, whether it’s that aforementioned pub or headphones — professionals dismissed Beats headphones as bass-boosted hype, but the fact is that they were better than the earbuds that had become the norm for listening to music. When you walk around much of the day listening to full-range audio in a binaural bubble, it affects how you expect the rest of the world to sound.

Live music has been feeling that. Studio-quality condenser and ribbon microphones have been migrating to the stage for a decade now, but it’s not enough to just bring great equipment on stage along with talent. In a sense, every show is competing with Cirque de Soleil — it needs what Michael Abbott (sound guru for shows like The Voice and American Idol) calls, euphemistically, “a bit of enhancement.” That’s an understated synonym for anything from a spare keyboard to a choir on a hard drive locked to SMPTE timecode. He’s watched the number of additional tracks used on live shows steadily increase over time. He’s not ideologically opposed to it — he’s the first to point out that, these days, live music shares the same aspiration to ‘suspension of disbelief’ that makes cinema work. Audiences are fine with overlooking musical prosthetics, like pre-recorded percussion, brass and backing vocals, as long as it contributes to the desired effect. It’s only when Oz sees the Wizard’s ass behind the curtain does it express umbrage.

But even that phenomenon has undergone its own evolution: in 2009, Ashlee Simpson started lip-sync’ing to the wrong song one night on Saturday Night Live; last New Year’s Eve, Mariah Carey stumbled through a similarly theatrical musical faux pas. The difference between the two was that, eight years later, Simpson’s gaffe remains a Milli Vanilli moment while Carey’s became a 20-minute punchline, subsumed by more important news by the time the next issue of OK! and Hello! hit the stands. As long as the illusion is woven carefully into the final product, the live ‘enhancements’ are quite acceptable.

So we’re seeing more of them. As live music has become a much bigger piece of the revenue pie for the larger media business, making it as flawless as it can be made in the studio has become a guiding principle for entertainment media. As televised award shows have become more important as a sales booster and music search platform at a time of diminished sales, we’ve seen a more pronounced shift to pre-recorded backing tracks that often encompass everything but the lead vocals, to avoid mistakes on stage.

If the recording itself is no longer the star of the music universe, the need for recorded music to be part of its live performance will keep the need up for quality recordings. Who’ll be responsible for making and editing those recordings remains to be seen, but it’s possible that there will come a time when there will no longer be a distinction between the live and the studio engineer. Instead, there will be skilled technicians, artists in their own right, sought to create the synergy between the two as the standard instead of an illusion.

Just as no one thinks twice now when they see impressive CGI integrated into a film, so too will no one even really notice that those guitars aren’t actually plugged in. Too bad it all came too late for Ashlee Simpson.

Published April 2017