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Recording On Trial

As regular readers of this column will probably have gathered, I'm never happier than when playing Devil's advocate, and what better subject to put on trial in a magazine like this than the concept of music recording itself? To ensure a fair trial, I'll play barrister for both the prosecution and the defence, and you can be the judge.

Before the invention of sound recording, if you wanted to hear music you had to go to where the musicians were, and once they died, their playing was gone forever. Even the best musicians could only hope to play to a tiny percentage of their potential audience, but with the wonderful technology of recording, augmented by the likes of MySpace and YouTube, anyone has the potential to have their music accessed by everyone.

In recent years, the studio has made it possible to create music to such precision that it could never actually be played that way live without technological assistance. We also have the tools to edit and polish our recordings to produce a 'perfect' version. And when we die, our music lives on.

This effortless access to music means that everyone can seek out the best the world has to offer, and they can listen to it at any time and in any place. The role of recorded music in film and TV should also not be underestimated, as it is invaluable in setting the right mood. So how can anyone attack the concept of recording when it offers so much?

Well M'lud, where to start? Before recording messed everything up, musicians were rated against others within travelling distance of their audience, rather than against the best or most popular on the planet, which was probably healthier. Furthermore, it meant a greater variety of music and musical interpretation with no commercial pressures beyond the popular dance steps of the day with which to comply. Everyone had their own version of the popular songs.

There were no cars driving past with 500W subwoofers, no 'tizzy' headphones on the train, no muzak in shops and restaurants, and you could go on a holiday boat-trip without the whole experience being ruined by loud (and usually distorted) Turkish dance music.

When you did go out to hear live music, it was something special; you got a fresh version of the songs at every concert, whereas recording gives us the same performance time after time. What upsets me most is that music, which is an incredibly special form of human expression, has been downgraded to sonic wallpaper, to be 'put on' when you're doing the washing up or tidying your room. In fact, I'd go as far as to say few people actually listen to music any more, they simply hear it!

So does recorded music lead to the betterment of music and more listener choice, or is it responsible for demoting music from its original position as a hugely enjoyable art‑form to a 'spray on when needed' product that we simply take for granted?

Paul White Editor In Chief