Sound versus sound

A big part of the reason I haven't recorded often in the past is that microphones irritate me — on so many levels. But instead of complaining ad nauseum, I'll talk about the problem of sound in a more general sense.

I had a great conversation about this once...

The sound of a live instrument carries so much more with it than something reproduced by speakers. That's why I prefer acoustic, and why recording is an exercise in frustration: I can NEVER get the sound I put into it out at the other end. Some people will read this and think I'm nuts, and others will be upset that I'm not using the correct scientific term for this aural phenomenon.

"The message sent is NEVER the message received"

A professor used to say this, and I think that applies here as well. We can come really close. A good microphone setup can sound so similar when played through good speakers or earphones. But it doesn't FEEL the same.

I don't want to go all Neil Young on you, but he's right about one thing: most recorded music today is a hollow representation of the actual thing. What he's wrong about is that he thinks it's possible to give the same aural experience after the sound goes from the instrument, through the chain, and comes out the other end. It isn't; analog or digital, it's not the same thing.

"How does it feel?"

When I'm in the presence of someone performing music (physical music, not electronic; I guess I should have specified that earlier, but it's what I'm engaged in here) it isn't just hitting my eardrums, it's hitting my whole body. I am moved — literally, physically, viscerally — both inside and out. That's the most "obvious" way it's different than a recording, but even with huge speakers that will move objects in space, the sound and experience is not the same.

I think this comes down to resonance. The speaker doesn't (and shouldn't) have its own resonance (at least to the degree to which that is possible). That way it simply reproduces the sounds going through it. But a physical instrument like a guitar, piano, or — perhaps most of all — the human voice is, quite aptly, an INSTRUMENT. It isn't merely a thing producing sound; it's inextricably part of the creation process.

When I play a note on my guitar, on a single string, other strings vibrate; the rest of the body vibrates; I vibrate; everything else in the room around me (objects, people...pets) ALSO vibrates. You're not going to pick any of that up on a recording, but the entire environment has become an extension of the instrument.

Where does an instrument begin and end?

It doesn't. When you're in a space where music is happening, there's also emotion, interaction. You can record the sound of that emotion, but it's like playing back a wedding video: it isn't the same as being there. That sounds like a manipulative exaggeration, and it's not something we'll generally notice at the time, but it all adds up to something more than what you get out of some vibrating cardboard and felt in the car when you turn on the radio.

Where does that leave us?

So when I record now, I'm trying to focus on other goals besides "faithfully" reproducing the sound:

  • I want to record "live" videos that force me to learn how to play the song start to finish, so I can share them with people and use it as a reference in the future
  • I want to record "studio" songs so that I can experiment outside of space and time to make something unique to listen to for years to come — and hopefully avoid cringing at the quality.

I will never(?) be satisfied. The recording will always lack something the original performance has. But that doesn't mean I won't try. And keeping the medium and audience in mind when recording allows me to (hopefully) make better decisions about the process. Perfection is impossible, but there's nothing more amazing than being deeply moved by a song. I've had so many of those experiences, both recently and throughout my life, and I hope that someday I can do that for someone else too.