Some Comments on Recording Philosophy

Neumann M147

Ah, Recording Philosophy.

As the Coneheads say, “We will... ENJOY IT.

If you ever get a group of recording engineers together and listen to them chat, you’ll quickly see that you probably have as many recording philosophies as you have engineers, or more. Because the result of this discussin gets right down to equipment selection and practices, this is a subject that goes right to the heart of the whole business and is extremely personal. There are deep differences in recording philosophy which go as deep as equipment design, and none runs more deeply than the accuracy versus beauty argument. Entire manufacturing organizations have been built on one philosophy versus the other.

Let me give you an example: I’ve got two classical recordings from the same period, essentially acoustic instruments with mics in front of them run to digital recorders, which sound ENTIRELY different in a very fundamental way. The first is an excellent performance of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, on a major label by a major artist. The recording technique was impeccable. The engineer chose AKG414 and AKG C12 microphones and recorded on the then-popular 3M recording system. The second is a wonderful performance, a sampler of several Baroque chamber orchestra works from Pachelbel to Albinoni by a regional artist on a small label. This recording was equally impeccably executed, being recorded with Shoepps-Studer SKM-52U microphones on the also then-popular Soundstream system.

One recording sort of sets my teeth on edge; the other is one of the nicest recordings I’ve ever heard. Both used top-end gear. Both were executed well. What was the difference? The difference was a sense of BEAUTY versus ACCURACY. I can really find no technical fault with the recording which sets my teeth on edge. The instruments sound very real and the soundstage is well laid-out in the stereo field. The frequency balance is very nice. What bothers me is that it is too dryly accurate, too literal, for my tastes.

When I listen to the second recording, I hear not only that it is technically well-executed, but I hear a sweetness to the strings, a roundness to the bass, a warmth to the natural reverb, all of which I find much more attractive. To my ears, the recording itself is more comely and more restful to my ears. There is more BEAUTY.

And that highlights the philosophical difference of which I spoke above: accuracy versus beauty. Let’s look at two excellent equipment manufacturers and the effect of the same discussion on their equipment: AKG and Neumann are two of the most respected microphone manufacturers in the world. Both have pursued excellence for many years and have justifiably accrued wonderful reputations for their products. However, their microphones sound very different. If you compare their premier microphones side by side in their intended applications, you’ll hear the difference immediately. AKG’s design philosophy has made them pursue accuracy ceaselessly. If you want to find a mic that yields a sound very much like what you hear when you listen, look no further than AKG. Neumann’s products have a different sound. Whatever you set before a Neumann ends up sounding, well, pretty. They are flattering. Somehow, the specs of the two manufacturers products are very close, but one emphasizes accuracy and the other beauty.

Does this mean I love Mr. Neumann and hate Mr. AKG? No, no. Please. Each of the products has its applications and I use both. However, it also probably tells you what I pursue when I am recording: Typically, I try to make my recordings not just accurate, but beautiful, and it influences the way I do my job. Now, Trent Reznor, the producer for Nine-Inch Nails, probably wouldn’t be interested in my services. Hehehehe...

So, think about this question while you are recording. There are some who feel there is nothing more beautiful than simple accuracy. Others pursue a euphonic sound from the get-go. Which do you prefer?

The accurate recording:
Antonio Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, Pinchas Zukerman and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra on CBS Masterworks Records, 1981

The beautiful recording:
Glory of the Baroque, Rolf Smedvig and the Cambridge Chamber Orchestra on Sine Qua Non, 1984