Saturday, December 31, 2011

Music: Technical vs Expression

I was in a discussion online in a USENET newsgroup today.

In this particular newsgroup having to do with sound engineering and pro audio, most posters discuss technical specifications, signal-to-noise ratio, microphone arrangements, and the like. Recently, one poster posed a question to the group about how to get the best sound out of a cassette tape--he had some stuff archived on it and he wanted to digitize it and store it on CDs.

He received quite a few replies with great technical information, where to get the best gear, what setup to use, and so on. There were a number of individuals, however, who questioned why even try--if it's on cassette tape, the reasoning went, the sound quality is horrible--it's not worth it!

One of the other posters said that some people get paid to make the most of the situation, regardless. The original poster also piped up with this gem (I'm paraphrasing) :

"A late friend of mine recorded this back in the seventies. The master tapes from which the cassettes were copied have all disappeared. The studio where we recorded him no longer has any of the material. Do you really think I ought to toss the cassettes away? Not."

Since I'm not always capable of keeping my nose out of a good rant, I of course had to butt in. Here's what I replied with:

"Some of my favorite music was recorded to much lesser-quality mediums than cassette tape. Hank Williams Sr., Robert Johnson, some good a cappella choruses from my alma mater among others.

One of the best vocal takes I've ever heard was by Aretha Franklin in which she overdrove the fool out of her mic--but you don't scrap an inspired take like hers was--you don't know if you're getting *that* take again. I think it was on "The Weight."

I say all of that to reiterate some of what's been said already: technical quality is not the be-all or end-all of musical enjoyment. Some folks need to loosen up and realize the FUN and INSPIRATION in music rather than looking down their noses at what they believe to be inferior quality without understanding what's important in music.

I've some friends who think Mahalia Jackson is laughable because she didn't have proper grammar or diction. I think she had more emotive expression in her pinky than many will ever have in their entire lives.

Of course, I say all of that and recognize that I've some blind spots myself. Musical training makes it harder to just enjoy music--I almost always end up picking it apart and analyzing it. But then again, it helps me to really enjoy a good performance that much better.

I think some of that probably holds true when we talk about recording quality--when you spend your life trying to get high quality sound, you're probably gonna' have less tolerance for low quality. It's certainly had that effect on me. I know I do all I can afford to do in order to get higher quality sound to my ears.

Heck, as a U.S. Marine no longer in uniform, it's hard for me to watch a combat flick (or any kind of shoot-em-up, really) without picking apart the technical issues. But I still try to enjoy the movie.

Now that I've rambled, it's time for me to shut up.

Good post, (name redacted). I completely concur."


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