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The ultimate guide to audio recording - Part 60

Doing away with the complexes

This week I will digress a bit to reflect upon recorded music and demystify it all a bit...

Make the best of what you've got…

Have you ever searched the web high and low for a live or unreleased version of your favorite songs? Do you put the same commercially unavailable recordings in loop until exhaustion? If you are a music lover – which you probably are, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this –, you have surely answered "Yes!" to both questions above. I certainly do. Like with this version of a Thom Yorke song which was unavailable on any album until recently:

Don't you think it's paradoxical that audio lovers can achieve a state of ecstasy listening to such poor quality recordings? I don't, because music always comes before sound quality to me. When I have such whims, technical quality doesn't play a role as long as the performance exudes emotion. What's my point, you ask? Well, basically that the recording gear you use and how good you are at using it is not that important when you are dealing with Art with a capital "A" – and this comes from someone who makes a living working as an audio engineer!

You are not convinced? You think that my argument is bogus because nobody would ever pay for such a recording when you can get it for free online? Well, music lovers from the second half of the 20th century, like myself, think the complete opposite. Chances are such people have spent lots of time at their favorite indie record stores looking for bootlegs to satisfy their crave for "new" music. But anyway. Maybe the following examples are more convincing....

Did you know that Beck's famous smash hit Loser was produced on a very low budget? And Roman Candle, the superb first album of the late Elliot Smith, was entirely recorded on a four-track recorder in the basement of his girlfriend back then. If you don't know this masterpiece, there's the eponymous song:

Not bad is it?

Many people consider that the best songs on Jeff Buckley's posthumous second album are his last demos recorded on a 4-track cassette recorder. Here's a clip I'm particularly fond of:

And even "The Boss" himself released an album back in '82 entirely recorded on a cheap tape recorder, which didn't stop Nebraska from selling millions of copies worldwide. And you mustU+0020admit that it really rocks, as you can attest here:

It's not uncommon to hear some people say that if these artists had had the chance to record these songs under better conditions, they would've surely done it to get a more transcendental result. Well, I'm not entirely sure. Jeff Buckley would've certainly preferred to live longer and go into the studio to record, but what can I say, the urge to swim was stronger even if, as it turned out, he wasn't the best of swimmers.

The recording conditions could be a matter of dispute in the case of Beck and Smith, but certainly not with Mr. Springsteen. Actually, he did go into the studio with the E Street Band to re-record the entire album in question, but in the end he decided to release the demo versions. Enlightening, isn't it?

One last example that illustrates perfectly my point that the gear you use is only secondary is Ed Harcourt. Mr. Harcourt became famous with the Maplewood EP which he, too, recorded on a 4-track at his granma's back in 2000. And this is the best-known track:

The least you can say is that he had a good ear and knew how to get an interesting sound despite his lack of means. However, Harcourt thought it would be a good idea to re-record this track for his first album co-produced by Tim Holmes (Death in Vegas). And this is what came out:

I don't know about you, but to my ears this "remake" is certainly not as good as the original version. It is definitely "cleaner," but I find it a bit dull in comparison to the original performance. Granted, this is entirely subjective, but it does make you wonder, doesn't it?

And why did I think it was a good idea to mention it within this recording series? Because many people out there think that the lack of gear and/or technical expertise are an unsurmountable barrier when it comes to artistic expression. Well, I beg to differ. And that's why I take any chance I get to debunk this misconception which I think is utterly wrong. To me, music is the gift and the recording is only the packaging. My job as an audio engineer is to make the best possible packaging with the means I have at my disposal, nothing more and nothing less. But the "beauty" of this packaging shouldn't affect the gifts inside in the slightest. And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that you shouldn't do your best when it comes to the packaging. That's actually the main goal of this series. I'm only trying to demystify recording so you can go out there and do your thing without having to worry about this "secondary" issue.

And with these words I say goodbye until next time when we will continue our adventures in recording!