A Musical Medley
For Your Mind





Mini-Music  Q & A

Dematerialization and Transformations in the Music Industry of the 21st Century
Martha de Francisco

Questions and Answers:

1 - Given all the enhancing techniques, can a live performance ever be as perfect as the enhanced recording performance?

If we talk about the technical quality of a music performance, contemporary technology can certainly help musicians achieve a higher degree of “perfection”. But there is much more in music than just technical perfection. A bad performance cannot be turned into a great musical rendering in the editing studio. Technology helps improve the details of a recording, but it cannot replace the excitement of a great music performance.

Not long after the Second World War, magnetic tapes developed by the military were introduced for music recording. With them came the capability of performing edits by cutting and pasting different recording “takes” together into a flawless music performance. In the course of the years, musicians and recording producers have come to rely on music editing as a tool for creating the “ideal performance”. Little imperfections in the performance of a piece can be edited out and replaced by correct notes from a different “take”. According to Harold Schonberg in his biography on Vladimir Horowitz, this has created a “breed of musicians that appear to be perfect”, leading also the audiences to getting used to technically perfect performances. Horowitz, who made exciting, and also almost picture-perfect performances that are preserved as concert recordings before music editing was introduced, remarked that musicians would get used to editing technology helping them achieve a technical perfection in their recordings that they would not be able to match on the concert stage.

Horowitz would be astonished to see the degree to which recording technology can be used in modern times to enhance a performance. In popular music new pitch correction tools are being used regularly in order to perfect the intonation of the singers in the recording. Contemporary editing tools allow a great amount of control and improvement of the performance details than ever before, but these tools need to be used with great care. Alfred Brendel writes “Record producers and sound engineers are modern magicians. They can render musicians incalculable service” and I add: with the adequate and sensible use of postproduction technology. But while a finely edited performance can have advantages in terms of the technical quality of the playing, the musical quality can hardly be faked. Technology can only help up to a certain degree. No current technology can turn a consistently bad interpretation into an excellent one. Good music needs to come from the musicians.

2 - You devoted all your life to sound recording, picking up every nuance and every detail of a performance, and yet people increasingly are listening to music on their phones and on their computers which do not pick-up a fraction of the quality of the recording. What’s the future of sound recording? What’s the point of advancing sound recording?

It is indeed frustrating to see the discrepancy between the high quality we can achieve in our professional music recordings and the lesser quality many listeners have to take into account when getting their music downloaded from the internet in a compressed form, bringing it from a high definition “master” created in the studio to an MP3 compressed version delivered to the public. For some less complex music, this may be sufficient. But for good, nuanced music, it is certainly preferable to listen to the higher definition recordings as intended.

I believe it is a question of time before viable solutions are in place. Since 130 years music recording has been evolving to reach the high level of technical perfection and high fidelity that most resembles ”the real thing”, the way music sounds live in a performance space. But we are increasingly relying on a new canvas for the distribution of music - the Internet - that allows music to be distributed to the listener without using a physical carrier. With the sheer amount of information being uploaded on the Internet every day, this leads to capacity issues. The high data rate required to distribute the best sound quality of the digital audio signals to the listener is a problem. Data compression enables a smaller amount of Internet data to be used per music track. However much of the finer detail of the music does not get conveyed. Fortunately the number of websites specialized in offering HD audio is increasing, and that is a good sign.

Musicians, recording engineers and producers are in agreement to request the best sound quality for their recordings, even if that quality cannot be delivered yet on all distribution channels over the Internet. We continue producing recordings in HD, confident that better definition will be available soon for anyone who wishes to listen to music in the best sound quality.

3 - Hurrah for the marriage of music and technology. Where do I get my high-tech hearing aids tuned to a good “music” setting? Nobody seems to be able to tune me back into my music

Yes, unfortunately helping us hear better is proving to be much more difficult than helping us see well. While improving eyesight has been tried out for the last 700 years, correcting the hearing successfully is a relatively young discipline. Much has changed since Beethoven’s “ear trumpet”, and the development of electroacoustic hearing aids in the last 80 years has been remarkable. Hearing loss is complex and it varies individually. Hearing is highly subjective and every person hears differently. While it is natural that speech intelligibility and understanding everyday sounds have been the focus for hearing aids, listening to music requires additionally a different focus besides intelligibility: that of sound quality. Different makers of hearing aids deal with these questions differently, and research is being conducted to improve listening to music through hearing aids.

4 - As the population ages, is the on-line world really that accessible to older people?

We need to rely on the younger generation to explain to us how computer applications work.  My suggestion is to enlist the help of a child – they know better than we do how to use computers in everyday life. This may be a productive and fun way of spending more time with your grandchildren!

Back to Q & A main page