During a vinyl vs. CD discussion in Pro Sound News’ Linked In group, a contributor commented that “it’s all about the song and performance.” Which brought to mind my friend and former boss, Glenn Meadows, recounting how he’d taken several versions of a mastering project home and played them back for his thenteenage daughter and asked, “Which version to you like better?” She gave a none-of-the-above response. Pressed as to why, she replied, “I don’t like the song.”
No amount of technology will get you past a bad song or a shoddy performance; if the tune, arrangement and performance aren’t emotionally moving, it hardly matters if the playback is from a high-res digital file, a CD, a low-bit-rate MP3 or a pristine vinyl reproduction on a high-end audiophile system.
During the Grammy Awards ceremonies, Dave Grohl gave an acceptance speech that was both lauded and panned near instantaneously by audio professionals in social media (some 13 million Grammy-related messages were said shared on social media during the broadcast, beating out the Super Bowl, but that’s another discussion).
The part of his speech that was lauded, quoted, posted and prolifically shared was this: “This award means a lot, because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect, it’s not about sounding absolutely correct, it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in [your heart] and what goes on in [your head].” That’s just what I’ve been talking about—the necessity of the human element, of performance, of emotion, of creativity.
The preface to those comments drew a strong negative reaction from studio professionals: “Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this [album] in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine…” Now, that’s a bit of an understatement, as proven by the postings of photos and equipment lists from this “garage” studio, with gear that many commercial studios would kill to possess and not insubstantial space. Then there’s the professional engineer and producer who shared the space with the band. Audio pros of high caliber who are hungry for work felt their role in the recording process even further marginalized.
A successful recording has to start with the song, and has to be complemented by the performance. But that’s not to say that technology and engineering skills don’t matter. An experienced engineer can take a good song and a moving performance to transcendent levels through creative and intelligent application of a quality signal path. That same recording can be rendered average by a poor reproduction system, and made unlistenable crap by an extremely poor playback system.
Given the option, I’ll opt for transcendent.
An aside: Videos of Dave Grohl’s acceptance speech flooded YouTube after the broadcast, and have been removed at the request of The Recording Academy. I understand protecting copyrighted material. But this wasn’t a performance; it was a speech that served to promote interest in musical performance. Isn’t that part of the Academy’s mission?