One question that comes to mind when NAMM rolls around is: How much does audio quality and resolution really matter when recording? Not just in terms of capturing the full range of frequencies and dynamics—we certainly want that capability when we need it—but rather, to what degree does fidelity influence the act of music making? What does it do to the creative process when the technology is not transparent?
As I prepare for the tidal wave of new-product announcements (some of which provide solutions to problems we didn’t know we had), I am reminded of the persistent fetishism of vintage technology—tubes, tape, vinyl—which many engineers hope will help them regain that mysterious essence that endowed their favorite recordings with a certain magic. One could argue that the real essence is talent, and that it doesn’t matter if you’re capturing it on a wax cylinder, a magnetized wire or an SD card. Or does it?
At first glance, The 78 Project pits talented artists against war-era recording technology—the Presto disc cutter. Or as the New York Times frames it: “An Antique Device Gives Musicians a Spin Through Yesteryear.” Reading that headline, it’s hard not to hear the sounds in a sentimental, black-and-white-movie way. But after seeing the process in action from the online videos, I must admit that the project, put together by Alex Steyermark and Lavinia Jones Wright, is not simply a marketing ploy. The act of recording direct to disc, in mono and in everyday environments, colors the performances in such a way that the entire experience—staging and recording device—becomes an appealing nonlinear filter. It is more than just audio cosplay. [Editor’s Note: Look it up; we had to.]
As Richard Thompson says after listening back to his take, “It’s an improvement on reality.”
New York Times writer David Vecsey notes the project’s similarities to the work of pioneering field recordist Alan Lomax, the 20th century’s most important collector of indigenous music. (Picture Lomax in his car, somewhere in rural America, with a box full of freshly recorded acetates and a 300-pound disc lathe in the trunk.) But if he were working today, Lomax would choose the highest-quality gear he could find—as he did back in his day—because he was interested in capturing as much of the original artistic expression as possible given the technical limitations and physical constraints he had to contend with. One can only imagine what he would think about today’s digital recorders and the hours of storage they offer. Yet I can’t help but wonder if his recordings would have the same visceral impact had they been tracked as 24-bit, 96kHz WAV files.
And what does it say about our expectations when The 78 Project uses digitally recorded and distributed videos to promote music that’s been recorded to and is delivered on analog discs? In the Times article, Jones Wright says that they “…wanted listeners to hear right off the bat that ‘The 78 Project’ is not about simply using a piece of old gear, but about using the process to inspire incredible performances.” And clearly it does, as Rosanne Cash admits in the promo video after tracking “The Wayfaring Stranger.” In that sense, The 78 Project reminds us that the limitations of our tools—including limitations in audio quality—can have a positive effect on creativity.
As if to drive this point home, the Wall Street Journal recently ran an interview with Keith Richards describing the creative process behind the Rolling Stones’ classic “Street Fighting Man,” where he and Charlie Watts laid down the initial acoustic guitar and drum parts to a portable Philips cassette machine. That performance was later transferred to a studio-grade multitrack by miking a speaker driven by the cassette deck, thus capturing the device’s artifacts—distortion, compression, and wow and flutter—in all their glory. Those initial sounds define the song, period.
And consider the latest Beatles release, On Air—Live at the BBC Volume 2 (Apple) where, even after extensive remastering, many of these early-’60s tracks sound as if they were recorded with a single low-fidelity mic. Yet, you can tell from the performances that the boys absolutely loved playing those songs, no matter how they were documented. The music transcends the recording medium. Can we trust our own talent enough to accept the challenges posed by the limitations of our gear? Our audiences are ready for the pendulum to swing back toward an emphasis on artistry in the classic sense and away from the moving target of perfection.