My friend Dian Langlois has a classical-music recording client who, as with most classical artists I know, is interested in obtaining a pure and natural sound that's as close as possible to reality. He has discouraged Langlois from using EQ, reverb, and other “artificial” processing — thereby constraining her from achieving the very sound that he is looking for.
In the best of all worlds, the most natural sound is also the most pure and accurate, but sometimes the recorded sound needs help to sound right. Langlois's client's most recent recording date had been a concert performance hampered by poor acoustics, ambient noise, and audience noise, forcing her to close-mic the small strings-and-piano ensemble. If she hadn't done so, the sound would certainly have been accurate, but it wouldn't have been as pretty as it would had the ensemble been recorded in a better environment.
Many acoustic instruments are composed of multiple mechanical, acoustic systems whose individual sounds are intended to mix in the air, along with the room's reverb, before reaching the listener's ear. When you tight-mic an acoustic instrument, you lose that balance of elements and the possibility of a pure, natural sound as one would hear it sitting in the room. If you want a natural sound, you must perform some strategic processing to compensate.
Whoa! Did I say that sometimes you have to process sound to make it more natural? Now that is a dangerous concept. But it is so.
“Natural” in this case means a perceptual, more than measurable attribute. For the sound to be heard as natural, it must fit the listener's expectation of what it should sound like, given the specifics of the recording. A natural sound is attained not by providing a strictly documentary recording, but by meeting listeners' expectations.
Of course, exploiting the listener's sonic expectations is the essence of film, TV, and game sound design and editing. Even documentary movies often supplement or re-create sounds to make the soundtrack more believable.
For her recording to sound natural, Langlois needs to re-create the direct-to-reverberant ratio lost when the mics were set up close, and adding reverb is the way to accomplish that. She has to apply EQ to restore the proper tonal balance to the strings. She may even need to compress the signal, since close-miked instruments are more dynamically unruly.
Before we get too carried away, now is a good time to note that processing can make the sound more natural in the right hands. It is also possible to create a sonic embarrassment of tragicomic proportions if processing is applied indiscriminately or inappropriately.
Langlois's live-performance recording was continuous. Would it be most natural to leave the several minutes of readjustment by the players between pieces in the final CD? Generally, this is looked upon as a boorish practice, which brings us neatly to where the proverbial rubber meets that lonesome road in terms of reality versus expectations. Leaving the adjustment periods in the recording may indeed be the most accurate choice in a documentary sense, but taking them out better satisfies the sensation of an excellent classical concert. So now we set upon perhaps the slipperiest slope of all: editing.
Of course, editing is nothing new to the recording process in any genre of music. Glenn Gould, Miles Davis, and Frank Zappa were all razor freaks. But editing is also commonplace in more “traditional” orchestral recordings intended to sound natural.
Those who know me will be surprised to hear that I encourage moderation in applying processing and in editing, but I mean only that sonic repair and enhancement in delicate situations should be taken slowly, evaluating each change carefully. Having done so, however, if the situation calls for constructive extremism, by all means, go for it.
Naturalness and documentary accuracy can easily differ. Editing and applying processing is a tricky business, but the tools are there to meet these needs and can meet them excellently when used judiciously.
Last year, Langlois played her client a version of the recording enhanced with a bit of reverb and editing. The client was thrilled, demonstrating once again the reality that, in the end, the proof is always in the hearing.