Monday, April 20, 2009

The Audacity of Audacity

I had a huge number of problems with Audacity, a free music recording and sequence program since I first started using it last March, but last night I came upon a new and improved beta version of the program that really works.

Not only does it really work, it does things to recorded performances that are almost obscene. If I play a note that is out of tune (as long as it is a solo piece or passage), Audacity has a feature that allows you to adjust the pitch of the note without altering its time value. Likewise, if a performance is just not fast enough, Audacity has a feature that will speed up a performance without changing the pitch. I can sound, to all the world, like a virtuoso without playing like one. There is also the usual array of echo effects that can be very carefully controlled, a compression effect that will boost up the sound of a distantly-recorded performance, and sound envelope tools that I have yet to try. There is also a tool that will reverse a passage or a whole piece. And this version of Audacity spits out mp3 files!

Now that more people listen to recorded performances of music than live performances (a claim I believe I can make without doing any research--but I welcome anyone to prove me wrong), I realize that anyone can doctor and sculpt what is captured on a microphone to suit the desires of the performer. So if a string quartet can't quite play a movement of a Schumann quartet up to speed with clean articulation, it can be fixed by the computer (any computer, and for free) and nobody would be able to tell.

There is something disturbing to me about this. I hear (and review) stellar recordings all the time. I usually attribute the high quality of the playing to an over abundance of musical technique, but now I need to consider the possibility of the addition of recording techniques to the mix, which is something I do not like to do because I do not have the ability to hear any kind of alternation because the editing is so precise.

I always knew that recordings were edited, but I never knew that it could be so easy to do. From now on I will only give my total trust to performances that I hear in real time and in real space or recordings of peformances that I know are recorded in real time and space. People (especially musicians) are imperfect. It is what makes us human. Music is a celebration of our humanity, and by extension our imperfections.



It's a tricky question to wonder just what it is we're looking (listening) for in a performance, but I agree that for most of us, it's more than just the sounds that come out. I wrote about this a few years back. Some (much? most?) music is partly "about" the challenge of playing it live, so studio-tweaking becomes a strange game indeed.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Studio recordings have been heavily edited from multiple takes going back to at least the dawn of the stereo age. If you've never read John Culshaw's Ring Resounding, it is entertaining, enlightening, and self-serving. But he doesn't hide the hours and hours of tape editing and multiple takes that went into making the Solti Ring. I've heard rumors of singers going into studios alone and laying down a track just of their problem high notes for the editors to use later. There is one high-profile recording of the last decade that I listening to on headphones - and found that the two principal singers were in distinctive acoustic environments. That left me wondering if they'd been in the same room when the recording was made.

Even commercially-produced "live" recordings do not represent what happened on stage in a particular performance, because they are typically produced from multiple performances with patch sessions and outtakes from rehearsals. Recordings from Boehm's Tristan of 1966 to the current San Francisco Symphony Mahler cycle are in this category.

Elaine Fine said...

The thing that bothers me is that there are so many cheap and easy ways for people to be dishonest.

For an audition tape, for example, a person could record at a very slow tempo with a click track for metronomic accuracy, and then with the click of a button speed up the excerpt, giving the illusion of tremendous control over an instrument and a strong sense of rhythm, even at high speeds.

And anyone could do it on a laptop computer with a good microphone.

Patty said...

I've been in sessions where one note on one instrument has to be fixed. It's done all the time. We are much pickier with recordings than with live performances, so I guess I'm not as bothered as perhaps I should be ...?

As to auditions, you're right. People can cheat. For that matter, anyone could just have someone else record their audition and send it in. I haven't heard of it actually happening, but it's certainly possible! But of course there's the live audition. If a player wins, there's then that probationary period where people to figure out if the player is a really great fit.