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What is authenticity?

by Richard Elen on 1 Feb, 2013

in Audio Production, Music

What is authenticity?

My atten­tion was drawn to a rather inter­est­ing arti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Post late last year on the use of “his­tor­i­cal” FX in the movie “Lin­coln”. Spiel­berg actu­al­ly tried very hard to cap­ture “authen­tic” sound effects — Lincoln’s actu­al pock­et watch tick­ing, the ring of the bell of the church he attend­ed, and so on.

Quite a lot of the time, in my expe­ri­ence, record­ing actu­al sounds doesn’t give you as effec­tive a result as fak­ing it with some­thing else, but with sounds like those men­tioned in the arti­cle, you can see why it might be worth chas­ing the orig­i­nals. Apart from the fact that peo­ple notice when details are wrong — the BBC used to get let­ters if they used the sound of the wrong vin­tage plane in a radio play, for exam­ple, and they prob­a­bly still do — there’s an inter­est­ing philo­soph­i­cal dimen­sion here, about what we mean by “authen­tic”.

In the days of phono­graphs and cylin­ders, it was com­mon to make record­ings of famous peo­ple mak­ing famous speech­es and oth­er spo­ken mate­r­i­al. Very often these were not record­ed by the actu­al per­son claimed. But the degree of “real­ism” — or may we say “authen­tic­i­ty” — was judged by how well the per­former rep­re­sent­ed the orig­i­nal per­son, not by whether or not it was the orig­i­nal per­son mak­ing the record­ing.

Sim­i­lar­ly, we can read reviews of Clé­ment Ader’s his­toric stereo relays from the Paris Opera House to the World Expo in Paris in 1881 and be sur­prised that lis­ten­ers found the expe­ri­ence of lis­ten­ing to a pair of ear­ly mov­ing-coil tele­phone ear­pieces fed by car­bon micro­phones down hun­dreds of metres of wire so real­is­tic. Sure­ly it was noth­ing like hi-fi as we know it.

Exact­ly what we mean by “authen­tic­i­ty” has cer­tain­ly changed over the years. And there is a dis­tinct dif­fer­ence between accu­ra­cy and expe­ri­ence. When I’m in the stu­dio, I try to do my best to ensure that the lis­ten­er at home or on the move hears as close as pos­si­ble to what we heard in the con­trol room when we played back the mas­ter mix and said “That’s the one”. Is this a rea­son­able thing to seek to achieve? Or should we be striv­ing to give peo­ple the best expe­ri­ence, regard­less of authen­tic­i­ty? I touched on this the oth­er day refer­ring to mim­ing at the Pres­i­den­tial Inau­gu­ra­tion: def­i­nite­ly a case of going for the best expe­ri­ence.

To me, you can apply the old slo­gan “The clos­est approach to the orig­i­nal sound” to any record­ing as long as you know what you mean by the “orig­i­nal sound”. In my opin­ion this is gen­er­al­ly the mas­ter play­back, not what it sound­ed like out in the stu­dio. In the case of mul­ti­track lay­ered pop­u­lar music this is obvi­ous­ly the case. But how about a record­ing of a string quar­tet? Are you try­ing to give peo­ple the audio expe­ri­ence they would hear in a con­cert hall (I say “the audio expe­ri­ence” because you would be miss­ing all the non-audi­ble cues), or are you try­ing to give them the expe­ri­ence you had when you signed off the mas­ter play­back? Well, prob­a­bly, the lat­ter.

It would be worth point­ing out that lis­ten­ing to con­cert-hall record­ings is fre­quent­ly not very much like being there, because you only hear the music. Even if you record­ed the con­cert Ambison­i­cal­ly, cap­tured the entire sound­field and played it back fault­less­ly, you would only have cap­tured the audio of the event, not the expe­ri­ence. This being the case, what is often done is to make the record­ing more live­ly and excit­ing to make up for the non-audio aspects of the per­for­mance. Close mics, changes of dynam­ics, and oth­er tech­niques do make the play­back more involv­ing. In my opin­ion there is noth­ing wrong with this as long as it’s not dis­hon­est­ly pre­sent­ed. Once again, the orig­i­nal sound is what’s heard in the con­trol-room, not in the con­cert-hall — and that’s what you should be want­i­ng peo­ple to hear at home.

It’s all very well claim­ing to ref­er­ence play­back sys­tems to the sound of actu­al musi­cal instru­ments, but that begs all kinds of — gen­er­al­ly unan­swer­able — ques­tions about how you estab­lished the sound of the instru­ments in the first place. What was your ref­er­ence? Where did you hear them? How far away were you? Who was play­ing what? What was heard in the stu­dio on mas­ter play­back, how­ev­er, is a per­fect ref­er­ence: it’s what the pro­duc­tion team thought was the best rep­re­sen­ta­tion of every aspect of the music, the com­pos­er, the artist and the per­for­mance — and more. They regard­ed it as the best com­mu­ni­ca­tion between all those fac­tors and the per­son lis­ten­ing to the record­ing. And, in my opin­ion, it’s the only thing you can rea­son­ably expect to try to recre­ate for the lis­ten­er.

For a fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion of the philo­soph­i­cal impli­ca­tions of “authen­tic­i­ty”, in the con­text of “Lin­coln”, check out this blog post.

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