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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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