1.2.07: Crappy Sound Forever!

1.2.07: Crappy Sound Forever!: “

Read a book called Capturing Sound by Mark Katz, which details how (mainly recording) technology changed music. Some of the information makes perfect sense in retrospect, but one often doesn’t ask oneself why or how music came to be the way it is, and his insights illuminate some of those mysteries.

He discusses vibrato in string players, which is a good example. Katz contends that in the pre-recording era vibrato added to a note was considered kitschy, tacky, and was universally frowned upon — unless one absolutely had to use it in the uppermost registers. As recording became more ubiquitous and common in the early part of the last century it was found that by using a bit more vibrato not only could the volume of the instrument be increased (very important when there is only one mic or a huge horn to capture an orchestra or ensemble) but the pitch, now painfully and permanently apparent on the recording, could be smudged by adding the wobble. The perceptible imprecise pitch of a string instrument with no frets could be compensated for with a little wobble. Soon enough, the conventional wisdom reversed itself, and now people find playing without vibrato to be painful, weird and unprofessional.

I suspect that the exact same thing happened with opera singers. I have some recordings made at the very beginning of the recording era and their use of vibrato is much much less that what is common nowadays. Their singing is somewhat closer to what we might call pop today — well, not exactly, but I find it more accessible and less weird that the fuzzy pitching of contemporary opera singers who sometimes exaggerate the wobble so much you hardly know what note they’re supposed to be singing unless you know the tune already.

Later Katz says that the length of 78s (and later or 45s) determined some changes in writing style. Those recordings, being limited to fewer than 4 mins (more like 3.5 for 45s) prodded songwriters to limit their composing to that length. To me a song length between 3 and 4 minutes seems natural, inevitable; I can hardly conceive that it could have ever been otherwise, but maybe it was. I dunno, though — even folk songs and blues, most of them don’t have too many verses — the old transcriptions and collected lyrics wouldn’t run much longer than that. So maybe this is an example where the technology happened to fit one existing form like a glove.

However, with jazz and classical it made a huge difference. Jazzers obviously would stretch out a tune or theme, and had to then limit themselves in the studio — they became more concise and jazz became more ‘composed’. I’d offer that for some jazz musicians this was not a bad thing — it became a restriction that forced rigor and creativity.

[Related posts: 6.5.05: Music Recording; 8.14.06: The Venue Shapes the Music]

(Via David Byrne Journal.)

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