Pro Choice


By Steve Oppenheimer

(December 2000)

Some argue that tight arranging makes all the difference in a song; others insist that free improvisation is the name of the game. An engineer could reasonably believe that without good recording gear and production values, the impact of any music could be lost. Yet we still enjoy music that was recorded seven decades ago with primitive, noisy equipment.

Who’s right? My answer is a firm, unequivocal, “It depends.” It’s tough to make good music out of a bad song, but a good arrangement can indeed sometimes work wonders. More to the point, not all music is about songs or even bands. And we certainly should strive to use quality gear and use it well, but that doesn’t mean we have to spend weeks and months worrying about every detail – unless we want to. In short, we have valid choices.

At the recent TEC Awards ceremony, held in Los Angeles as part of the Audio Engineering Society’s 109th annual convention, the great Sam Phillips was inducted into the TEC Awards Hall of Fame. As the founder of Sun Records and risk-taking producer of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and many other seminal rock ‘n’ roll artists, Phillips has more than earned the right to air his views – and so he did.

In his acceptance speech, Phillips honored the power of modern multitrack recording tools but reminded everyone that the raw power of a band can be lost if a record is entirely built by composite tracks and overdubs. He advocated recording rhythm sections or entire bands “live,” in a single pass. Phillips can offer his huge catalog of hit records as evidence that he knows his stuff.

In contrast, much of today’s music is produced by layering and tweaking. Recording one part at a time and editing extensively is especially common in the personal studio, where one often does not have the space to record a live rhythm section or full band.

So who’s right, Phillips, or those who prefer to construct their music one track – or one sound – at a time? My answer again is a firm, unequivocal, “It depends.” I agree with Phillips that a good live band or rhythm section can deliver a spark that’s hard to equal with overdubbing. But that doesn’t mean that you must have a live feel – or even that you must record songs or bands. Some music is constructed in bits and pieces because that process is essential to the compositional approach. If you want to create soundscapes, for instance, Phillips’ method is not going to cut it.

One reason I find Raymond Scott interesting is that he successfully composed and recorded a lot of much-loved music using traditional methods, but he went the opposite direction in his later work with musique concrete, using the Circle Machine and the Electronium.

We can learn a lot from Phillips, a master of “traditional” recording techniques who broke with tradition by recording black artists and the early rockers. We can also learn from Scott, who understood traditional recording methods and broke from them to pursue his very different vision.

I’m pro choice. I don’t think there is a right way and a wrong way to record, as long as you know what you are doing or you are willing to take the risks that accompany unguided experimentation. Let’s use whatever approach best suits our work style, our music, and the moment.