What does “sound recording” mean?
Silly question at first glance and one should answers that sound recording is just the fact to record sounds. That’s a pretty good answer in fact, but, without a clear definition of the word “sounds” it might miss few creative stakes and reduce recording to a mechanical gesture. To clearly understand the meaning of sound recording we have to substitute the common idea of recording by a more “sound design” oriented definition of sound. This common idea tends to consider sounds as distinct entities separated to each other by a semiological membrane.
It’s to say that the voice we want to record is something different from the huming noise of the apartment where the interview takes place. It’s a misconception. First of all, Physics and Psychoacoustics teach us that a sound (a voice, an instrument, a noise, etc,) does not exist by its own. It’s always bounded to backrounds. A cognitive process enables us to segregate the sound pressure hitting our eardrum into parts making meaning (this process is called the Korte Third Law and the Inconscious Inference. We’ll discuss this in a later article). So, when you record a sound, when you extract a piece of reality to code it down on an hard disk ( a modern interpretation of the Bazin’s point of vue), you catch an entire piece of time without sens, without this semiological membranes created by your cognition. You cannot extract sense from reality by recording it, the microphone does not understand sound as we do.
Where we hear a stack of sounds, of semiological significants, the microphone only records a sound pressure. Just have a look to a waveform to understand it. So let’s say that “sound” is a cognitive interpretation of sound pressure, it’s a mental process that give sens to acoustical waves. It might seems to be a slight different but it will guide the gesture of sound recording.
Does it mean sound recording tend to objectivity?
It would be easy to conclude sound recording is a way to approach objectivity : interpretation free, microphone should pretend to objectivity. Once again it would be a misconception. First, it’s well known microphones are not transparent transducers. Two microphones do not “hear” the exactly the same things, they will code a different “impression of the world” on the tape. They apply a color, an impulsionnal response and a polarity to the recording. In a way, microphones got a personality.
Secondly, framing with a camera and placing a microphone in an acoustical field are pretty similar. It’s, in both case, a way to organize a point of view to record a piece of reality. In the case of sound you’ll have to deeply understand that your microphone does not work as an ear, because the psychoacoustical laws that affect your perception will not influence the microphone.
What is sound recording ?
Sound recording is almost always organizing a “futur listening”. When you are recording sounds you are not only saving a portion of time, but you are also preparing a future recomposition of this instant. Ultimately only matters this recomposition. You might want to accurately reproduce the event or emphasize an aspect of the sequence, in both case, the way sounds are recorded are preponderant. You’ll choose to restitute some part of the event, and that what sound recording really deals with : discrimination.
Capturing the beauty of a voice needs to clearly identify the way the entire body resonate, to feel the little variations in the breath, intensity, how the bass rumbles in the larynx, how the mid shakes in the sinus, etc. Recording the peacefulness of your parent’s home require to identify all this tiny sounds that remind your childhood, the humming song of the insects in the country, the way the stairs are cracking when your father’s going bed, etc. The microphone will not highlight these elements that your cognition are making revelant.
Because our mind creates these semiological membranes, because microphones do not hear as we do, sound recording needs the identification, the segregation in parts of your mental representations of the recorded object. Because you always record sounds to do something with, you have to focus on the important parts of your representation to choose the personality of your microphone and the way you’ll place it in the sound field. Sound recording is a conscient gesture, it has to be. You’ll have to question the way you hear and what you really want to record to prepare a future listening. Wonderful it’s easy ! Just a little introspection and you’ll be the greatest soundman on Earth ! If only ….
The moment when physics and psychoacoustics fight inside your head.
Understanding the way our mind deals with sound is only a first step. You now have to deal with physics. Placing a microphone near a part of a source will not produce a clear recording of this part. As said earlier, the mental segregation is a cognitive process and physics do not care about cognition. Sound is a global air field and streams of air are blended together. In fact it only exist one ambient air field bathing everything. You’ll never separate a sound from his background recording it, even if you try very hard. But you can minimize acoustics, try to make the background softer or direct the influence of noises. In fact, it’s a good thing we can’t isolate sounds from their backgrounds because they wouldn’t make any sens to us. Sounds from a soundbank (known to have really little ambient sounds) often seem fake, artificial and need a lot of work to be used in a composition. In fact, we never hear sounds without context in real life, so when we artificially do we identity quickly the process. Every foreground need a background to make any sens.
So you need parts of the backround. And that’s the point. With all questioning you had done to understand your sound’s mental construction, you are now able to weight the importance of this backgrounds and the way you will use it. Maybe the room’s reverberation harms a little bit the global understandability but it emphasizes greatly the bass of the voice and help to feel the power of the preacher.
To conclude, sound recording is all about compromises and ponderation. Compromises between physics and psychoacoustics, between mental representation and acoustics, ponderation between backgrounds and the recorded object. It’s a gesture which takes roots into atavistic knowledge, cognitive construction, acoustics laws and a strong artistic vision.