The orchestra has played a role in producing high-quality music for centuries. Even in the modern era, when rock ‘n roll is driven by screaming guitars and high-pitched voices, the orchestra can add an element that is indescribable. An orchestra’s ability to completely change the feel of a piece explains why some sound engineers obsess over recording it.
At Supreme Tracks in New York City, remote orchestral recording is on the menu. Even though their business model is built on the concept of remote recording and collaboration, they give every ounce of effort to making sure that their orchestral recordings are top-notch. Perhaps that’s because they understand the history of recording the orchestra.
Before We Recorded Them
Orchestras were performing for audiences long before we ever recorded them. In the earliest days, orchestras were more like chamber groups consisting of just a few musicians often led by the violinist. But over time, chamber groups eventually grew into full orchestras consisting of dozens of members.
Orchestras have long been appreciated by music aficionados due to their ability to express nearly any kind of emotion. From a weeping ballad to a high intensity overture, an accomplished orchestra can make you cry one minute and smile from ear to ear the next. But here is the thing: hearing an orchestra live is far different from hearing a recording.
The Early Days of Recording
Being able to record live music was a tremendous breakthrough in the late 19th century. Obviously, everything was analog and acoustic back then. You might even say it was primitive. First-generation recording equipment consisted of a cutting stylus, a wax disc or cylinder, and a tapered horn.
The tapered horn channeled sound to the cutting stylus, but it was highly directional. So an orchestra would set up facing the horn and play. If all went as planned, a piece could be recorded in one take. That was often the case, even if mistakes were made. It was too expensive to do five or six takes to get it right.
The recording industry learned a lot about directional recording in those days. Recording rooms were designed to be reflective, and entire orchestras were rearranged in order to position their instruments to create the best recorded sound.
Recording in the Modern Era
Without getting into all the details, plenty of advances in recording technology greatly improved the quality of orchestral recordings. The introduction of stereo was a big jump forward. So was the ability to use magnetic tape, as it opened the door to engineering recordings after the fact.
Being able to engineer orchestral recordings is really what led to obsessive behavior by recording engineers. Today, digital recording and engineering takes things to an entirely new level. Sound engineers can now do things with orchestral music no one thought of back in the analog days.
A good sound engineer can enhance the nuances of a single violin or oboe. Sounds can be mixed to perfection, inaccurate tones can be modified, and even mistakes can be fixed through engineering. Through it all, engineers do what they do because they know the secret about orchestral music: its ability to evoke emotion is unparalleled.
There is a reason orchestral music is so integral to films and television. There is a reason that live philharmonic orchestras still wow audiences in the era of digital music. Orchestral music moves the soul in unique ways. Sound engineers know that, so they work obsessively to make sure recordings are engineered perfectly. They do what they do so that you and I get the full effect.