I work both in professional photography (mostly fine art) and professional audio recording (especially classical music and spoken word). I am going to start this point with a discussion of photographic approaches, then show how the same ideas apply to audio recording.
I first want to contrast captured images with created images. My goal is not to promote one approach over the other, both have their place, but to get you, the reader, to think about the differences and be a sensitive viewer/listener.
In the early days of photography just capturing an image, regardless of image quality, seemed amazing. There was not much a photographer could do to modify a captured image, but the point was that a kind of visual reality could be recorded. Of course, a painter could paint any kind if image, some based on the reality of what the painter saw, but could also create images that were unlike anything a viewer on the scene could see by themselves.
As black and white photography evolved there were some things a photographer could do in the darkroom. Changing the contrast, for example. It is well known that the images of Western US mountains captured by Ansel Adams were enhanced by exposure settings and by using printing paper and chemistry to greatly increase the contrast, and thus the impact, of his images. Of course, a viewer could go to the areas he photographed to see the mountains for themselves – I have done that – but the live image doesn’t quite have the impact of Adams’ striking black and white photos. Still, the subject matter was basically reality, not something made up. If the mountains hadn’t been there, Adams would not have created photographs of mountains.
In color printing done in the darkroom the photographer, or darkroom assistant, could change the color balance some, but most photographs were essentially based on capturing some kind of visual reality. There were a few photographers, such as “Weegee,” a photojournalist who also created unusual fantasy images using optical devices, who played with the idea of creating images that were very different from reality, but the techniques were difficult and most photography seemed centered on capturing some kind of visual reality.
When digital image manipulation came along photographers created images that one could not have seen in real life. Early on, the magazine Scientific American showed on its cover, a realistic looking black and white photo of the classic image of Marilyn Monroe with her skirt being blown by a vent in the sidewalk, but in the image on the magazine cover she was standing next to Abraham Lincoln. Unlike early experimental collage works, there was no look of a “paste up.” If one didn’t know the two people lived decades apart someone might think the photographer captured both together in real life. This technique quickly took off and I remember seeing a photo of the interior of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, DC with fish swimming in the halls. Clearly this was a created image with little basis in reality.
Of course, there are uses for created images. If one is doing an ad for an ice cream brand and wants to show a cup of refreshing ice cream in a hot desert scene with camels in the background, it would be difficult to set up in real life as the heat of the desert would start to melt the ice cream in seconds. So, these days, a shot might be made of the dish of ice cream in an air-conditioned studio and blended seamlessly with the desert scene just as Marilyn Monroe and Abraham Lincoln were blended in the Scientific American cover. I am in no way “knocking” the use of photography to create fantastic images, just suggesting that one should consider what one wants to accomplish in a photograph. A photo that is un-doctored or minimally doctored seems to me to have greater authenticity by being grounded in a real scene rather than made up on a computer. Certainly, if a photojournalist was covering scenes of lower Manhattan (NY) and took pictures of kids playing basketball and combined them, realistically, with shots of drug addicts “shooting up” right on the basketball court, there would be instant controversy in the press.
So how does this relate to audio?
In the earliest days of recorded audio, directly on cylinders or disc, there was not much the recordist could do to modify the recording. It was like the earliest days of photography. When tape came in, the recordist could try to capture the sound he/she heard in the space where the recording was being done. Also, the sounds of tape could be modified to create something new. In the most extreme version of this modification, electronic music called “musique concrète” was created. Early artists such as Pierre Schaffer and Pierre Henri used tape for this purpose. Recorded sounds were processed and mixed to create a sonic fusion in which the original sources were nearly unidentifiable.
As with photography, the greatest possibilities for modification came with personal computers. One could use a computer to edit or record audio without modification, or use computer software with plugins to create sounds that would not be heard even if someone was standing in the same room as the musical artist(s), or even invent new sounds out of electricity without using microphones.
As with photography, the use of “pure” recording without much modification has different uses than highly processed digital audio. As a classical music recordist, I try to achieve a “pure” sound that closely matches the sounds created by the musicians. Classical music groups are used to playing venues without microphones thus “self-balancing” the sounds of the various musicians. Some pop artists are used to creating a series of tracks of each performer and balancing in the mix. Again, I am not suggesting that one method is always to be preferred over another, just noting that, as with photography, the goals might be different. If I recorded a baroque music ensemble then tried to modify the recording, the artists might get upset. As with “straight” photography, it might be best to capture the same kind of sound that one might be exposed to standing in the room where the sound was being captured.
So, what is the point of this post? It is to suggest that a photographer learn to see what is around him/her and a recordist learn to hear what is around him/her, rather than immediately rushing to process the work in a computer. In some cases, learning to see or hear might save much time and frustration in post-production, and, in any case, the photographer and recordist might become more sensitive to the visual and audio environments around them.
When I taught both photography and audio recording in a college, I was surprised at the number of students who often didn’t thoughtfully approach a subject to see or hear what the possibilities were. They would often just snap a photo or record a sound without thinking about how they could make the art more authentic without processing. They “wanted to fix it in post” as the saying goes.
In primary school we learned to “stop, look, and listen before crossing a street.” I would encourage artists to “stop, look and listen” before taking a photo or making a recording. It may make your work more authentic or, at the least, give you art that does not require as much post processing.