Concerning Live Recording

by Harvey Reid


Recording is a lot like photography and moviemaking. All three were made possible by the invention of a machine, which was first turned on the world to capture images of things as they were, yet which has gradually become more integrated into a process that brings us films, photos and recordings that have been pieced together, produced and edited in increasingly elaborate ways. A philosophical issue emerges: is the resulting image more artistic, urgent, or evocative than those that come more directly from life? The most emotional photos are the ones taken right at the moment of war, grief or triumph. They don't hire actors to act sad and set up lights to get a photo in Tianemen Square or Oklahoma City. There is no need for it. People are happy with the photo as it is. It's hard to imagine music any more urgent than old blues and jazz records, where they did not lay down a rhythm track and layer some synths and punch in some vocals. Real music is like telling a joke-- there is a thread of continuity and controlled tension that pulls the listener through a great musical performance. Until the 60's, most records were just an attempt to capture a sound that already existed in the real world, and there was nothing wrong with them at all.

As a 20 year performer and recording artist (I have released 10 albums on my own label) I am caught in this struggle, and I have concluded that at least for me, the most compelling recordings are made during a moment when the recording machine is capturing something special. We can only hope that during our lifetimes, there will be some times when we are really soaring, and a high-quality recording machine is on. That is the beauty of the DAT technology. As someone who has made LP's and CD's and rented studios and hauled around portable DAT machines, I am now convinced that I have been able to capture more of those special moments than if I had booked studio time. (This only works when you have a sound that can be recorded direct-to-master; it is really hard to even record a trio this way and get the tone, mix and performance all correct at once.)

I earn my living because I have built up an audience of people who want something urgent and personal, and I sell tens of thousands of recordings quietly to people who simply want to listen to good quality recordings of good performances by a skilled musician. I can assure you that the feeling of satisfaction you get from this kind of direct and honest art and commerce is profound, and I think that music might have a better chance of keeping hold of its listeners amid the onslaught of videos, Nintendo and other entertainment if it were more urgent and alive and content to be itself. There is a reason that sports is the #1 entertainment pastime-- it is real. Those Olympic skaters are not submitting videos-- they are putting their skills on the line in front of the whole world. The pitcher really is throwing the ball, the batter is trying as hard as he can to hit it; and if more music was performed and recorded with that kind of real urgency, we might be amazed at the results. We should require our musicians to be as honest as our athletes, and show their stuff in front of us all, and we should not be suckered into thinking that heavily produced, gimmicky corporate pop music is as true communication of artistic and emotional energy as there can be. There are more of us out there doing it the old way than you think, and there are more people out there than you think who appreciate it.


Copyright © 1995 by Harvey Reid

Harvey Reid has been a full-time acoustic guitar player, songwriter, traditional musician, and free-lance minstrel since 1974. He has recently released his 11th solo recording on Woodpecker Records. He lives on the coast of Southern Maine, though he did live in his car for over 5 years, which made him philosophical.

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phone (207) 363-1886


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