Sonic Maximization and the sg arms race
I think their last few projects are so pitch perfect and so sonically maximized that they leave the listener aurally tired after listening to an entire project. They electronically tweak the vocals to the point that they are pitch perfect and in some spots sound subtly robotic or mechanical. … Also, they mix and/or master the project with no headroom in the waveform so that there is very little or no difference between the “soft” and “loud” parts of the songs. Everything is pushed up to just before the point of distortion. … After listening to this pitch-perfect, sonically-maximized recording, when people go see BF&A in concert they leave disappointed. Why? Because even with stacks, they can’t reproduce that exact pitch-perfect sound that is on the CD. And unless they have the sound system cranked WAY up, it’s not going to sound as “loud” as the sonically-maximized CD. The end result is that people subconsciously walk away thinking BF&A aren’t as good as they thought they would be.
Very insightful. You should read the whole comment before rushing to conclusions about the reader’s point. As SE says later on in his post, this is not just a problem confined to BFA (though they are a particularly unfortunate example of it). Southern gospel is overrun with groups trying to create Special Spiritual Moments (SSMs) with music whose effectiveness decreases in inverse proportion to its digitally perfection technological enhancements. Which is to say, though it may seem counter-intuitive, technology has in some key, subtle ways, made it more (not less) difficult to connect with audiences.
SSMs are a difficult enough thing to achieve under ordinary circumstances, and the decline of the live band (or any live instrumentation whatsoever in a lot of cases, including BFA’s) has only exacerbated it. Sure, stacks, tracks, and other technological enhancements have made it much easier for almost any group to sound better.
But as SE notes, it also subtly and permanently reshapes the sonic (and, I’d argue, psychospiritual) expectations we bring to the live concert. Ever since, through the miracle of technology, almost any group can sound like a million bucks on stage, a million bucks suddenly doesn’t seem like much money, and everybody just sounds cheap. In turn, you have try to sound more and more expensive (without spending any more money) to make your musical point. Welcome to the southern gospel arms race for bigger, showier, more flamboyant music.
I have long thought the lush orchestral tracks that are the norm in sg these days have created a low-grade cognitive dissonance that is too subtle to seem like much to worry over in any particular moment, but across time exerts an enormous, reshaping pressure on how we hear music and understand its effects on us. And about halfway through the Mark Trammell Trio’s set at NQC last year, I had something close to an epiphany in this regard.
MTT was following not too far behind The Dixie Echoes, who had just put on an astonishingly impressive set, entirely unsupported by tracks, stacks, or other canned components. It was the kind of experience you know immediately will be one of The Moments (as opposed to ginned up SSMs) that stands out from among the rest. Then MTT comes on, poorly mixed tracks ablaze. And the artificiality of the accompaniment seemed achingly obvious, all the more so for the stark way in which it contrasted with the urgent presence of the
In isolation, MTT’s set would have seemed pretty normal by sg standards. But with the memory and sensation of what genuinely live music sounds like in that particular auditory space still fresh, the artificiality of MTT’s sound stood in stark, stale contrast the Echoes immediacy and vitality.
And here’s what I realized: tracks aren’t a problem because they import sounds into the live setting that aren’t being created in the live space itself (Gaither’s a good example of how to use tracks in ways that seem perfectly natural). They’re a problem when they draw attention to themselves and their artificiality. Sometimes, this happens when the track sounds artificial, as with MTT (or the Dixie Melody Boys, who are the worst at this; I swear Ed O’Neil uses the same secondhand cassette tape for all his instrumental tracks).
Other times, and more commonly though, the track sounds all too real in the wrong space, so real that the mind can’t cognitively reconcile the sound of a 50-piece orchestra and a celestial choir coming from the front of a rural church whose stage is barely big enough for three or four singers and their equipment to stand without bumping into each other.
The ear hears something out of proportion to the information provided by the other senses … the size and scope of the room (very small room, way too large sound); the location itself (one is not prepared to expect the Prague Symphony Orchestra at Mt. Pisgah); and the context of the moment (if you just put five dollars in a chicken bucket, it is not immediately clear or logical that the next thing you should expect to hear will be cinematic strings and brass fanfare in crystal clear digital sound).
So with the rise of accessible technological enhancements to live music, there’s this tacky arms race to create ever more fantabulous (which means, increasingly artificial) experiences.
Sometimes it can work – the right space (Freedom Hall, for instance, is big enough to trick the mind into not noticing there isn’t an orchestra actually in the room, if the track is of sufficient quality not to draw attention to itself); the right moment (a group of show(wo)men who know how to convincingly act like they - and you - are in bigger, better experiential space … think the Cathedrals or the Goodmans); and finally the right – which doesn’t necessarily mean the best – music (The Perrys, as everyone has been noticing lately, have the market cornered in this regard right now; more on that in a few days when I get around to reviewing their new cd).
But more often than not these stars don’t line up, and we’re left with preposterously outsized performances that beggar the most willing suspension of disbelief. Even Sister Bertha Better Than You can’t really convince herself in her heart of hearts (or ear of ears) that those sangers were really doing all, or even the better part, of what she heard. And once you start down that road in a culture that insists on ministerial authenticity as non-negotiable part of the SSM, then the jig is well nigh up.
PS: I apologize to my friends B and A, who had to hear me test drive this idea inarticulately already at a fabulous hole-in-the-wall Thai joint in Nashville a few weeks ago.Email this Post