Saturday, 2 May 2015

Soft Pedal Blues

That’s actually one of Bessie Smith’s numbers, from 1925. (No doubt others have recorded it since.) The soft pedal is the left-hand one of the two or three on a piano: on most uprights it introduces a long strip of felt between the hammers and the strings; on a grand piano it shifts the entire keyboard slightly to the right or left, so that the hammers hit only two of the strings on three-string notes, one on two-string notes, (hence the instruction ‘Una Corda’ for the first movement of Beethoven’s C# minor sonata, known as the ‘Moonlight’) and, in the case of the low one-string notes, causes the hammers to hit the strings with a softer, less impacted part of their felts. Anyway the result is less volume and a muted, vaguely subaqueous sound.

But I’m digressing before I’ve even started: I want you to consider the following: a concert of Music by Bach is advertised, and one goes along. The first item is one of the violin partitas (a piece for entirely unaccompanied violin) and one hears, clearly, every note. Then comes one of the violin concerti, and again one hears every note: not just those played by the soloist, but those of the string ensemble accompaniment. (With a bit of practice, one can aurally separate out, at will, any of the orchestral voices, of which there are in music of that era usually four. Hearing the middle voices properly without being distracted by the top voice and the bass — all most people hear — takes a bit of practice, that’s all.)

But just a minute: assuming even a fairly modest accompanying orchestra, there will be, say, four first violins, four seconds, a couple of violas and a ’cello, and that’s not even mentioning the soloist. So surely what one is hearing is — just a moment — 11 or 12 times louder than what one heard in the partita? OK human ears may respond to volume on some kind of logarithmic scale, but even so — and what about, say, the Beethoven or Tchaikovsky violin concerti, where one has full orchestras, with brass, woodwind, and timpani to contend with, but nonetheless has no trouble, even when the concert arrangers have not indulged in the barbarous practice of selective miking up and amplification or attenuation?

Well, the human ear, or rather the mind that sorts out what hits the ear, is pretty versatile. Problems arise when concerts are broadcast on the wireless, or recorded onto disc or tape. In the early days of direct non-electrical recording onto 78 rpm disc, the engineers had to geographically rearrange orchestras and even quite small ensembles to get some sort of balance. In the case of the Hot Five, one of the things that gave the pianist Lil Hardin a soft spot for the cornetist Louis Armstrong was the fact that whereas she was right there under the horn, poor Louis had to be sent off to the far corner of the room so that she sheer power of his playing didn’t make the needle jump off the wax. And conductors can’t have been too chuffed to find they had to wave their sticks in unexpected directions when trying to make records of, say, a Mahler symphony with its vast dynamic changes.

Then came electrical recording, and, almost at once, valve amplifiers and the use of several mikes and multi-track tapes. It was now possible to have the orchestra normally placed, and to get the balance right at the mixing stage. Fair enough, but it led to such things as muting the orchestra and winding up the soloist in, say, a violin concerto, so that one heard, listening to the final record, not what one might have heard at a performance, but an ‘improved’ version, an ‘easy listening’ version for people who don’t think they ought to make any sort of effort to actually listen to music. Recording engineers of vulgar taste would ‘bring out’ say, a short flute or oboe solo, quite contrary to the composer’s intentions, just because they thought it was pretty; listeners of even vulgarer taste (sod off spell-check; it’s a word now) loved it and bought the records.

And then came limiters, and compression controls, and lazy mixer operators who would just turn the compression and limiters right up and go away to drink coffee. (Try Greek Radio Three to hear this taken to grotesque extremes.) It is as if, like those people who only ever want music as a vague soothing background noise while doing something else, had hastily twisted the volume control down when the music got ‘too loud’; the result is that huge orchestral tuttis actually sound quieter than solo violin passages.

One or two recording labels — particularly small ones, that simply can’t afford elaborate equipment, but full marks also to Naxos, which started out small but has become huge, but nevertheless retains in many of its recordings the simplicity of its earlier ones — have gone back to using just two microphones and two tracks. Those are the records to go for; they can at their best be just like being in the concert hall, with all its ‘imperfections’.

I haven’t got a heavy ironic punch-line for this post; it’s just something I wanted to talk about.

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