Songwriter U: Ian Brennan Details the Highs of Lo-Fi

A true pleasure offered in life is a genuinely elegant sounding recording. Given over a hundred years of commercialized music, it is shocking how rare such recordings are— especially given that an estimated over 100,000 albums are released annually now in the USA alone.

 When I was growing-up as musician in the 1980s, there was a fork in the road— the mainstream going the overtly synthetic way of MIDI and indie-folks embracing the bedroom recording revolution brought on by the mass production of affordable 4-track cassette machines.

As much as the lo-fi underground valued texture and grain in defiance of processed sound, the misstep was fetishizing muddiness and amateurism as virtues in and of themselves.

 With any process, simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve as it requires a surrendering of quantity for quality and casting aside the illusion of control and guaranteed outcomes that abundance perpetuates. A single pristine, large diaphragm microphone well placed in the right room with the right musicians will easily transcend a hundred misused and more expensive mics.

For every microphone tells a slightly different version of the truth.

We don’t need to tweak music with dials and processors. It arrives already pre-tweaked by whatever its environment—the material that composes the surrounding four walls, the ceiling’s height, the region’s humidity, etc.

Rudy Van Gelder, the jazz great, recorded thousands of recordings in his parents’ living room while still employed during the day as an optometrist. He later built a studio with deliberately high ceilings (anathema to standard studio methodology), and it was there that A Love Supreme was recorded—in just one session.

Raw does not necessarily equal ruin. Clarity of the elements remains as vital for a track by an elderly solo acoustic folk musician in Hanoi playing a homemade instrument as for a 144-piece symphonic orchestra with choir in London.

It is hard to top the pristine quality of recordings like Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, that was recorded in a single, giant room (Columbia Studios in Manhattan), or at the other, grimier end of the sonic spectrum, the seminal Elvis Sun Studio sessions that were done on just one-track (in a room that Sam Phillips intentionally designed to be more reflective, so that there would be greater bleed between instruments, and not deadened as is the modern studio standard. And isn’t it sufficiently blatant how misguided it is as an objective to construct a “dead” room in the first place?).

In the early to mid-1960s, three-track (!) recording was all the rage. But even then, Phil Spector still mixed those three measly tracks back down to mono, so that he could act as control freak for the listeners’ experience (i.e., by his doing this, the mix would remain the same regardless of how many speakers it was listened through).

I began producing and releasing records in 1987 and over the past decade have produced twenty-eight international recordings from relatively remote regions like the hilltops of Rwanda, civil war ridden South Sudan, the mountains of Transylvania, Africa’s largest island Ukerewe, Cambodia’s delta, southeast Algeria’s chunk of Sahara desert, and Zomba’s maximum security prison in Malawi. My preference is to record outdoors and 100% live without overdubs. But that should never be misconstrued as a degradation. The goal in fact remains to render as pure or a representation of sound as possible— warts and all.

Digital-era records not only often lack diversity in terms of age, gender, and culture, but also sonically. The dynamics have been squashed to all peaks, little valley. The result: nominal contrast, narrow range in volume.

 Yet, the albums that have gained the most longevity (e.g., Dark Side of the Moon charting for 957 weeks since its release in 1973) almost invariably contain extraordinary dynamic range, nearly double that of the average record made today. Those classics take a journey and allow the ear to rest— to listen to the noise(s) within the “quiet.”

The ultimate goal is not elimination of noise, but separation and depth that celebrates sonic diversity and makes room for the entire spectrum of sound.

Ian Brennan is a Grammy-winning music producer (Tinariwen, The Good Ones [Rwanda], Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Ustad Saami [Pakistan]) and author who has produced three other Grammy-nominated albums.

His latest project is Witch Camp (Ghana) I’ve forgotten now who I used to be be and his fifth book, Silenced by Sound: the music meritocracy myth was published last year by PM Press in Oakland.

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