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What Is A Broadcast Quality Recording? Part 4: Myth of the Piano or Guitar/Vocal Demo Revisited
By Jerry Flattum - 02/03/2005 - 05:48 AM EST

What Is A Broadcast Quality Recording?
Part 4: Myth of the Piano or Guitar/Vocal Demo Revisited

It takes a great pair of ears to hear a song’s potential recorded in a raw state. And even the singing and playing of the instrument must be good enough not to interfere with the hearing of the song. But that song, sung by another singer, will sound entirely different. The song will sound entirely different when played on piano than it will played on guitar.

Only certain kinds of songs work with just a piano or guitar/vocal. Even then, what you are hearing is an arrangement--an arrangement of a song for solo instrument and solo voice. It is the very rare solo instrument/solo voice recording that gets released commercially. Occassionally a major artist releases an acoustic or "unplugged" version of a previous recording, like Eric Clapton did with "Layla." And there is the occassional all acoustic recording, like Springsteen's Nebraska.

Audiences rarely hear their favorite tunes played on a single instrument. They don't hear demos, works-in-progress, or rehearsals. And to be more accurate, it’s not “favorite tunes” they hear, but favorite recordings.

What about harmony? A song written with basic triads is not the same song when you add 7th's and 9th's. In fact, a melody created with basic triads will most likely not work if more complex chords are used, or vice versa. When you add a note to a basic triad, you completely alter the sound of that chord. This is basic music theory and something proponents of the piano/guitar/vocal demo are not acknowledging.

Listening to an old bluesman playing a beat-up acoustic guitar with one string missing and listening to the London Royal Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall are…two different worlds. The underlying song does not remain the same, in defiance of Led Zepplin’s famous title, “The Song Remains the Same.”

It’s even two different worlds when the same blues song is played on an old beat-up acoustic guitar with one string missing and a top of the line Martin or Fender Guitar.

Expensive electric guitars, along with amps, FX and speakers, are capable of producing sounds impossible on acoustic guitars. As obvious as this may seem, it is not so obvious in terms of the kinds of songs that get written. It is highly unlikely that Jimi Hendrix first wrote his songs on an acoustic guitar and then "arranged" them with electric guitar and wah-wah.

Likewise, a keyboardist with a floatilla of keyboards is capable of writing songs using a variety of methods and sounds. What they write does not HAVE to work on acoustic piano or guitar. In fact, it probably won’t work. If the song starts out with a string intro, and a bridge section features a multi-percussion dance segment, this cannot be reproduced on a solo instrument. For the "song" to work on a solo instrument, it would have to be re-arranged! And, in so doing, it is no longer the same song.

When Eric Clapton did cover tunes of old blues songs, he did not reproduce them as they were originally recorded. To do so would've been folly. Many of those old blues songs would've died a sorrowful death if it weren't for a new arrangement and a new production that gave those songs new life. After Clapton introduced the songs to new audiences, that’s when people went back to discover the original artists. But they went back to hear original artists and original performances, not original songs.

The argument that certain genres like folk and country can be appreciated at the lowest common denominator is not true. People do not want to hear a lousy singer playing an out-of-tune guitar, no matter HOW great the song is.

Imagine your song sung by a 5 year old with a toy xylophone accompaniment, recorded on a beat up cassette recorder using a built-in microphone. Think it will sell?

Very few songs can be reduced to a piano/vocal. This ranges from classic rock to dance music. What about guitar rock? For so many bands, songs are born out of the sound. Take away any part of that sound—an instrument or style of playing—and you don't have the same band.

In theory, you could take a Sinatra, Jackson, Celine or Britney tune and reduce it to a piano/vocal. But only the Gods of music know what would happen to that tune if it were sang by someone other than the person who made it a hit. Who else on this planet could possibly have recorded "A Boy Named Sue" other than Johnny Cash? The examples are endless.

There are so many examples of songs that have ridiculous lyrics. Sung as a piano/vocal before a publisher, the song would be meaningless. Sung by a band like Led Zepplin or Fleetwood Mac, the song becomes mystical (to use classic rock examples).

Imagine the Beatle’s songs reduced to piano or guitar/vocal. Many of the Beatle’s tunes were, in fact, simple singer/songwriter tunes. But no one fooled around with arrangements more than the Beatles and no one could possibly have imagined what so many of those songs would've sounded like without George Martin experimenting with 4-track recording.

More recently, how important was Carlos Santana’s guitar on Michelle Branch’s recording of “Game of Love?”

They Either Like It Or They Don’t
Defining a great recording is as illusive as defining a great song and just as subjective. The song could be written and performed by Elton John, recorded and mixed by a famous engineer in one of the best studios on the planet, but if someone doesn’t like Elton John, million dollar studios don’t matter much.

On the other hand, consumers are not likely to buy poor recordings anymore than they will buy what they perceive to be a bad song or performance. They could love a song or artist, but if the recording is technically flawed, that is, it skips, pops, hisses, or has volume surges and drops; it becomes impossible to listen to. With digital technology, this is not likely to happen with commercially released CDs and DVDs.

Digital technology has virtually eliminated the pitfalls earlier vinyl recordings were subjected to, like scratches on the records or cheap needles used during playback. This is why digital technology has made it possible to make high quality recordings in a home studio environment without necessarily using the best equipment money can buy.

Digital technology has leveled the playing field. With a relatively few decent pieces of recording equipment—a decent sampler, a decent software program, and a decent computer, the technical quality of the recording is going to be pretty good.

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