Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Stereo Is A Lie"--Moses Asch

Thinking about David Gahr brought back memories of Moses Asch . . . the following is a brief excerpt from the book I'm writing about Moe, Folkways Records, and his attempt to document "all the sounds of contemporary life."

As a young record producer for Moe Asch, I brought him a tape recorded in two-track stereo, admittedly primitively made in the basement of an Irish musician’s home. I wrote on the tape box “STEREO” in large letters, because Moe had previously issued an album of mine in mono—despite it being a stereo source. He took one look and said contemptuously to me: “Stereo is a lie.”

“But all recording is a lie,” I replied to Moe, “I mean, any recording that you make is a ‘translation’ onto tape of the real performance.”
At which point he reached behind his desk, where there were several shelves of small African figures, grabbed one, and threw it in my direction.

Because he believed recordings were “documents,” Moses Asch had strong feelings about how recording sessions should be conducted. He had begun his career as an audio engineer, and was a believer in using a single microphone, and ideally making a single take. Barring a major mistake, the “real performance” would be captured best in this way. In the early days, the recording was cut directly to a wax or acetate-coated disc, so there was no opportunity to manipulate or change the sound. In the later ‘50s, when “hi fi” was introduced, Asch vehemently opposed it because the original recordings were being manipulated (the “highs”—or higher frequencies--were being boosted and the “lows” compressed) so that the finished records would sound better on the playback equipment of the day. Asch became known as the advocate of “flat” recordings.

Peter Bartók, a recording engineer and close associate of Moe’s from his early days, commented in a lengthy interview in 2006 that an absolutely “flat” recording would be impossible to make. All equipment has built-in parameters to compensate for the mechanics of sound reproduction. In the 78 era, for instance, Bartók notes that bass frequencies had to be compensated for, otherwise the grooves on the record would have been so wide that the needle wouldn’t track. When LPs were first introduced, it took a while for engineers to work out the new parameters that would make recordings sound “natural.” Bartók —who did a great deal of mastering work and recording for Asch in the ‘50s and ‘60s—freely admits that he used equalization and other techniques to improve the raw tapes that Asch supplied.

I believe that Asch’s notion of “flat” recording was integral to his belief that a recording engineer and studio should be as “transparent” as possible in serving the artist’s vision. The major commercial labels used the studio to create a “product” based on the idea of selling as many records as possible; the artist’s intentions came second or third to the main purpose of making a profit. Asch believed that the studio should be a place where creativity was allowed to blossom. “Flatness” to him meant removing any barriers between the artist and the listener.

Just as ‘50s era “color” films have a glossy, surreal quality, early “Hi-Fi Stereo” recordings can sound artificial to today’s ears. As a member of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the ‘50s, Asch vigorously opposed its introduction. Peter Bartók said that Moe was always particular when he was mastering a tape that Bartók take care to represent all the frequencies equally, without “favoring” one over the other:

He did like a certain kind of style that … – whether I happened to agree with it – all of the frequencies had to be represented. It shouldn’t be predominantly highs at the expense of the lows, but they all had to be there in their proper relationship.

Amusingly, Asch printed on the back sleeve of some Folkways releases in the later ‘50s this tongue-in-cheek tag line: “Folkways Hi Fi Records Play 2X (Twice) As Good on Stereo Equipment.” He meant, of course, that if you play a mono record on a stereo set, you hear the music out of both speakers—presumably making the record sound “twice as good.” Few probably realized that he was taking a jab at Hi Fi’s claim for superior sound quality.

Many listeners criticized Folkways recordings for their poor “quality.” Asch himself did little to counter this claim, gruffly answering an NPR interviewer who asked whether listeners were becoming more demanding about quality, “I tell them to go to hell! OK? Do you want the guts or do you want the quality.” However, this is somewhat misleading; Asch didn’t mean he would issue any recording, but that the quality of the recording itself was secondary to the importance of the particular performance. He strongly objected when Izzy Young suggested that Folkways included “mistakes” in their recordings:

No, no, no. . . . I don’t think I have ever issued a record with a mistake on it as such. If a singer like Lead Belly or Woody says to me don’t issue those things, I made a mistake, that’s something else. I would never issue those, but if an artist says after he hears the thing “We didn’t do this to make a million bucks, to be a commercial record. We did this because I remembered the song and this is the way I sang it.” Then I am proud to issue it.

Many artists were surprised when they first worked with Asch; he rarely interfered with a session, and sometimes even left the room while the machines ran and the musicians played. He consistently stated “I do not edit or control my artists.” This kind of freedom was absolutely unheard of in the commercial recording world. It is why so many performers and collectors remained committed to Folkways, despite Asch’s sometimes unpredictable behavior and always irregular payment.

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