How to make a good sounding recording? How to record an acoustical instrument, a clavichord…? How to listen to a clavichord album, loud or soft? All questions you had for me the last…year, so about time to give some answers!
The upcoming release of our first official album : Pachelbel’s Hexachordum Apollinis (Presale from 2 May) was a nice trigger here.

It is a long tradition to advice the buyers of clavichord recordings to listen to those recordings at a low volume. But is that really the best way? In this video I’ll give you my take on this, we’ll take the opportunity to share with you, in case you are not so familiar with recording techniques, some basic aspects.

The motive for this topic came from many of you, over the course of the past months and even year asking in fact two things that related to each other: how we make our recordings and what we believe is important in making clavichord recordings. Both questions are very close to each other, the only thing is, that recording a clavichord, due to the nature of an instrument that sounds relatively soft, all aspects of the recording chain become really important to get them right. More on that in a second.

So indeed on many clavichord recordings, one finds the advice to listen rather soft to the recording itself.

I’ll give you my personal way of listening at the end. First a bit of technique in simple words since how much I am intrigued by the process – and how important I believe it is for musicians to understand the basics of it when recording – I’m far from a technical specialist! If that’s no problem for you, let’s go!

So it is essential to realize you basically have two different aspects on a recording: the recording of the signal and the playback. The first element – recording- is what the recording label has influence off, the second, the way you listen, of course not.

Recording has three major stages :

Number 1: the microphones. In our case at Authentic Sound anno 2018 : two Neumann TML170r microphones hang above the instrument, in a Blumlein configuration, which I’ll skip the explanation here for now.  A microphoneNeumann diapphragm basically is a device that transforms air pressure into electricity. Center part of it is its diaphragm which is a really thin membrane that moves when air waves hit its surface. The tiny movement that occurs is being converted into a very very tiny electrical signal. That signal, before it reaches you through your speakers, must be amplified really a lot, as I’ve read even over a thousand times!neuman mic tml 170r

To amplify that initial electrical signal a first time, we use a preamplifier. It does basically the same thing as your amplifier, but in the chain of recording and play back, the quality of the preamp is what makes or breaks the recording. Its choice is always a matter of preference, since all preamps sound differently. We use a Presonus dual mono tube amplifier. Dual mono is nothing more than to say that both channels, left and right are completely separate from each other.

Now, what I sometimes read in the clavichord world, to record the signal of the clavichord soft as well, simply is a technical mistake. Any sound you want to record should be amplified to its maximum. Theadl600 preamp presonus microphone tube reason is very simple: even when you use the best of the best equipment, you always will have a certain amount of noise. We think on analog (tape) noise then, but in fact all components of the recording chain add noise. Amplifying the sound signal at its maximum level (I won’t go into detail here either) will ensure the maximum distance between the noise floor and the sound signal. Since we use in this stage our preamp for that matter, we can be sure that that amplification is the best there is. Imagine recording the signal very soft, so you would reduce the amplification initially compared to ideal standards, it would imply you to turn the volume of your amplifier higher. But then, you would not only amplify the sound signal, but the noise floor as well, leading to a poor sound result. So take this as a definition: if you record a clavichord, be sure to maximize the signal.

Studer A80R taperecorderThe preamp sends the signal out to a sound carrier. That might be, as in our case, a taperecorder, a Studer A80 studio taperecorder. A taperecorder works magnetical, the tape is covered by a zillions of metallic magnetic particles. The heads of the taperecorder convert the electrical signal through the magnetic head into a wavepattern that can be read in reverse to get a playback signal.

Or it can be sent to a computer, with a so-called analog/digital converter in between. The A/D converter does exactly what it’s named after: taking the electrical (analog) signal and convert that to the 1’s and 0’s of the digital world.

Also here: choice of tape, taperecorder and / or digital converter will influence the sound of your recording. A different tape gives a different sound, but a different converter willBenchmark adc1usb give you a different sound as well.

So a discussion on analog versus digital recordings based on “neutrality” of sound is in fact a non-discussion. Ones the signal reaches its stage of 1s and 0s, the color of the sound does not change anymore, but before that stage, even the digital converter ‘interprets’ the color of the original sound. It simply is a matter of taste and what you like most. There are more factors that influence the sound of your recording, but for now, let’s move to the final stage: listening.

This is much easier. For listening you need a playback device: your computer, a CD player, a turntable, or even a taperecorder. Those devices will sent out a signal that needs its final amplification, for which your amplifier is used. Any device with the possibility of turning volume up and down has an amplifier. And that signal is pushed out of loudspeakers of any kind.

As said, on that process of listening, the recording label has no influence. That’s up to you.

But now, do I personally listen soft or loud to clavichord recordings?

I’d say I’m far from the average listener. I like listening to records from a certain distance, I like some space around my ears ( I know this sound weird), so I like the volume quit loud. I also believe that especially a clavichord recording does not lose any of its original qualities by listening loud because the level of details you can hear this way, certainly if recorded really high-end, simply is stunning. It is like sitting really close at the sound board. Listening soft is an option if that is what you like, and in case of a really high-end system it can produce stunning results, but be aware that details you would hear in real life, even from a distance, can dissapear. Which… again is a kind of coloring the sound, but if that is what appeals to you, why not?

A recording should be truthful in a way we can call it high- “fidelity”. But we might realize more that as with a photograph, a recording partly creates a new world, with its own balances. A sound result that is close to the original experience, yes of course we want that as an end result, but at the same time we want the recording to work well with the premises of the unique world of recording technology as well. At the end: a recording should sound good when being pushed through our speakers. The rest is…what we, of our brains make of it.

Hope this was helpful!