Hatto and the search for an honest recording

I’ve been following the Joyce Hatto scandal with a sort of horrified interest. I think this will turn out to have been a sad tale born out of horrible personal tragedies, but it is amazing just how audacious they were.Without meaning to offend the sensibilities of any of my friends in the critical establishment (seriously, I love you all!!!!!), I’m not surprised they didn’t catch this. I’m reminded of a set of the Bartok quartets which came out on a major label some time ago. It was a significant release by a great ensemble, and as such, received dozens of reviews from all the major papers and music mags. What none of them noticed (at least none of the many reviews I looked at) was that there was a bad edit at the end of the first movement of the 2nd quartet, and quite a number of bars of actual music was missing. This is maybe the most important work of the quartet literature in the 20th century and nobody noticed, even when comparing this set to “benchmark” recordings…

But that is not my point. My point is that there is no such thing as an honest recording. Recordings (and I own gazillions and listen to them every day) are not faithful representations of a real performer’s real performance. Admittedly, stealing someone else’s performance is an extreme step, but there are thousands of little cheats that go on all the time.

As an exercise in personal growth I bought and taught myself to use some standard audio editing software this year. Even having made recordings and assisted in many sessions, I was amazed at just how much I could tweak and fix.

In the digital era, the musician may not be any more responsible for the record than the pig is for the sausage.

One engineer I talked to had recently edited a commercial recording of Shostakovich 7, and he told me there were well over 700 edits just in the snare drum solo (and that was with a very good snare drummer). On another occasion, I assisted on a recording of a large orchestra work which utilized offstage brass players. It was instantly clear that the “A” team had not been booked, so on the last take of the day, the engineers simply turned off all the mics on the offstage players so they would have a clean track to overdub session players on in secret months later. There are even well documented examples of desperate editors inserting a few bars of someone else’s CD where there was no take that was close enough to fix.

Of course, multi tracking allows pop engineers to take this to ridiculous extremes. With pitch correcting technology, it is no longer necessary for a singer to actually sing all the notes of a song, even separately, even once. This has made possible the rise of the hotel-heiress as pop star phenomenon, and a new job description for audio engineers, “turd polishing,” which is now the most lucrative part of the engineering and post-production field for some.

Now, you may think this all really bothers me, and to the extent it allows people with no musical talent, interest or passion to become obscenely rich, it does. To the extent it allows bimbos with enhanced cleavages to be marketed as “opera singers” when they’ve never won an opera audition and never sang an aria in its original key, uncut, it bothers me…

On the other hand, we don’t have any negative feelings about post-production in the movies. We don’t treat it as dishonest when editors assemble all the best takes of a film frame by frame, so why should we be queezy about recordings? Maybe it’s because music just means more?

Now, read this, and go check your CD collection….

c. 2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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3 comments on “Hatto and the search for an honest recording”

  1. Tebo

    in Robert Wolff’s book ‘how to make it in the New Music Business’, Steve Lukather is quoted as saying that when he “… first started playing music, it used to be that people practiced and tried to get really good at whatever instrument they played. Nowadays, it seems most people could give a rat’s ass.”

    I run a project studio and my hired talent is respectfully less-renown, but always very committed to their craft nonetheless. I’ve always been bitter about the rampant lack of real talent in today’s music. I feel that it is our responsibility as artists, producers and engineers to have some bare minimum level of integrity and uphold the values of truly great players who are judged by their talent and, not their looks or whether they fit well as the next ‘flavor of the month’.

    The amount of time spent fixing problematic recordings could be much better spent creating new masterpieces. Rather than allowing ourselves to peddle junk, I believe independant artists, studios and labels should insist on working with people who have taken painstaking effort to dedicate their lives to their crative art … they’re the ones who have already quit their day jobs … no doubt they could definitely use the work.

  2. Steve Hicken


    I don’t think the analogy with film is a good one, because the film is the work of art itself, the primary text, if you will, while a recording is a representation or instance of the art work.

    Otherwise, very good points.

  3. Kenneth Woods

    I just want to very quickly add something to Tebo’s comment, which is that it has become painfully common for the “star” of a recording or broadcast project to be the least able and interested person, yet they make all the money. A friend of mine conducted a concert with a certain former teen “opera” singer. He delicately asked the presenter what she was making for the gig, and he said “the same as you.” My friend thought this was very reasonable until the presenter explained that he meant “the same as all of you, the conductor, orchestra, stage crew, administration put together.” This is someone who’s never taken an audition, never atteneded music school, doesn’t practice and probably doesn’t listen to much music…. You can imagine how that works in the studio….

    Thanks for the comments!

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