This article is half of a two-part piece on how the invention of the microphone altered music. The other article can be found here.
At the beginning of Oct., I saw an unusual concert at Canterbury House. The School of Music, Theatre & Dance student ensemble Front Porch performed short sets with four singer-songwriters after collaborating on arrangements of their music. The group’s unusual instrumentation of violin, bassoon, percussion and piano can produce a surprising variety of colors, and it was interesting to see the diversity of the songwriters’ styles reflected in the differences in arrangement. Music usually backed by a guitar or a piano was expanded into music with evolving textures, symphonic flourishes and new countermelodies and embellishments.
One of the choices that the singers had to make was whether to use a microphone or not — amplification is the exception in the idiom that Front Porch plays in, but a norm in a good deal of popular music. Evan Chambers, who is also a professor of composition at SMTD, chose to go without for his set and managed to project over the ensemble just fine. Another performer, Hannah McPhilimy, chose to use a microphone. The stylistic divide between their two sets was somewhat reflected in this decision. Professor Chambers, whose songs are rooted in the folk revival and Irish music, projected over the ensemble at their loudest and was expressive physically. He moved his entire body with the music and at times conducted himself with both hands. Amplification would have been inappropriate for the style, but mostly it was just unnecessary.
McPhilimy’s set was more intimate and personal than Chambers’s, and her choreography was similarly in miniature. The microphone on a stand imposes its own choreography, which is necessarily smaller than performers who go without. Her hands played a primary “acting” role, moving slowly, at times grasping the stand as if for support or holding onto a dancing partner. The acoustic effect of the amplification was to make quiet sounds louder — an audience member could hear her inhale and sing softly.
Microphones include everything by default. Audio engineers have to set up special filters to remove plosives and sibilance from recording — little P and S sounds, respectively, that are magnified by the closeness of the microphone — and even with these filters, a microphone close on whatever it is recording will miss very little. This radical inclusiveness means that amplified performance and close-miked recording includes a lot of details, of the kind only otherwise heard when the singer is very close. Tony Bennett said of Frank Sinatra that he “perfected the art of intimacy.” Sinatra’s recordings have a certain subtlety and detail — you can hear him ease in and trail off his phrases, even as a big band with trombones and saxophones plays behind him. His voice isn’t on stage. You, the listener, are not in the audience; he is across the table from you or walking up to you at a bar. Billie Holiday’s live shows from the ’40s and ’50s are similar — she rarely sings loudly, but can be clearly heard over the band.
Compare this style with St. Vincent’s 2007 “What Me Worry,” a pastiche of the midcentury crooning style (specifically echoing Holiday’s distinctive vocal timbre). Her voice is completely dry, and the sibilance is louder, sharper. The space between her voice and the listener has been collapsed from that of the crooners to a painfully small scale. The voice is in a totally different sonic world than the band, which is perhaps playing on TV in the background. This song is unusual in so specifically harkening back to the Crooners, and the microscopic vocal detail it offers the listener feels very out of place. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, with the radical improvement in recording capabilities, artists have used the microphone’s maximizing capabilities to extend the depth of their closeness to a surreal degree. The music of of FKA Twigs often contains vocal sounds that are somewhere between whispering and hissing. The singer-songwriter Liz Harris, professionally known as Grouper, makes music that almost puts the listener inside her voice. “Way They Crept,” from the 2005 album of the same time, turns her voice into an enveloping drone.
Extending voices with amplification works both ways — both intimacy and a kind of outsized violence are possible. The use of microphones in performance and recording allows for the transformation from small sounds to loud, aggressive ones. So-called “mumble rap” employs a technique something like this. The clipping vocals of Lil Pump, literally created by pushing a digital system past its limits and recording the results, make the transformation of human to machine almost uncomfortably visceral. On “D Rose,” it doesn’t sound like he’s delivering his lines particularly loudly, but it’s intended to be played loudly — mumbling, paradoxically, over loud parties or festival audiences. His voice resembles the cartoonishly large jacket he wears in a recent music video with Kanye West, in that his actual body is dwarfed by its representation. This drastic degree of separation is only convincing in the electronic landscape that Lil Pump and his listeners live in. The recordings of the Crooners (and even, to an extent, St. Vincent’s pastiche of them) are, at least, simulations of live performance. The voices of mumble rappers are placed in juxtaposition with synthesizers, and audiences barely blink when, for example, Lil Uzi Vert’s voice is autotuned so far that the result is more mechanical than human.
But really, to emphasize the outsize artificiality of certain genres more than others is to distract from the fact that all recording is artificial. In a way, music that doesn’t use elaborate measures to obscure the means of its production is more honest about the nature of recorded music. The most captivating part of Lil Pump’s self-titled album is how much digital noise covers it. The computer it was made on enters the frame in a way it wouldn’t have if the recording was left clean. In another direction, a lot of indie music has embraced a “lo-fi” aesthetic, which leaves in artifacts like fret sliding noises, sharp inhales and even sometimes the sound of moving objects around in the background. “Renee” by the Florida duo SALES has an almost messy guitar part, and there’s a thick layer of tape noise over the track that sounds like crickets from an open window. One of my favorite songs, “Blue Mountain Road,” from Florist’s second album, layers barely audible backing vocals with an unaltered guitar part. The vocalist, Emily Sprague, sings at a volume that would be appropriate if she were trying not to be heard downstairs first thing in the morning, and her voice is hard-panned, giving the impression of singing directly into her listeners’ ears. Listening to this music is a reminder of the event of its making. It tells the listener that the music was made at a specific time, with specific people. Listening to lo-fi music is often both a musical experience and a sort of bridge through time. Maybe that’s what all recording is.