Are Records the “Best Seat in the House”?

Walter Legge, the influential mid-century classical record producer at EMI, famously declared

I want to make records which will sound in the public’s home exactly like what they would hear in the best seat in an acoustically perfect hall.

Legge was less a record producer in the modern sense than he was an impresario, what is better described as an artists-and-repertory (A-and-R) man. The old-school A-and-R men were responsible for making sure that records got made, in the sense that they found artists to perform particular repertoire, guided (or dominated) the musical decisions during a recording session, and acted as the face of the record label for a recording artist. While the American Fred Gaisberg is considered to be one of the earliest classical A-and-R men, Legge took the role to its maximalist peak: he founded the Philharmonia Orchestra to make his records, and tried to hold the orchestra hostage during a 1964 dispute with EMI’s management (which effectively ended his career as a producer).

By many accounts, Legge was not particularly interested in technological innovation in classical music recording; in a very old-fashioned way, he treated the medium as a transparent way of conveying the great music to its audience. For instance, Legge was very dismissive of stereophonic recording technologies when they started to infiltrate the industry in the late 1950s, and his distaste for the new technology led EMI to sonically fall well behind Decca in the classical recording industry.

To my ear, many of those mid-century EMI records are sonically flat, even after they began using stereo recording techniques. (Incidentally, my listening is backed up by the rather more authoritative view of Sir Joseph Lockwood, the legendary director of EMI: “I thought that our recordings were too dull, there wasn’t enough dynamic range in them… You couldn’t complain about the interpretation, but I used to feel as though I was listening to somebody playing the violin at London Airport.”1Lockwood made this remark in an interview for the British Library’s Oral History of Recorded Sound project. Interviewed by Lawrence Stapley in January 1984; catalog C90/25/01) Where Decca’s records have tremendous depth and space, EMI’s offerings strike me as rather vertical: all of the sounds exist within a single plane. Without a doubt, Decca’s records seem much more “live.”

But the funny thing about classical records is that even in this period, even before the introduction of digital and all the possibilities it offered, there was a profound disconnect between what happened in the studio and what happened in the concert hall. In fact, this wasn’t even new to the middle of the 20th century: the earliest recording studio required even more dramatic rearrangements and compromises to accommodate the far less sensitive wax recording medium.

As anyone who has worked in a classical recording session can attest, the art of making a classical record is completely distinct from the art of presenting a performance, even for engineers who use very few microphones or who don’t edit their recordings. The places where engineers capture sound in a studio varies quite a bit; there is no single privileged place where the sound is perfect. The studio has no “best seat.”

But for that matter, neither does a concert hall have a “best seat.” If you’ve been to more than one concert hall, you know that they can sound wildly different. If you’ve sat in different places in a concert hall, you know that you can get very nice sound with very different perspectives within a single space. For instance, I always liked to sit in the upper tier of the Metropolitan Opera House, because I loved the blend of the orchestra there. On occasions where I was able to sit much lower, I heard the singers much more clearly and powerfully, but the orchestra didn’t resonate nearly as much. Neither of these is necessarily better. I preferred the perspective with the better orchestra blend; someone else might prefer to perceive the singers more clearly. The point is, there is no one “best seat” in any actual concert hall.

Legge’s “best seat in an acoustically perfect hall” is not just an ideal, then; it is a misleading fallacy. Putting the “best seat” notion in the heads of listeners is deceitful, because it supposes that we can imagine such a thing. But we can’t imagine a single best seat, no matter how perfect the acoustics are in the hall. As concert-goers, we develop preferences, sometimes very precise and sometimes a vague like or dislike of a sound.

When engineers and producers make classical records, they also have preferences and make decisions constantly about how to record a group. Should the solo piano be placed in front of the orchestra (sonically speaking) or should it be within the ensemble? Should the strings be close and dry or distant and reverberant? There are so many factors that influence how they make these decisions, including the repertoire, the possibilities of the recording studio or concert hall, and the preferences of the musicians.

(I once saw a recording session with a viola soloist who was at complete odds with the producer over how he should be recorded. He wanted a “churchy” sound—by which he seemed to mean distant and reverberant—while the engineer thought that a string soloist needed to be recorded closer and dryer. They never did agree throughout the session; their preferences turned out to be too different, and their sonic ideas too incompatible. A record did come out of this session, and while it’s not bad, I’m quite sure that no one involved is particularly happy with it.)

So I think we need to stop talking about the “best seat” ideal as if this were a single, definable entity, even in theory. It doesn’t exist. That people still sometimes talk about the “best seat in the house” speaks to the ways in which Legge was simply a product of the long Germanic-Romantic values of classical music. That it remains a metaphor with which people still describe classical records indicates that we have yet to move past that 19th century legacy.

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