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The Effect of Record Production Techniques in Mediating Recordings of Traditional Irish Music


University of West London
MA Record Production
The Effect of Record Production Techniques in Mediating Recordings of
Traditional Irish Music.
Sam Proctor
Page 3 Chapter 1 Introduction
Page 5 Chapter 2 Approaches and Negotiations in the Recording of
Irish Traditional Music
Page 15 Chapter 3 Post Production Editing in the Production of Irish
Traditional Music
Page 24 Chapter 4 The Effect of Recording on the Transmission of
Traditional Irish Music
Page 29 Chapter 5 Conclusions
Page 33 Bibliography
Chapter 1 - Introduction
The recording and distribution of Irish traditional music began as early as 1898 in the USA, as
the early gramophone companies attempted to exploit their new technology by producing
recordings that targeted the large number of recent immigrants to the country from Ireland as
well as other European countries (Hamilton, 1996). Even at the advent of music recording,
the influence of the recordings of musicians such as master fiddle player Michael Coleman
can be seen to have changed the path of traditional music away from what was previously
predominantly a rural and localised oral tradition to a tradition transmitted throughout the
world in the form of recordings (Baily, 2010:110).
This heralds a shift away from the importance of music as it is played,
and towards music as it is recorded and replayed. (Sommers-Smith,
Sommers-Smith here highlights the move from a previously aural tradition, where live
performance was the only, and therefore primary, mode of transmission to a position where
the recording increases in importance in terms of the way in which traditional music is
accessed and transmitted between generations.
The act of recording music can change the nature of the music itself as shown by Katz
(2004) in identifying the “tangibility” of recordings as an important “phonograph effect”.
Katz describes phonograph effects as “the manifestations of sound recording’s influence”.
Tangibility, which Eisenberg (2005) labels ‘thingness’, relates to the idea that recorded music
can be removed from its context. In the case of Irish traditional music this context is as
much social as it is geographical, with particular tunes associated with particular musicians or
occasions, as well as an area of the country. In recent years, initially due to the folk music
revival of the 1960s and later the Riverdance phenomenon, Irish traditional music has gained
popularity worldwide, further removing it from its geographic context. Participation in the
‘performing’1 of Irish music can be found in almost any city in the world.
This places recording, and more specifically record production, in a central role in the
survival, development and evolution of Irish traditional music. It is therefore worth
considering the impact of record production techniques on the development of Irish
traditional music. Record production will be considered as a mediating factor between both
recording musicians and their audience as well as between consequent generations of
traditional musicians that carry the tradition forwards. This will therefore consider the role
of record production on the transmission of the traditional repertoire and style.
This work will therefore aim to provide an ethnographic study of the role of recording
production in the continuing development of Irish traditional music. Ideas will be taken from
other areas of musicology and considered in terms of Irish traditional music, but the ideas
could equally be applied to a range of traditional forms of music. Several email interviews
with producers who work in the field of Irish music are also used to survey current
practitioners’ approaches to capturing recordings of Irish music.
This work will consider several important factors in the record production process and,
whilst not exhaustive, will identify important considerations about how the recording of
traditional music is approached. To this end, the production process has been divided into
three stages for consideration; the capturing of recordings, the post-production editing of
these recordings and receptivity of these recordings. The third stage will concentrate on how
these recordings are received by other traditional musicians and record producers, an idea
applied to music production by McIntyre (2007), rather than the general consumers.
Whereas factors from the wider “cultural domain” cannot be dismissed, this work will focus
on the effect of recording on the transmission of style and repertoire of traditional
musicians. A wider consideration of the effects of the dissemination of commercial
recordings on the tradition can be found in Hamilton (1996).
A number of critical questions will be considered in the work. However, these will
predominantly focus around forms of mediation. The mediation of the recording process
1 Inverted commas are used here as many participants in Irish traditional music do not consider
the communal music making known as ‘a session’ to be a performance but rather a social
musical occasion.
will be considered throughout in order to identify the important mediating factors. Mediating
factors between the performer and audience will be reflected upon. These factors will have an
effect on the approach of the recording musician as well as the audience who, wittingly or
unwittingly, engage with a technologically mediated work. Questions of authenticity will also
be considered, predominantly in relation to the editing of performance. As Grasso (2005)
outlines, perceived authenticity is considered important amongst the Irish music community
and there are certain tensions between this notion of authenticity and modern recording
The effect of recording technology on an oral tradition will also be considered, as it has been
by many previously (notably Chanan, 2006 and Katz, 2004). Much of the previous work in
this area appears to have concentrated on the effect of the wider geographic and social
dissemination of recording, whereas this work will aim to isolate effect of the recording
processes in this longer chain of events.
This work will aim to stimulate debate on how we approach the recording of traditional
music. A deeper understanding of the effect that decisions made in production, and postproduction,
have on the authenticity and reception of recordings within the field will aim to
promote a more informed approach to the recording of Irish traditional music.
Chapter 2 - Approaches and Negotiations in the Recording of Irish Traditional
Many scholars (Benjamin, 1936; Katz, 2004; Chanan, 2005) have considered the differences
between live performance and recorded music, with some likening it to the difference between
theatre and film. Whereas there is an expectation from many of a different approach being
taken by an actor when appearing on stage rather than screen, there appears much less
expectation of a musician’s approach being altered by playing for a recording in comparison
to playing in a live concert situation.
Whereas early recordings of Irish traditional music would have been recorded ‘as live’ straight
to mono/stereo master tapes, the advent of multitrack recording technology allows for
performers to record their performances at different times, and sometimes in different
locations, in a way often associated with pop/rock productions. This makes the recording
process even more variable and therefore is an important mediating factor in the performer’s
communication with the audience.
It is therefore worth considering the ways in which musicians adapt their performances for
recording, as well as the important associated factors in the record production process, to
more fully understand where such recordings sit within the Irish music tradition. This chapter
will therefore consider the following three questions relating to the way in which musicians
approach recording and the negotiation between recording practices and performance
o In what ways do musicians approach recording differently from live performance, and
what are the primary reasons for this?
o How do sound recording techniques and practices employed in the recording of Irish
traditional music affect performance?
o What are the most important considerations when capturing recordings of Irish
traditional music?
These questions are underscored however by a more fundamental question of exactly what it
is that we are trying to capture when committing Irish traditional music to record.
There are several important factors that make the very nature of recorded sound and live
performance different from one another. These should be understood when considering how
to go about successfully capturing recorded performances. One of the seven traits of sound
recording that Katz (2004:27) identifies is that of “repeatability”. He states that making a
performance repeatable has “far reaching and complex consequences” and changes the nature
of the recorded music in comparison to live performance.
The moment something intangible is made tangible it must bear scrutiny,
and scrutiny demands detail. (Haas, 2009:60)
As suggested by Haas, above, repeatability leads to recordings and live performances being
scrutinised in a very different way. Whereas in a live performance the overall style and
approach of the performer is likely to be remembered most, after repeated listening the
‘audience’ can become far more concerned with the minutiae of the performance. Personal
experience as both a performer and producer reinforce this idea, as there are many examples
of musicians2 becoming almost obsessed with individual ornaments on a given note while
barely considering the overall ‘feel’ or effectiveness of the recording.
The second consideration when delineating between how live and recorded performance are
scrutinised relates to the separation of the recording, in both time and space, from the
performers. Shafer (1997) gives this idea the name “schizophonia”, the separation of the
sound from the original source, as is the case in recording. Again, this leads us to engage with
recordings in a different way to live performance.
Such intent listening has a fundamentally analytical quality, assessing
disembodied sonic impressions with an ear to their aesthetic durability as
well as their immediate appeal. As technologies and their craft became
more complex, sounds were increasingly deconstructed; that is sounds
were removed from their narrative and textural contexts in order to
examine and refine their most subtle details. (Zak, 2009: 71)
As Zak describes, listening to a recording isolated from the visual cues3 present in a live
performance encourages the listener to deconstruct the performance on a level not possible
in a live situation. It is also evident that the lack of visual stimuli fundamentally changes the
way in which we perceive sound.
2 Myself included!
3 Greig (2009:19) describes this as the removal of “secondary visual encoding”.
People only half listen to what you play, the other half is watching.
(Pearlman, cited by Swan, 1980)
The McGurk effect reinforces Perlman’s view by showing the influence that visuals have on
the way we perceive sounds. In the McGurk experiment it is evident that the visual
information that we gather when watching a speaker to some extent overrides the auditory
information. Listening to the same piece of recorded dialogue with differing mouth
movements on the screen leads the viewer to hear the audio as different words depending on
the visual information that runs alongside them. The reason this is raised is that in recording
a performance, the visual elements of the performance are removed, taking with them much
of the information that a performer usually transmits to the audience. This again marks a
difference between the ways in which recordings and live performance are perceived.
Removing the visual elements from a performance concentrates the audience on the audio
elements, which is likely to lead to a more analytical approach to listening. This may
explain why many people close their eyes when analysing a performance or recording in
order to concentrate their senses on listening. Increased attention to the details in the sound
of the performance again means that the performance must stand up to more microscopic
analysis, making the requirement to edit performances more likely. This may be especially
true when considering Irish traditional music where the musicians’ technique can be
somewhat idiosyncratic in comparison to classical performers whose focus appears to be far
more concentrated on clinical execution of technique.
The factors outlined here are primary reasons why, in order to produce durable recordings
that bear the scrutiny of repeated listening, musicians tend to modify their performance
approach for recording in comparison to live performance. Concertina player Padraig
MacAodhgáin (2011) reinforces this idea by describing his approach to recording as more
“technical” to when playing live. By this, it seems he is much more concerned with technical
details such as ensuring ornamentation is cleanly executed than when playing live due to the
awareness that it will be listened to repeatedly and therefore analysed in a more microscopic
fashion than is possible in live performance. This embodies Greig’s (2009:19) idea that the
recorder is an “inhuman critic” of the musician’s performance.
The immediate relay of the information that the producer offers,
combined with instant playback, affords performers a very different and
immensely valuable engagement with their own performances. The
recording situation is thus a more critical and self-critical space than the
concert hall. (Greig, 2009:20)
The third, and final, consideration is that of proximity. Modern recordings tend to ‘place’
the listener much closer to the performer than would be the case in a concert situation.
Today's listeners have come to associate musical performance with
sounds possessed of characteristics which generations ago were neither
available to the profession nor wanted by the public – characteristics such
as analytic clarity, immediacy, and indeed almost tactile proximity.
(Gould, 1966)
Although Gould is discussing classical recording predominantly here, Irish traditional music
also tends to be reproduced with a relatively ‘dry’ ambience. This sparing use of room
reverberation causes the performers to appear in the forefront of the sound stage. Listeners
have come to expect this level of proximity in recording and the notion of hi-fidelity
recordings has become synonymous with the apparent proximity that increased levels of high
frequency content produce (Zagorski-Thomas, 2005 & 2011). This also produces a less
forgiving, more analytical environment in which the performer must perform.
This idea also extends to the musicians and the headphones mixes that they listen to whilst
A few musicians I spoke with indicated that headphones provide a hyperrealism
that actually brings them closer to their instrument. When close
proximity microphones register a level of detail often unnoticed by the
performing musician, these musicians respond by further refining their
articulations. (Williams, 2009)
As suggested here the use of headphones places the musician in a more analytical
environment due to the mediation of the headphones. Flaherty (2011) stated that many
older traditional musicians prefer not to work with headphones. This is possibly due to the
fact that their technique and approach was not developed around such close analysis, but in a
live setting where the overall ‘shape’ of the music is of greater importance.
The three producers interviewed for this work - PJ Curtis, Tony Flaherty and Donogh
Hennessy – agreed that the best way to capture ensemble playing of Irish music was ‘as live’
with the musicians playing together, with occasional drop-ins and overdubs added later. Curtis
and Flaherty described their use of this approach to capture the “fire” and “spark” of a live
performance respectively. However, all expressed reservations with this approach.
Live is good if the musicians are good enough to play in time and in tune.
That live feel doesn’t necessarily translate onto recordings well though.
Otherwise everyone would do it. The best of both worlds is if you’ve a big
enough studio [to record] with all the instruments separated, then fix and
add stuff later. (Hennessy, 2011)
Hennessy suggests a pragmatic approach whereby the method of recording is altered to suit
the abilities of the musicians. He also highlights the idea suggested earlier that a good
performance for recording has different requirements from a good performance for a
concert, suggesting that a live approach to recording does not always capture a performance
that stands up to the closer analysis of recording. Curtis (2011) also describes the clinical
recording studio as probably the worst place to record traditional music at its best.
However, there are several reasons why it is not always possible to record in this ‘as live’
manner. Many of the small recording facilities in which these recordings are made do not
have sufficient space to record an ensemble ‘as live’. There is also some resistance from
musicians to live recording as tracking parts individually gives the musician greater freedom
to fix elements of the performance either in post-production or by re-taking given sections.
There are pros and cons to both the live recording approach and the ‘tracked’ approach to
recording traditional music. Live recording helps capture the spontaneity and “spark” of the
live performance but could, it seems, encourage a more conservative approach, particularly if
individual elements cannot be replaced later due to spill between microphones. Diamond
(2005) tried several approaches to recording native American traditional musicians to find
that they were far happier recording live as an ensemble than using the more contemporary
techniques of tracking performances individually. There is a certain pressure placed on
musicians when they know that making a mistake can lead to the whole ensemble having to
re-take the recording and this is likely to subdue risk-taking in the performance.
Although the ‘tracked’ approach would allow further freedom to the individual musicians, it
can lack the sense of communal performance that is such an important part of Irish
traditional music.
These practices [individual tracking of parts] assume that the music
consists of isolatable parts and that social interaction among musicians is
not a structural requirement of the performance. These assumptions are
inappropriate and even unworkable for various types of traditional music.
(Diamond, 2005:125)
Having said that, this can be a far more practical approach to producing a recording that
withstands repeated listening and has the technical and sonic characteristics expected of a
modern recording. However, as Grasso (2008) states, many listeners in the Irish traditional
music community expect recordings to closely resemble the artists’ live performance.
This highlights a considerable challenge for the producer of Irish traditional music in creating
a recording that gives the illusion of a live performance whilst capturing good performances
that withstand repeat listening at close proximity. Porcello (2005) considers the challenge of
creating the illusion of live performances in relation to recordings made in Austin, Texas that
also resonate in this context where sincerity and live performance are similarly linked.
If the Austin sound is based in large part on the link between sincerity and
live performance, then Austin musicians and bands are faced with a
particular challenge; how to maintain the sincerity/liveness despite a
recording process that rarely relies on live, uninterrupted ensemble
performances. (Porcello, 2005:105)
There is a tension between the performance practices of musicians and the practices of sound
recordists that must be navigated in order to produce a successful recording. Curtis (2011)
described his approach in a similar manner calling it the “fire and ice approach” whereby he
aims to capture the ‘fire’ of the music onto the unforgiving recording medium, the ‘ice’, a
negotiation between recording practices and performance practices as well as between the
requirements of live performance and recorded.
The challenge for the producer of Irish traditional music is therefore twofold; firstly
negotiating between the requirements of the sound recordist and the requirements of the
musicians, which can be at odds somewhat; and secondly producing an illusion of live
performance, a challenge that is extremely complicated considering the differences between
the two approaches highlighted here. Add to this the paradox that Grasso (2005) describes
between the expectations of the traditional music community and the wider record-buying
consumer and there are a number of tensions apparent in the recording of traditional music.
The traditional community is concerned equally with the means and the
end and at times, the means may override the end. Such ideals run
contrary to the record consumer’s standards which are necessarily
concerned more with the quality of the finished product than with the
process of its making. (Grasso, 2005)
Therefore, it seems that some aesthetic decisions must be made in the capturing of
performances of traditional music with regard to several related but separate opposing forces
and values.
There appears to be a feeling amongst critics that many recordings are becoming bland in
terms of their approach. Toner Quinn (2005) in assessing the current state of Irish music
suggests that traditional musicians “are playing it too safe” in approaching recording in a
very conservative manner. The evidence outlined here suggests that recording technology
can easily encourage this approach and an awareness of this is important in ensuring that this
trend does not continue. Variation and improvisation are a vital part of a traditional
musician’s style with many believing that a tune should not be performed in exactly the same
way twice. Therefore an element of risk-taking and spontaneity is desirable even in the
recording context.
This suggests that bland recordings and blinding concerts are inevitable
consequences, but one can also argue the opposite- namely, a recording
situation offers greater freedom of expression, that the possibility of a
retakes promotes risk-taking, and the concert situation, with its
heightened sense of the present tense, dampens such overt
demonstration. (Greig, 2009:27)
Greig shows that recording can both dampen and promote this desirable risk- taking in the
studio environment and producers and recordists should be sufficiently aware of how the
studio environment affects the musicians. We can see how these values can easily be
discouraged in the negotiation between recording practices and performers’ preferences.
A well mixed recording is usually one that is recorded in a way that
devalues, and often outright discourages, live performance in the studio.
(Porcello, 2005:106)
To conclude, the very nature of recorded performance and concert performance can be said
to be different. However, in Irish traditional music, in a similar way to classical music, live
performance is considered to be of greater value and recordings are expected to create the
illusion of ‘liveness’. Having said this, capturing recordings ‘as live’ is not always practical
and sometimes does not allow the producer to capture recordings of sufficient technical
quality. There is always likely to be a trade off between recording quality and technical quality
of performance on one side, and the perceived spontaneity and ‘liveness’ of the recording on
the other. Quinn (2005), in discussing the current state of Irish traditional music suggests that
“traditional musicians are playing it a little too safe” in their approach to recording, creating
work that lacks musical interest and does not invite repeated listening. There may be some
truth in his opinion as two characteristics of recordings, repeatability and proximity, lead to
recordings being perceived in a more analytical and detailed way and result in musicians
performing in a different way for recording. It seems likely that for these reasons musicians
approach recordings in a far more conservative way than previously. As Curtis (2011) states,
many of the legendary traditional musicians such as Tommy Potts and Micho Russell would
not “pass muster” in a technical sense if today’s values of recorded performance were
applied, but the very essence of their music existed in the individuality of their performance.
This requires the performance to be considered with a different perspective to the very close
inspection often applied in contemporary recordings of Irish music.
For this reason it is worth considering how we analyse recorded performances in terms of
perspective. Recording technology invites us to analyse performance in microscopic detail
but this may actually be detrimental to the overall effect of the performances. Equally the
way in which recordings are presented to the performer, in both headphone mixes and
playback, is likely to have a considerable bearing on how they perform. Headphone mixes
presented to musicians in which they are very loud compared to the rest of the ensemble may
actually be detrimental by discouraging spontaneity and ‘liveness’ in the performance due to
the way in which the proximity of the sound focuses the attentions of the performer to small
details rather than the overall narrative of the performance. Negotiations between recordist
and performer in terms of headphone mixes are therefore an important part of successfully
capturing recordings.
Chapter 3 - Post Production Editing in the Production of Irish Traditional Music
The introduction of digital, non-linear recording technology has changed the role of the
producer and recordist in most areas of record production. Indeed it could be said to have
increased the influence of the recordist/producer in the music making process. The producer,
as gatekeeper to non-linear editing technology, has now become much more actively
involved in constructing ‘performances’ from several ‘takes’ recorded by the performers
rather than employing the more linear approach of the analogue recording era, whereby
editing techniques were employed but not to the same extent as is possible with digital
Such activities expand the creative partnership of music-making to
include recordists – not just in an advisory role (traditional for the
producer) but also in the construction of the content used in the final
recorded performance. (Savage, 2009:34)
As Savage describes here, the recordist is promoted to an important editorial role in the
production, as it is he who often makes editorial decisions in selecting the material that is
edited into the final recorded ‘performance’. Some believe that this is detrimental to the
authenticity of the recordings (Carson, 2010) whilst others, notably Gould (1966), believe
this to be a sensible approach in capturing recordings that bear repeated listening, although, it
must be said, the editing and enhancement possibilities have multiplied since he wrote his
seminal essay Prospects of Recording in 1966. Hamilton (1996:249) states that “the
elevation of the producer/technician to the level of someone with an artistic input only
happens to a minor extent” in traditional music, citing Donal Lunny’s work as an example.
This may, however, overlook some of the more subtle influences the producer/recordist has
in selecting sections of several ‘takes’ and compiling these elements in a manner that may
not be immediately obvious to the audience. Brøvig-Anderson (2008) calls this type of
editing ‘transparent mediation” to show its invisibility to the listener. Therefore, it is
important to consider the effects of post-production editing on the authenticity and
reception of recordings of Irish traditional music. This chapter will analyse different
approaches to post-production editing in Irish traditional music and work towards identifying
the most appropriate approach, although, as will become evident, there is no single solution
as each individual circumstance will require its own means of producing a successful recording.
The role of post-production editing in “pop” and classical production has been discussed
widely (Savage, 2009: Zagorski-Thomas, 2010: Gould, 1966) but there has been considerably
less discussion on the role of recording technologies in folk music and, more particularly Irish
traditional music. As previously mentioned Grasso (2005) considers the tensions between
consumer expectation and the values of the Irish music community in the recording of Irish
music and, in light of this, considers different approaches to the recording of Irish traditional
music. This chapter will further consider approaches to post-production editing, how the use
of non-linear editing techniques is received in the social field and the effect of this mediation
on the transmission and development of the tradition.
Firstly, it is worth considering why editing has become more commonplace in record
production. The motivation behind the employment of post-production editing appears again
to lie in the fundamental difference between recorded music and live performance discussed in
the previous chapter. As previously mentioned, most of Katz’s (2004:26) seven traits of
sound recording, which he calls “phonograph effects”, mark differences between live
performance and recorded music. Of these, “repeatability” and ‘tangibility” relate to the
effect of recording technology in making it possible to repeatedly listen to the same
performance, as opposed to a live performance that is only heard fleetingly. It has already
been considered how this affects the way in which a musician performs but it also seems to be
a central reason why the editing and compilation of several different performances into one
compiled ‘master’ performance has become commonplace.
The impact of recording’s repeatability on performers is no less
In concert the artist is typically concerned with the first - and only –
impression, but with recordings “shelf life” must be considered. (Katz,
As many recording musicians will have noted, mistakes and inconsistencies in a performance
become more obvious with repeated listening and these blemishes could easily take the
attention away from the overall quality of the work. In order that these blemishes do not
take away from the overall experience when listened to repeatedly, editing has become
commonplace, even in Irish traditional music, a genre where the authenticity and ‘liveness’
of a performance is highly valued.
Personal experience, as well as the interviews conducted for this research, suggests that
recordists in Irish traditional music have embraced non-linear editing techniques within their
Anything goes, if it sounds good, use it. Use every trick in the book to
make the record as good as possible. But be careful not to over edit as
this can kill the music. (Hennessy, 2011)
Donogh Hennessy, respected producer and performer in the field, stated when interviewed
that in his opinion the end justifies the means of production. Several other producers
(Flaherty, 2011) have reinforced this idea. However, this leads to the paradox of which
Grasso speaks:
The traditional community is concerned equally with the means and the
end and at times, the means may override the end. Such ideals run
contrary to the record consumer’s standards which are necessarily
concerned more with the quality of the finished product than with the
process of its making. Grasso (2008)
This hints at McIntyre’s (2007) application of Csikzentmihalyi’s model of creativity to
music production whereby he considers the interaction of the social field, the cultural domain
and the individual as productive agents in the creative process. In this case Grasso identifies
tensions related to this model showing a paradox between the expectations of the social field
when compared to the wider cultural domain. The social field, traditional musicians and
producers, may be primarily concerned with the final recorded results, but in the cultural
domain, the wider Irish music community, the means by which these results are achieved are
considered of greater importance. Many in the Irish traditional music community ascribe
great importance to authenticity in recordings of Irish music and assume, if not expect, that
recordings are relatively unmediated representations of the musician’s live performance.
Considering how recordings of Irish music are received and authenticated by the community
may be important in developing an approach to post-production editing. Moore (2002)
identifies three ways in which different audiences authenticate musical works and goes on to
define three forms of authenticity; first person or “authenticity of expression”, second
person or “authenticity of experience” and third person or “authenticity of execution”.
Developing an understanding of these could help us understand the tensions between the
practice of musicians and recordists, and their audience, or, to apply the McIntyre (2007)
model, the social field and cultural domain. Moore’s third form of authenticity seems likely
to be most relevant to the Irish music community.4
Third person authenticity, or authenticity of execution, is Moore's term for authenticity
ascribed due to a performer (or musical work) being linked to a 'tradition of performance' or,
as Grossberg (1992) prefers to call it, a community. He suggests that the audience ascribes
authenticity to works that are closely linked to historical work. Vaughan-Williams (cited by
Moore, 2002) had previously discussed this notion, stating that music has a power to express
“the soul of a nation… bound together by language, environment, history and common
ideals, and above all, acontinuity with the past”. The audience authenticates the wider musical
tradition or community, in this case seeing traditional Irish music as authentic, and therefore
authenticates all work that they perceive to be close or chronologically linked. Again Grasso
(2008) reinforces this idea in showing that much importance is placed on seniority and
provenance when considering Irish music recordings rather than technical ability and
virtuosity, therefore placing great importance on the musician’s link to the tradition in
ascribing authenticity.
This begins to explain the paradox between the listeners’ expectation and values of the
traditional music community in that whilst many producers and musicians justify the means –
in this case post-production editing – by the end, the reception of the audiences is based on
ascribing authenticity to the performance in terms of integrity and place in the tradition.
Many in this social field would believe that the mediation of a performance lacks integrity.
Indeed, PJ Curtis, producer of many of the most commercially and critically successful
recordings of Irish music5, discusses the effect of editing on capturing the “magic” of
recordings, placing this as much more important than technically assured performance.
I do believe that technical perfection is almost always at odds with
capturing that 'essence' of which I speak. Many of the greatest older
practitioners would 'technically' not pass muster today. (Tommy Potts -
a genius, Micho Russell, Johnny Doherty, Junior Crehan). And, most
definitely, the 'constructing' of performances is - for the most part - very
much at odds with this. Yet it may utterly lack that 'driocth' and 'magic'
that the old masters always reached for in their playing. (Curtis, 2011)
Again, these opinions seem based firmly on Moore’s notion of third-person authenticity and
4 Although the first two authenticities may also be relevant to ITM in some cases and should not
be discounted. For instance, Moore (2002) shows several examples where the work of recording
musicians is ascribed authenticity by the audience on all three levels.
5 Productions include recordings by The Bothy Band, Stocktons Wing and Altan to name but a
suggest that many value judgments within the Irish traditional music community are similarly
Moore’s (2002) notion of first person authenticity is also important in that the integrity of
the performer(s) is also important in ascribing authenticity to a recording. Zagorski-Thomas
(2010) describes the “perceived authenticity of live performance [as being] central to the
musical aesthetic” when discussing rock recordings. This seems certain to be the case, if not
more so, in the Irish music domain where many consider live performance to be the primary
form of the music ahead of recorded music. Indeed, Martin Hayes, one of the most respected
recording artists in traditional music has said that he places much more importance on his
live performances than on his recordings. This leads to an interesting area of discussion on
how the mediation of recording technology in general, and of editing in particular, affects the
authenticity of a recording. On immediate inspection it may appear that edited performances
are inherently less authentic than, for instance, a single-take field recording but this belief is
worthy of further consideration as there are several opposing opinions on this.
There does appear to be a widely held belief that ‘over editing’ can be detrimental to a
recording and that the aim of post-production editing should not necessarily be to produce
technically flawless ‘performances’. Curtis’s (2011) opinion that that technically perfect
performances constructed through edit are not necessarily the most effective recordings is
reinforced by Hennessy (2011) who warns, “be careful not to over edit as this can kill the
music”. There appears to be a consistent belief that much of essence of Irish music is encoded
in the so-called imperfections of the performance.
Keil (1987:275) introduced the notion of participatory discrepancies stating that in order for
music to be “personally involving and socially valuable, [it] must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of
tune’”. By this, he appears to mean that the power of music is created in the inconsistencies
and inflections produced by the musicians. This explains the above notion that in Irish music
these human elements add meaning to the music and are therefore essential to successful
performances. Non-linear digital audio workstations (DAWs) encourage the user to analyse
performance on a micro level with ‘performances’ often made up of extremely short
segments of audio from many different ‘takes’. Individual notes will often be edited together
to form a part. The loop playback and similar functions available on DAWs encourage the
user to repeatedly listen to short sections of audio which can make discrepancies more
apparent than when considering the performance as a whole. This further amplifies the
notion that repeatability leads to more analytical listening and could be called micro
repeatability – the idea that extremely short elements of a recording can be repeated
indefinitely and therefore considered by the recordists in a way that would not be possible to
the vast majority of listeners.
This appears to encourage an editing approach whereby all inconsistencies
in timing, pitch and articulation are removed. If Keil’s (1987) theory that these
inconsistencies carry much of important elements in a successful performance, it could be
argued that stripping these elements out a recording is removing several layers of expressive
possibilities from the ‘performance’. Zagorski-Thomas (2010) acknowledges that a certain
amount of editing in drum recordings takes place purely because it is possible to do it rather
than because it is necessarily improving the production. It seems likely that similar is true of
editing in Irish traditional music, especially considering the way in which DAWs allow us to
access and isolate microscopic elements of the recordings.
Keil (1987) would also argue that the removal of this “relaxed dynamism”, as he calls it, is
actually detrimental to the meaning of the music, bringing us back to PJ Curtis’s earlier view
that the ‘magic’ of many of the legendary musicians is not in the technical perfection of
their playing but it indeed at odds with this.
I now find that much contemporary recorded traditional music all sounds
the same and I find it difficult sometimes to distinguish the playing of
one band from that of another. (Carson, 2010)
Carson is not alone in his opinion that much of the recently recorded Irish music lacks
character and sounds generic and this may be partly due to the approach of recordists in
editing out much of what gives the music individuality and, in Keil’s words, “social value”.
Splicing presents a great temptation when you're putting something
together and you know you can make it almost flawless. You can't help
wanting to do it. I suppose it's the human aspiration to perfection. But
there is always the possibility that you could get something absolutely
perfect and it would be absolutely boring.” (Mohr, 1966, cited by Gould)
However, Gould (1966) is very much opposed to this view, arguing that a recording is no less
authentic or meaningful due to post-production because “you can’t splice style”. By this, he
seems to mean that although notes and phrases can be edited together the stylistic content of
a performance must originate with the musician. However, editing possibilities have
progressed considerably since he wrote this. For example, ‘drive’ is a much-valued attribute of
performance in many traditional music circles. This is generated by the musician constantly
playing very slightly ahead of the beat of the music to produce a sense of forward motion
whist not actually increasing the tempo. In the analogue domain it would have been very
difficult to move one track in comparison to the others but in the digital domain it is
relatively simple to delay audio tracks. It would there for be possible change the ‘style’ of a
solo musician in terms of how it rhythmically interacts with the accompanist. However, the
point Gould makes is a valid one. As the part has been played for the recording by the
musician, the way in which it is used in a final edit is less important because the initial
stylistic input is that of the performer. This relates closely to Savage’s (2009) aesthetic of
editing in the blues recordings that he makes. He calls his approach to editing, “it could have
happened”, and edits takes considerably whilst constructing performances that could have
happened in real-time therefore not fooling the listener or creating impossible feats of
Generally, this type of editing retains the original progression of musical
events, and preserves the essential compositional integrity of the original
score or song arrangement. (Savage, 2009:34)
This aesthetic seems suitable for Irish traditional music in achieving a performance that
satisfies both the music consumer, who expects an error free, high quality recording and the
social field of other musicians who expect an authentic representation of the musician’s
It can be argued that using editing in the recording process can lead to more authentic
recordings due to the way in which it encourages the musicians to play. As seen in the
previous chapter, musicians tend to modify their approach to recording in comparison to live
performance, and this often leads to a more conservative approach.
The true reality of Irish traditional music is in the fleeting moment of
performance and the consequences of that moment. (Carolan, 2000)
Irish traditional music performers use a considerable amount of improvisation in their
performance around the basic melodies. Most solo performers will rarely reproduce the same
version of a tune twice making these moments fleeting. Inhibiting this improvisation, as may
happen in a pressurised studio environment, will lead to a less truthful and authentic recording
of the performer than a more heavily edited ‘performance’ whereby the source performances
were captured in a less inhibited manner. For this reason it seems that the belief that edited
performances are somehow inauthentic is somewhat over simplified. If the possibility of
editing can reassure musicians, and allow them to perform more freely, then this should lead
to more pleasing recordings. These recordings would potentially be much more truthful
representations of the musicians’ performances than the live recording and should be ascribed
authenticity as such. As Curtis (2011) contended, recordings produced in a sterile studio
environment are unlikely to capture the essence of the musician in ‘full flow’, as they would
perform live. Hennessy (2011) also points out that this approach allows musicians to be
recorded simultaneously and, provided there is adequate isolation, mistakes can be edited in
individual performances. This simultaneous recording, as opposed to tracking each musician
individually, allows the musicians to interact and ‘bounce off each other’ in a way that is an
important part of the live performance of Irish music but is not possible when recording
Popular forms of music have become ever more mediated with much of the music heard on
mainstream radio being heavily edited using technology such as Beat Detective6 and ever
more sophisticated pitch correction software. This is part of the cultural domain in which
traditional music exists as the vast majority of listeners to traditional music will also engage
with the omnipresent popular music, whether they want to or not! It appears likely that this
shifts the expectations of listeners to anticipate high levels of consistency in terms of
rhythm and pitch from all music in a way they would not have anticipated previously. It
seems likely that this has had an influence over the practice of the traditional music
community who now often appear to engage in ‘pop’ production techniques to achieve these
results. This raises the question of authenticity once again in that although many listeners
ascribe authenticity to unmediated performances, they often also expect almost perfectly
accurate performances in terms of pitch and rhythm; an attribute that, it is argued here, is at
odds with the performance of expressive music.
In concluding this discussion on editing it is again worth pointing out that there are as many
different approaches to editing as there are recordings made. However, the non-linear
technology that is now prevalent seems to encourage increasing amounts of editing to be
done in striving for the perfect compiled ‘performance’. This notion of perfection may be
opposed to the way in which many listeners ascribe value and authenticate recordings. So,
before embarking on extensive editing it may be worth considering further how we define the
recorded perfection that we strive for. The alternative may be to let recording technology
lead the artists to create productions that may not be musically or aesthetically appropriate.
6 Beat detective is a Pro Tools function that will allow audio to be quantised in a similar way to
Chapter 4 - The Effect of Recording on the Transmission of Traditional Irish Music
Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one
element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place
where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art
determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its
existence. (Benjamin, 1936)
Katz (2004:10) describes the separation of a musical performance from the performer, the
time and the place in which it was performed as “tangibility”. Zak (2005) calls the same
notion “thingness”. Benjamin’s idea, quoted above, is particularly pertinent when considering
oral traditions in which previously the musical style and repertoire were very much associated
with particular places, events and individuals. In making the music tangible, recordings of this
music on 78s, LPs or CDs then become portable allowing music to be removed from the
location, time and people by whom it was created, a notion that Benjamin describes above as
reducing the “aura” or authenticity of the artwork, or indeed the piece of music.
Traditional forms of music, Irish included, have long relied on oral transmission of the
repertoire. Along with this repertoire of tunes, playing styles were also passed on first-hand
from generation to generation. Markedly different playing styles existed within different
geographical areas, with some types of tunes particular to very specific areas of Ireland. For
instance, the polka was - and still is - very popular in counties Kerry and Cork but would
rarely be heard in Donegal. These differences can be seen between areas that are
geographically very close, for instance east Clare and west Clare which are separated only by
a few miles but have very individual playing styles.
However, since the folk music revival that began in the 1960s, Hamilton (1996) and Carolan
(2000) both describe a move from primary participation – participants in traditional music
that are born directly into the tradition – to secondary participation – participants engaging
with the tradition from other geographic areas, musical and social backgrounds. Many of
these secondary participants have learnt their repertoire and techniques from recordings
rather than direct contact with source musicians. This creates what Carolan (2000) has called
a “secondary orality”.
This process redefines the audience, which comes to be constituted quite
differently from before. It is no longer limited to the traditional sense of
community; it is not compacted but dispersed; it is atomized and, in the
end, often divided more by generations than social class (Chanan 1995:9)
This places sound recording centrally in the transmission and development of both the
traditional repertoire and performance style and approach. As we have seen in the previous
two chapters recording is a heavily mediated form of music. So, as recordings play an
important part in the transmission of the tradition amongst this redefined social field, record
production becomes an important link in the learning and transmission cycle. This chapter
will explore the effects of recording, and with it record production, on the development and
transmission of the repertoire and style of Irish traditional music.
Traditional repertoire would initially have been passed from generation to generation
without the aid of notation or recording. This would lead to a musician interpreting the tune
in his own individual way before passing it on to the next musician who would in turn apply
his individual interpretation to the tune. Tunes developed over time with different versions
existing in different localities as the new versions constantly branched out from the existing
ones. The introduction of recording fundamentally changed the very nature of this process
by freezing a particular version of a tune in time, thus making it accessible to many
generations to come.
… a record in the oral tradition becomes a fixed item; that which was
always transient and ephemeral has now become tangible… Thus a record
becomes a learning resource which codifies a particular performance and
thereby tends to standardise it. (Baily, 2010:111)
As Baily describes here, particular recordings can grow to be regarded as definitive and become
the authoritative source for a given tune or song. This affects the art of interpretation as
other musicians aim to emulate the source that is seen as authoritative. This appears to
subdue the interpretive instincts of the musicians. Hamilton (1996) and Baily (2010) both
discuss the emergence of ‘recording artists’ as being a major effect of the recording industry.
Once this status is given to musicians it can further reinforce their authority, which listeners
in turn ascribe to their recordings.7 Hamilton (1996) states that musicians would use these
7 The likes of Michael Coleman and James Morrison are early examples of these recording artists who
achieved relative celebrity through their recordings. The revival produced many more such as Matt Molloy,
Frankie Gavin or Arty McGlynn whose influence can be heard in many subsequent recordings.
recordings as a platform for further interpretation but Sommers-Smith (2001:120) identifies
a lack of innovation and individual expression caused by musicians’ learning of recorded
tunes. It seems that there is validity in both of these stances. Traditional musicians are
unlikely to copy exactly the interpretation of material from the recordings they use when
learning tunes. Whilst few can deny the influence that, for example, Matt Molloy’s flute
playing has had on the subsequent generations of flute players through his recordings, it
appears Sommers-Smith’s (ibid) opinion becomes more salient when considering secondary
participants who learn their repertoire from recordings while isolated from other activity
within the field.
Many people believe that the traditional repertoire has become less varied due to the
influence of recording (Carolan 2000; Hamilton 1996; Sommers-Smith 2001) although, some
refute this (Goldstein 1982). The dissemination of recording is not the sole reason for
convergence of style and repertoire. The introduction of competition into traditional music
from the 1950s may also be somewhat responsible although this is outside of the remit of this
work. However, as Chanan eloquently puts it:
The truth is that many traditional music cultures already present a
history of cultural encounter, for few were untouched by histories of
colonalization, ancient and modern, which always carries music with
them. But it is also true that the gramophone was also responsible, almost
from the start, for recreating the repertoire it recorded in its own image.
(Chanan 1995:15)
Evidence of this can be seen in many informal gatherings of musicians who often play tunes,
sometimes even whole sets of tunes, taken from current recordings. It is also evident that the
early recordings of the likes of Michael Coleman and James Morrison made in the USA
became major influences on the standard repertoire of traditional tunes that musicians draw
on (see Hamilton, 1996:277). Many of those tunes form the basis of the canon of the
majority of traditional musicians currently participating, possibly at the expense of the wider
range of traditional material that was not recorded.
The effect of the dissemination of recordings could provide a research topic in its own right
but is discussed here mainly to show the effect of recording within an oral tradition. Showing
how distribution of recordings has affected repertoire and style should reinforce the
importance that the mediation of record production techniques and technology has in the
feedback loop between each generation of new learners. It may be important to understand
the effect this mediation has on the transmission tradition in order to fully understand the
effect of production decisions on the wider tradition.
This work has highlighted two main factors that separate live performance and recording: the
different ways in which musicians approach performing for recording and live performance,
and the influence of post-production editing on recorded works. It is worth considering how
these elements are affecting the learning cycle and may be, to borrow Chanan’s term,
reinventing not only repertoire, but also approaches and aesthetics of performance in the
image of recordings.
Hamilton (1996:296) suggests that when learning from recording the focus changes from a
process of creating music to a process of emulating performance. The first chapter of this
work concluded that musicians often approach recording in a more conservative manner than
in live performance in order to produce technically precise recordings. Learners, in aiming to
emulate these recordings, are likely to approach performance in a more conservative
manner. The trend of recordings being heavily edited to remove mistakes and inconsistencies
can also be accused of removing some important human and stylistic elements from
performances in the recording process. It seems that this places a higher value on technical
precision than more subtle and esoteric qualities in a performance. Again, if emulated, this
leads to an improvement in technical ability gained at the expense of what Keil (1987:275)
calls “social value” and may be partially responsible for the view that the tradition is
becoming more generic.
Quinn (2005) and Sommers-Smith (2001) both question how recent recording artists are
chosen from within the field. Both cite increased commerciality as being a driving force
behind the choice of artists, with the best musicians not necessarily being the ones to release
commercial recordings. This is of some concern if one considers the importance that
recording can have on the transmission and development of the tradition.
Chapter 5 - Conclusions
Tommy Potts’ seminal album The Liffey Banks (Claddagh Records 1972) shows a
considerably different approach to record production than many more recent recordings. As
Seamus Ennis’s (1972) linear notes that accompany it state, the recording captures Potts’
ability to “take a melody and see in his mind’s eye its main trends, together with all its
moods, side-tracks and tendencies”. These values appear very different to the values applied
to many modern recordings of traditional Irish music. Were Tommy Potts still living and
recording today, there is every chance that many of these so-called ‘side-tracks’ and
tendencies might be discouraged in the performance, or edited out of the recordings in post
production. His extremely individual style is reliant on his use of intonation, tempo variation
and improvisation that is rarely heard in more modern examples of recordings.
The reason for discussing this album is to highlight the decisions and judgments that that are
made in the production process of a recording. As Johansson (2009) states, in the recording
of folk music some features of the style are preserved whilst others are not. Similarly, Grasso
(2005) describes recordings as silhouettes that provide an outline of a performance whilst
featuring certain elements of the performance at the expense of others. In the case of
Tommy Potts the recording has endeavoured to preserve the individuality of his playing,
while in many modern recordings, as described in the previous chapters, more value is placed
on technique and meeting the expectations of the consumer. This has led to the opinion that
recordings have become too conservative and lack the sense of improvisation and expression
of the live performance (Carson, 2010 and Quinn, 2005). It is important to avoid the overediting
of recordings and technology should not be allowed to determine the outcome of
productions in the way that Zagorski-Thomas (2010) describes when stating that “a
proportion of editing is done because it is possible rather than necessary – or even desirable”.
The failure of commercial products merely drives the industry to the
pursuit of new ‘better’ technologies, progressively distancing their
consumers from the real natural world. (Johnson, 2010:44)
Johnson goes further in suggesting that technological solutions are sought to improve work
though the problems lie elsewhere within the process. Many people in the field of traditional
music bemoan the over-sanitisation of recordings. This is possibly explained by how
musicians and enthusiasts within this field ascribe authenticity to works. This leads to a wider
question of how producers define perfection in a recorded performance that is discussed by
Johansson (2005). His research suggests that entirely sanitised and technically accurate
recordings produced in the edit are not the most appropriate and are not ascribed authenticity
from with the social field of Irish music.
The prevalent multitask approach to studio recording reinforces the idea of silhouette
recordings in creating a sense of proximity that focuses the listener on the detail of
individual performers within the ensemble rather than on the ensemble as a whole, as might
be the case in an ambient stereo recording of a classical ensemble. Carson (2010) describes a
‘raw bar’ approach to recording whereby music is captured in a live context in order to more
closely represent the nature of traditional music. This notion appears to have been picked up
by several groups of musicians, such the Raw Bar Collective who recorded their album,
Millhouse Measures (2011 – self published) to a multitrack recorder, but in a live
The sound of live music is different to that produced in a recording
studio. I put it down to the extra effort the musician makes to connect
with the listener and the resultant energy and relationship that builds
between them. This was recorded as an intimate concert in a small rural
pub, The Millhouse, Co. Waterford in front of friends and locals. Both
the music and the listeners’ reaction to it were recorded and, as you will
hear, listening to good traditional music is not a passive occupation! (Raw
Bar Collective. 2011)
This approach to recording would appear to satisfy the notions of authenticity in the social
field, however it seems likely that the primary driver behind this approach is a musical one.
By recording the musicians with an audience, the audience feedback received by the musicians
can overcome some of the problems considered here of recording in a sterile studio
environment. However, this Raw Bar Collective recording appears to be very much aimed at
the traditional music community and this approach may not satisfy the sensibilities of a wider
Baily touches on this idea when discussing the industry based around ‘world music’ recordings.
Independent producers of world music records may well share the
enthusiasm of ethnomusicologists for exotic music, and making
recordings and publishing records is one way of expressing engagement,
and earning (usually) a modest living at the same time. But the focus is on
the sound in its own terms, divorced from its original context, and often
invested with a new set of meanings that help promote sales. (Baily.
The research discussed in this work appears to support this idea in identifying ways in which
the record production techniques have affected the way Irish traditional music is presented on
record. As recordings of Irish music are also used as a learning tool by other musicians, these
changes in meaning transmit to the next generation of musicians. It appears that commercial
recordings of traditional Irish music have replaced most of the field recordings in this area.
There are very few field recordings widely available outside of academic circles and personal
recordings done by musicians. The importance of the mediation caused by recording is
identified here and in some ways highlights the importance of unmediated8 recordings being
available as sources from which musicians can learn. In commercial recordings the features
chosen to create the ‘silhouette’ presented to the audience may not be the features outlined
in a field recording that are intended to document the practices of the musician in a social
context. Increased availability of field recordings may go some way to reversing the trend
identified in this work, of style and repertoire becoming convergent in traditional music.
It should be carefully considered how the ‘audioscape’ is presented to performers in a
recording situation, either through headphones mixes or playback of takes, as it appears to
have a considerable effect on the way they perform. The extremely analytical perspective
gained by the sense of proximity achieved in the recording studio appears likely to promote a
more conservative approach to recording. A compromise would appear to be the best
solution as consumer expectations demand ‘high-fidelity’ recordings. However, within the
recording process, recordists and producers have the power to influence the performance of
the musicians by presenting headphones mixes and playback in a particular fashion. By
presenting mixes with less of a sense of proximity musicians may be encouraged to perform
in a less self-conscious manner allowing their playing to be better represented on a recording.
In conclusion it is worth considering that the advent and advancement of recording are
among a wide range of influences on the development and transmission of Irish traditional
music. However, this is not considered in discourse on traditional music as much as some of
the political and geographic factors. Indeed, record production is only seldom mentioned in
8 An unmediated recording is an oxymoron in many senses but the term is used to describe a
recording that aims to mediate as little as possible in documenting the normal practices of the
the cultural domain of journalists and reviewers other than when it is clearly of substandard
quality. This work shows the influence that record production techniques have on recordings
of traditional music, even if the recordings appear to be accurate representations of the
performance. Further consideration of recording techniques and approaches from with the
social field and the cultural domain may lead to more understanding of the mediating effects
of the recording process and may therefore allow more informed decisions to be made on the
most appropriate approach to capturing, disseminating and transmitting traditional Irish
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Reproduction, Leonardo, Vol. 19, No. 1 (1986) p. 53 – 60