As I work daily in the recording industry, I am almost daily reminded of how far we haven't come. My thesis: we can't record anything better today than we could 50, 60, or 70 years ago.
Case in point: during my years at Capitol Studios, I had many an opportunity to transfer some music from Capitol's library for use in a new album or soundtrack. One assignment was to transfer some Nat "King" Cole songs to digital 48 track for David Foster to use in making another "Song With My Dead Dad" album for Natalie Cole. I rolled an ATR 104 into Studio B, installed the 3 track heads, calibrated the repro electronics, and placed the master tape on it, and hit "PLAY."
I first listened to tracks 1 & 3, the stereo orchestra. Folks, they might as well have been playing in the room with me. The only sense of another time was that the bass was a little light by today's standards. But that's an editorial critique, not a process one.
Then I solo'd track 2: Nat's voice. I heard the orchestral leakage over the 'gobos' (portable baffles used in studios), I heard the slight rustle as he handled the lyric sheets, a slight smacking of the lips as he drew a deep breath, and then...My God, that voice! Like warm honey, it dripped with sensuality. No wonder the guy was a superstar. We forget sometimes, as we get caught up in current styles, that other forms of music have power and grace. Cole's voice brought that home to me that day. I realized that there was not one improvement in recording technology that would have made his voice sound any better. State-of-the-art German microphones, quality American made tape machines, and talent, buckets full of talent.
This revelation was reinforced tonight as I copied some CDs into iTunes so I could load them into my iPod. As a former guitarist, I am a sucker for great guitar playing. And I hadn't listened to this album in some time: The Legendary Segovia. These recordings go back as far as 1927! Sure, they are a little bit noiser than state of the art digital recordings made today, but they still sound exactly like a guy playing great guitar sitting right in front of you. This was Segovia as a passionate younger guy (born 1893, these recordings were made from age 34 to 43), who was still trying to establish the classical music cred of the guitar, an instrument primarily associated with gypsies and 'pop' music of the time.
The bottom line is that great music is always rock'n'roll. It has emotion, danger, passion, and that undefined greatness that characterizes art. Listen especially to track #1, the Bach Cello Suite in G Prelude. This just rocks! And as you listen, realize that it was recorded in 1935! And track #4, the Sor Theme And Variations, holy crap! Sounds like 2 guys playing at once.
We've come along way, only to realize we haven't really gone anywhere at all. Great performances still trump everything. Sample this.
Oh, and for all you metal freaks, Yngvie would sell his left testicle to play this well. Probably both, actually.
Update: here's a video of Segovia playing Sor's "Variations on a theme by Mozart":