The definition of noise according to the Oxford Dictionary is ‘a sound, especially one that is loud or unpleasant or that causes disturbance’.

For many producers and engineers, the ultimate aim is to capture clean audible material that is of the highest quality. In a search for perfection, studios invest thousands of pounds into equipment in order to achieve this high standard. However, many of the recordings that are destined to last a lifetime such as Elton John’s Goodbye yellow brick road, David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ and Phil Collins ‘In The Air Tonight’ were recorded using equipment that is decades old using experimental methods, accidents and techniques that bend the rules of ‘normal’ engineering. Noise would have played a big part in these recordings but to what extent? Surely with new technology that removes unwanted noise we should be producing music that is much more desirable and long lasting. However, many would argue today’s music is over produced and too clinical. So, what is it about these iconic recordings that make them so pleasing to the ear? 

Phil Spector’s iconic technique ‘the wall of sound’ featured on ‘Be My Baby’ by The Ronettes is a great example from which you hear a blend of sound from multiple instruments. This was a technique that allowed the unwanted bleed from other instruments to create a desired blend of noise. He used this noise to develop his own unique sound. He was also notorious for overworking some of his clients to achieve tiredness and fatigue, which to him was required to produce the best performance. In the book Phil Spector ‘Out Of His Head’ Richard Williams writes,

Suddenly there was a yell from Spector. “That’s it!” Quite by accident, they had stumbled across a noise that no one had ever heard before. There were plenty of people who still remember when, hearing the guitar solo on that cut for the first time, they muttered in sheer awe “what’s that?”

“You know there’s no drum on that record,” Spector said. “There’s just a bass drum. A lot of those records didn’t have any drum because I couldn’t get a drum sound. Today I don’t spend that much time thinking about it, but in those days if I couldn’t get a drum sound, I’d go crazy. I’d go out of my mind, spend five or six hours, trying to get a drum sound, and it’s really hard on the musicians because they’re playing the same thing over and over. But I figured… I just tried to imagine one mike over everything, how would it be.”

Many engineers today would consider this bleed of sound or unwanted noise to be a headache. Modern software programs such as Melodyne, Flex and using methodology such as Midi replacement require performances to be captured with as little unwanted noise as possible to be able to edit the fine detail and perfect the final product. Popular music at present features more electronic modifications in post production in order to sound acceptable to the public. Is this not the perfect time to record? 

Producers have been waiting decades for this un-ended flexibility in manipulation of sound. In Brian Eno’s journal ‘The studio as compositional tool’, Eno explains 

“The move to tape was very important, because as soon as something’s on tape, it becomes a substance which is malleable and cuttable and reversible in ways that discs aren’t”

This was the first milestone that allowed producers to remove unwanted noise and manipulate performances to create perfection. Since then, numerous technologies have improved now allowing producers to use computers to edit sound and recreate a performance to the state where sometimes very little of the original performance is barely audible. Has this flexibility lost the honesty that many of the relic recordings featured?

Every instrument despite its design will have a unique tone and frequency range. Every setting has a different ambience, every microphone a different character and almost all of these elements feature noises of some sort that could be argued desirable or not. This opinion is often described as a nuance. 

The definition of Nuance according to the Oxford Dictionary, is ‘a subtle difference in or shade of meaning, expression, or sound’.

Understandably there are unwanted noises that occur from damaged gear, faulty cables or electrical interference but even these noises can now be used or manipulated to benefit a performance.

There is a well known saying “One person’s junk in another person’s treasure” the same applies to noise and nuance. One person’s noise is another person’s nuance. 

John Cage explains in The Future of Music; “In the past the point of disagreement has been between dissonance and consonance, it will be, in the immediate future between noise and so-called musical sounds. Present methods of writing music, principally those which employ harmony and it’s reference to particular steps in the field of sound, will be inadequate for the composer, who will be faced with the entire field of sound”. 

For John Cage noise is the paint he uses on a canvas. Even in his most famous piece 4’33, his audience participate in the creation of non-intentional sound, i.e. not so blank canvas. Using sound in this way allows the composer to paint on a multitude of canvases. 

The Oxford Dictionary explains music to be vocal or instrumental sounds (or both) combined in such a way as to produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion.

However, Jacques Attali claims in his writing on noise and politics that listening to music is listening to all noise therefore he later explains that all music, any organization of sounds is then a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, of a tonality. 

This allows for any realization or arrangement of sound to be artistically defined as a musical composition. If a noise is clearly out of place, be it in a recording mix or live performance then it is question “what was that noise?” But when listening for the first time, who are we to judge? Where applied dissonance is used to make a listener feel uncomfortable so a noise may be used to catch you off guard. Was it intentional? This is the down to the mind and understanding of the composer. 

John Kirby