I think you're making a bunch of good points.
One thing I think you're saying is that older harpsichord recordings were made too close-in, which
leads to clipped percussives when the strings are plucked, especially if one is setting references
levels using VU meters, which don't respond quickly enough to account for those percussives.
In the older recordings, I think you hear a more natural harpsichord when it's used as an
accompaniment to a chamber orchestra, such as some of the recordings made in Vienna by Decca. When
the mics are stood off from the harpsichord, and it is playing as part of an ensemble, you don't
hear as much mechanical noise and it sounds more as a plucked-string instrument, which it is.
However, as a solo instrument, the big problem with harpsichords in the tape days -- especially the
days before low-noise tape and various NR systems -- was that many of the instruments (especially
the antiques) just didn't put out a lot of SPL in the part of their sound where the string is
ringing (ie the note is sounding). As you said, the plucking percussive is quite a bit higher SPL.
So if one were to stand off mics and keep levels low enough to get very clean percussives of a solo
instrument, one usually ended up with too much tape hiss or LP surface noise for the project to be
What David Breneman is hearing in modern recordings is likely the very low noise and higher
available dynamic range of all halfway decent modern digital recording systems. I would say, given
an instrument that will stay in tune and is well-played, and given a good acoustic setting, you
could make a harpsichord recording today with my little Zoom H4n that would sound better (ie more
natural and less distorted) than most vintage efforts. However, you don't have Rafael Puyana and a
host of other greats to play it anymore, because they are all dead.
Also for what it's worth, that Puyana Soler album was recorded closer-in than his earlier Mercury
records. In fact, the big problem with the earlier records was picking a time to do them when
traffic noise and subway noise wasn't too noticeable, because the instrument is much quieter than a
piano, and 3 Schoeps M201 mics stood off a bit picked up quite a lot of noise outside the building.
Bottom line, the harpsichord is a difficult instrument to record but modern technology lends itself
to the task better than what was available 50 years ago. I think the harpsichord heyday in modern
culture was the late 60's and early 70's when electric and acoustic harpsichord playing infused
psychodellic and pop music and appeared in TV commercials and soundtrack scores. In more recent
times, it seems to have receded back into the realm of the solo-classical niche. Interestingly,
though, some sort of psuedo harpsichord sound is still a standard pre-set on just about any
-- Tom Fine
----- Original Message -----
From: "DAVID BURNHAM" <[log in to unmask]>
To: <[log in to unmask]>
Sent: Friday, April 17, 2015 1:04 PM
Subject: [ARSCLIST] Harpsichord recordings
> After a recent posting, I was asked off line to explain why harpsichords were so difficult to
> record in the '50s. After I answered this person, he/she said I should post the explanation on
> line, (I won't reveal who it was but they'll be reading this and they can if they like).
> First, let me emphasize that this comment was NOT a criticism of Mercury records, the Puyana
> recordings are as fine as any harpsichord recordings of their day, (in fact, the tonal range of
> those recordings is astounding), the criticism was of the state of the art of harpsichord
> recordings in those days and earlier. As I think most people know, unlike a piano where the string
> is hit with a felt hammer, and hence it's name, (piano is short for pianoforte, soft-loud), the
> harpsichord's strings are plucked with a plectrum and is capable of very little dynamic range -
> depressing the key very slowly or hitting it very hard produces a note of virtually the same
> Unlike any other instrument, when I first heard a real harpsichord, my first impression was how
> much it DIDN'T sound like a recorded harpsichord. Until the '70s, the standard level measuring
> device was the volume-unit, (VU), meter. The behavior of this meter was designed to simulate the
> response of the human ear. A "VU" is identical in intensity change to a "dB". In the '70s the
> Peak Program Meter, (PPM) was introduced which measured the peak value of an audio signal - peaks
> that a VU meter missed. The sound of every note on a harpsichord is preceded with a peak at the
> point of string plucking which can be as much as 20 dB higher than the body of the note. If you
> mike a harpsichord and measure the sound simultaneously with a VU meter and a PPM, you can set the
> volume of the sound so that it's reaching reference level on the PPM but the VU meter is barely
> moving. These peaks are very important in recreating the sound of a harpsichord but if you
> raise the level until the VU meter is responding at reference level, you'll be clipping off these
> high amplitude peaks, hence the usual sound of recorded harpsichords from the '50s and '60s and
> earlier. If you record a harpsichord using only a PPM as your level setting device, you'll be
> amazed how "real" the instrument sounds on the recording, (this assuming that you are listening to
> it at a level that simulates the level of an actual harpsichord and not at the level you would
> listen to Mahler's 3rd Symphony).
> There were some early exceptions, of course; in my experience, the earliest recording that did a
> good job of capturing the actual sound of a harpsichord was Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5",
> I've forgotten who the artists were, (and I'm currently in Florida away from my records), but this
> was a DGG/Archive recording in the old cream coloured jackets where each disc was initialed by the
> engineer and/or the producer. Each disc was also accompanied by an index card with all the info
> about the recording.