Saturday, October 18, 2008

Can Music and Audio Technology Make Production "Too Easy?"

No discussion of technological change is complete without observations about how much easier this or that new technology is than what it replaces...usually with a value judgment attached.

I just read an interview in Future Music with hip hop and electro producer Egyptian Lover. He's old school, not just because he's been at it for 25 years, but because he swears by the Roland TR808 and vinyl DJing. In the interview he also said he preferred recording to tape rather than to a computer, because in-the-box (Pro Tools, Logic, Nuendo, Cubase, DP) recording is too easy.

People say things like this all the time. It is easy to dismiss it as snobbery or golden age thinking but I sometimes hear it from people really don't want to dismiss. Personally I try to keep an open mind and to the idea that different ways of doing things invariably have both advantages and disadvantages but logically I know this isn't true either. Some methods and technologies are abandoned because they are replaced by something truly superior.

Case in point: nobody liked 8-track tapes (officially the format is called "Stereo 8") in the first place. When CDs gained traction and cassette tapes (officially, "compact cassettes") started sounding decent people dropped the 8-track like, or should I say "as," a bad habit.

Back in the world of making music unhappiness with new technology turns up in some odd places. I wish I could remember what magazine it was in, but I read an aticle about producing the soundtrack to the current Dr Who? series accompanied by a sidebar about Delia Derbyshire who arranged the original Dr. Who theme in the early 60's. The theme was written by Ron Grainer but I think most people who have heard it will agree that it was Derbyshire who gave it life...with razor blades. It was also a technical breakthough, being one of the world's first widely heard entirely electronic recorded works.

The work was almost entirely created by Derbyshire recording individual notes (from individual oscilators) and other sounds to magnetic tape, eiditing, copying and layering the results into a full arrangement. In this case "copying" doesn't mean Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V; it means playing a recording on one open reel tape machine and recording it on another, probably in real time. In this case "editing" means cutting magnetic tape with razor blades and taping it back together for weeks on end.

According to the writer of the Dr. Who? soundtrack article Derbyshire resisted doing things in any other way. He wrote that in the years after her groundbreaking Who work she resisted the adoption of synthesis and newer electronic music technologies, feeling that tape editing and manipulation was how electronic music should be done. This seems odd in light of the effort these technologies could save her.

There is another way to look at the effort invested in music production. It has to do with the sense of accomplishment we feel when we get something right. I can't really play piano so piano parts in my music tend to be programmed in a MIDI editor on my computer. The sense of accomplishment I have when I program one I like is probably different from what I would get if I sat down at a physical piano and played something comparable. I think it is human nature to become emotionally invested in wichever one of these creative modes one invests their time and effort in.

Geting back to Egyptian Lover, I imagine he likes the way magnetic tape sounds. Many people prefer it to the sound of all-digital productions. I suspect that he also feels a sense of accomplishment when he produces something good using those techniques and technologies. He has left less of the process up to the machines (although, multi-track tape recorders are certainly machines) and put more of himself in it, left more of his fingerprints on it.

For me, leaving some of the details to the machines frees me to work on other details, which is something I value. Does that constitute taking a lot of short cuts? Yes, but if it frees me to be creative in another way I'm OK with that.

Egyptian Lover isn't and I totally understand.

No comments: