Sunday, May 5, 2013

All Wave, Kim Deal, Steve Albini, The Benefits of Analog

I recently started playing music with a drummer who is big fan of Kim Deal's bands The Pixies and The Breeders.  This caused me to go back and listen to Mountain Battles, and read up on Kim Deal some more.  I had forgotten she worked with musician/engineer/producer Steve Albini.  It also got me interested in her All Wave concept again.

All Wave is a sort of brand name for the idea of all-analog audio production.  By including the word "wave" in the name Deal emphasizes one of the things that distinguishes analog sound; it preserves[1] the wave created by the musician.  Each new copy is analogous to the original sound.  Digital recordings store a stream of numbers that can be used to recreate an analogous wave, not a direct copy of it.

But it isn't just about the sound.  It's about the performance.  In Steve Albini's short essay about All Wave on The Breeder's web site he refers to digitally manipulating "sounds separated from the dimension of time in which they were performed."

What I read there is a concern about musical integrity.  Knowing that Mountain Battles was recorded in this way I do listen to it slightly differently.  I know that each thing I hear actually happened.

This couldn't be more different from some of the electronic music I listen to.  Some of these records are entirely (or nearly so) created in software.  It may be that none of the notes or other sounds were ever "played" by a person, only programmed and edited.[2]

Like so many other things it is about the right tool for the job.  So, when is analog the right tool for the job?

A) When that is what you like
B) When that is what you are good at
C) When authentically capturing a performance is more important than the details of the final product

As Deal says in this interview with Wears The Trousers:

 "I was never against [digital audio]; I was against other people making me use it and telling me it was better. [...] These days, digital can sound incredible and it’s just going to get better. It’s not just MP3; digital is way beyond that now – that was just a fad. If you get a good programmer now, people who’ve really spent a lot of money getting good plug-ins and things like that, it can sound really good."

And later in the same interview...

"I do not sit in front of a computer to make, or even write, music. The work that goes into it is just players in a room."

You would think that someone who is advocating an all analog process, even to the point of naming it and creating a logo, would also, implicitly, be taking sides--would be saying digital is bad, inferior, un-musical or the like.  She isn't.  She's saying analog is a good way to record "players in a room."

I have often wondered how much editing and clean-up gets done on classical and jazz recordings, especially now that the barriers to digital editing are so low.  I wonder how many classical recordings are out there that sound like you are in the hall with the trio or orchestra but that never really "happened."  In the classical music world where virtuosity and precise recording are both valued so highly the temptation to artificially enhance a performance must be great, as would be the professional consequence if you got caught.

I am all for All Wave for anybody who shares Kim Deal's values, especially if they also like the "players in a room" process.  For music that is all about the trickery and technology, obviously it isn't a good fit.

[1] It seeks to preserve it and does so with varying levels of fidelity.  Let's just assume, for the purpose of argument, that we are talking about good equipment operated by knowledgeable people.  Within the scope of this post the same goes for digital equipment.
[2] This is also true of a lot of my own electronic music.

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