Arts & Culture » Culture

Men or machines?


“This advance is poised to destroy the well being of all performing artists and may well signal the beginning of a technological revolution that could well quell the human craft of emotional expression through music.”


This prophetic quip may sound familiar to those following headlines about the current digital coup that’s crippling the music industry. But that op-ed was printed more than 100 years ago in a Dayton, Ohio, musical journal called Caecilla. At the time the struggle between meddling downloaders and the monolithic Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) was probably less plausible than flying to the moon. The apocalyptic “technological revolution” that had the editors in a tizzy was a mechanical beast that Detroiter Edwin Votey patented in 1897 — the player piano.

When Votey’s cumbersome auto-instrument emerged from the basement of 312 Forest St., it was hardly the first invention that stirred the contentious relationship between musical puritans and technological progress. There was the newly invented lower register of Beethoven’s piano that was thought to inspire madness in the late 18th century; the damnable phonograph that boomed in popularity around 1910 was poised to destroy the orchestra; hell, the advent of rock music was nothing short of satanic. And Votey’s machine was hardly an invention of convenience — in order to get any noise out of the thing the operator had to rapidly pump heavy foot pedals.

Today, the debate over technology involves the relationship between musicians and computers. And it’s not just about Jimmy from Peoria breaking copyright law to burn the new Blink 182 ballad for his girlfriend; for musicians, audiophiles and music listeners, it’s also largely about the way the music is recorded in the first place.

During the last 10 years, digital recording dramatically changed the face of the music industry. The application of digital techniques has affected nearly every recent recording heard today — from Toby Keith to the Chemical Brothers and everyone in between. It’s almost unheard of for a record to be released these days without a little digital pitch-correcting here or a computerized nip-and-tuck there.

For decades, artists would go into the studio to record on magnetic analog tape. The creation of records that featured lots of layered tracks and excessive tape manipulation, like Def Leppard’s Hysteria for example, would cost millions of dollars, enlist tons of engineers and take months to make. But the schlep of analog recording is ancient history. These days — using digital programs with names like ProTools, Cakewalk and Vegas — musicians can record, manipulate and edit music in their own homes. All the studio trickery that went into Hysteria can be done in a fraction of the time with a handful of mouse clicks and a lone computer.

“As a joke, some friends and I thought about remaking Hysteria as fast as we could,” Steve Erwine says. Erwine is a former recording engineer at Ocean Way Studios, a top L.A. recording house that was an early pioneer in digital recording. Remember when Nat “King” Cole was magically brought back from beyond the grave to sing “Unforgettable,” a digital duet with his daughter? That was done at Ocean Way, and Erwine was an assistant engineer on the project.

Erwine’s been recording tape-free since the ’80s. When Erwine’s own small studio started out, he was mostly doing demos. Bands looking to get signed with a major label could go to Erwine and cut three or four songs in an afternoon; since the process didn’t use a shred of magnetic tape and was much easier to edit, it cost a fraction of the norm. Even though rapid advances in digital recording has made those early efforts seem retrospectively primitive, Erwine still sees his work as a watershed for the industry.

“We really pushed the whole debate about digital recording forward by proving it was possible,” Erwine says. “Even if the sound of some of the early recordings weren’t so great.”

That debate is about the legitimacy of digital recording. As it became more common in professional studios and became less cost-prohibitive for consumers, many sound purists railed against the “coldness” of digitally recorded sound. Today, there are a handful of retro purists — the White Stripes among them — who insist on using analog recording methods and tend to turn up their nose at digital recording. If all digital efforts sounded like Erwine’s tinny band demos from the late ’80s, they might have a point. But high demand for low-cost recording has encouraged stunning, good-sounding advances.

“I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find very many folks who make a living at recording who will sit and argue digital versus analog,” says Larry Crane, the editor of TapeOp, a magazine dedicated to creative recording arts that’s spilled its share of ink about the topic of digital recording. “Anyone who is running [recording] sessions for regional, indie or niche markets does whatever it takes to get the job done.”

Today with a few hundred dollars worth of gear and a computer, a professional-sounding record can be made with no proper studio, no engineer and no budget. Because of this, the “independent and niche” markets that Crane speaks of are being flooded by more homemade products than ever and people like Erwine are seeing less and less work at professional studios.

Is this another blow to the conventions of the record industry?

Hardly. The same digital dawn that has let file sharing give such a huge bite in the ass to commercial record sales has enabled an increase in the number of records released. The situation suffers no shortage of irony: While the RIAA complains that the damn kids with computers are destroying the music industry, Billboard reports that more records are being released now than at any point in history — by far. Records that are being made by the same damn kids with the same computers. Records exactly like the ones of Pas/Cal.

“Software-based recording has made a band like Pas/Cal possible,” writes Pas/Cal singer Casimer Pascal, in an e-mail exchange. “We operate on no budget whatsoever ... and we labor over our recordings for months and months. Twenty or 30 years ago this combination would have stopped us dead in our tracks (poor pun intended).”

In independent music, Pas/Cal’s situation has become more rule than exception. Some indie labels, including fairly recognizable ventures like Tiger Style and Matador, often pony up the money for a band’s home recording gear. The technological Pandora’s box has been opened to everyone.

“We converted my lil’ wooden garage (originally erected in 1924) into a 21st century audio workshop,” Pascal explains. “LTD (Pas/Cal’s drummer), Gene Corduroy (guitarist) and myself did most of the work … The space is small, about 16 X 12, but comfortable.”

Of course, Pas/Cal’s case might paint too rosy a picture of the digital overthrow. For every recording like Pas/Cal’s impressive The Handbag Memoirs EP, there are countless others that employ the same technology with less taste. With the touch of a button it is now possible to correct out-of-tune pitches, “quantize” rhythmic patterns and digitize the music into squeaky-clean, lifeless piles of binary code.

“Bands are making ‘ProTools records,’” explains local musician and studio owner Warn Defever. “Albums where every flaw has been scientifically removed, every error has been corrected and even the slightest nuances which may be construed as mistakes have been removed and replaced.” Defever runs a recording studio in Detroit and has been using digital recording methods along with analog techniques for a decade.

“The recording technology has caught up with heat-seeking missiles; it’s like those bombs they drop from planes that go down the chimney at the embassy and know which room to detonate in. This sucks for people who like music. Music listeners have never complained that records were too out-of-tune, or that tempos fluctuated too much, or that sometimes the drum fills were ahead of the beat. These small details were what made records musical if not human,” Defever says.

For people like Erwine however, digital perfection is just the next step of musical evolution. “It’s a huge advancement in music history,” he says. “As time goes on we will have more and more control to create documents the way they were intended to be heard.”

But for Defever, the imperfections are part of the art and he bemoans the inhuman sheen of things like pitch-perfect Foo Fighters records, or nearly every new song you hear on the radio.

“I hear so many records lately that couldn’t have occurred in nature,” says Defever. “Not to say that I’m obsessed with the whole Folkways documentary-approach to recording. I got into ProTools to make music that couldn’t really occur in nature, to experiment, to fuck around with sounds. It never occurred to me to go through and remove every shred of human imperfection.”

Defever says that many musical innovators — including Miles Davis, Terry Reily and Jimi Hendrix — used strange tape effects for sound experimentation, not to cover up their missteps. “If you need ProTools because you make so many mistakes, quit wasting my time, go read a book, go listen to Hank Williams, go see Easy Action, go home and practice.”

Or maybe go pump a player piano.

Nate Cavalieri is a freelance writer. E-mail

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