There is so little good-sounding new music to be had lately, and I blame that on the fact that everything is made on computers these days, and everyone’s a star on their own computer.
Most people who record and burn their own CD’s don’t know enough about sound engineering to effectively over-ride the presets that Microsoft Windows or the latest Apple iJobs products and their related lackey software applications impose. And it seems the folks at Windows and iJobs seems to think that everyone wants a slick, drum-and-bass heavy contemporary sound, so that’s what amateurs and pros alike churn out now, sometimes even egregiously remixing classic albums of years gone by to punch up the bottom. Because we need to make the Rolling Stones sound more like Shakira, and the Beatles sound more like Shania Twain, and Led Zeppelin sound more like Fountains of Wayne.
Sure, people say that the great thing about computers and cheap recording gear is that anyone can make a record. But the bad thing about computers and cheap recording gear is that anyone can make a record, too. Just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. The fact is, some people are good at some things, while some people are good at other things. And, truth be told, some people just flat out can’t sing, can’t write and can’t play. Very, very, very occasionally, such people produce the happy musical accident, a thing so unique and weird that it becomes wonderful because it is so, so very wrong, but most of the time, that’s just not the case.
When everything is special, nothing is special. When everything is ordinary, everything is ordinary.
The way I see it, there are some objective truths to be expressed here, whether the arbiters of contemporary creative culture want to acknowledge them or not. Fact: analog is a beautiful aesthetic, with fat cables, tape hiss, tube hum, electrical warmth, etc. Fact: Digital is a convenient and cheap and available tool. Fact: When “everybody” makes an album, we don’t end up with more people making cool indie lo-fi stuff, we end up with more lame folk singer, hip hop or pop garbage piling up all around us. Fact: If all you listen to is crap, all you are likely to produce is crap. And Fact: Most Americans listen to nothing but crap.
Lest you feel inclined to call me a Luddite, I don’t have a problem with technology in general. Electrifying a guitar didn’t kill the instrument, but instead, expanded its possibilities as a creative tool immeasurably. What I do have a problem with, though, is the fact that today’s technology comes so prepackaged for you. With analog recording gear, you had to have some idea what you were doing, and there weren’t all sorts of presets and easy patches to make things happen. It also wasn’t cheap, and didn’t come pre-installed when you purchased a bass guitar or a PONG machine. You had to chose it, and buy it, and learn to operate it, as opposed to just discovering it lurking on the desktop of a computer that you bought for homework, not music-making.
These days, the problem with home digital recording is that it’s like PowerPoint for Music: everything sounds the same, because the software is such an integral part of the sound. It’s the same thing with photography: in the digital era, everyone thinks that they are a photographer because they point, click and post, so no one learns anything about composition, developing, color, light and all the things that make good photography good. We live in an era of cheap and easy and prefab. And the new album you made on your computer tonight is no more or less a work of art than is the purse-lipped flirty photo of yourself you slapped up on your Facebook profile. Disposable piffle. No quality control. Facile and forgettable.
This becomes all the more insidious when you realize that this dumbing- and blanding-down of music is being perpetrated by gigantic international computer conglomerates that want all of us to live, play, work, create, think, talk, communicate and spend money within a set of proprietary programs that benefit a small, rich consortium, most of whom are middle-aged white men.
Back in analog days, your little home recording unit, which cost you a pretty penny (rather than being “bundled” in with something else you bought) didn’t narc you out back to its manufacturer, the way that your computer lets Microsoft and iJobs keep track of you. In those days, you were recording to a piece of tape, and what you mixed on your board actually ended up on the tape without an intermediary step. In these digital days, you output your mix to a computer, where your friends from Microsoft or iJobs and their allies have already decided on a final EQ, or volume level, or hi/lo gain, unless you are motivated or clever enough to work around their presets, and most folks aren’t. And if you are, such information will be communicated the next time you synch your application to the Mothership.
If you want to play in their sandbox, you’re gonna use their shovels and spades. Which they will give to you when you buy their pails.
Ultimately, I guess what I’m saying is that as computers have made things easier and easier for people, and people haven’t had to work as hard for their sounds, the things people produce get more and more same-sounding and same-looking, because there’s less incentive to dig deeper and understand what you are doing and why you are doing it, when all you have to do is press a “burn” button (incorporating both hardware and software elements) and poop out a disc, a photo or a Powerpoint presentation.
Our tools influence our product. There’s just no way around that. And as our tools push people towards a more standard, easily achieved mean, our product gets more and more alike, originality becomes less and less of a valued commodity, and the monetary worth of Microsoft and iJobs stock continues to grow and grow.
So I say to you: the true era of glorious lo-fidelity analog recording is over, my friends. Once you’ve injected digital into the process, you’re just dealing with bits and bytes and business, not sound. Personally, I long for the days when everything you needed in the studio could be connected with quarter inch jacks. Screw all this midi and USB and micro-plug garbage. I want fat cables and amplifier hum. And not amplifier hum that’s added in after the fact by a computer.
Do you suppose there’s a place for me and my ilk in this world anymore?
13 thoughts on “The Analog Kid Speaks”
I can remember not having a cassette player hooked up to a record player, so I would put a boom box in the same room, play the record and record onto a cassette in the box.Sometimes you could hear me singing back up on the cassette.
Remember when your favorite cassette tape would get a kink in it and you’d listen to it anyway, anticipate the kink. It’s no wonder kids Today don’t deal with adversity well.
Mike: I remember using pencils to try to re-spool cassette tapes into their shells, kinks and all. Probably the best example of analog flaw in my listening habits is when I listen to King Crimson’s “Fracture” from the Starless and Bible Black album. There’s a point in the song where a slow, long passage suddenly ERUPTS into a huge, vibrant riff, and on my original vinyl copy of the record, there was a distinct “POP” right before that eruption. So whenever I hear it on CD now, I feel positively CHEATED to not hear that crucial POP. I also had a case where I had an album by Pere Ubu on vinyl that just sounded like it had an insane amount of tape hiss and pop on it, and when it came out on CD, it still had those noises . . . I interviewed David Thomas from the band around the time of that CD issue, and he told me that it wasn’t scratches at all . . . it was the sound of a campfire popping behind the song!!!
I love vinyl and tape so much I still drive a ’95 Saturn with a deck…and all my records’ pops and hisses sound so great on those stock speakers! You’re making me nostalgic for that old TEAC 4-track on which we recorded a ditty about mammalian protuberances called “National Geographic.” Huge hit on the Vassar dance circuit circa 1984.
And here I thought this was going to be a post about Rush:
Speaking of Rush, I learned about the Loudness War from a Rush forum:
The loudness war or loudness race is a pejorative name for the apparent competition to digitally master and release recordings with relatively higher real and perceived levels of loudness.
The phenomenon was first reported with respect to mastering practices for 7″ singles. The maximum peak level of analog recordings such as these is limited by the specifications of electronic equipment along the chain from source to listener, including vinyl record and cassette players.
With the advent of CDs, music was encoded to a digital format with a clearly defined maximum peak level. Once the maximum amplitude of a CD is reached, the perception of loudness can be increased still further by a combination of dynamic range compression, make-up gain, and equalization (frequency-specific amplification). Engineers can apply an increasingly high ratio of compression to a recording and then increase its gain until it peaks at the maximum numerical volume. Extreme uses of dynamic range compression can introduce clipping and other audible distortion to the waveform of the recording. Modern albums that use dynamic range compression therefore sacrifice quality of musical reproduction to loudness. The competitive escalation of volume processing has led music fans and members of the musical press to refer to the affected albums as victims of a “loudness war”.
Dan, I love that song, and copped its title for this article. I was going to post a link to the video, too, but decided to see who was smart and tasteful enough to catch it. Well played, sir. In re loudness: I know Metallica’s last album was considered to be almost the stereotype casualty of the Loudness War . . . it was mixed in such an over-the-top fashion that it became almost unlistenable at normal volumes. Having loads of new and old CDs that I cycle through regularly, it’s also interesting to hear how different the mixes of early CDs were compared to those being released today. As noted in the article . . . let’s make the Rolling Stones sound more like Shakira . . .
G, I’ve got a bunch of my band’s old 4-tracks digitized. I used to have them at jericsmith.com, but they were getting hammered by bots from China and Japan, so I took them down. I’ll have to find a new place to post them . . . and then we’ll have to give “National Geographic” a spin.
I agree completely with the charm of “pops and hisses” and I am glad my son has begun to appreciate them as well! It makes me happy that his musical taste is very broad and that he’s embracing the sound that analog recordings produce. In fact, he’s become a bit of a snob about it.
As for Rock Band, it IS no fun around the campfire, but we do have a good time with it on winter nights with friends. We have a couple of actual guitars and a harmonica for the campfire. Now there’s a sound…
Nice article. The sad fact is that we now live in a homogenized world, where technology has overridden or destroyed artistry and creativity. While there are many positive aspects to this technological evolution, it has had rather grave consequences: lowered expectations (or understanding) of quality, a non-existent attention span and a sense of disposability concerning the arts as a whole. Prior to the advent of multi-track recording technology in the mid-1960s, everything was performed live in a studio and captured to one (mono) or two (stereo) track tape. For example, Frank Sinatra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra simply played the tune again, live in the studio, if someone hit a wrong note – there was no going back and repairing or editing anything – you did it again. And we are talking about 30+ musicians playing complex music simultaneously, just like classical music. Yet, the wholly organic sense of performance, perfection, attention to detail, and sheer musicality cannot be matched by any artist today and not wholly due to a complete lack of talent. In fact, the entire method of capturing music is so disjointed, so assembled and so tampered with as to make the process nearly meaningless. This discontinuity shows itself in the final product: an uninvolving, loud musical mess with no sense of continuity, emotion or life – the patient has been effectively killed by dissection. Combine this with a playback method that effectively disposes of “data” in the process (yup, all those MP3 players throw away information to cram them into those little boxes and files) and you’ve got a big pile of crap. Oh sure it’s convenient, but at what price? Music today has no more permanence than a paper cup, crumpled up and disposed of when you’re through. Sigh.
And, I will take umbrage at your notion of analog being a “lo-fi” medium. Infinite bandwidth does not constitute lo-fi, and high quality analog tape at the appropriate speed will handily exceed any digital recording format sonically, regardless of what “the numbers” tell us – it is ultimately your ears that have the final say. The same applies to LP records vs. the CD as a playback medium: properly executed, an LP is a vastly superior reproduction medium. Unfortunately, like most things of quality it takes time, patience, knowledge and yes, a bit of money to do it right. But that’s not the point of the half-assed world we live in these days, right?
R, re: “And, I will take umbrage at your notion of analog being a ‘lo-fi’ medium.”
I agree with you, for the most part. I was more taking a pot-shot at the way that a lot of artists use the word “lo-fi” today, as a translation for “We just recorded it in one take with lots of room noise and mistakes and glitches . . . because we are so KEEPING IT REAL.” Also, while I fully agree that analog CAN be masterfully deployed in the highest of hi-fidelity, a lot of times it wasn’t in its glory days, and there was a certain charm associated with listening to second generation scene mix cassettes that had been passed around the country with touring bands in the early ’80s, or knowing where certain pops and hisses occurred on well-loved vinyl albums, or where the “KER-CHUNK” sound came in songs that had been bisected to play across multiple channels on an 8-track tape.
My 14 year old son has discovered analog music this summer. He has un-earthed a Technics (techniques, not tecknecks!) turntable along with a dual cassette deck, a multi-track and about 1,000 albums and tapes. He’s set up a “studio” in the basemaent. This has been a lot of fun for me, rediscovering a ton of music I haven’t heard for decades. He’s been playing with the multi-track, coming up with all sorts of interesting sounds. What a great way to spend some summer vacation time.
Bravo to your son, Lisa . . . . I was around that same age when I started discovering that I could make, manipulate and capture sounds as well. I started off using a little reel-to-reel that my dad had brought home from a deployment to Japan years earlier. I bought my first multi-track recorder (a TASCAM TEAC 144 Portastudio) around 1981, just a couple of years after they first became available commercially, and it was mind-blowing to be able to record songs and make sonic collages from original and recycled sources. I love hearing stories like that about kids today . . . and despite the surly tone of this post in re digital, I’m even happy to hear kids making original music on their computers.
What I DETEST, though, is things like “Rock Band” and other related video games, where instead of learning to play a guitar, kids learn to play guitar-shaped pieces of plastic with meaningless buttons on them . . . sorry to say, kids, but those won’t work when you’re sitting around a campfire someday . . .
Terminator was right..rise of the machines..even in music. Give me an imperfect live recoding of good old fashioned rock and roll, complete with bleed through and even some (gasp) wrong notes.
I remember the days of college radio, when we used reel-to-reel tape and razor blades and splicing tape to make our commercials and promos.
I remember two Technics SL-1200 MK2 turntables in the radio station, which kept the pitch perfect (except for the classical music dude who kept sliding the pitch down a half-step because he thought the records he played were in the wrong key).
I remember big 8-track-tape-shaped “carts” that could be “degaussed” with a big demagnetizing gun.
I remember the anti-static guns that shot charged ions on the record, so that you could wipe off the dust with a Discwasher cloth.
And the reels of Scotch 206 tape and the TEAC reel-to-reel tape decks.
Dang, now I REALLY feel old…