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?