The music battle for our soul – are you in or out of the box?

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Digital versus Analogue – are you in the box or outside it?

The music industry is defined by digital technology yet there is an alternative, Getintothis’ Jono Podmore discusses how ubiquitous studio techniques are depriving future generations of warmer, richer sounds.

Last week I gave a lecture at the IMM in Düsseldorf about the relative benefits for composers, engineers and producers of working in the box (in the digital domain where everything is controlled by one monster bit of software in the computer) or conversely out of the box (using stand alone analogue technology, mixing console, tape, analogue synths etc).

This may all seem a bit technical and irrelevant for those of you not directly involved in the business of making the music, but actually the impact of these methods has enormous repercussions for the consumer because it dramatically affects the content itself.

I’ve been a producer and engineer going back to the 80s so I’ve seen, embraced and endured the gradual and now all encompassing change to our business that software and digital recording/sound processing has effected.

Looking back at that time and my more recent experience since starting a 100% analogue electronic band that makes a stand against the digitus quo, I’ve come to see that this isn’t an abstracted, technical discussion of working method, it’s a battle for creativity, for the music – in fact for our very SOULS.

Here’s a couple of examples from each side of the tracks:

Keith Hudson: Pick a Dub

Ryoji Ikeda‪: Data.Microhelix

The Keith Hudson track is the epitome of the analogue method. Sonically warm and rich, and when played from vinyl there is no digital shenanigans between our ears and the studio in Jamaica back in the day.

There’s improvisation in the mix itself – each change of sound has an audible accompanying gesture, there’s unexpected voices, shapes and juxtapositions appearing as if from nowhere.

By contrast the Ikeda tune is pure digital. Of course we are all used to the sound character of purely digital pieces like this but it’s the impact on the content itself that concerns me. Every millisecond is contrived and created with the deliberate will of the producer.

Totally clean, totally under control – nothing is left to chance. A dream of organisation and control the like of which we’ve been encouraged to instil in every aspect of our lives.

Actually I have nothing against this tune – it’s an extreme that tells a story – but what is a problem is that the method behind this sound has become the norm. Often hidden behind recordings of “real instruments”, making and producing music in the box is cheap, clean and as universal as the device you’re reading this on.

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Daft Punk: under helmets and very much in the box

The biggest change seen since the arrival of digital technology in the studio is the slow down to almost a stand still in development within the content of the music itself. It’s no surprise that one of the most successful and talked about albums of 2013 – Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories – is nothing more than a nostalgic reconstruction of disco music of the 70’s, actually going as far as gathering together the producers and artist of the period.

This time however they are all cleaned up, given the unconvincing translucent photoshop gleam of our time and in a context where this norm is so pervasive a younger audience has heard little else.

What’s really going on here is that a piece of technology that exists to organise and process data has been placed at the very centre of the musical process. And that’s what we get – an organised, precise, auto-tuned, micro-edited list of events with every parameter defined and definable to the nearest digit.

Not only that, but that list is open to tinkering and reshaping endlessly before the final master is prepared – opening the door not only to producers and engineers beating the unexpected out of the music but even more dangerously the elite and the bankers from the record company can have a greater say.

The shareholders and the hedge fund can get their hands on the product and ensure 360˚ blandness before the consumer gets a whiff of it, much as it is in the film industry.

Often when friends of mine in the business tell me of a new project coming up, the first question is “in the box or out of the box?” The answer is usually some sort of hybrid but “in the box” is always pronounced with some sort of sigh, some barely perceptible shrug of the shoulders, a disillusioned resignation to the way things just are.

Here are a few reasons for the despondency:

1. Sound quality.

Due to The Great CD Swindle* of the 80s, it has entered popular consciousness that digital audio is just better.
However, those of us in the know have learned to hear the impact of digital errors – aliasing, clipping, dither, data compression, sample rate and resolution errors. Make no mistake, there is distortion, noise, crackles and pops in the analogue domain, but these inaccuracies and inefficiencies create audio artefacts that are related to the harmonic series. They behave like sound works in nature.

So even if they shouldn’t be there, they don’t hurt – and can even enhance. Digital artefacts irritate our ears, making listening more tiring and uncomfortable. That discomfort is the result of lots of minor, at times almost imperceptible, problems that when all coming together produce a sound that is “cold”. Analogue audio by contrast is famously warm.

2. Serendipity: “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way“.

There isn’t any in the box. Every event is catalogued, organised, processed. The product of a conscious decision which has then been reduced to a precise and defined block of data. John Cage relied upon indeterminacy, chance as a central if not the central theme in his music and philosophy.

James Joyce once said “Mistakes are the portals of discovery“. By removing the mistakes and the indeterminacy from our music we are relying solely upon the limited imaginations of the artists/producers/chain of command. Leaving no surprise. Nothing of the infinite. Just more control of convention within convention, nostalgia within nostalgia served up clean, odour-free and shaved.

3. It’s BORING in the box.

It’s boring to do, it’s boring to watch, the innumerable but finite possibilities are gesture free, relying on data input from non-dedicated hardware – usually just a crappy plastic mouse. Bored people can tend to make boring music.
But all is not lost. Vinyl sales are up, all the best mastering is still in the analogue domain and there is

Metamono. I am 33% of Metamono and we take this stuff so seriously we’ve written and abide by a manifesto prohibiting not just the use of digital gear but also the working method associated with staring at a screen rather than making music.

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James Joyce: little did he know that one day his words would be applied to audio technology

We’re going from strength to strength, having just released our debut album and regularly playing live. It’s in the live context that the expressive nature of analogue sound really shows itself.

At festivals and even bigger gigs the contrast in the dynamism of our sound compared to that coming from the lap tops other guys use is stunning – no matter how good the music is – leaving audiences wondering what’s going on. Wondering where that beefy, warm, rich and resonant sound that got them up on their feet has gone when it returns to business as usual.

There’s a train of thought that the ubiquity of domestic computers in music has had a democratising effect. We all have the hardware (theoretically) so therefore the impoverished and under-privileged among us have the opportunity use the machines to let their talent shine through and share it to great personal profit online.
Nice idea. It just hasn’t worked. In fact the reverse is the case. The proportionally tiny volume of investment that goes into music these days (why pay for it when any kid in a council flat can do it?) is going into an even tinier, cliquier, privilieged group of hands: the producers of the auditioned “bands” and associated sex objects, the public school nepotism circuit of folksters and mockneys.

This is no technical issue for the audiophiles, this is the central issue in music today with big cultural, social and creative impact.

If you are making music yourself I’m not asking you to throw your PC out of the window and grab a banjo, I’m asking you to be aware of the subtle and insidious effects the method is having on the music itself. Use the computer for computing and make the music with instruments – the restriction will be liberating, I assure you. If you are a consumer with a love for music, please try to keep as much of your music as you can in the analogue domain – vinyl in particular.

When you play music in a social setting try to gauge if people are more comfortable or engaged with the music when you play from an analogue source or the digital source. You’ll be surprised.

*The Great CD Swindle is an enormous subject and quite hidden historical event – in short CDs cost a fraction of vinyl to manufacture but were sold for over twice the price on the basis of format. Then a huge amount of music was re-released on CD meaning zero investment in the content increasing an already massive return. The big winners from this have been using every shitty trick under the sun to preserve this business model since, undermining 2 generations of music culture.

Further reading on Getintothis:

  • Breaking Bad: The Ballads of Heisenberg and the music of Breaking Bad

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