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“Watson, Can You Hear Me?” 

BY ROBERT SCOVILL

Okay, I know you’re going to think the following question is totally ridiculous when you read it but, if you’ve been reading my blogs, well, then you know how I roll. So, here it goes.

Is there—or should there be—a given “morality” in pro audio manufacturing and the way it is used?

See, I can already see you shaking your head in disbelief. “Why do I even click on the links to this guy’s blogs?

Stay with me here …

Recently I’ve been amazed by many of the posts and underlying sentiment that I’ve read in social media circles regarding the release of some “auto-tune” audio processors and “mix evaluators”. Now, when I say amazed, what I really mean is not surprised at all.

Since the arrival of the first multi-track recorder spawned the concept of an overdub and, in turn, the concept of “comping” an individual’s performance, the argument that the technology of the day is destroying music and compromising integrity and quelling the need for actual talent, blah de effing blah, has been in full swing. That’s right, this is not a new thesis.

But if you were to gauge the validity of the argument by the voracity of the responses and outcries to many of the latest technological advances, you would be certain that music production, engineering and in particular musicianship, are in full decline and it is the manufacturers that are completely to blame for it. If I’m getting this right, they’re at fault because they had the audacity to provide technologies, many of which were demanded by the users (read as: customers), that provided an efficient path to an end that normally required hours of effort to achieve. Yep, they built the better mouse trap you demanded and you used it. Shame on them.

Through the years, this underlying sentiment has taken on many guises in terms of public perception and opinion.

“Overdubs will destroy a band’s ability to record as a band”

“DAW editors will be the certain death of the recordist“

“Sampling and MIDI sequencing will marginalize musicianship”

“The drum machine will make the drummer replaceable”

“Plug-ins are the great equalizer for the less-skilled engineer”

“Auto tune? Now no one will need to learn to sing in tune”

“In the end, it’s all just Photoshop or performance-enhancing drugs for audio”

And on and on it goes. And you could make a salient argument that there is some degree of truth in those perceived negative consequences. I’ll give you that. But, the underlying sentiment that leaves me with my jaw on the floor is that manufacturers and technical innovators have become in some way culpable or seen  as responsible for those negative consequences by delivering technology to users and then for having the gall to tempt those same users to actually use it. I mean, how dare they?

Now, seriously, don’t let that paragraph just pass through your consciousness. It actually has deep implications, along with some deep-seated sociological underpinnings.

Hear me out and consider what that sentiment is actually driving toward. It’s evidence of the idea that there are factions of people in this world with a belief system that says manufacturers … manufacturers … should somehow be the gatekeepers of integrity and authenticity in the way people use technology to create music with their products. And that this could be—or should be—accomplished by limiting the capabilities of the technologies they develop to some arbitrary level of capability in order to somehow “govern” what is deemed as an ethical standard of use and what is “good for the music and the business.”

Really? Say that out loud with me; manufacturers should be the gatekeepers of authenticity and integrity for musical performance and production? You’re serious about this?

Hmmm … that’s starting to sound eerily like … “Let’s build a wall in order to make music great again! Oh, and get this, we’ll make the manufacturers pay for it.”

Or maybe “Let’s take our music back!” Um, really? Remind me, when did you ever really not have it?

NEWSFLASH: You as a musician, producer or engineer are now, have always been, and will always be, in COMPLETE control over the choice of if, when and how to use ANY piece of technology.

That’s right, you will ALWAYS have the ability to decide whether the use of the technology serves the integrity of the art you are trying to create or present. And here’s the most important corollary; you can also choose to NOT use the current technology in the process of creation if you believe it threatens that integrity.

But hey, let’s keep it real here. That very choice gets tougher and tougher to make with every new project and every new piece of technology that appears, doesn’t it?

Why? Because there can be great and very appetizing by-products that come from using those technologies, that’s why. Oft times, those by-products come in the form of newly opened doors to creativity that would not just be closed, they would not even exist on your path without the use of the technology in question. Can you imagine how “stifled” the recording and post community would be if the manufacturing sector decided “Ya know what? 4-track recording is more than enough tracks. We as a company believe that using more than four tracks compromises the integrity of the music being recorded” Can you imagine? Can you imagine a world without Sgt. Peppers? “Bohemian Rhapsody”? Fill in the blank …

Now, let’s keep it honest here; the primary driver for the development of these cutting edge technologies is, and always has been, finding a path to greatly increased efficiency, which, in turn, unshackles creativity. That’s the agenda, the stated end goal. But don’t confuse it here, what these manufacturers are NOT claiming to do is provide technology that will replace the need for skill and discernment. And, in fact, they’re most definitely not saying their products will actually “save time or energy”. I know, it’s kind of splitting hairs, but it’s meaningful. What they claim without hesitation is that with burgeoning and developing technologies, you can now do more than ever, and do it in much less time than it would have taken you to do the same tasks with the previous technology or without the technology at all. Get me?

So the well-cloaked reality is this: You may actually end up spending more time on these tasks if for no other reason than you’re now empowered to do more tasks in total. And you may have to now actually spend time broadening your required skill set to address the new technologies. You gain the ability to go much deeper in your work, and so you do. Get me? It becomes this kind of self-fueling feedback loop. “The technology now provides a way for me to do more things. As the technology advances it will then allow me to do those things quicker. And because the technology allows me to do those things quicker, I then have time to do even more things” … and … around … we … go … again.

Sometimes, it may be important to pause and reflect on who’s actually driving that merry-go-round. Hopefully you have your hands firmly on the brake and can step off at any time.

I mean, take a look back at ALL of those public perceptions that I listed above. You might notice that all of them, yes all of them, were driven by a desire to accomplish something that was historically impossible, difficult or expensive in terms of real time and money, in a more efficient manner. So what’s the verdict? Has the net result been time and money savings? To a degree yes. But the primary result has been that we now do much more creatively extravagant work on productions that often offset the savings in either time or money—often both.

And even in the midst of the negative perceptions, what rarely get’s its due is the explosion of creativity that can, and has happened while using them, not a suppression or marginalization of creativity or skill as many of the negative perceptions espouse.

So can we all concede that while the manufacturers and their technologies have actually created the possibility of accomplishing much deeper task work, they’ve also been pretty adept at helping us conquer that additional task work in a very efficient manner? And that’s what they should be doing.

However; as I stated earlier, it is now, and will always be up to YOU to decide whether the tasks in and of themselves are worthy of being taken on in the first place. You can disrupt the feedback loop at any time and get off of the merry-go-round if you feel it’s not serving the art you’re creating. Are we good?

So what’s the next frontier then?
Well, um, if the folks at Big Blue have their way, the next frontier is actually conquering and coding creativity. I know, right? What the … ?

I find it simply beyond the scope of coincidence that within a span of 24 hours, I was exposed to T-Bone Burnette’s inspired and moving keynote address themed “Music Confounds The Machines” (http://americanamusic.org/news/t-bone-burnetts-keynote-address) preceded by an episode of Fareed Zakaria’s GPS where he interviews IBM CEO Ginni Rometty on the Watson project.(http://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2016/09/16/exp-gps-rometty-ibm-clip-technology.cnn)

It simply had to be providence. Someone or something providing some universal balance.

I listened intently as she explained how “Watson” technology is now being used to assemble and create movie trailers. Creation of movies trailers is currently considered a VERY highly skilled editing task that requires laser accurate insight into the sensitivities of a potential viewer demographic in order to create the most effective trailer. The level of skill described must be accurate, and the editors must be awesome at it, because frankly I’ve seen some movie trailers that were actually far better than the movie itself!

This grueling task often requires months of time for the editor to complete. According to Rometty, Watson can perform this task to an equal level of competence and creativity in a fraction of the time normally taken and without the need for the highly skilled and creative editor to be involved. When Rometty was asked by Fareed “So then, do you believe you can actually “code” creativity? Her response; “Absolutely”

Now, I’m just guessing, but I’m putting my money on Mr. Burnett residing on the other side of that claim. And I for one would be with him on this one because, to my eyes, the idea of “coding” creativity is counter to the very essence or definition of what the word creativity means when describing it as a human attribute. I mean it’s a textbook Catch 22 isn’t it? i.e., anything outside the boundaries of “coded creativity” would be considered inherently “creative” would it not? … and … around … we … go … again.

And so it would appear that it’s not only music that confounds the machines, but actually the human’s ability to be creative and think outside the box that does so. Yes, pun “absolutely” intended.

I mean, let’s just take a second and let our “Big Blue” imaginations start to wonder with regard to how Watson may impact our little part of the world. Start here; think about what Watson technology could mean for the process of say … creating music videos. If Watson can “create” an effective movie trailer, then it can certainly “create” an effective music video. In today’s world a music video and a movie trailer are nearly synonymous with each other by serving the same means to an end of promotion. Right? Okay, so let’s go next-level. If today’s music compositions are indeed headed toward devaluation to the point of being characterized as little more than a “promotion tool” for an artist or band, do you REALLY think it’s big stretch to someone saying “Hey Watson, here are my music tracks, please mix them for Genre A with maximum acceptance from Fan Base B.”

If you don’t think that’s a real possibility given the apparent capabilities of this technology … don’t open your mouth, because it will immediately fill with sand. If the history of the bond between mankind and technology has shown us anything, it’s proven beyond a shadow of doubt that if a technology is capable, someone will use it, regardless of any “morality” or impact on the actual medium itself.

So, in keeping with the theme of this blog, we must concede that just because the capability is there, does not mean we HAVE to give in to the temptation to use it. When I’m working with artists, particularly new artists, I’ve seemingly always got my fingers on the scales trying to balance the deployment of very capable technology capable of doing things that will save time and money measured against the counter balance of I or the artist performing the actual work and the benefits that comes from actually digging in and doing so. Yeah, you heard me right, the benefits of doing it “the hard way”.

Dad was right ya know. From a human perspective, it’s very tough to deny the fact that if you work hard for something, hours of toil, trying to get it “just right”, there is something extremely positive with regard to your own reverence for that work that is very meaningful when completed. By contrast, it’s a bit cheesy to claim that something is your passion or your “life’s work”, the result of an intense labor of love, if the technology used to create it is actually doing all of the meaningful work.

Like I say, it’s a very tenuous balance to try and strike in this day and age. The thinly veiled movie reference would of course be “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great … if it wasn’t hard everyone could do it” The refinement of that line of thinking for our world is; if technology levels the playing field and everyone can do everything to an equal level, i.e. musicianship, engineering, production, mastering and distribution what then defines and identifies greatness? If everything is now great, how do we then identify greatness?

So with technology seemingly on a collision course with our want for “credibility” or “authenticity” in the music many of us listen to, the contrarian in me begs to ask this question: “Why do we really care?” What is actually at the heart of that caring? If the end result fits our definition, or the fans’ definition of great, isn’t that enough?

By many accounts today, we as musicians, producers and engineers oft times only show care for the virtue of the creation when it’s convenient. And even though I’m playing a bit of Devil’s Advocate here, I’m also being totally serious. Why do we care so much about authenticity with regard to the processes of music production and performance when compared to other mediums like TV and filmmaking where the concern over process impacting authenticity never comes to bear?

And if we do indeed care so much, then where is this line of demarcation for that level of authenticity in a finished product? In the future, how will we clearly define or characterize a piece of art created by the human vs art created by the machine if it’s increasingly more difficult to tell them apart?

If you harken back to my opening “crazy” question about morality in music, and we care intently about integrity and authenticity in the art of music-making, isn’t that ultimately a question of virtue, as opposed to values? By this I mean, values are forever changing. What I “value” today as a technology and the techniques required to use it given what it can do, may not be what I value 10 years or even 10 minutes from now. But the tenants of virtue; those are steadfast, timeless and unchanging. Am I using the technology to reveal talent or conceal lack of it? In so doing, does that not represent a form of morality with regard to how we do what we do? What are the “virtues” of the creative processes and the resultant content? What is the morality of what we do as an industry?

The reason I bring this up is this; modern music creation and production cultures are extremely susceptible to falling into a very enticing trap. The trap of seeking validation for a work based more in the tools used to create the work than the actual content that tools are used to create. It’s a trap that the manufacturing and retail sectors along with the vintage technology aficionados of the technology worlds are happy to fill with wonderful smelling bait in order to lure you in.
Tell me if these sound familiar.

Manufacturer:“The latest technologies offer you the musician, producer or engineer paths to previously unexplored and untapped creativity.”

Musician, producer or engineer;“I can only use “vintage” technology to make my music, the music just doesn’t work without it.”

Sound familiar? Everybody probably falls somewhere in between the extremes of these two mindsets. It’s a trap that says “if I’m going to create music, it won’t be validated unless I use this kind, or this caliber of equipment to do so.”

Can we get real for a minute? Music in and of itself, has never, ever, put such demands on it’s creation, only humans have done that. And frankly, as soon as you begin to think in these terms, you already have one leg in the trap and are sniffing the bait.
But in today’s world, it’s a dicey tightrope walk to keep it all straight and in the proper perspective and order during the creative process isn’t it? Here’s the simplest example of this quandary: If we were sent tracks to mix and given the choice of the great, but bad “sounding” performance over the poorer better-sounding performance which would you choose? Which master are we serving? Sound quality or performance quality? In this case, you only get to choose one – unless you want to use modern technology to conceal the flaws of either. I know, right?

If we can’t keep the virtues of the art itself in the proper pecking order, we drift into a mode of focusing on completely the wrong thing when listening to or evaluating a piece of work as to its merits. If we can’t navigate these distractions, we end up critiquing something like vocals for whether or not they are perfectly in tune, in lieu of what the singer is actually saying and how he or she is going about saying it. We critique the quality of the band based on the sound quality of the recording instead of the qualities of the musicianship and the music itself. Maybe we validate or invalidate an entire genre of music based on the age or type of instruments used to create the music in lieu of actually assessing whether the music moves us in any meaningful way.

Okay, so let me take a slight step sideways to put a live-sound spin on this. Ask yourself this question; do you think singers and bands that mime to playback tracks or ones that auto-tune live vocals are less viable or credible than ones who actually “perform”? Then ask yourself this: Would you hold concert mixers to the same standards if the mixer was taking advantage of auto-mix technologies or PA system auto-tuning technologies for an event? Now the tough question; do you think your answers, the answers from the artists that you just mentally referenced and their fans are in alignment? My bet; extremely unlikely. So do you err on the side of virtue and integrity or convenience and end result?

What do you choose when virtue collides head on with expectation of an end result? Where is that mysterious line of demarcation between values and virtue? When that line is crossed, when does the practice begin to damage ALL credibility, even for those that don’t subscribe to it and insist on doing things in a “virtuous” manner?

I’ll share my version of this in the form of an “old guy” anecdote from much earlier in my career. I was mixing Def Leppard circa 1987 for their infamous “Hysteria In The Round” tour. Def Leppard were certainly known for making incredible sounding records that challenged our precepts of what was sonically possible during the record making process. It was an easy leap to “how the heck are they going to pull that off live?” This was right about the time that rack-mountable digital samplers were coming to market. Once the tour started, the shows were getting great reviews for production, performance and sound quality. We were all thrilled about them. But, that joy was tempered somewhat after a few months of shows. I was chatting with bassist Rick Savage one night after a particularly good performance.  I could sense he was a bit miffed and I inquired as to why. He shared with me that, with increasing regularity, during meet and greets, other musicians and people “in the know” were inquiring as to “what type of sampler the band was using to recreate their epic backing vocals?”

At that point, I fully grasped his dismay. It was the ultimate backhanded compliment in that the inference was they sounded great; maybe too great to be believable. The band did not use samplers to recreate those vocals. They dug in hard and worked tirelessly on executing them and then counted on me to provide just the right amount of “sauce” for the end product. And totally in the band’s defense, their backing vocal performances were fantastic. And yet, here was the assumption that, because the performances were great, they obviously chose to fake them because the technology was now available to do so. It was disheartening. In fact it became the central theme of an endorsement campaign that I participated in for EV microphones. Here’s the actual quote

“All too often on this tour, people have asked me what type of sampler we are using to reproduce the backing vocals in the show. They’re a little startled when I tell them we are not using samplers; we’re using EV N/Dym microphones”

Believe me, I would have much rather talked about other things, but we just felt it was important to get on the record about it. To Def Lepp’s credit, they could have just bailed out and said, “Well, they all think we’re faking it anyway, let’s just start sampling, save our voices and have an easier time on tour” For the record, they STILL don’t use sampled vocals in their show to this day which in my mind is a prime example of choosing virtue over values.

This was a textbook example of the capabilities of an emerging technology damaging the credibility of this band simply because it existed and in turn created the assumption that they would obviously choose to use it and in turn sacrifice the virtue of performance for the value of sound quality, convenience and repeatability. Def Lepp will always have my enduring respect because they refused to give in to that temptation at a time when the alternative was increasingly en vogue.

That was 1987, so, where does that leave us today and for the future? Have you been to a show and thought “Hmmm, I wonder?” Would you have felt cheated or ripped off if you would’ve discovered that parts of the performance were being “mimed”?

I can actually remember a time when disclaimers started to regularly appear on vinyl records claiming, “No synthesizers were used in the making of this record.” Can you imagine such a thing today? I mean, first off, we don’t even have album credits anymore, but if they were ever to be re-established, is that where we’re headed?

I can see it now … “No digital editing was used during the making of this record” or “No instruments newer than 1978 were used during the recording of these songs” or “Every performance on this recording was captured by a tube microphone and performed by human being playing an actual instrument made out of wood” Really? Is that where we’re headed?

What about disclaimers on a concert ticket? Will we see “No auto-tune will be used during tonight’s performance” or “No sampled vocals or instruments are used during tonight’s performance” Does this in turn somehow add “value” to a concert ticket allowing the artist or promoter to charge more? Does it attach some level of authenticity, validation or even invalidation to a live performance? In the future, will we need “auditors” or “agencies” that will verify these claims by artists and promoters?

Sigh …

I, for one, hope not because to my ears that sounds like a pretty dark time and place for one of our most cherished and most important creative mediums; music.

If the Internet has taught us anything in this day and age, it has to be that “Content is King”. But it’s also making a pretty damn good case for, if content is king, then factually accurate, authentic, genuine content is the equivalent of all the king’s gold.

So, raise your hand. Who of you will be the flag bearer for authenticity for skills required to create, perform and produce moving forward with regard to the art form of live music? … I have two hands in the air. How about you guys?

Watson! Put your hand down!!

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About the author

Robert Scovill

Robert is a 30 year veteran of live sound and 6 time TEC / 2 time Parnelli Award winner for Sound Reinforcement Engineer of the Year. He serves as Senior Market Specialist for live sound products for Avid and regularly works as Concert Sound Mixer and Live Recordist for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers.

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