Me: Have we as a culture of audio engineers dropped the ball? I mean, have we inadvertently cannibalized our own relevance and in turn, even our future existence?
You: OMG, here we go again…
Me, again: Have we urged manufacturers to make products with features that make what we do so easy and repeatable that literally anyone can do it? Have we unwittingly marginalized the skill and the process of audio engineering for music creation to the point of being trivial? Have we thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater?
You, again: Scovill’s gone completely off the deep end this time. He must still be all jacked up on Christmas cookies. Who knows where the hell he’s going with all this?
Me, yet again: Oh, right. Sorry about that, let me explain…
So I’m scanning the huge mass of television channels from my new cable network provider the other night and right as I land on channel Infinity-Minus-One, I come across a documentary called “Pink Floyd; The Story of Wish You Were Here”.
Now I must admit, I’ve kind of … kind of … sworn off of music documentaries or at best view them with a pretty skeptical eye. I mean they are kind of the early version of reality TV shows, ya know? Really, for me it’s been ever since the “Behind the Music” series on VH1 really hit it’s stride that I’ve kind of backed off. Especially when I realized – because I was around some of the featured bands and privy to some of the incidents that were highlighted – that there were, well let’s just say there were “dramatic liberties” being taken with many of the story lines. In fact, in some cases I’d be willing to bet that scripts were being written for the show. What it taught me is this: the only accurate documentary is the one you actually live and experience firsthand.
But I digress. Back to the Floyd documentary. For this particular show, I was drawn in relatively easily and quickly because Wish You Were Here is one of my all-time favorite Floyd efforts. And not only because of the songs on the record, which are epic by the way, but also because of the atmosphere and challenges surrounding the making of this masterpiece. Wish You Were Here you see, was the follow up to Dark Side of the Moon, one of the most—if not the most— successful albums of all time.
Now everybody stop, and take at least a second or three to ponder that for a moment. In the history of follow-up recordings, it’s likely that there has never been a more anticipated record release, nor has there ever been one that carried more pressure on the artist to deliver and exceed expectations set by a previous release. I mean it would be like climbing Mount Everest and when you’re done, someone saying, “Okay, well, that was really great. Now, go find a taller mountain and climb that one, only do it a little faster this time.”
Can you imagine trying to be creative under that kind of pressure? Let me answer that for you; no, you can’t … and neither can I. Only the members of that band, and the production team supporting them can, because they lived it.
During the documentary a lot of focus was given to the recording process with famed engineer Brian Humphries pulling up and revealing raw unmixed tracks and even unused vocal and instrumental takes. In particular, I was totally enthralled when they discussed the recording of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” I remember as a teenager putting the record on for the first time and sitting through the seeming eternity of that opening Gm pad until Gilmour’s guitar steps front and center with a guitar sound that simply took my breath away. The mix levels of Gilmore’s brilliantly simple four note pass against Richard Wright’s hypnotizing pad are shear perfection and serve to start the engine on a sonic and lyrical journey you are about to take for the next 50-plus minutes.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see the band perform this song live numerous times, including during a long multi-night stand at the famed Earl’s Court in London for the Division Bell tour — a tour that opened every show with “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.”. This was also a night in which they performed Dark Side of The Moon, in order, from head to toe. It stands out as the high-water mark in my bevy of concert-going experiences.
During the documentary they discussed the backbreaking efforts that were taken to get the “Shine On” guitar sound and the entry point of that part correct during that opening pad. No sliding it around on a timeline in a DAW mind you, purely take after take of trial and error until it was deemed right. And it was worth every minute of the effort, in my humble opinion. I still get chills when I listen to it today some 30-plus years on. Well done, Mr. and Mrs. Floyd.
Throughout the course of the narrative there were a lot of very dramatic and engaging black and white photos of the band struggling through grueling and emotionally charged sessions at Abbey Road studios in London. Insightful interviews with Roger Waters, Nick Mason, Gilmour and Wright who are still, all these years later, wearing very raw emotions on their sleeves when they recall the tumultuous recording sessions and the stressfully demanding creative process surrounding it.
And then it started to dawn on me.
And it really started to gnaw at me.
And a question began to rise from a deep, dark place inside me.
A question, that as a person who has lived passionately in pursuit of the ability to record and mix music for just about as long as I can remember now, a question that I’m having trouble reconciling.
That question was; have we trivialized the skill and the processes of recording music today?
Hell, have we neutralized the need for a recording engineer at all?
Have we completely killed any chance of nobility and romance in our efforts at music creation, production and engineering?
I mean, what I was watching on TV was just so grand and dramatic in it’s form. It was terribly brutal in its efforts, but also amazingly redemptive in its results because there was so much at stake. Everyone in the room was vested and the final results of it all, while commercially and critically very successful, left deep searing scars on everyone involved.
Because it was HARD, that’s why.
So hard in fact, that any participant that possessed less integrity and who perhaps lacked the character born of those efforts might have just thrown in the towel. But in the end it all compiled into an epic effort that ended in a result forged by the emotional, creative AND technical challenges surrounding the process. Awesome.
I find it funny sometimes what leaps to the front of my consciousness during times of reflection like this. For some reason, I sat there watching this unfold and recalled one shining moment from an otherwise quirky Penny Marshal film about women’s professional baseball (A League of Their Own) where Tom Hanks is speaking harshly to the female star of the team who has decided to leave the team, and baseball, because “it all just got too hard”. Hanks sternly replies: “It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it great”. Yeah … Abso-freaking-lutely.
And then during one scene in the Floyd documentary there is a 24 track analog tape machine majestically rolling in the background, and I thought “I wonder if Lennon would have ever actually composed and sang “I’m just sittin’ here watching the waveforms scrolling by-y-eye. You know I love to watch them scroll” … hmmm … I’m thinking probably not.
Okay, I’m back …
So then by comparison to today efforts, it begs the question; what are we as engineers, and even we as manufacturers, actually trying to accomplish with music production technology today? I mean consider the fact that we have more technology with more capabilities at our disposal than at any other time in history. As engineers, we’ve literally gotten everything we’ve asked for and more.
We have devices capable of doing more tasks all faster then ever, all the while requiring less skill (or is it just a different skill?) than ever before. We have rack units and plug-ins filled with every conceivable guitar amplifier emulation and microphone combination we could ever imagine. We have keyboards with more sounds than we can possibly ever preview. We have hard drives filled with pre-recorded drum sounds – and even drum fills and measures of pre-performed beats and grooves — of every ilk and style. We have plug-in processors that can emulate famous microphone characteristics on our existing tracks. We can re-tune the out of tune. We can even retune individual strings on an already recorded multi-string instrument.
We can correct the timing of performances with microsecond resolution. We can change the key of individual performances or even entire songs after they’ve been performed. We can create a choir of backing vocals out of a single vocal performance. We can create an entire piece of music without a single musician involved all completely within the confines of a computer using pre-recorded versions of every instrument. We can create an entire symphonic work without a single musician stepping foot in a studio, or a single microphone ever being used. We can edit and rearrange an entire performance in minutes. Awesome you say, right?
Well here’s the real, (or is that virtual?) kicker; put a physically appealing bunch of humans on a video screen lip syncing and miming the music using unplugged instruments and the listener/viewer is rarely aware that those folks were not involved in the making of the music in any way, shape or form. The ruse is, officially, on.
And here’s the thing; compared to the Floyd doc, the story of making music in that manner doesn’t really make for a very compelling story does it? Why is that?
I’m sure the producer/musician and engineer who conceived and created the work and who toiled for hour upon hour behind the DAW of choice walked away with his or her own set of scars. So why is that story so flat and un-engaging by comparison? I mean, where is the grandness and the romance in today’s process? Where is the, dare I say, “nobility”, real or perceived, in today’s recordings?
Moreover, how do we reconcile the idea that what technology appears to be doing, wittingly or unwittingly, is eliminating the need for the skill of “recording” all together?
Now, I’ll grant you that, at least for now, someone has to actually “record” a sample for you to have it at your disposal in your sampler or DAW. But that recording is done with no connection to the music that instrument may be used for in mind. If the recording choices of all the instruments is already done for us, and all that is left for us as “engineers” to do is place them in a time line or a grid, simulate some feel through pre-programmed quantizing, then build bed tracks for singers to sing over – is that actually recording engineering? I guess someone will make the argument that it is. But in response, I would submit that the process I just described makes you no more a recording engineer — as we have traditionally known and defined it — than me filling in premixed colors on a “paint by numbers” canvas makes me a painter, let alone an artist.
So was this the end game all along? I.e. to eliminate that expensive studio? To eliminate that need for another “human’s” (the recording engineer) influence on the art of music? To eliminate, or at best neutralize, the collaboration between engineer, producer and musician? To make the end result common and predictable to musicians and producers regardless of their caliber or abilities? Is the end goal to completely trivialize or nullify the need for a recording “process”?
Now I don’t want to come across like the “old and bitter” guy. And I take this opportunity to state honestly and categorically that there has been some incredible music created in the past 20 years since technology with the capabilities that I spoke of earlier have taken hold. But in hindsight, very little of the music created in that period is revered for the efforts and prowess used in the capturing of the music.
While the kind of dark motifs I’ve described may or may not be the overt intent of technology development, one of the side effects of it certainly has been the veritable gush of music creation that has taken place with less and less reverence for the engineering and production processes used to create it. And ya know what, maybe THAT is the mysterious “something” that people speak of when they opine “I don’t know, today’s music is just missing something for me”.
So that brings us all the way back around to live sound. What about live sound? Is it the next great frontier being setup for technological neutering of the engineer?
Will we ever see a world where more and more pre-made / preset decisions are made by the manufacturer or the machine FOR the engineer/mixer?
Will we see PA systems become “environment aware” and make coverage and system tuning decisions for us?
Will we see a world where manufacturers build in “ predefined mixing algorithms” within our consoles? i.e. Press here for Metal mix, Country mix, Pop mix, Christian music mix and on and on.
Will we see a world where Shazam-like technology can use a prerecorded piece of music as a base line and then make tonal and mix level adjustments on the live inputs measured against the recorded base line?
Will we see a world offering real time quantization, pitch correction or sound replacement for live music … oh wait, we’re already there!
Believe me, if a human can think it, you can bet a human is already rationalizing the need for the development of it. I can hear it now; “yeah, this would be awesome for the guys with less skill wouldn’t it? I mean they could get up and running very quickly and get great results. Yeah! Then really ANYBODY could mix sound for a show. That would be awesome wouldn’t it!?”
But I’ll urge us all to remain firmly grounded with regard to where “greatness” lies in the human experience. I’ll paraphrase an old adage “does the man define the technology or does the technology define the man?” I’ll put my money on the former.
In human endeavors, greatness, and respect for that matter, are derived from what is earned, not what is given. If we use the previous example of climbing Everest as the analogy, it would be like comparing climbing Everest to having a helicopter drop you off at the top. One requires incredible will and fortitude and celebrates the greatness of human capability and spirit. The other is a simple a repeatable joy ride to the summit.
I for one don’t believe I’ll ever be able to associate my definition of “greatness” with anything that doesn’t rely heavily on a pure, yet flawed human effort at its core. To do otherwise would trivialize the human pursuit of greatness. But if you’re one of those who believe otherwise … that technology is the facilitator of greatness … well then … “Welcome To The Machine”.
The 2007 documentray Before The Music Dies delves into the role technology plays in crafting hit records.