Eschew Obfuscation –
By Michael Douglass –
I still remember vinyl. The whole audio visual experience of riding my bike to the record store, buying a vinyl album, bringing it home, removing the shrink wrap, putting it on the turntable.
I remember setting the needle down, reading the liner notes, the smell of polyvinyl chloride and cardboard and ink. And then of course, the sound.
I remember it with Kiss Destroyer. Joe Walsh The Smoker You Drink The Player You Get. James Taylor. Fleetwood Mac. Supertramp. Deep Purple. Carole King. Led Zeppelin. Heart.
There was vinyl, there was the eight track tape and the cassette tape.
I availed myself of all these mediums as a kid. I was absolutely enthralled by music and the mediums it was available on. More than comic books. More than the literature I was beginning to discover. More immediate and compelling. More than anything I knew.
We began to play instruments my friends and I. They were gifted, I was not. Thank dog I figured that out pretty early. If I hadn’t, my life would have sucked. But still, music. Like nothing else, it reached all my corners.
So as I began to realize that I would never be any kind of musician, I began to understand that I perceived recorded music, the production and engineering of it, somehow more acutely than my musically gifted friends. I discovered sometime later that I have, for lack of a better word, a “condition” called synesthesia. I see sound in my head. I can replay it in my head for a very long time after I’ve first heard it. Every note, every sound.
I decided I was going to be a recording engineer before I even knew what that meant.
I involved myself as much as possible. I waded in on my friends four track cassette recorders. I discovered the limitations of really shitty EQ. I started to understand reverb and delay. I began to invest in stereo equipment.
I relinquished my managerial position at a fast food restaurant to work in my small town’s only record store.
I decided to go to school and study the craft.
I graduated with a 4.0 and received the outstanding graduate award.
I moved to Los Angeles and got hired as a janitor at the best recording studio in the world just before I turned 23.
I began to engineer and produce within a few years.
I produced, recorded and mixed my first record when I was 28 years old.
Less than a year after that, I co-produced and engineered a record that went platinum.
My point is this, I know music. I know recorded sound.
Here’s the story. What I know now is killing me. I worked in a record store when compact discs first came out. Perfect digital sound. I thought they were amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed blowing the fuses on the the record store system with Pachelbel’s Canon. Signal to noise ratio was just too much.
I moved a lot in the years after and decided to keep hauling my books from apartment to apartment and forego my vinyl. Huge mistake. I am still grateful I kept my books.
I went to work in a recording studio and discovered the warmth of vacuum tubes and analog tape. If you push tubes too hard, the distortion you get manifests itself in even order harmonics. If you push analog tape too hard it compresses and eventually distorts but it’s still even order harmonic distortion. The distortion is arguably pleasant because it is complimentary, it’s still, for all intents and purposes, in tune. Digital recording and processing, when overloaded, produces harmonic distortion that is dissonant. Of an odd order. Third order. Out of tune. Not pleasant. Ugly. It’s an over simplification but it’s true.
I made quite a few records in my day and we always stayed analog until the last possible moment. We mixed to half inch analog tape at 30 ips and cut our album sequence together the old fashioned way. With razor blades and huge half inch analog tape reels. Only then would we take it to mastering. Only then would we load the project into the digital domain necessary to mass produce compact discs for public consumption. We had the benefit of a pretty famous mastering engineer shepherding us through this process. Sometimes, going to mastering can be like going to the dentist for a cleaning. It is then that you find out how bad you fucked up the record and what the mastering engineer can do to save your rotting mouth.
This man, this mastering engineer in particular, was and is a genius. He often provided service and attention beyond our budget. He was kind. And there were times when he escorted us very gently into the digital domain because the record we had made required very little of his expertise. There were times when he did much more than we deserved or could pay for. He always did it though. He would always say “got a little money, get a little EQ”. And then he would do whatever was necessary to make us look good. It’s a fine art. A voodoo art.
At one point or another he earned the dubious distinction of “Digital Dave”. I made the mistake of referring to him by that name not long ago and he bristled. So I understand that now more than ever.
Digital is evil.
Fast forward to the present.
I have just recently forayed into the world of recording again. It’s been more than a decade since I’ve miced a drumkit. I used to be pretty damn good at this and I found out I still am. But it’s all digital now. I rented some analog gear to cut the tracks. Neves, APIs Ureis. I recorded to an old school Mackie 24 bit hard drive. Not a Studer A800 III.
We transferred those recordings to a PreSonus hard drive with Studio One software to mix. I am mixing with a mouse and a keyboard. This is where I begin to hate digital. I am impressed with it at the same time, however. The compression, the EQ, the gates, work amazingly well. I could not get the buss compressor to sound like an SSL and I could not get the snare reverb to sound exactly like an AMS nonlin program, but I got pretty goddamn close. That AMS sound was a bitch. Took me three separate presets and monkeying with the parameters for hours to mimic it.
Here’s where it all falls down.
Night before last I took a disc home. We had been printing to a standalone CD burner. This time we’re out of the recordable discs that we can use for this particular piece of gear. So we make an MP3 and put it on a disc in a MAC. I bring it home, load it up and hear all the sonic shortcomings on my ridiculously expensive stereo. Trust me, my shit is beyond reproach. Best system you will ever hear.
I was confused for a time. Where’s my bottom? Where’s my top? What is this weird frequency smear?
It sounds like shit.
Data compression. All the world transacts music through tiny little ear buds now. It’s an absolute tragedy. A travesty. It’s no longer art. Why in the world would I aspire to make a good recording anymore? It was the first time I’d ever actually listened to an MP3 file of any music, much less my own work.
I am in awe. This is what everyone is listening to. I’ve been listening to commercial radio again these days. Where there is melody, it’s Fisher Price. Production and engineering is clumsy. Like a woman who has no idea how to walk in heels. There is no product. There is no art. There is no artist identity or integrity. It’s like music is over. Give us a loop with subwoofer worthy excitement and an auto-tuned chorus mixed by some dickhead engineer who can make it the right kind of crunchy and we’ll put it on the Disney Chanel to lift pre-adolescent skirts and sell phones and apps and gum. Music is no longer performed and it’s no longer about performance. It is assembled. It’s fucking cheap.
Lowest common denominator.
There was a time in the not too distant past when an earnest musician with a modicum of talent could eek out a living in this country. People not only enjoyed but actively sought out the practice and display of the craft. People actually craved the visceral immediacy of live performance. No loops, no tapes, just real players playing and putting it out there. Now the only way to make a living is by being a tribute band or by being an actual famous artist from that era of yesterday. Even those famous artists barely make a dime off of their recordings anymore. They only make money by appearing as themselves live.
I can’t stand it.
I’m going to get to the point now. This vulgar phenomena is a metaphor for just about everything in contemporary American life. There are no more record stores anymore. There are no more book stores anymore. You can view masterpiece paintings online all day but it’s no substitute for standing in front of them and being able to see the brushstrokes and experience the color and palette and technique. The goddamn genius. Movies are increasingly sequels or remakes of tired ideas with more automatic gunfire and violence. The only attempted update is well, more realistic violence. More exaggerated violence. More profoundly ridiculous violence.
This is not about me, some middle aged dude staring down the barrel of 50 years on this planet screaming get off my lawn. This is about contemporary American society in decline. Everything is now disposable. Nothing valuable is worth a shit anymore and everything that’s not is now a priority. Perception is far more valuable than understanding and appreciation.
You can apply this notion to food, to cars, to just about anything.
The very first sign of the rapid decline of America on the world stage is our failure to appreciate what makes a society great. Our contribution to the arts. We no longer give a mad fuck about it. We barely contribute anything meaningful anymore. We lead the charge in discounting and devaluing it. We no longer teach music in our schools.
Journalism is widely regarded as a joke. Writers and painters have less of a chance of making a living than ever before and film makers only make money by being specious hacks. There are entire generations now in this country that have no real understanding of the value of art at all. They have never seen it or experienced it. It all goes hand in hand with the rampant concentration of wealth, the insidious increase of money in politics. The precipitous atrophy of the middle class.
The erosion of compassion is a secondary symptom. The rise and celebration of avarice is perhaps tertiary but also the next to last stage of the lethal cancer we are actively succumbing to.
Our relevance will die, our society will fail, once our addiction to fear becomes so profound that the waging of war becomes our exclusive occupation and identity and we are well on our way. We are in the advanced throes of this infection. We have been practicing it non stop for 60 years. Most of the world knows us more for our ability to make war than uniquely American contributions to art and culture like jazz, or rock and roll or our great writers and artists and film makers.
Nice calling card huh?
Welcome to stage four.
“When Winston Churchill was Prime Minister and he was told that there were going to be major cuts in arts and culture because of the mounting costs of World War II, he responded with a simple reply, ‘Then what are we fighting for?’”
Drinks for my friends.
Republished with permission from BrainSpank.Org.
© 2014, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.