A few years ago, a good and perceptive friend remarked that a point was passed about two decades ago where (then) musicians made music and engineers tried not to screw up the performance with limited and unreliable technology and (now) musicians make limited and flawed attempts at providing aural content for the engineers to turn into music. This is not a brag, but a sad commentary on the state of what’s left of the art of making pop music.
This month’s ProSoundNews has a wonderful front page article titled, “Seeing the Small Picture” that describes the half-hearted attempts some engineers and musicians are making to reverse this disgusting trend. Some of the highlights of this excellent article from the Sound Quality Matters event described a scene where “Engineers face the same sort of conundrums. Too man options slow progress. Unfortunately, musicians know that their contributions can be endlessly finessed—by the engineer as opposed to them polishing their own performance. That knowledge multiplied by a room full of players can turn an efficient session into a quagmire of minutia. Then you add a producer who is satisfied to play with the recorded tracks ad nauseam, rather than entice the desired performance out of a human being. The same morasses of options that can drag a tracking session down apply to the mix stage as well. Particular after overdriven tracking and overdub sessions, the mix engineer can have too many details to deal with, too many tracks, too many choices and possibly tracks overproduced to the level of sterility.” Chuck Ainlay summed up the dead music problem’s solution with, “The less you do as an engineer, the better the record.” The Orson Welles/Stephen Webber comment, “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art” carries some significant impact, too.
This is not, however, the direction what passes for “recording engineer education” is taking. I have a sense that somewhere there has been an industry/academic consensus that the Eagles’ “Hotel California” is the greatest record ever produced and that “edit every syllable until the song is completely lifeless” attitude is considered state of the art. Not being any kind of Eagles fan, I missed the meeting or was not invited because I’m not a “true believer.” (The only image I pull up from hearing anything from Hotel California is Ronald Reagan and his merry band of economic and cultural bandits, so it’s not high on my list of fond aural memories.)
Debating “good music” and recording engineering philosophy with 19-year-olds is a depressing activity/occupation. These kids have grown up believing that stringing together loops in Garageband is “making music.” It’s how their heroes do it, so why shouldn’t they buy into this bullshit? I admit, I’m not a modern poetry fan and I really don’t like monotonic, monotonous, childish, whining chit-chat scored with an irritating, repetitive “beat,” so what do I know? Not much, I admit. But I’m willing to bet that this generation of “music” is going to be poorly reflected on in a couple of decades. Like the “lost generation” of No Kid’s Behind Left Untouched, this has been largely a lost generation of music; music by machines for machines.
However, if you are a recording engineer with an interest in music that actually has life, I strongly recommend you read and think about “Seeing the Small Picture.” If you are a Pro Tools certified douchebag who believes musicians are just the data source for your brilliant sonic manipulations and amazing plug-in and keystroke chops, none of this will mean anything and you should carry on with your hobby in your mom’s basement until the trust fund runs its course.
The author, Frank Wells, sums up the state of current confusion with, “Ponder how many of the recordings you love best are based on simple arrangements of honest, if imperfect, performances.” In fact, all of my favorite recordings have serious imperfections that make them as close to “perfect” as I can imagine.