Friday, August 22, 2008

The Machine Demands a Sacrifice

I'll be the first to testify that music's quantum leaps are often contingent on new gear. We'd be stuck in the stone age were it not for multitrack recording and amplifiers; Hendrix couldn't have happened without the wah-wah pedal; Eno and his Kraut contemporaries would have been useless without synthesizer modules; New Order (and new wave in general) were midwifed by sequencers; hip-hop production wouldn't have grown beyond beat-juggling without samplers; and pretty much any music that thoroughly melted our snyapses over the past decade was created on a computer.

But in the past few years, music tech innovation has become stagnant - that is, beyond higher bitrates and simulating all the old gear. The obvious consequence is - for all the refining, tweaking, expanding, contracting, mixing, and matching that's happened in the Izz-'00s - not one new sound has been bestowed upon us by Apollo. For sure, a number of the old hats that have been dusted off are well worth the renewed attention, and there's been some big-brained reframing of otherwise-dehumanising tech-cultural phenomena. But how many times will people sit through Cheap Trick covers played on Gameboys before they hunger for something surprising instead of merely clever?

But I'm not pulling some cranky-grandpa, "Everythin' After Muh Birth Is Fer Shit" schtick (not today, at any rate). No, I'm here to rip on gear, ladies and gentlemen. So be warned: if you don't dig on audial mechanics, well, you're Pee-Wee and you just hitched a ride with Large Marge.

Unlike everything else in the global Ponzi scheme called "civilization," technology is downwardly-mobile. It's invariably born of some secret military agenda too depraved to fathom; it subsequently becomes the latest in conspicuous consumption, as sported by Manhattan penthouse-dwelling financiers/S&M freaks and Saudi oil magnates; fifteen years later, it's being either sold only at Value Village or fished out of the Payatas. Witness the VCR: originally an über-high-tech storage device within the US Defense Dept., it quickly was adopted by rich Baby Hueys as a convenient, portable means of showing skin flicks at parties, and finally it was marketed (for more or less the same purpose) to loners & shut-ins living in their parents' basements the world over. Need I invoke The Internet as retread of precisely the same? The pattern holds: (1) shadowy military-industrial conception; (2) exploited by salacious Master of the Universe greed-huns; (3) commodified & sold to anti-social bedroom-dwellers.

So it is with much music gear. The Pentagon is developing some new USW, or Exxon/Mobil is scanning for Texas Tea in Tahiti, and they inadvertantly produce the audio-software equivalent of cellophane; meanwhile, Cher can't hold a pitch and Trent Reznor wants full production capacity within the pajama-clad comfort of the green room. Solutions to their respective problems are concocted, and once the novelty has faded, gravity drags the price down within reach of every music-hobbyist mug with a home computer.

Bunker mentality is less a hazard than a virtue for audio engineers; no work will get done if you're off to the pub for a pint with your mates every evening. Yet, working in the analog domain, a concentrated engagement of the physical environment is necessary: in moving mics, tweaking knobs, and patching in compressors, you're literally sculpting the air. But audio software removes even this interaction. Instead, you're hunched over a keyboard, rotting your retinas as you atrophy into a six-foot slug like the space jockey in Alien. I'll not deny that the democratising aspect of cheap(er), accessible recording programs has been a boon to many a poor musician; I certainly wouldn't have been able to crank out as many albums worth of material as I have without such software. But in exchange for not having to head down to the local studio and fork over a small fortune, the surfeit of options audio software provides is too much of a good thing.

Allow me to introduce my pet peeve du jour - amp-emulating plug-ins. Now, recording a guitar (or bass) directly into a computer produces a tone not unlike a baloney-on-Wonder Bread sandwich: flabby, spongy, shapeless. Enter amp-emulation: these plug-ins simulate the timbral muscle of a proper amplifier & speaker cabinet. Quelle grande convenience, oui? Wrong. Now I've got to wade through the digital facsimiles of over a dozen amp heads, twenty speaker cabinets, five different mic models (each of which can be "placed" in a half-dozen different positions), and god knows how many stomp-boxes, effects processors, and outboard units. Make-do pragmatism isn't even possible, because there are no restrictions of choice. Whereas twenty minutes of painstaking knob-twisting and mic placement with the tangible tools would have sufficed, whole hours are flushed away taming the shrieking midrange of a wholesaler's supply of amplifiers that aren't even there.

Paradoxically, this surplus of options permits laziness as easily as it paralyses. Want your guit-box to have that Green Day grit? Well, click on that preset labeled "American Idiot" and shazam! Want the snare to pop with the sinewy warmth of a $3000 tube compressor? Just load up that Renaissance digital compressor and schmapow! Who cares if you can't tell the difference between an SM57 and a C414? To paraphrase Dave Chappelle: you graduated with a B.A. in English lit and you don't have to take shit from nobody!

I'm far from alone in finding it incredibly difficult to connect viscerally with much contemporary music, and I often wonder if this is because it's music from sources that don't physically exist. As my friend Jonny put it, "It tickles your cerebral membrane without really penetrating to that animal core - like drinking a Coke when a nice glass of water would have done." If anything explains the perennial appeal of the clattering wood and clanging steel, it's Iggy Pop's indelible axiom:
Speakers push they air, and push me too.
This was one of the things that hit me so hard (literally) when I saw My Bloody Valentine: for all of Kevin Shields' clinical studio tinkering to hand-craft that hurricane smear of sounds, that is how the band actually sounded. Four shabby mammals with standard-issue instruments, conjuring a sonic maelstrom like aurora borealis setting a forest ablaze. Not a laptop in sight.

As many reasons are there are to dislike indie demagogue Steve Albini, it's damned hard to find fault with his analog-purist philosophy that a recording should be a document of how a band sounds, nothing more, nothing less. Again, I'd be a hypocrite if I were as quick to dismiss digital software's benefits as him, but I'll gladly second the words emblazoned across the back cover of Big Black's last album: Fuck digital.


dudley said...

Nail on the head when you mentioned air! Events that don't happen in air have no medium for existence, sounds made in a totally digital environment are effectively stillborn, there is no future and no past in digital, just a styrofoam present which lasts forever!
There's a magic when vibrations hit the air and soundwaves are born. Don't tell me software engineers can factor in smoke/curtains/moisture/static/quiet breathing etc. The subconscious ear cannot be fooled! Listening to old analogue recordings, the ear is also afforded the luxury of speculating about the air - is that cigarette smoke drifting across the snare in a cold room (poetic huh?). Lighting is a good analogy - analogue to digital is like walking off the set of the Godfather into a 24hr supermarket. No shadows, fog or mist, no framing, just a bald, sterile environment.
We should be pumping research dollars into improving analogue technology to make it cheaper and more accessible. To expand the range of analogue instruments and effects will help towards an inventive future, anyone else waiting for the new sound? Surely it's only gunna be born from an analogue renaissance.

Seb said...

God yes, why hasn't more effort been put into making analog gear more downwardly mobile? The fact that vinyl record sales are booming (in spite of spiraling costs) testifies to how universally appealing the physical experience of analog is. How harsh & stilted a format must digital be when it's physically more exhausting to listen to Coldplay on CD than Junkyard on vinyl?

By the way, you were dead-on in your assessment of why MBV remain relevant: who's even come close to them? I've no doubt that this is because all their would-be successors are either bedroom sonic clinicians or digi-gearheads who never met an emulator they didn't like - BUT no number of fuzzboxes, plug-ins, or hours of tunnel-vision tweaking can match 4 full-stacks at ear-shattering volume. The literal atmosphere of music, the air makes all the difference, and if MBV live isn't the purest example of this truth, I fuckin' quit.