The needle and the damage done


“Who cares about science? This is music. We’re talking about how you feel.” So said Neil Young in introducing his high-resolution Pono player. Good luck, Neil, but I fear you’re a little downstream. In the end it’s more about the recording than the playback. This is from Tom Whitwell’s article “Why Do All Records Sound the Same?”:

What makes working with Pro Tools really different from tape is that editing is absurdly easy. Most bands record to a click track, so the tempo is locked. If a guitarist plays a riff fifty times, it’s a trivial job to pick the best one and loop it for the duration of the verse.

“Musicians are inherently lazy,” says John [Leckie]. “If there’s an easier way of doing something than actually playing, they’ll do that.” A band might jam together for a bit, then spend hours or days choosing the best bits and pasting a track together. All music is adopting the methods of dance music, of arranging repetitive loops on a grid. With the structure of the song mapped out in coloured boxes on screen, there’s a huge temptation to fill in the gaps, add bits and generally clutter up the sound.

This is also why you no longer hear mistakes on records. Al Kooper’s shambolic Hammond organ playing on “Like A Rolling Stone” could never happen today because a diligent producer would discreetly shunt his chords back into step. Then there’s tuning. Until electronic guitar tuners appeared around 1980, the band would tune by ear to the studio piano. Everyone was slightly off, but everyone was listening to the pitch of their instrument, so they were musically off.

(Meanwhile, back at the ranch.)

Image: John Vincent.

5 thoughts on “The needle and the damage done

  1. Alan Booker

    There are some worthy exceptions. D’Angelo and the Vanguard have jumped out with his latest release, ‘Black Messiah.’ “All of the recording, processing, effects and mixing were done in the analog domain using tape and mostly vintage equipment.”NYT review.
    He quietly scoffs at auto-tune and the like when asked about recent trends in the studio. Multiple reviews suggest he got it more than right. This lengthy interview that incudes Questlove the Roots drummer is a treat because it demonstrates not only what artistry is when it comes to music but how one might get there.
    Regards, Alan

  2. Daniel C.

    Before my hearing got too screwed to do it, I devoted a considerable amount of time to learning Reason and a couple of other major DAWs. What this describes was exactly my experience. I found it extremely difficult to write creatively within those repetitive grid/bar sequencers, and even more difficult to try to circumvent those features. Jamming or just doing a bunch of takes is indirectly discouraged because all of the functionality is geared toward editing.

    The problem, if you find it a problem—this is a matter of perspective, I guess—is that the primary mode of interacting with one’s music becomes visual rather than auditory. I couldn’t count how many times I lost my original concept for a song by getting sucked into testing effects, trying variations without end, editing, quantizing, cutting and pasting parts or just adding in way too much shit. This is not to mention the “humanizing” effects, such as groove consoles, that are supposed to compensate for the robotic music you always end up with. Eventually, I realized that you have to become extremely technical proficient in these programs in order get anything truly creative out of them, which resulted in my dropping them and going back to taking more live piano lessons.

    Speaking of which, I have a copy of Reason 7 for sale. It’s a fantastic tool that will open up new horizons for you and profoundly change the way you make music.

  3. Brutus

    Pro Tools contributes to the same deskilling you have pointed out in other industries. The effects on the creative/musical output may be superficially better, but skilled musicians recognize the music is also superficial. Didn’t this issue already flare up when Rebecca Black made a surprisingly professional-looking music video using basic video editing software and essentially no creativity or ability to sing?

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