The last few weeks I've been thinking a lot about the process of making music recordings and why I am finding it less satisfying now then I did when I was a teenager with a 8-track cassette recorder and a few guitar effects pedals.
I think I have may have an answer to not only my dissatisfaction with my own recordings development but also the general state of the music industry.
Why music is boring when it stays in it's safe little holes:
When you first hear a new song on the radio or a podcast you have no frame of reference, you have no idea what will happen next in any given song and that can be very exciting for a listener. But the minute you listen to music with no surprises your mind is bored. It gets nothing new to experience and no joy of discovery.
I know that many forms of music rely heavily on strict formulas and structures to fit into a mold set by the music that came before it. In classical music ideas about harmony and theme and variation don't allow for a sudden pop chorus to appear. In hip-hop a song must be in 4/4 at all costs even if the snare doesn't hit on the 2 and 4 the kick must boom loudest on the one. Blues must feature either a guitar or piano to express the songs mood in an instrumental fashion. Trace must have a drop in the middle so that a 16th note snare can build it back up. Pop music must have a chorus part that is bigger then the verses of the song and most likely will repeat the chorus twice at the end of the song. With a few notable exceptions Jazz requires someone playing a horn or someone playing an instrument as if it where a horn to play lead lines. (Why not a cello being played like a cello instead?)
Now think of the artists who's names outlive the genre they are associated with.
Johnny Cash sang gospel songs as if he learned them from the devil not from Jesus. When he sings "I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die" you believe the character in the song did just that. But even more so the recordings themselves have a character of danger. The band clearly fuck up on some of the early recordings but it doesn't matter because the band self corrects and the nervous energy goes up and therefore the listener has even less certainty about where the song is going.
When a person first hears the early Public Enemy records they have no moment of rest and comfort. Horns squeak and squeal with out regard to meter, key or tempo. You are under assault from the first hit. You cling for dear life to those drum beats because without them you will be lost on that first listen. Now compare that to the more recent music in the hip-hop world. Do you every have that discomfort past the first listen? Or do you know the song so well the first time you hear it that you can sing the chorus by the time it ends?
Think of The Clash. They never let the audience determine what the next record sounded like. They always elected to be unpredictable. Now compare them to a more recent successful band like Linkin Park. Every song from them seems to have the singing chorus of earnestness no matter what album it is.
In the world of pop, a band like Maroon 5 does well because they make singles that sound like they where written by Lionel Richie and Hall and Oats in the 1980s. Again both very strong artists to emulate but why not mix it together with something different?
In the pop rock world we seem to be flooded by bands that what to be whiney versions of 80s hair metal. (In fact most of them seem to want to be the singer from Ratt at least in appearance.) And all of them are drowning in the same overuse of auto-tune that has already killed all the life in the newer country music songs.
It's an idea and a product, like how any tissue is also a Kleenex regardless of the brand. Auto-tune is a product made by a software company called Antares. It's the way to make someone who is not a good singer sound like they are a good singer at least as far as pitch is concerned. You can really hear it over used here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oy-nqyfR_w4
That should give you an idea of what it does but now here's a secret, it gets used by most pop and country stars today and more then a few hip-hop and emo rock guys as well. They just don't way over do it most of the time. Auto-tune is like salt, use only as much as needed because using to much and things will taste bad.
Cut and Paste music
In bluegrass, blues, rock and a few other forms of music musicians learn songs by hearing other musicians play them. In classical music, older pop songs and jazz the musicians are likely to learn the songs from standard music notation and then adapt their performance of that music to fit the direction that is requested of them. In both these instances the musician is asked to interpret the song as they play it and the songs structure can undergo radical restructuring between each performance. Songs can be sped up and slowed down as needed. Note and whole key changes can be made by saying a few words to the musicians. In addition to that each of the musicians will adapt to what they hear from the other musicians for each performance. So it becomes very unlikely the song will be the same each time a band or orchestra performs it even with the same players.
When Sugar Hill Records achieved it's early successes with Rappers Delight and The Message it had a major advantage over the P-Diddys of the world. Sugar Hill had a house band. They used samples from records but usually the foundation of a song was played or programmed by musicians.
In current Hip-Hop, dance and pop music things are very different from that. Today one person who may or may not be a musician programs most of the music alone or with one or two others. When they write tracks they usually are working from one single musical idea repeating constantly for the 3-6 minutes of the songs length. They will drop things in and out and introduce new themes but you can fast forward most pop songs and not notice a difference musically from one verse to the next. The song may be great but it is almost never alive and dangerous to the listener. Their will not be an extra bar added to a verse for no reason. You can count on each chorus being almost exactly the same, only slightly bigger, as the song goes on.
Seeing is not hearing
Okay so that gives you an idea of where I think the problems lie but what do I think is the root cause of all of these problems with newer music?
Throughout the evolution of music you can see several stages that are defined by a piece of music technology and it's adaption into various musical forms. The possibilities of the piano over the harpsichord moved classical musics into more dynamics. The electric guitar takes the blues into rock n' roll. Cheap horns in New Orleans give ragtime the push into Jazz. The multitrack tape recorder and mixing boards give us records fill with a "wall of sound" in the 60s. The cheaper drum machines give techno it's rhythm. The digital sampler and turntable give hip-hop it's foundation. Synthesizers give us the romantic sweep of songs called New Wave.
The latest technological innovation to alter music is the timeline that is available in most recording software. A timeline is a graphical representation of the music as waveforms or blocks that represent the sounds recorded. With this timeline you can edit sound like you can with a word processor, you can copy and paste like you could words and sentences, rearranging the structure of a piece of music and correcting problems much like you can with a spell checker. Both timing and pitch can be altered and whole sections of music can be repeated endlessly with no additional musical effort.
At no other stage in the evolution of music could one minute earlier also be then, now and a few seconds in the future. When a musician plays a song with a band or reading from sheet music his mind is usually in the moment or thinking of the future. He or she will not be thinking of a moment that has happened in the past as happening again in the future. They might think how they'd like to play that part better or differently but they are not thinking about how to bring the past into the present. When I record myself or others today that is exactly what I am thinking about. I wonder if I can copy that part to the next section if I screw it up. I am not locked into the immediacy of the moment. I am thinking of the timeline that stretches left to right on my computer screen showing me every perfect and imperfect part and how I can improve them with a few clicks of a mouse.
Editing audio like you can edit text can be a very creative endeavor. You can create things that are physically impossible and strikingly beautiful or disturbing. You can pretend you can play an instrument that you really can't. But the more I think about it the more I think that the beauty of some songs are the flaws and unintended moments of musical inspiration.
Watching Pink Floyd record Dark Side of The Moon on DVD recently served as a reminder to me that these guys had no idea what the waveform of the keyboard part looked like they just wanted it to sound good. I have recording equipment at my disposal that rivals in quality anything available then yet I still don't have an album that comes near that level of musical expression. Now admittedly I am not writing and playing music just to make a record like Dark Side but it is certainly one of many motivations for me as a person. I don't think that seeing musical performances is solely to blame for my falling short of my goal but I think it contributes a fair bit to it. Instead of listening to the notes that are played I'm watching to see if the waveforms line up. Instead of playing it ten times I'll play it five and make a combination out of those parts that I find satisfying even though that might take as much time as playing it another five times. I don't have to put my whole self into a performance since I can always just fix any mistakes out of existence.
I think that the solution to this problem is for musicians to use the timeline in software as little as possible and only to accomplish a very specific goal. They shouldn't live there. Instead keep the mixer window upfront since that is where more musical changes can be made. Instead of overusing auto-tune spend the time to track a great performance and then leave it alone. Try not to use copy and paste as a way to save time and effort. Put your fingers on your instrument and play instead. That goes for engineers as well. Faders are more musical then mouse clicks so use your ears and not your eyes.