The Deflavorizing Machine
There's an old Woody Allen bit about his mother running the family's food through a "deflavorizing machine" a couple of times, just to make sure dinner was completely tasteless. Well, that's what a lot of contemporary music sounds like to me. Booker T. Jones's recent album The Road from Memphis has some great tunes, but the sound of the album pales in comparison with his seriously funky work with Booker T. & the MG's in the 1960s. It's not just that the new CD is maximally compressed and processed to a fare-thee-wellit's a totally lifeless recording. But this isn't just another analog vs digital diatribe. The problems have little to do with the recording format; it's the way recordings are now made. Too many are assembled out of bits and pieces of sound to create technically perfect, Auto-Tuned, Pro Tooled music. It's not that great music can't be made that way, but it's sure as hell less likely to get my mojo workin'.
All of that was running through my head as I made my way through the Audio Engineering Society's annual convention, held last October in New York City. Thousands of engineers and producers attended the show, and when I chatted with some of them one on one, I got the impression that they were committed to making great-sounding recordings. The disconnect between these engineers' intentions and the reality of today's soulless recordings baffled me.
At the "Platinum Producers" workshop, with panelists Steve Jordan (Keith Richards, The Verbs), David Kahne (Tony Bennett, Paul McCartney), and Gabe Roth (Daptone Records), I felt that my concerns were sharedespecially when Roth said, "You used to have people together in a room playing a song; now they make records that try to sound like people together playing a song." Jordan chimed in: "I like to hear a performance on a track, and when you have that coupled with analog tape, the music can affect you physically, and you have something. With digital, there are a lot of elements involved, and when you're spending too much time 'perfecting' the music, you're probably going to lose the feel. Human beings' heart rates aren't steady, they go up and down, but that's exactly what's being extracted from a lot of today's music." The deflavorizing machines have taken over.
Of the three panelists, Gabe Roth was the most gung-ho analog guy, but not just because he's in love with the sound of analog. He started out with a four-track recorder, and moved up to eight-track and then 16-track machines. But the 16-track didn't stick around too longit had too many tracks. Eight was all Roth needed, which means he frequently records more than one instrument on a track: "So if the tambourine isn't loud enough, you ask the player to step a little closer to the mike." The limitations of eight-track recording are very real; if a musician wants to try playing his part again, Roth might have to "lose" the previous take by recording over it. Daptone artists know the drill, but Roth will inform musicians unfamiliar with his working methods that he won't be using Pro Tools to assemble a perfect "performance." Roth's approach puts the players in a different mindset in which it's all about laying down an actual performance. He could use the same working methods with digital recorders to achieve the same end. It's all about how and what the musicians playnot the technologythat makes memorable music.
A few engineers talked about superstar vocalists who record literally hundreds of takes of a single song, then leave it to the editors to assemble from these a single "perfect" performance, a fraction of a second at a time (footnote 1) Pardon my snark, but imagine how much better records by James Brown, the Beatles, or Led Zeppelin would have been had they had Pro Tools in the 1960s and '70s. Sadly, it's a tool that some artists can't resist using to the point that there's nothing left of the original performance.
Perfecting a session's sound isn't a high priority for Roth, who's been known to use RadioShack microphonesfor him, the sound mostly comes from the way the musicians play. For example, Roth was lucky enough to work with legendary session drummer Bernard Purdie a few years ago: "His sound is his sound, and you'll never get anything as good as that with the world's best mikes and a lesser drummer." Roth sees the engineer's job as not creating the sound but capturing it.
Steve Jordan agreed. "When you hear people playing together you know it, but that's not happening much anymore." Right, Steve. Maybe that, more than analog or digital or compression, is the prime difference between the sound of classic rock and today's music: People aren't playing together in a room. Jordan: "They were bands, they banded together to get out of where they were. The studio gave them maybe three hours to knock out a tune, and when you can hear that angst, that desperation, you get performances."
Jordan acknowledged that digital recording has its advantages, and he feels its dynamics are more true to life than anything analog can offer. Recording with unlimited tracks on a computer only postpones mixing decisions you'll have to make sooner or later. Roth thinks it's better to work out the musical arrangements in advance; that can take a lot of time, but when it's done, the recording can just flow. And if the flute is a little too loud in the bridge, "Who cares? This isn't brain surgery! There's nothing about perfectly engineered records that makes music great. Most of the best music has mistakes in it." Amen.
One thing's for sure: The aesthetic of recorded sound changes from decade to decade, and today's music is prepared for people who listen to music only in their cars, and/or via computers or iPods. I'm guessing Booker T.'s The Road from Memphis probably sounds fine in a Lexusbut it's unbearably harsh through my Magnepan 3.7s.
When he isn't to be found hanging out on Facebook, Steve Guttenberg contributes The Audiophiliac blog to CNet.
Footnote 1: See reviewer and record producer Erick Lichte's "Inhumanly Perfect Performances," published in April 2008, and John Atkinson's thoughts on this issue.Ed.