by Frank Gryner (as published in Recording Magazine 2005)
With any rapid advancement in music technology comes a need to re-evaluate the recording process itself. I do believe that it's a self-regulating system that allows new music gear to either secure a place in our collective arsenal or eventually fall off the market and into the "bad idea" box. But I contend that there may be more to it than just acquiring award-winning recording equipment and knowing how to use it. I've always thought that the more transparent we make the technology of music recording, the better the music will become. As an engineer, I've considered it part of my job to shield as much of this technical process from the performer as possible. This hardly qualifies for music martyrdom, but it'd be nice to have a little more help in this department.
Recording technology has become more accessible to more people, but it hasn't necessarily become more transparent from the artist's perspective. For as far as we've come with high-definition recording, fancy plug-ins and unlimited hard drive space, we're still asking singers to wear speakers on their head, stand still in front of a microphone in a strange little room, and expect them to give us the performance of their life. Sure, we have more tracks than what's good for us, and we're not waiting for the two-inch tape machine to roll back anymore, but tracking music is still a relatively awkward process of unnaturally separating sonic elements, only to cram them all together again in the final mix. There are a lot of new toys out there to help us accomplish this in less time, for less money, without breaking a sweat, but are we making better records because of them?
I don't have an issue with things becoming easier, just so long as the bar gets raised in proportion. If all this advancement just allows us to do the same old thing, only cheaper and more quickly while expending less effort to do so, then we're all missing the boat here. For instance, the portability of pro multi tracking has opened up possibilities that haven't been fully utilized. With less compromise than ever, we can truly bring the studio to the music as opposed to dragging the music out of its element and into the studio. I'd like to see more recordings in natural environments and less work in simulated studio settings. For example, imagine being able to record an entire record with your high-profile artist in, say, a remote tribal village featuring indigenous musicians and instrumentation in their natural habitat.
The portability of pro multitracking affords us the ability to capture a performance versus the ability to create one-or fabricate one, as the case may be. The latest batch of software innovation has largely taken us farther down the road of music simulation. We're inundated with "better" digital guitar amp cloning, tube compressor emulation, artificial acoustical environments and life-like samples of, weIL.everything. While these technical manrels all sound very convincing, they offer no real substitute for the personality and character of an actual vintage Marshall stack, an LA-2A, or the natural ambience of a great drum room. And let's not forget the kind of the impact that having these real things on hand can make on a performer. Sometimes making a record these days feels more like a magic act-like propping up an elaborate array of smoke and mirrors carefully designed to fool the listener. After all, it's easier to tune and time a track than it is to have the singer take another pass. At the risk of coming off like I suddenly grew a conscience here, I call this sonic dishonesty-the misrepresentation of a singer's vocal ability or a musician's talent. I mean, no one expects the music industry to be a model for all that is good and honest in the world, but never has such a distortion of the truth filtered down directly through to the record-buying public-or what's left of it. Could illegal downloading be retribution for wearing the hat and cape too often?
As the music industry flounders to get its footing, there's an opportunity for us to redefine the art of recording. There's a call for a new breed of renegade recording engineer. I'm talking less David Copperfield and more 007. I'd like to think that more adventurous, in-the-field studio records are in our future-where technology becomes more invisible and the rest of the world outside becomes a more pronounced backdrop for creative artists. Are you in?