May 8, 2011

Medium != Message...

by Chris Randall

One thing I've often said, when confronted with the type of person that gets in to the minutia of the recording process, perhaps at the expense of the big picture, is that a good song will survive any production process, while a bad song can't be saved by the most sophisticated gear and recording techniques available.

This sort of idea is anathema to the Gear Queer, who is always certain that there is that one more piece of kit sitting out there, just beyond grasp, that will push things over the edge and make all the difference. We're each of us guilty of this behavior, of course. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, etc. But the simple fact of the matter is that the work of art exists already, as a wave function, and whatever you need to collapse that bitch and bring shit out in to the cold light of day is what you need. There are records that wouldn't exist without a massive, and relatively expensive, modular synth and a fairly detail-oriented production approach (see: A Funneled Stone), and others that would sound fucking retarded if they were anything but a guitar and a vocal. (See: Robert Johnson's entire ouvre. Happy 100th b'day to Mr. Johnson, btw.)

Now, this entire approach could be perceived as my own way of justifying my several rather ridiculous recording habits, the which you're all perfectly aware of. I approach photography and music-making in the same way, trying to squeeze something interesting out of a device not really meant to do what I'm asking of it, largely via a trial-and-error approach rather than any cohesive planning on my part. My general philosophy with respect to photography is the Shakespeare/Monkey method: if you take enough pictures, some of them are bound to be interesting, and quantity has a quality all its own. No particular reason this can't be applied to music. (See: Wesley Willis.)

I guess what I'm trying to say, when it comes down to it, is this: I am of the firm opinion that there is interesting shit hiding in my brain. All I have to do is figure out how to get it out. While a new piece of The Shiny might make certain aspects of that chore easier, at the end of the day, the song lives in my brain, not in the gear. The medium is the messenger, not the message itself.


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May.09.2011 @ 3:41 AM
As I found out during a concert of Daniel Higgs: One elemental part of all art is sharing illumination. The artist has exerimented some kind of illumination and is sharing it with the audience through his performance. In case of Daniel Higgs this was a long improvised chant about the bible while he played one-note-drone on a travel-harmonium.

May.09.2011 @ 4:13 AM
I think that sometimes the things you want are not actually going to make it better, you just think they will.

I often use Robert Johnson as an example of why you shouldn't get carried away trying to get the "perfect" (in the audiophile sense) sound. How much would those recordings suck if they were done with today's digital gear? Actually, not at all, they'd still be amazing, but I'd say they wouldn't be nearly as good with a "better" recording.

The people who recorded that stuff would have probably loved to have had digital recorder and a 414, but I'm glad they didn't.


May.09.2011 @ 6:54 AM
Put another way: What's the limiting factor in your music? Is it your equipment, or is it you?

Inevitably if you have even the most basic equipment (ie. a computer), it's you. This realisation hasn't stopped me spending nearly my entire wealth on music equipment, but I'm better than I used to be.

The most brilliant retort I ever had to me going OMGWTFBBQ over the announcement of some new gadget was: "so much great music has been written without it." Instantly made my gear boner shrivel.

Nonetheless, the gear influences the process.

May.09.2011 @ 9:12 AM
your post is kinda mixed up.
Are you talking about artists or are you talking about engineers?
A killer song is a killer song all right, but a bad recording (compared to today's standards, not to a recoding from 80 years ago) is a bad recording too.
The winning situation is a good song and a good recording. A good song without a good recording it's probably doomed to be unheard.
So I really don't get the point. Unless you're making fun of audio engineers who believes in the esotheric properties of the latest compressor or eq. I don't think that an artist will ever think about it unless it's a producer itself. The artist will always think about tracks or tunes first.

May.09.2011 @ 9:17 AM
Chris Randall
@cymatics: Now, _that_ is heavy duty. I'm gonna use that shit.

@wgparham: The 5 pictures in my Flickr account were all I was able to get out of the Yunon. I shot a 27-exposure roll in it, and the camera totally broke apart when I took the roll out. When I got it processed, those were all that came out. The rest were black, as if the shutter hadn't opened at all. The roll was color, too, Kodak Gold 400, but the colors were so awful I monotoned the pics. So "more trouble than it is worth" would be the answer to your question, I think. But analog photography is the triumph of hope over experience. If I come across another Yunon, I'll no doubt try it again.

@pierlu: Is there any difference any more? In electronic music, the artist is the engineer is the producer is the mastering engineer, usually. Ever since I was a wee little electro-punk, I've filled multiple shoes on all my projects, even when I was in thousands-a-day mixing studios with name producers and tea boys. Same with all my peers. So the multi-tasking artist/producer is all I have experience with, sorry. I imagine there are artists out there that don't engineer or mix, but I don't know any.


May.09.2011 @ 9:34 AM
@cymatics ""so much great music has been written without it." Instantly made my gear boner shrivel."

Awesome. Even if I have to use it out of context, I am looking forward to working this into my day, somehow.

May.09.2011 @ 10:08 AM
Getting some new gear is usually just what I need to spark some creativity if I'm in a rut. A good change in work flow can really make you look at the process differently, although I also have a whole closet full of stuff that I only used once or twice. As always, balance is key.

May.09.2011 @ 10:48 AM
So I guessed all right. you're talking about electronic music. I was confused by your reference to robert johnson.

I think that electronic music is pretty much related to the machines you use to make it. EM is almost completely devoted to the way you organize things and the way you can do it strictly depends on the tools you're using. If I'm just making things in the same way I would do with a regular group, well, I'm not making electronic music, I'm just using a much more refined version of General Midi.

So, to some extent, it's not exact to bring the focus on composition versus machines. Electronic music it's all about composing with machines and finding new ways of interact with them.

So I guess that one person, when working with em has to have a split mind. The first one has to be the artistic part, i.e. the one that takes are of the way you deal with machines and effects trying to make the most out of it in a musical way that's meaningful.
And then there's the technician side, which is the one that takes care of the "marketing" aspect of proposing sounds to the public, trying to match the artistic expression to what the public is used to hear.

To mix those two attitudes is something that requires much experience, so much actually that it's probably better to keep those aspects separated, accomplishing them is separate stages of the work.

But I reckon (for having make that mistake myself several times) that em is too often mistaken for something sounding good, instead of something musical in itself.

end of rant

May.09.2011 @ 10:56 AM
Chris Randall
I dunno. You seem to be limiting it to people that make trance or whatever. Nowadays, the only fundamental architectural difference between an autechre song and the latest Top 40 hit by J-Lo is that the latter has vocals. The sound palette, writing, and recording processes are fundamentally the same, despite the fact that the latter seems to require a lot more people. (Hint: it doesn't, not really.)

That said, your basic point is sound: you have to be able to see both the forest (the song as a whole) and the trees (the technical construction of the song.) _My_ point is that if the forest is in good shape, individual trees don't make a whit of difference one way or another. The consumer is listening to a VBR MP3 on iPod earbuds, or in a car stereo where one of the speakers is hanging from the door by its wires. He doesn't know the difference between a Prophet 5 and Pro-53. He just likes a good hook.


May.09.2011 @ 11:07 AM
Yeah, I agree with you. But my point is that lately almost no one is making electronic music anymore. I think the tecniques are so common ground that it's simply music with computers lately. Think about James Blake.. he makes cute music with an electronic twist, but it's by no means electronic music. That's more evident when you see that he use a band to perform live (or at least, he did on a radio broadcast from what I can see from youtube).

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