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 @ 5:27 PM
I'm with boobs.

May.09.2011 @ 5:33 PM
Damn, I dig the level of discourse around here.

@shamann - I don't know. On one end of the spectrum I agree with you: thinking some of my favorite SST records, Daniel Jonhston cassettes, 1940s/50s regional R&B singles, et cetera. As CR said, the music is so shit-hot the technology used to capture is irrelevant; and as extrapolated, to your point, the methods of capturing said music are intrinsic to the experience of the performance. Absolutely on board with this.

But in this day and age. For me, yes there is such thing as a bad recording. Is ACID Planet, the site for ACID remixes and users, still around? A lot of neigh unlistenable dreck among those submissions. I'm sure the editors CM & FM could give you loads of examples of bad recordings. I know, bad is subjective, and the kid who rigged it up in his sequencer most likely thinks it's banging. But any objective listener would easily discern that while it may be a catchy number, it is impossible to tell because it is all so distorted and/or poorly mixed. Say nothing of the hook or even the arrangement, all you can here are a bunch of loops mashed together with no consideration to gain staging and panned hard center.

More broadly, I think there is a distinction between the stuff that is purely software created and the stuff that is either analog (or mostly so) or an amalgamation of software and hardware. For instance, I donated to a dude whom I 'know' from twitter to bandcamp his album, and, while I could dig what he was doing musically more or less, I could instantly tell it was primarily all software. It didn't sound bad per se, but it did 'sound' like software, like something you could knock together in [your sequencer here] with your collection of VST and sample libraries and 'master' with, say, Voxengo. So when so the mids were over-mixed, this was hugely pronounced, when the bass was muddy it just sound like ass, and the highs just skated over everything like marbles on glass. Now this isn't the object lesson in crap recording that digging into the slush pile will provide. But it got me thinking of what the difference with that and something that is also probably mostly software that I love, say Gold Panda.

Never under-estimate, I remind myself, the, well, power of *actual electronics*.

Forgetting the physical electronics in electronic music is no small oversight. You don't have to think about this when you're playing a guitar into an amp, patching something into _good_ converters, using your hardware sampler or synth. James Blake, to take the thread's example, at very least uses a mic and preamp. Even if it's just a good mastering engineer running through some high-end converters into some slutty mastering comp and EQ there *is* a weight to the conversion of sound into electricity that is lost when everything is stitched together in software.

I'll contend that the most enduring electronic music, even of recent vintage, uses on a whole as much outboard gear as software. I'll go further, even the shittiest sounding hipster 'hip-hop' that is designed and engineered to sound like an overblown crap MP3, by the time it makes it to the popular consciousness has been been flown out of software at some point or had some electrical current converted to digital.

Tape, leaving aside arguments of its je nes se qua, is way more forgiving to a crap signal chain, to crap equipment. So a good song wills out. Some unfortunate kid rapping into a mediocre mic/playing a Squire guitar through a Pod into M-Audio converters over a bed of bootleg beats and software bass lines, no matter how talented, isn't going to cut it.

May.09.2011 @ 5:38 PM
Chris Randall
On the one hand, puffer speaks the truth. On the other, I give you Soulja Boy's "Crank That," which is exactly what you describe (although substitute "Sound Font" for "Squire Guitar/Pod") and is a huge, huge, HUGE hit. That hook wins. Period. Full stop.

I think the lesson here is that you should come up with a dance to go with your track.


May.09.2011 @ 5:55 PM
wel, I get your point, but I guess that everyone has experience of hearing something recorded badly and wishing it had a better sound. Think about recordings of live concerts, if not done properly they can be a pain in the ears.

I just think about it cos over the years I have seldomly had the feeling I was thinking I was making electronic music but I realized I was just using a computer to compose music instead. So I just started wondering what electronic music is. The obvious answer did not satisfy me. But it's probably happening that I'm overthinking it.

May.09.2011 @ 6:09 PM
@pierlu - a little over thinking now and then is a good thing because then when you start to do it you realize it and can tell when it gets in the way.

i guess there is some kind of 'purist' angle to take on this but you can split hairs forever. you can't unhear a snare drum that you subconsciously model or imply with some other sound.

May.09.2011 @ 6:20 PM
Chris Randall
Shit. Thinking about it at all is a good thing. The vast majority of e-music these days (and, by extrapolation of my earlier point, music in general) is just a rape-n-pillage of a handy sample library. Thinking about the why and wherefore of it all is what leads to the truly experimental and groundbreaking shit.

Or, at least, that's what I tell myself.


May.09.2011 @ 7:16 PM
I'm with "je nes se qua."

May.09.2011 @ 7:23 PM
See my post above for over-thinking. (I realize I may have been talking around @shamann's intended point, just how I jumped off on this particular target.)

CR - Not being argumentative 'cause I'm with you on this matter -- link [] -- also I know shit about Soulja Boy. But in that case, wouldn't whoever picked up distribution of that song spend at least a couple grand remixing it (most likely out of the box) or at least having it properly mastered? I always just figured when someone starts to smell even the whiff of cash money they pay to have the product polished up for the kids at the mall. But what do I know.

May.09.2011 @ 7:38 PM
Final note before shutting up: Always fun to re-read something that seemed trenchant and elucidating when you typed it and start poking holes in your own theories. I get what I'm trying to figure out and apply to my own music but... you know, the process, man, all about the process.

May.09.2011 @ 8:14 PM
Chris Randall
To the best of my knowledge, it went straight from Acid or whatever to iTunes. It got picked up later, but the damage had already been done, and the version that is played in every basketball arena in America at every game is the one he made at home.

In any case, I don't care for the song, but it should serve as a cautionary tale.


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