Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Creating vs. Documenting...

I came across this article on the EQ website, an interview with Howard Bilerman, the engineer for Godspeed You! Black Emporer and the Arcade Fire. At the bottom of the page where the main interview concludes, Bilerman says,

"I I think we need to move back to a place where going into a recording studio is more about documenting, rather than creating. . . . If you take that approach, then you serve the music in a completely different way, and are generally far more sensitive to the artist and their songs. Finding space to be creative within that is the true art of recording."

This presents an interesting debate, particularly for engineers coming up right now. We're all so used to the DAW system and its ease of editing, and how we can create perfection and amazing sounds just by clicking "Process" on a plug-in. I am certainly guilty of this method. I love creating weird sounds from regular audio in ways that are never natural or even replicable in the real world. For instance, I'm a big fan of reversed sounds. When used correctly (i.e. not the stupid way I used to use them on drum loops), they have a lot of power. However, this cannot be replicated or even created by the original source. Now, the obvious jumping off point on this debate is the use of Auto-Tune. I pretty much refuse to use it, but it is so prevalent in engineering these days that to not know how to use it is a handicap. There is too much "Fix it in the mix" mentality, and this in turn affects the musicians, who think that they should be able to play whatever and still have it sounding good.

Also, I've always been told that engineering is another art form, that it's not just technical bullshit, and it's true, the best engineers usally are great musicians in their own right. However, when does the engineer influence the creative process too much? It's a question that I struggle with sometimes, to let the musician handle all the creativity and perfection and let me simply "document" it or to use what I can do to create perfection? Is it lying to your audience? Now it's obvious to me that things like EQ and Reverb, delay, etc, are not things that drastically alter the original performance of the musician, despite being things that can alter it. Such things are not destructive or decietful (well, yes, they are...but in an entirely different way). Where as reverb does not fool you into thinking that a guitar solo was in perfect time, Beat Detective can.
Bilerman adds,

"Tinkering with tempo and pitch diminishes the feel of a song."

Anyone who listens to modern pop music with a critical ear knows that it's all processed and quantized to perfection, and the vocalists are generally doctored up in the studio. It's my opinion that if an artist cannot hit their notes, it's really not my fault. Are they not comfortable enough in their work to present it as is? Do they need me to create the illusion that their intonation is amazing? To do such a thing cheapens the artistic value of the recording. Quite simply, if you cannot hack it, then live with your imperfections. Jeff Mangum wasn't always in tune, but his songs are brilliant. If your material is good, people can live with a missed note, as the emotion is what sells.

That said, I cannot see myself ever recording in a world where I don't have to do destuctive editing. And to be honest, this type of thing has been going on since analog days, ever heard of comping a vocal or guitar solo? I think the key of that though, is the artist was still doing it on her own, without the help of software. But I love the ease and the ability to insert 15 1176 compressor plug ins on my tracks, so while I still have reservations about certain things, I'm not going to be swear off digital by any means.

Ok, enough ranting. The only one who will even really care about this is Ben Stein.



christina said...

dude, i definitely thought about this exact issue the other day. but since you know way more about recording technology than i ever care to, i'll leave the debating of it up to you. what a brilliant friend i have :)

ryan(stuffy) said...

i don't know if there's a definite line that can't be crossed, but i certainly think that the musician and engineer should reach some sort of agreement. some people say artists should never be allowed at the mix session, but other times the musician has really good input, especially in getting the emotion of the song across. but i think it more or less should be a case by case thing. eh? maybe.

Shandus said...

I know hardly anything about this topic, but I think it's very interesting and I enjoy reading about it. Just so you know.