The Tools We Choose For Recording are Ghost Producers

Those of us in the music business understand that record producers can play an important role. Sometimes, though, we don’t pay attention to how the tools we choose are also making fundamental differences in our art.

We all know whether you first sit down at a piano or a guitar can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of the song. Don’t agree? Try doing a pitch bend on your piano, or chording seven notes at once on your six-string guitar. From the moment you choose your first tool, you have begun electing a team of inanimate objects which will be co-producers on your song.

Some labels and artists pay a large sum of money to work with a great record producer. One of the reasons they do this is that truly talented producers understand the intricacies of tool choices, and therefore maximize the impact of an artistic vision. They say things like, “You know, you should really play that on a Wurlitzer instead of a guitar”. Or, “Man, a click track is just wrong for this song.”

The vast majority of artists, however, don’t have access to a great producer. This makes it all the more important that they consider the tools they are choosing and whether or not those tools will amplify their artistic will.

One of the most impactful elements on a recording is the choice of capture methodology. DAWs give us vast improvements in our ability to edit tracks compared to recording to tape. Whereas we once had to physically cut tape and splice it back together, now we can make edits in seconds. The relative expense of recording another take of a performance has increased, while the cost of editing has dropped sharply. This reduces the need for an artist to perform well, and creates a temptation to rely on the editor to “perfect” the timing later. There are even built in tools that can use transients to automatically lock all the elements of a performance to a specific tempo.

While these techniques do have the benefit of leveling the playing field for musicians, they ultimately have homogenized much of the character out of the average recording. You’ll hear people say that vinyl or tape sounds better than digital. Part of this is due to the warmth of naturally occurring compression on tape. Some of it has to do with the fact that digital uses samples, while analog can better emulate the true curve of a sound wave. But, in terms of clarity and noise reduction, nothing can compete with digital. So, what people really mean is there is more feel in those old recordings. While musicians back then might have tracked to a metronome, they didn’t edit to a metronome. Vibe, performance, and tone were essential on the front end, not something that got fixed in the mix.

Add to this the “loudness war“, and you have a recipe for disaster. The loudness war is at the heart of why, when you watch something on HULU, the commercials are often annoyingly higher in volume than the rest of the content. They know you are about to get up to use the bathroom, so they jack the volume up to try and make you look at the products, while they pummel you with their slogans. With the advent of digital technologies, labels quickly realized music could be cleaned and compressed to it’s maximum potential volume. If your band’s song came on the radio and was louder than the last band, you had a better chance of grabbing the attention of the listener. By the nature of the process, maximizing the loudness across a track has the tendency to reduce the original dynamism of a performance. It’s like trying to tickle your ears with an anvil.

The economy of the music industry is changing dramatically. New models are popping up to replace the old label-driven touring system. Without this change, the idea of music as a profession may completely disappear for all but a tiny number. With the advent of Kickstarter and Album 2.0, music will likely return to being supported chiefly by patronage and subscriptions, as opposed to record sales and touring. As these new models emerge, we have the opportunity to look more closely at how we are using our tools, and assess whether they focus or detract from artistic intent and feel. Do we want our digital tools to make us louder, or do we want them to help us with feel? Do we want digital distribution to deliver static objects, or recordings in the form of apps that can deliver richer, interactive, and immersive experiences?

Digital tools are fabulous. They allow mere mortals to make great sounding recordings in their bedrooms. They dramatically increase productivity. More productivity means more music can be shared, and that’s a great thing. We should remember, though, that the tools we choose can lead us to erase all the blemishes, nuances, and feel that make music among the truest of human expressions.

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