Music and Technology

One of the things that defines us as modern humans is the constant striving to do things bigger, better, faster, and the history of sound recording has been for more precision, from wax cylinders to tapes to vinyl and now digital.

But the problem with digital is that it means the music has to fit into a computer grid; you cannot drag out a note, play round with things; it can be incredibly liberating in terms of the sounds that are possible, but there is an increasing tendency towards the old ways, of analogue and vinyl, with Jack White being in the vanguard of the new/old recording styles. It seems to have started with the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, which brought a whole new audience to established stars of bluegrass and country.

This is from David Byrne’s book, How Music Works:

“Reacting to this tendency, some musicians have decided to go back to analog recording, and some have perversely gone out of their way to make their recordings sound as lo-fi as possible – as bad as they can get away with. They want to get as far from digital cleanliness as possible. Why would bad quality, fuzziness, and distortion imply that the music is more authentic? The idea is that if one accepts that crisp and clean recordings are inherently soulless, then the opposite, dirty and rough, must therefore be straight from the heart. That might not sound logical, but that’s the way we think. It’s all part of the recurring belief that conflates new technologies with being inauthentic. Bad – even fake bad, in this way of thinking – means good. It’s confusing, because most digital music does not sound “bad”. If anything, it sounds conventionally good – clean, spotless with a full range of frequencies. Though it is actually less rich sounding than previous technologies, it fools the ear into believing that it sounds better. It’s this shiny, glossy quality that is considered suspect by many music fans. In response, they overvalue the easily audible drawbacks of a previous era- the hiss, crackle, and distortion. In my opinion, realness and soul lie in the music itself, not in the scratches and pops of old records. So, while the cleanliness and “perfection”of much current pop music is not a guarantee of a moving musical experience, neither is their opposite.

If, following the lead of the phone company, we find ourselves talking about communication and information transmission when we talk about music, then maybe some of the sonic richness of LPs is indeed superfluous and can be eliminated with no serious loss. Could this work with speech as well? Yes and no. Music has more going on simultaneously than speech, for starters. Looking at a reproduction of a painting is certainly not the same as standing in front of the real thing, but an awful lot of the emotion, intent, ideas, and sensibility can indeed be communicated – even via a cheap reproduction. Similarly, I can be moved to tears by a truly awful recording or a bad copy of a good recording. Would I be moved even more if the quality were higher? I doubt it. So why bother?

There does come a time, however, when the richness of the retinal or aural experience is so diminished that the communication – in this case the enjoyment of the music – becomes unintelligible. Btu how can we define that? I first heard rock, pop, and soul songs on a crappy-sounding transistor radio, and they changed my life completely. The sound quality was atrocious, but that tinny sound was communicating a wealth of information. Though it was an audio transmission that carried the news, it was the social and cultural message embedded in the music that electrified me as much as the sound did. Those extra-musical components that got carried along with the music didn‘t demand a high-resolution signal – good enough was good enough. I’m not saying that tinny sound should be considered satisfying or desirable, or that we should never strive for more than “good enough”, but it’s amazing how much lo-fi or lo-res information can communicate. Live concerts don’t generally have perfect sound either, but they can move us deeply.”

This is all great stuff, but he is just writing about music in isolation. He was part of the generation who started making music in response to the bubble gum pop nonsense, and the pretentious soloing of prog rock, generated by an industry that told people what to listen to.

What the punk movement did was to tell people to make their own music, just like they did in the old days, when the public produced music rather than consumed it, as he notes earlier in his book. Big companies also shy away from contentious lyrics, so going lo fi allows performers to address personal and public issues of the day. Songs against the Vietnam War were played on acoustic guitars, not in hi tech studios, so there is a sense that this music has a conscience.

As for how the tinny music affected his young self, it did so because he knew no better. Today we do. We are all exposed to a cacophony of music, so standards are higher from the get go, at least in terms of production.

And he also omits what else happens at live performances – people often go with their friends, there is often alcohol, there is a whole different public, social experience that cannot be had at home.

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