Cultural Wasteland – by Joe Moody (contributing writer)

Most musicians who do any work in a modern recording studio, especially younger musicians, really have no idea how good they’ve got it. The modern recording studio, even a modest one, has the capability to make musicians’ lives so easy that almost anyone, with the assistance of a good engineer, can record a bunch of songs and make it sound like a million bucks, even if they are barely capable of holding it together in live performance. What with modern digital editing, pitch correction software, time and tempo correction software, and the fact that musicians can be recorded one at a time if need be, a talented engineer can morph a barely listenable performance by marginally talented musicians into something which sounds reasonably in tune, tight and coherent. The biggest problem with this is that it allows people who really have no business making records to make records. I’d like to see how some of these pseudo-musicians would have fared back in the old days, before all of this crazy modern technology was available. Most of the musicians I work with are very talented people. They write their own songs, play their own parts, and sound great when playing live. It’s more than a little ironic that many of the people I work with, who are near the bottom of the entertainment business food chain, are more talented and far more dedicated to their craft than some of the people at the top, who can sell half a million records on the power of their names alone. Kinda makes me want to smack somebody, but I’m not sure who I’d smack – the people whose names are on the records, the people actually responsible for making them, or the chumps who perpetuate this buffoonery by buying them.

With modern digital recording technology, track count is limited only by the amount of computer horsepower available, and the restraint shown by the producer of the session. Some modern recording sesssions will use dozens, even hundreds, of tracks. Not so back in the 1950s, when tape decks had one track. One. Many early rock ‘n’ roll records were made with a single microphone in the middle of the room. Want the guitar louder? Move the guitar player closer to the microphone. Bass player couldn’t make the session? The session was cancelled. Somebody sang out of tune in the chorus? Everybody does the song again. Guitar player screws up the solo? Everybody does the song again. Drummer drops a stick in the last bar of the song? Everybody yells at the drummer, and then everybody does the song again. Nowadays if the guitar player hits a bad note, the bad note is either edited out or recorded over, leaving everybody else’s parts intact. If most modern day bands were told that they all had to play a song all the way through, at the same time, in tune, without anybody screwing up, it would be utter chaos. Some of the musicians would freak out and overplay, some would be dragging the band’s tempo up to double time due to their increased adrenaline flow, and some of them would seize up in panic, leaving them incapable of playing anything at all.

As recording technology progressed, moving into the sixties, track counts increased. Tape decks went from mono (one track) to stereo (two tracks) to four, eight, and sixteen tracks, which gave engineers and producers much more freedom to keep different instruments and performances separated. And it didn’t take musicians, with their keen insight, long to realize that this proliferation of available tracks also gave them the freedom to screw up more frequently, as well as being able to play their parts when they felt like it. “Hey, if I don’t need to do the solo during the basic track, why don’t you guys get your parts right, and then I can come in and do my magic, you know?” No, see, it’s only ‘magic’ if you create a brilliant solo in one take while playing live with the band. (Actually, those of us in the recording industry have a technical term for that: we call it “a miracle”.) If we need to do fifty takes of your solo and I have to use twelve of them to comp together one decent performance hours after the rest of the band has put down their parts and gone home, we don’t call that ‘magic’. It’s called ‘work’.


All in all, though, these bigger tape recorders with their increased track counts made some remarkable things possible, and did much more to inspire creativity than to dampen it. There would have certainly been no Sgt. Pepper’s or Dark Side Of The Moon with a one-track tape deck, nosiree. There were later technological innovations, however, which actually did as much to lower the bar in the creative process as to be any kind of artistic inspiration. Let’s talk for a minute about the odious day that pitch correction software was invented. That was, coincidentally, the same day that actors and heiresses started lining up outside studio doors to make their albums. “You mean I don’t even have to sing in tune to make a record? Sign me up!” No matter that the pitch correction process made vocal tracks sound synthesized and glitchy; they were in tune! And because these actors and heiresses weren’t really musicians, songwriters or record producers (hey, who has the time to learn all that stuff?), the talent void created by this proliferation of disputably talented recording stars spawned a whole new cottage industry: Production Teams. A Production Team is a pair (or more) of musical alchemists who give themselves a hip name like “RhythmPsych” or “Hypnology”. These teams will write a dozen or so keyboard-laden, sequencer-based tunes and create a musical ‘image’ for the new pop star, often enlisting the help of one or more ‘Song Doctors’ to craft hopelessly catchy tunes that people can’t resist singing along with once they have had them relentlessly drilled into their heads 20 or 30 times a day on the radio.

Now that we’ve eliminated the need for musicians to record together and the necessity for them to sing and play in tune, and have made it optional for them to write their own material or give any thought to direction or image, what else can we do to take the ‘artist’s’ artistic abilities out of the equation? How about time and tempo correction software? Excellent! With this handy invention, it’s not only unnecessary for the drummer to be able to keep time to any degree at all, he can pretty much just hit each drum once and go home, or just tell the Production Team to use drum samples and write his parts for him, so he can stay home and smoke crack.

So now, in order to make a record, you don’t need to be able to write songs, play or sing in time or in tune, or perform spontaneously in any way at all. As long as you have the resources or the backing, you can just buy all the talent you need. It doesn’t say much for the state of our cultural integrity that only a few years ago Milli Vanilli were run out of town on a rail for not singing their own stuff, when these days it’s accepted practice for some performers to lip-sync along with pre-recorded tracks of their voice that have been run through the Johnny Bravo machine. It’s only a short step from hiring somebody else to sing your parts because you can’t sing in tune to using pitch correction software on your own voice because you can’t sing in tune. The only thing that’s left is for someone to invent a service that allows music consumers to hire somebody else to do their music listening for them, so they don’t have to waste their time bothering with this crap. Then maybe with the free time they’ll have, these liberated listeners can learn how to sing, write songs and play musical instruments, and we can start a new cycle that might find us a way out of this cultural wasteland. Well… I can dream, can’t I?