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Recording Mythology, Pt. 24 / Dynamics

Many of us come to the conclusion at some point in our lives that some things which were originally introduced as improvements or solutions wound up being later regarded as the fly in the ointment.

I really loved vinyl records. I was taken in by the entire process. It amazed me how so much wonderful music could be embedded into a little grove on that platter of plastic. I became so absorbed with the science, I learned all that I could about the process of ‘cutting’ an album. Turns out there was a lot to it. As a matter of fact, there’s a reason that they used to call the guys ‘music engineers’.

There was also a fail-safe built into the entire procedure which insured that a very small amount of music would be stolen through ‘boot-legging’ or piracy, of course, thanks to the onward march of convenience, those days are behind us. As a result, a musician has a hard time making a living at his or her chosen profession these days, but as a consolation prize, young people can carry around their own real-life soundtrack in their shirt pocket represented by three-hundred hours worth of sub-standard, super-compressed, non-musician manufactured bullshit.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to lessen the impact which I believe that digitisation has had on music. I think that it’s done nothing more than merely ruin the business and the quality of what once was.

Other than the aforementioned ‘convenience’, I’d like for someone to tell me: What good has digitisation really done? You may answer that it has made the process more affordable and allowed those once unable to record their work the opportunity to produce their own recordings. I would counter that reply with a response of my own: Most folks don’t know how to properly record and mix four or eight tracks, so why do they need twenty-four? What was wrong with the Tascam Portastudio in this respect? Cassette tapes were cheap, the tape speed was respectable at 3 & 3/4 ips and once an artist learned to get a good recording out of a Portastudio he or she was well on their way to understanding what the art of recording was about. Bruce Springsteeen’s Nebraska was recorded using the Portastudio, but now, everybody thinks that their material has to sound note and picture perfect. But the heart is what counts.

With the advent of digital came the flood of other devices: beat boxes, loop stations, virtual instrument software, pitch shifters and..that damned auto tune. I’m not even going off in that direction of musical no-man’s-land. And I’m not going to get started on what does and doesn’t qualify someone as a “producer”.

Oh, yeah. Dynamics. Vinyl records were all about dynamics. The job of the engineer was to get as much channel separation and sound into the groove without causing the needle to jump track. Bass was especially tricky. I always knew the good engineers by how well they handled the bass in the recording. But dynamics are a lost art now. I’m not sure I like limiters anymore. Hell, I’ll use a little compression, but I don’t want to hear the compressor working. I’m not talking about the sort of compression that John Lennon’s amplifier was coughing up on the hard-ball version of Revolution. That was tube compression, not programme compression. Call me old fashioned, but how much thud and sparkle do you need? And how do you build to a cresendo if the piece starts out at 95 dB? Why fill 24 tracks with noise when eight tracks could be filled with more emotion?

If video killed the radio star, digital has certainly killed music. If not for the digital ‘revolution’, half of today’s artists wouldn’t exist.

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/Composer and a damn cranky fellow who plays real instruments in order to produce real music which is recorded onto reel to reel tape.


About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

One response »

  1. I’m with you on the number of tracks, Johnny, and I don’t know how in heaven or hell would anyone need more than 24 tracks. With today’s recording programs offering practically unlimited amounts of stereo tracks, I wonder what the designers (programmers) had in mind. Personally I have never used more than 20 tracks and in most cases I manage comfortably with between 12 and 16. And you know the kind of racket I make with that…! Nonetheless, I remember the cutting rooms and the 2 track Scullys and such, the shiny metal machines that looked like they could last forever… It was always a magical moment to step into these rooms where real engineer would cut wax for the stamp, fine tune the width of the space between adjacent grooves, adjusting output volume and/or compression to avoid jumping track… I like the convenience of my trusted Protools, no tape, not azimuth, zenith, level, eq adjustments on a daily basis, but I can’t honestly say that collectively we actually gained much, if at all in the process of “upgrading” to digitization.


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