The rise of disposability in popular music

5 04 2011

There is a fundamental issues that has been brought about by the rapid development in technology over the last 15 years.  The one core instigator of the revolution and strife that is currently in the music industry and consumer market is ‘disposability‘.  Disposability is based around the idea that either technology or any type of media can be easily discarded due to the fact it has lost its value and is no longer wanted by the consumer.  The phenomenal progress of technology has not only made music depreciate more quickly, but has also made the technology itself very disposable as it is replaced by new developments on an almost monthly basis.

The roots of disposability in music today can be discovered in two different areas of development.  The first is the Internet and the second is the development of music production technology.  The Internet has facilitated the increase of fast downloading of music to people’s computers and as a consequence, because still the majority of music downloaded is not paid for, it appears to have less value to the consumer.  With this decrease in value, comes the mentality that music can be discarded as easily as yesterday’s newspaper.  The contents of the physical formats of music have changed little, however, while the explosion of content on the Internet has been its driving force.  People have come to expect more from their consumable media, music has consequently lost a lot of its inherent value.

It can be argued that regardless of the apparent loss of content in music compared to other forms of media, what is music apart from a collection of acoustic vibrations?  Therefore, what else should music provide apart from its constituent elements?  Since, the conception of music many thousands of years ago, people have enjoyed music in its pure live form and in the 20th Century, it could be enjoyed in recorded forms.  Music has had no need to complement itself with other practices apart from other legitimate art forms.  So, it can be argued that music has become disposable not because of the Internet but because of the reduced quality of the music itself, especially mass market contemporary popular music.  The relative merits of which will not be discussed further here.

In many ways, progress can be considered to be a vital part of the natural evolution of music.  Originally music would be recorded onto tape, and all studios were equipped with a similar type of equipment which meant that operation in whatever studio was relatively generic.  The rise of computing power opened up a whole new world in music production and recording.  The huge advances in digital audio and MIDI sequencing capabilities have made professional and amateur music making easier, more flexible and cheaper than ever before.  However, progress in this sector is accelerating at such a pace that music makers are in danger of being caught up in the shock waves caused by it.  Not a week goes by without a new piece of software being released that has yet another new development.  By the time a composer, producer or engineer has mastered one operating system, it is obsolete.  The recording media which is used for sound itself changes at such a rate that it is uncertain that there will be hardware players in a few decade’s time to playback the music of today’s formats.

Technology is not being exploited to its full potential before progressing, so the real needs of musicians can be clearly identified before the technology evolves to its next logical level.  When a piece of technology it being exploited to its full potential the musician is maximising the music potential in it and not just skimming the surface.   The Beatles, for example, were forced to improvise with the studio equipment in Abbey Road, forcing the maximum potential of their technology.  The Beatles’ producer George Martin was known to rewire a Farfisa organ to create new sounds and rewind echo tapes during a recording pass due to there not being enough tape in the echo machine.

There is little chance to consolidate music making.  Everybody is pushing to create something new, as with the Internet and forms of new media.  however, it seems few people want to maintain what is worthwhile.  So, it is no surprise that the music of today is as disposable as the technology it is created on.

By Nino Auricchio
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Losing our innocence

22 03 2011

Electronic music is a mere pup when lined up against other forms of western popular music.

For decades it seemed electronic music just wasn’t considered kosher by the general public, often being likened to the sound of a vacuum clearer set to blow.  To many people it still brings on this knee jerk reaction.  Soundtracks for films such as Blade Runner, Forbidden Planet, The Day The Earth Stood Still, and A Clockwork Orange would often slip past them unnoticed however.

Back in the 70s acts like Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schultz, Vangelis, and Tomita were trailblazing the great movement of progressive electronic albums becoming a standard addition to Mr. and Mr. Joe Taxpayer’s front room stereo cabinet.  This movement perhaps represented the greatest period for electronic music as an art form which millions of people accepted and invested in, providing that all important inspiration for those young innocent ears who would become the new age, synth pop performers and producers of the 1980s.  You ask anyone between the ages of 30 and 40 who currently makes electronic music where they got their inspiration, they will respond with something along the lines of, “I used to listen to Man Machine on my dad’s stereo with my headphones on every night.  I knew from the first time I heard it I wanted to make music which sounded like that”.

Electronic music from the mid 80s onwards fragmented beyond the New Romanticism of Ultravox and the Synth Pop of Depeche Mode, into the veritable smorgasbord of derivative genres that became the world of dance music.  The so called death of dance music in the 90s following the cosure of so many clubs, super clubs and even the removal of the best dance act award from the Brit Awards, showed that over commercialization and dumbing down had taken its toll.  The spontaneity and unrestrained nature of electronic music had been lost in the mainstream, replaced by the 4-to-the-floor mindless pumping of a drum machine and Esoniq synths.  A few acts and labels continued to fly the flag such as Orbital, Warp Records and Wall of Sound, however sales of Orbital’s InSides or Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children failed to shift in sufficient numbers to make their respective artists  household names.

Back in those heady days when Krafterk were being robots and Jean Michel Jarre was flicking his dark Gallic hair, electronic music was approached with the ears of a child.  No preconceptions, no cultural baggage, no conventions on instrumentation or arrangement.  The sound made during this period had an inventive and original approach to the creation of electronic music which, oddly enough perhaps, resulted in albums the public were more than happy to accept, buy and enjoy.  Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and Vangelis’ China enjoyed commercial success, not only because they presented electronic music in contemporary pop or rock song context, but because they offered something different and exciting.  People often forget that in the 1970s the future was still bright and offered a route out of post war austerity and economic stagnation.  Today we worry more about just how we are going to survive in the future, let alone when we’ll be flying around in glass cars or having robot servants.  This optimism encapsulated by this new form of music has now all but gone.  Our innocence has been lost.

The never ending derivatives from what started out in the late 60s with a few teenagers messing with synthesizers has almost returned with electronic music seemingly returning to an underground form of music.  Synthetic sound has obviously permeated RnB and pop a huge degree and I am not in dispute with this, but stylistically and musically they cannot be classed as forms of electronic music.  They are RnB and pop which use electronic sounds.  Artists like Apparat, Ulrich Schnauss and SBTRKT would have seen far greater commercial success had they been releasing records in the 70s.  The great democratization of music creation with a single laptop with a smattering of cheap or free software tools being all you need has led to so much more electronic music being made by more people, but any significant commercial success in the medium has long since faded.

By Nino Auricchio




The Art of Pre-Production: Band Recording

7 03 2011

So you have access to a nice recording space, you know you will have enough I/O for the project, and you have secured enough time to fully record it.

For some people, this is enough. They go blind into a project and whatever happens, they make it work. This tends to be the route of super professionals or arrogant posers. There are several steps that I take to make sure that sessions will not only run smoothly, but are recoverable from disaster.

Meet The Band

I cannot stress this enough. Meet up with the band, preferably at a rehearsal or show. Listen to their songs, and discuss with them their favourite recordings and what they consider to be their strongest tracks. Learn who can take a joke, and who wants to be treated regally.

This meeting will allow you to identify the band’s weak links, and start to gain their trust. By taking an interest in their music, the band are more likely to trust your opinion in terms of arrangement and instrumentation later down the line.

Here are several things that you may learn that will aid your first tracking session;

  • The overall timing and feel of the drummer – How does the drummer feel about using a click track?
  • Live or Multitrack – Are the band strong enough to perform to a high standard live? Does it suit their genre?
  • The band’s dynamic  – If multitracking, will the band members perform better if everyone is at the studio, or do they prefer to track in isolation?
  • The band leader – Every band has a leader, whether they are appointed or not, there is always someone making the final decisions. Identify this person and gain their trust and respect
  • Instrument quality – Do any of the electric instruments buzz? Do they hold their tuning? Make sure to ask your band to re-string any guitars before the session to minimize breakage

Bring your own Engineer Toolbox

My ‘Engineer Toolbox’ is a pencil case containing a great deal of extremely handy things. The size of your toolbox is entirely dependent on how paranoid you are versus how much you can be bothered. My ideal Engineer Toolbox is listed below

  • Sharpie Pen
  • Masking Tape
  • Gaffer Tape
  • A pair of headphones you know well (obviously it won’t fit in the pencil case)
  • Headphone adaptor
  • XLR to Jack adaptors
  • Microphone Clip adaptor
  • Spare Microphone Clip
  • Guitar Slide
  • Whiteboard Marker
  • Moongel (An extremely handy drum dampener)
  • A book for taking track notes or several track sheets
  • External drive (I take two, a small USB key at 16GB, and an external fire wire drive at 1TB)
  • Guitar Strings

Know your Equipment

In a high-pressure situation such as the first day of tracking, it’s important to make sure the band’s impression of you is a good one. Any problems or fears they have at this stage are likely to exacerbate as the sessions continue. The quickest way to undo all of the good work achieved at the first meeting is to be unsure of how to run the equipment.

Occasionally you will be faced with a problem beyond your immediate knowledge. If you are working with anything hardware that you are unfamiliar with, there is the possibility you may run into problems. DAW’s and plugins all tend to store their manuals on disk, so you can check things for reference. Having the hard copy manuals for the desk you are using, or the soundcard or preamp, means you can fault find much more quickly and easily, decreasing the amount of time you are not recording for, and showing the band that you are in control.

Prepare Session Files in Advance (Optional)

This took some time for me to fully appreciate, but if you fully prepare the session files for each song, then it will undoubtedly save time while tracking. It usually involves importing all the necessary backing tracks for each song, setting tempo’s, and using Memory Locations (Markers in the Logic equivalent), dictating the different sections along the play head, and then marking a 2 bar drop in position for each.  I used to waste 10 minutes a session trying to understand which section a musician wanted to go from, as our terminology didn’t always match up.

To be honest I only usually prepare session files for a particularly challenging project, such as a track that has many time signatures and feel changes.

The Night Before…

It’s obvious really, but being a recording engineer or producer is a proper job, and should be treated as such. Go to bed early, fully prepared, and when you wake up in the morning the session will be easy. You will find it easier to problem solve and will be easier to get on with.

Throwing alcohol into this mix isn’t recommended, as being hung-over can potentially affect your judgement in all areas of the process.

Summary

A great deal of the things outlined here are pretty straightforward. By taking the time to get to know what you will be working with, you can free up time to be creative with a band (which is why we all do this anyway!), and achieve far more in a standard session than you would have. You will become a better producer as a result, and it will improve your overall work ethic and potentially overall demeanour in the studio environment.

By Max Woodhams