Digital technology has enhanced music production, recording and distribution in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago, but are we losing something more essential in the process? Chris May talks to ambient pioneer and friend of technology Brian Eno about the dangers of digital dependence in modern music.
Words: Chris May
Back in the early 1970s, Phil Spector launched a Bring Back Mono campaign. More of a publicity stunt than a real protest movement, it fizzled out after a couple of stories in Rolling Stone and failed utterly to change the course of history. Four decades on, another, more serious guerrilla-action is being fought, this time against the digitisation of recording and production.
Recording history since the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll can be divided into two halves, analogue era and digital era. In this model, analogue is equated with authenticity, digital with artificiality. Proponents of the model argue that, from the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, analogue recording was primarily concerned with making musicians sound as good on record as they did on stage. By contrast, since the adoption of digital technology in the late-1980s, studios are said to have been expected to make musicians sound not merely as good as they are, but better. Digital tools have made it possible for the most indifferent singer, drummer or guitarist to sound like the business. Real music made in real time by real people has become an endangered species.
The model is a crude over-simplification, of course. It ignores the conveniences and benefits of digital technology, not least the fact that affordable, home-studio set-ups have democratised recording. But is the price we are paying for digital’s upside too high? By embracing the new tech, are we losing the human factor which has been at the heart of music making? Are we ceding too much power to the machines? Is gloss replacing substance?
Techphobics are not the only people asking these questions. Brian Eno became an early adopter of new technology as a teenager. At art school in the mid 1960s, Eno studied under the modernist art-theorist Roy Ascott, who introduced him to the idea of “process not product” and encouraged his first experiments with tape recorders. In 1972, Eno began working with Robert Fripp on the tape-looping system later known as Frippertronics, and, in mid-decade, introduced his own tech-rich, ambient music. Eno’s current enthusiasms include generative music, which, in essence, involves writing some algorithms, pointing them in the right direction and standing well back.
After 50 years at the sharp end of technological innovation, Eno is the last person you might expect to have doubts about digital recording.
Yet in an interview for Jocks&Nerds magazine recently, Eno said: “As a record producer, digital technology makes me wonder about the whole direction recording is taking.”
Eno was speaking on the eve of the release of Knitting Factory Records’ Fela: Vinyl Box Set 3, which he compiled. He has been an Afrobeat devotee since 1973, when he chanced on Fela Kuti’s album Afrodisiac. I had asked Eno if he thought it was possible to retain the human touch, so explicit in Kuti’s Afrobeat recordings, while using sophisticated, digital studio-technology.
“It’s very difficult, and it’s continually under debate actually,” said Eno. “It doesn’t just apply with African recordings. It’s a problem everybody is having at the moment. Do I resist the temptation to perfect this thing? What do I lose by perfecting it? It’s difficult. Because now it is possible to mend anything, correct anything. The rhythm’s a bit out on that bar? OK, we’ll just stretch it a little bit. We can quantize everything now, we can quantize audio so the beat is absolutely perfect. We can sort of do and undo everything. And of course, most of the records we like, all of us, as listeners, are records where people didn’t do everything to fix them up and make them perfect.
“So the question that everybody’s asking is, is it getting any better as a result of all this? But it’s such a hard temptation to resist. You’re recording a song and find a note that is really quite out of tune. In the past, you’d have said, it’s a great performance, so we’ll just live with it. What you do now is retune that note. So you’re always asking yourself, have we lost something of the tension of the performance, of the feeling of humanity and vulnerability and organic truth or whatever, by making these corrections? It does make you question the role of new technology in the studio. And, of course, there are all sorts of reactions against it. You have Jack White with his studio in Nashville, which is all analogue, he doesn’t have any digital equipment in there. And I’ve worked with bands who’ve said, we’re going back to tape. They’ve got in all the stuff, 24-track recorders, all the gear – but within half a day they’re saying, fuck, we can’t edit this stuff. They’re just not used to working that way.
“There’s a very interesting exercise, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, not to use cmd-Z when you’re writing something. I write quite a lot on a Mac and like everybody I go back and change things. If you say to yourself, today I’m going to write exactly as if I was sitting in front of a piece of paper and writing – Jesus, it’s a whole different mind-set. Because you have to start thinking before you start writing. It’s really hard to go back to that. I’m not saying there is any advantage in going back to it, it’s just interesting to try it, to remind yourself of how completely you are now part of this new technology of writing.”
Did Eno think that belle époque West African records still sound vital and alive 40 or 50 years on because of, rather than despite, the very basic conditions under which most of them were recorded?
“I do,” said Eno. “It’s partly to do with engineers working with very limited resources and really understanding them well. If you’ve only got two mics, one compressor and a couple of pre-amps, you really know what they do, because you’re using them every single day. It’s like an artist who is extremely good with water colours. Water colour is a very limited medium but you can become incredibly good with it if that is all you have. Those old African recordings, and a lot of old rhythm ‘n’ blues and early doo-wop and so on, in many respects they were incredibly limited in recording tools. But nonetheless, the people who were using those limited tools had a real rapport with them, and knew how to get exciting results from them.
“For instance, I once recorded in West Africa with a Ghanaian band called Edikanfo [on the group’s 1981 album The Pace Setters]. I worked with an engineer there in a little studio that was a joke by Western terms. He had a really random bundle of microphones. One of them was from a Sony cassette recorder, a really cheap mic, but he used it brilliantly. He put it over the drum kit and he got a really vibrant, lively sound from it. If you’d shown that set-up to a Western engineer then they would have laughed at you. And the same with the instruments. Sometimes the instruments the guys were using were really crappy old electric guitars. But they knew how to work with them, how to get something special out of them.”
Last year, Bob Dylan went old-school, though not across-the-board analogue, while recording his album Shadows in the Night. In an interview published in US magazine AARP this February, Dylan explained: “I could only record these songs one way, and that was live on the floor with a very small number of mics. No headphones, no overdubs, no vocal booth, no separate tracking…The engineer had his own equipment, left over from bygone days, and he brought all that in… There was no mixing. That’s just the way it sounded… We used as little technology as possible.”
Far from diminishing, the debate about authenticity and artifice is building. Artisan music is not about to roll over and surrender. Neither is digital technology going to disappear. But if commercially-successful producers such as Eno can find a humanistic accommodation between analogue and digital aesthetics, the sun will continue to shine.