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The pursuit of perfection

Mixing desk

From autotuned vocals and instruments to digital sampling, with modern studio technology and digital recording, the need to perform a perfect take no longer exists. Re-recording a section, or even just a single flat note, can be corrected with a few quick clicks of a mouse.

It is no longer the case that a recording session is about getting the best takes recorded as quickly as possible – which was once the case because tape was expensive or in limited supply and time consuming to cut and splice out imperfections. Now, everyone on the planet has the ability to take as long as they like; using apps and digital home studios, artists can record and re-record as often as they like, experimenting and perfecting (or not) to their heart’s content.

From using the studio to auto-tune vocals and to replace authentic instruments with virtual equivalents, modern studios certainly offer artists more creative freedom than ever before. But has this changed the perception of studios from a space of creativity to a place to polish a performance and remove imperfections? And how does this impact the quality of the music being created?

Create and discover

Behind the technology of the studio is the human desire to create and discover. While some prefer to hide behind the studio’s tools as a way to polish and perfect the blemishes of a performance, others feel it is a tool itself allowing for experimentation and creativity.

Experimentation means embracing the imperfections of a session as a human element to what is being constructed. That also applies to the studio. While science will dictate the construction of the room and the technologies found within it, which are used to polish and perfect, it is the imperfections in human expression that make recording sessions in these rooms artistic.

For instance, according to Leslie Gerber, classical music critic and writer, “the ability to take chances always carries the risk of doing something wrong. But the failure to take chances leads to the kind of sterile, cautious music-making that critics frequently complain about in our contemporary concert halls and opera houses”. Even though this quote is related to classical music, it can still apply to artists and musicians in other genres.

For instance, on the 1967 Beach Boys track “Vega-Tables”, Paul McCartney was credited for chewing celery as percussion. Such a simple act, combined with the technology used to capture the sound, showed the artist’s willingness to take chances, and acts as a great example of how artists can utilise science and art.

Another example of how digital manipulation and authentic creativity has been combined and achieved success is in 10cc’s hit “I’m not in love”. The unique sound flowing underneath the track is the result of three weeks of the group singing “ahhh” at different pitches. The final 256 voices were loaded onto 16 tracks and controlled through the mixing desk, essentially creating a voice synthesizer that could be played along with the song.

Pursuing perfection whether you like it or not

In most mainstream music, especially genres such as pop, vocal perfection is often demanded. While it can be crafted, the more help a singer needs, the less authentic the finished product will be. In a world where technical perfection is freely achievable, discovering this authenticity is very important.

There have been a string of highly produced artists that are sold as authentic discoveries with “real” voices. As talented as they might be, the major label production can sometimes stick too close to a generic formula, trapping the artist behind the production.

From sound proofing foam to manipulate the acoustics, to autotuned vocals and automatically mapped virtual instruments, the tools required for constructing home studios are increasingly affordable. While this sounds like a democratisation of music, the band-in-a-box approach of Garageband is helping mediocre artists sound much better than they would without the technology. In practice, this is eroding substance and replacing it with production. If anyone can create music, talent and authenticity becomes even more important to help songs and artists stand out.

In an effort to combat this and maintain authenticity, many artists look to make their name as a live performer, where there is less studio and production to hide behind.

Finding a balance

In line with the surge of interest in vinyl records, analogue recording techniques have also grown in popularity in recent years. It is not just Jack White and his label, Third Man Records, that are focussed on analogue recording techniques. Recent albums by the Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga, The Black Keys, Ryan Adams and Arcade Fire have all been recorded using traditional techniques.

Advocates will talk of the warmth of vinyl, but for these artists it is not about audiophile quality or nostalgia, rather, searching for a sound.

Talking to the New Yorker, owner of the Nashville studio Welcome to 1979 said, “These musicians want their albums to sound like those made by Led Zeppelin, Sam Cooke, and Bruce Springsteen—not Justin Bieber. By recording like the legends of the twentieth century, they hope to create something new.”

Artists looking to use these methods are seeking the pressure of making mistakes and forced improvisations in the hope that they will become happy accidents. These moments can add a human warmth to performances.

But it is not always easy. Brian Eno, famed for his electronic innovations in the 80s, finds himself stuck in the middle of this debate from the perspective of a producer by deciding when to use the technology and when to allow mistakes, “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?”

While Eno deliberately keeps the errors to retain authenticity, taking this too far could undermine the potential of a recording by not producing it enough.

It’s clear that the technology of the studio allows artists to pursue perfection, but it’s also the creative nature of the studio that offers artists the opportunity to take chances and be innovative. To answer the questions posed at the beginning: But has this changed the perception of studios from a space of creativity to a place to polish a performance and remove imperfections? And how does this impact the quality of the music being created? That of course, depends entirely on how the artists choose to perceive and use the space.

Photograph by Rhythmic Diaspora

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