The Clock Ticked, At Times, a Regular Tock
Down the hall from me here in scenic Bourgwick Village, Brooklyn, a friend of mine has a recording studio. It's moderately professional — somewhere below the lightless, airtight bunkers across the river, but certainly above the proverbial dude with a laptop. There are mics and pre-amps and instruments and miles of cable, a little mixing board hooked to a Mac, some monitors, and a lot of foam affixed to the walls. He doesn't quite "run" the studio, since he's got a day job across the room as he tries to take over the world with his very own dot-com, but it's quite bustling, anyway.
Another neighbor of mine (next door) recently finished a project there, engineered by another dude who lives in the building (upstairs), and I watched curiously as they laid down tracks, edited, and mixed. The end result — and, for now, you’re gonna hafta take my word on it — sounded very professional. A dude I know who promotes shows — who doesn’t really know the creative parties too well — commented (unprompted) "this doesn’t sound like something I’d book, it sounds like something I’d listen to." Anyway, I’m just laying down its credentials, ‘cause — as good as the songs were when my friend wrote them — it went through a (shall we say) process before they could be done and listened to.
The weird sausage-factory like gizmoing began with a click track, a sterile mechanical tock that sounded as if it couldnt've been pulled off some infinite bleeping grid by some radio-rhythmic device. Simple, but also completely mind-altering. When the metronome is dropped into a digital editing program, it allows engineers to — as they say — fly parts around the mix. Did your lead guitarist peak between the second and third verse instead of the outro solo? No problem, mon. So long as duder was playing to the click, you can drop it anywhere you want. (And, if he didn't play to the click, the engineer will kvetch and moan for a bit, but then blow up the waveforms, spend a few hours gnawing on his tongue, leaning in towards the screen, and fucking make that guitarist’s part hook up with the click, goddammit.)
This, the engineer assured me, is how it's Properly Done these days. And who am I to doubt him? Listening to the final mixes, the music sounded good and slick and modern. Like a real album. He'd locked all the beats down, ditto for the guitars and everything else. Not that they were out of time before (at least anymore than Ringo was ever out of time), just that they weren’t just exactly perfect with the grid.
All of his work certainly has had an effect on the music at hand, but not as much as you might think. The music still rocks. And, having heard the mixes before the engineer fucked with ‘em, I’m even inclined to say that it rocks more. The implications — that this is how much popular music is being made these days — instantly relegate the concept of a live band (at least in the sense of making current, modern music) to a quaint technological backwater. Sure, there are still bands out there that make fiery, bitchin’ music that we can dance to or listen to live, but how much of that music retains its total impact when transferred to the home speakers? (Really?) Studio work, by contrast, is designed to exist in this environment.
The gap between the two widens with the introduction of each new plug-in, especially if one takes a gander at the pop charts, and realizes that the closest thing to a human on there these days is Beck Hansen — and as much as I adore the guy's music — that's not saying a lot. As a listener, though, the gap doesn't matter at all. When one is reading a piece of fiction, it doesn't matter if the story is true or false, it only matters if it delivers its emotional payload. The same is can be said of songs. It doesn't matter if the drummer has a natural sense of rhythm, is playing to a click, or is even a person at all. It only matters if it sounds good.
Acoustic guitars, especially, will endure, because there's no better portable way to play music in real time. And electric guitars will endure, too, because there's no better way to play music in real time that's loud. While it doesn’t matter to the listener, it certainly does matter to the musician.
This is why the upshot of all of this will almost certainly not be the death of live music. Bands will not go away. The chronic inability for most touring bands to sell albums has (I think) at least as much to do with the fact that what they do has become basically a form of folk-art as it does with the collapsing market for tangible products. Maybe that’s okay. For any band worth their salt in a live setting, it seems like a cheap, easy business mechanism to profit from their own concert recordings is just about in place. For others, hopefully the flexibility of home studios, coupled with the whining demands of modernity, will give ‘em occasional pause as they inevitably try to set their music down.
It is this latter bit that gives me hope. As in-board microphones become better, and computers start to come stocked with software like Apple's GarageBand, young musicians' studio literacy will increase infinitely. Not knowing how to use a home recording set-up will soon be the musician's equivalent of an author who still pecks a typewriter. We should probably all get with it, huh?
The other reason that I am certain that live music won't die (it'll just smell funnier and funnier, to paraphrase Zappa) is this:
While there is a fully functional studio down the hall, replete with all the digital doohickeys I just described, its most frequent use isn’t overdubbing, or even the engineer mind-melding with on-screen waveforms. It involves the drum kit in the middle of the room. When the stresses of taking over the world with a dot-com become too much, my studio-maintaining friend goes in, closes the doors, and drums his little ‘ead off, occasionally screaming along with himself. And, from time to time, the rest of us file in there, pick up instruments, and go at it, because playing is good. And good is… good.