Thursday, February 24, 2011

How Our Technology Has Let Us Down...

In the mid-1980s, I was on tour with a young woman singer from Brampton Ontario. As is the custom of most musicians, the first day I had free after arriving in a new town, I would go to the local music store to see what was in stock. At each and every store, I would see one or more sets of Simmons electronic drums which were the rave at the time and the only electronics available back then. I was not a fan of them and, being as vocal as I am with my opinions, voiced my preference for traditional acoustic drums. The arguments I heard in favour of the electronics ranged from, “The sound man has more control” to “They’re so easy to record” to “They’re always in tune.” All valid points, I must concede, but all refutable as well.

Those discussions though, were a great insight into the way non-drummers saw us; those of us who hit things with sticks. At first I was offended by these statements, but I began to look at them for what they were; the truth as seen from the perspective of others.

Then I began to look at why others had that perspective.

Could it be that they had encountered so many drummers who could not play softly? Surely that was true in some cases, but if we go back far enough, pre–Rock and Roll, we can find all sorts of examples of drummers who could play with fiery intensity and be barely heard, and then unleash a barrage that would frighten the hounds of Hell back to their lair.

And what about electronics being easier to record? By today’s standard, I would have to say yes, they are. Set up the pads, connect them to the module, connect the module to the mixing board, and lay down the tracks. No microphones to put up, no experimenting with placement, no time lost. I can only assume that applied to those earlier pads as well, and today’s pads and modules are much better.

But they aren’t infallible. If the module goes down, the whole drum kit is gone. If in an acoustic drum situation, a microphone goes south, it can be replaced quickly and easily.

Which leaves us with tunability. Electronic instruments rely upon circuitry to provide the sounds we desire. If we don’t like a certain sound, we tailor the module to compensate. If we want higher or lower tone, the module can do that. If we want pitch bend or overtones, the module can do that.

Finally, there’s the actual recording studio of the twenty-first century. Gone are the days of huge rolls of tape and reel-to-reel recorders. Today, it’s all digital, using computer software programs such as ProTools or Adobe Premier Pro. These programs allow the engineer to “go in” and move sounds to make them more metronomically correct, or to duplicate them so the same part can be used in another section of the song. It is possible that the piano or guitar player on your favourite song did not play completely from start to finish, but played a verse and chorus that were then duplicated as many times as necessary to get the finished product.

Recently, I was listening to some demo tracks one of the students at McKenzie College was working on. He was explaining how he still had to go back and electronically repair some timing inconsistencies. I asked why he didn’t just play it right when he recorded it.

Which brings me to the point of this blog: We depend too much on the technology that was designed to assist us. Many drummers today do not know how to tune their drums or play with dynamics; they believe it’s up to someone else to “fix it in the mix.” Vocalists don’t have to sing in key; pitch bend takes care of that. Timing isn’t important anymore; that can be quantized.

Music today isn’t being made by musicians, but by studio technicians.

Another way our technology is letting us down is in the area of social media.

WHAT? The Lonster is dissing Twitter and Facebook? E-mail? Sup wit dat?

Well, I’ll tell you, but before I do, please let me reassure you, I am not dissing them, I’m simply pointing out how they can be abused and unhelpful; possibly even harmful to the relationships they were designed to enhance.

I often find statements made, words “spoken” in e-mails of on social forums are misunderstood, taken out of context, or completely confusing to myself or others. There is something, ... dare I say “sacred,” about person-to-person conversations wherein we can draw upon such additional information as body language, facial expression, or eye contact. A straight-to-the-point “What do you mean?” can set things straight immediately if necessary.

Now, I’m not advocating we give up our computers, blackberries, or even paper and quill, but I DO suggest getting out and having conversations with friends and family over dinner or coffee as often as possible. Time shared this way is time that will lead to great memories and stronger friendships or family bonds. Time spent this way will be the topic of future conversations, either real or on the virtual plane.

Time spent this way will never be wasted...

~Still Wandering…


  1. Although I understand the point about the flexibility of recording electronic instruments I personally prefer acoustic instruments in general; somehow you just can't get that rich, acoustic sound with any electronic instrument.

    That's one of the problems I find with 80s music. There are some great songs from that era but, particularly towards the mid and late 80s, there was an obvious infatuation with synthesizers; pretty much every song from 1984 to 1989 had some form of electronics in it and, in many cases, the synthesizers were among the lead instruments in the mix.

    That's why I like 70s rock. Analog recording technology was at a pinnacle but electronic instruments were not; most musicians, genre of music notwithstanding, were still working with all acoustic instruments (electric guitars aside; I personally don't look upon them as "electronic" anyway insofar as they still use physical vibrations of guitar strings to make sound as opposed to purely electronically generated waveforms).

    In short, I think the extra time to set up mics are well worth it to get that rich, natural sound from real drums, right down to the "imperfections" of the movements of the drummer, the rustle of their clothing etc.

    No matter how good electronics get, I don't believe they'll ever been able to truly match the richness of natural sound.

  2. Well, all the processes of recording are still the same... Mics still need to be set up, acoustic instruments are still used including grand pianos and drums, but the recorded material is now data and THAT is what is being manipulated after the fact.

    Even the '80s music with its synths was still more organic because the technique of capturing that music was reel-to-reel tape. If a musician played off time or out of tune, there was no fixing it in the mix; it simply had to be redone. However, with the advent of multi-tracking in the 60s, it was possible for one musician to make a mistake and if the rest kept playing, the part with the mistake could be re-recorded while the rest was saved. The Beatles recorded most of "Let It Be" without ever seeing each other, but it was still human. If John't voice went flat, it had to be re-recorded, there was no electronic pitch correct.


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