June 4th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Gross desserts on the sex-education menu

CANBERRA OBSERVED Suggested parallel less a Murphy than a furphy

EDITORIAL Obama rewards Vietnam: a particularly nasty regime

ENVIRONMENT Land sinkage, not rising sea levels, the real threat

LIFE ISSUES Who am I? Baby's first memoir

SOCIETY Haircuts and tattoos: new rebels get funky

LIFE POLICY Queensland abortion bill is out of step with voters

SEXUAL POLITICS Gay 'marriage' and the given in human procreative behaviour (part 1)

RURAL LIFE Some of the reasons why farmers need a new bank

It's a queer theory that says kids can transgender (Part Two of two)

MUSIC Digital sonics by no means free of glitches

CINEMA Action movie lacks punch: X-Men: Apocalypse

BOOK REVIEW Tragic betrayal

BOOK REVIEW Great reformer or great dictator?

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Digital sonics by no means free of glitches

by David James

News Weekly, June 4, 2016

The problem with technology, at least when used in creating music, is that it gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

The technological advances in recording and sound production have profoundly changed the way most kinds of music are made. But it has not always been for the better; indeed it has been mostly for the worse.

One device common in recordings of popular music (far less classical or jazz) is the use of isolated recordings for each instrument. In popular music recordings until the 1960s and into the 1970s, the bands would play together. Producing a record was extremely expensive and the recordings were usually done under high pressure.

That is no longer the case. Recording technology has moved from analog to digital and become subject to the massive advances of computerisation. Producing a recording is now comparatively easy. Tracks of individual musicians’ parts are in most cases recorded separately so that it is easier to alter and “improve” the sound of each. Superficially, it is an advance; it certainly means that inadequate playing or singing can be eliminated or “improved”.

But what is lost is crucial, especially in popular music. If you have ever wondered why the rhythms (the “swing”) in bands up until the 1960s are so much more compelling than contemporary popular music, the main reason is that in the older recordings the musicians mostly played at the same time. It meant they derived energy from each other’s nuances, especially the slight variances between their time-senses. That cannot happen when the musicians are recording their parts alone.

Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman commented in a documentary on the band that the secret to the band’s dynamic rhythm section was that drummer Charlie Watts played behind the beat, guitarist Keith Richards played on the beat and Wyman played ahead of the beat. The tension between the three of them, Wyman said, created a constant sense of “danger”.

Some bands, like U2, realise the importance of this and record at the same time. But the vast majority of popular music recordings are produced with the tracks performed separately. Unless the singer’s rhythmic power can reach the sublime heights of Michael Jackson – and virtually no one is capable of that – the result will be the kind of blandness all too evident in most modern songs. Because the backing band is not responding to the singer, too much emphasis is placed on the expressiveness of the lead singer, and rarely is this enough to convince.

A further problem is that such expressiveness is also heavily affected by the technology. First, there is auto-tuning, which is used liberally in modern recordings. If the singer strays out of tune, the computer technology can correct it. But once again, nuances are lost.

Many great singers are slightly out of tune, or rather they move around the pitch to create greater expressiveness in a version of tension and release (jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ pitch bending was an extreme example of it). Auto-tuning may stop a singer sounding incompetent, but if they are good, it can prevent them from sounding great.

There are many other digital methods of enhancing the aural quality of recordings, most of which sound good in isolation but, when put together, tend to sound homogenous. It is especially the case with synthesised sounds, whose upper harmonics are completely regular, whereas naturally produced sounds tend to have more chaotic upper harmonics.

Some performers thrive in these new, much more artificial, recording conditions. An example is Katie Perry, who, based on her live performances, struggles to sing in tune. Yet her recordings sound very strong; her particular vocal characteristics respond well to the technology.

But for the most part the result is musically poor, even robotic.

Finally, there is the way music is distributed: the ubiquitous MP3. This has made music much more accessible (and deprived many musicians of their livelihood). But again the technology gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

Many have concluded, reasonably enough, that analog vinyl recordings sound far better than digital recordings. They do. But the comparison is not strictly between digital and vinyl, but between MP3s and vinyl. Vinyl recordings produce a complete facsimile, an analog, of the whole sound. Digital recordings produce an exact replica. High-resolution digital recordings are indistinguishable from vinyl. MP3s, however, are extremely low quality.

This writer witnessed a performance of a singer-guitarist live, which was recorded. The performance was then played back in high-resolution digital through high-quality speakers. There was a slight deterioration, but it was not especially noticeable.

Then the performance was played back as an MP3. It was unlistenable. Indeed, the audience in the auditorium asked for it to be turned off. Yet that is the format in which we listen to most of our music. The technology may be advanced, but when it comes to musicality, it has taken us backwards.

David James is a Melbourne journalist and musician.

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