In my recent interview with Geoff Emerick (see “Production Values: The Long and Winding Road” in the May 2006 issue of EM), the former Beatles engineer excoriated modern recording technology for its tendency to grab the spotlight away from performers, absorbing people's attention, and removing spontaneity from sessions. My first reaction was that Emerick's comments seemed curmudgeonly, but on reflection, I find I agree with him in large part.
In my experience, there's a correlation between session flow and the flow of ideas. A smoothly flowing session doesn't guarantee a smooth flow of ideas, but poor session flow inevitably inhibits creative flow. And as I see it, the cumulative effect of several types of fragmentation in the digital studio is poor session flow.
Let's start by discussing how studio time gets fragmented. Although session setup in a multitrack analog studio takes easily as much time as setting up a session in a computer-based studio, once the analog studio is set up, you can work for long periods with only infrequent stops. With DAWs, you must constantly manage computer tasks that take 15 seconds here, a couple of minutes there. The problem is not the lost time; I'm not convinced that sessions in analog studios are faster. Rather, the problem with computer-based sessions is that they are too often composed of short chunks of time, with frequent interruptions.
Lack of control is also a problem in most DAW sessions. With a bit of practice, human beings can be remarkably adept, precise, and expressive with controls for grabbing, turning, flipping, pushing, and sliding. Computers, on the other hand, involve very little physical interaction. As quickly as you might learn to navigate menus, that process will always involve an interpretive layer of language skills well beyond that required in a typical analog studio. MIDI control surfaces can help a lot, especially with controlling soft synths, but incomplete or incompatible implementations often degrade the benefits of the control surface.
My point is not that analog gear is functionally superior. Computer-based audio-production systems offer incredible power and flexibility that is unattainable in the analog world. Controlling computer-based audio, however, is less intuitive and physically facile than with traditional analog technology, and that is a significant issue.
When people work in the studio alone or with just one other person, fragmented attention can also be a significant problem. Emerick commented on how difficult it can be to engineer and produce simultaneously, because it is hard to do two things at once and still do both effectively. Yet in many DAW-based studios, one person must often play the multiple roles of producer, engineer, artist, and computer technician. That kind of fragmentation leaves little room for right-brain activity.
Furthermore, a typical personal-studio DAW user has his or her eyes on the screen, hands on the keyboard, and mind on the computer. That puts the emphasis more on the medium than on the message. In fact, having one's mind get sucked into the computer happens so often that one loses awareness of the sense of flow and becomes inured to its absence from the session.
While fragmentation can wait to be addressed in the future, the most pressing question has to do with what can be done to improve things now. Obtaining a control surface, even one with limited functionality, is an important step. But preproduction is at least as important. With well-thought-out templates, macros, and presets, session flow can be substantially improved. But getting all of those things thought through and put together requires a major commitment of time.
I hope that people who have heretofore settled for a keyboard, mouse, and monitor will somehow make it economically desirable for manufacturers to develop better physical interfaces. I would also like to see software houses be forced by powerful processors and a popular uprising to make elegant, intuitive programs. Most of all, I hope we all can remember that the computer is a means to an end and not the reason that we are in the studio.