InSession: Now that We Can Do Anything, What Are You Going to Do? - EMusician

InSession: Now that We Can Do Anything, What Are You Going to Do?

Nathaniel Kunkel Writes About Audio Inventions for the Music Production Environment in March 2009 EM issue
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Nathaniel Kunkel

Some of the greatest audio inventions were born out of frustration. Dean Jenson was as frustrated with grounding issues on a location recording as George Massenburg was with equalization technology, and as a result, we got the isolating microphone transformer and the parametric equalizer, respectively. Even a relatively new invention such as Antares Auto-Tune had a frustrating early equivalent: two tape machines, a strobe tuner, and an Eventide H3000. The arrivals of these little godsends were like rays from heaven.

I remember when Auto-Tune came out. It was like, “Yes! Tuning won't take a week.” Auto-Tune was precise and near instantaneous. The reaction was the same about DAW editors: we were able to do limited editing before, but with their creation, editing the other outro onto the master take took only a couple of seconds instead of minutes. Implementing our wishes became a nonissue, and boy, did our wish list grow. Little did we know what a slippery slope we were on.

Cut to present day.

Now there is a whole generation of producers and engineers who are using this technology without understanding the frustration that was the impetus for its creation. They don't know how things used to be done, and they don't care. They don't approach making a record like we used to because they don't have to; they don't have the limitations that we did. They can do things in any order, in any key, at any tempo, and if they can dream it up, it will work.

On one hand, that's cool because we get to hear Kanye West generate a performance like “Heartless.” I, myself, love the freedom to move between tasks at will, thanks to recall ability. It keeps me fresh, and therefore I make better decisions.

On the other hand, people are using so much technology that the magic — the intangible interaction between musicians — that made a performance more than the sum of its parts is no longer heard very often.

Not long ago, the inability to edit minutiae meant that real musicians needed to play the music. And with the limited editing capabilities available, they needed to really play together because you couldn't tweak the arrangement after you recorded it. Our work flows were designed around just such limitations.

Now there are no limitations, and there are limitless work-flow options.

But more often than not, the grid, not the drummer, is the law, and the vocal will be tuned and phrased no matter what is sung. Everything is manipulated to be “correct.” That is our collective work-flow choice. It's cool and it's perfect, but sometimes I feel like I am hearing a presentation of the song more than I am hearing the song itself. I just hear the production; I don't feel the emotion.

Maybe it sounds crazy, but I really did believe that Buddy Holly loved Peggy Sue. That doesn't happen much to me anymore.

So, because the current trend on pop and urban radio is for every production to be tuned and time-corrected, I have a question. Is the reason for that because

A. people dislike human-sounding performances?

B. it's just a habit we got into?

C. many people don't have the skills to produce an album with instruments unless the instruments are all corrected? (This is not necessarily a bad thing.)

If the answer is A, how long will it take for C to come true? And if the answer is B, how do we break the habit? How do we use the tools at our disposal to enhance our product without them becoming a crutch that limits us?

No matter what the answer is, we can now do anything we want to do to audio. And currently, we make it perfect.

Nathaniel Kunkel (studiowithoutwalls.com) is a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, I-Nine, and comedian Robin Williams.