Better men than me have pointed out the fundamental crime that is committed when one intentionally makes a poor recording to attempt some sort of lo-fi styling. Audio technology has progressed and cheapened to the point where even I, a recovering technophobe and unrepentant cheap bastard, have pristine, studio quality digital recording equipment at my fingertips. So there is little excuse for today’s artists not being able to at least find a 4-track that actually works, right? Unfortunately for the modern audiophile, that is not always the case. What’s more, higher quality recording equipment by itself does nothing to improve the music. “Garbage in, garbage out”, as they say.
But great music can also be ruined by overproduction. Steve Albini, ever-effusive on the topic of overproduction, once listed a few of the great bands that have suffered heavily from overproduction in their later careers, including AC/DC, Aerosmith, and, one of the most tragic cases, ZZ Top. Phil Elvrum of The Microphones (nee, Mt. Eerie), and co-producer of Mirah’s acclaimed Advisory Committee points out that “there are plenty of shitty records made with unlimited resources.” Many of the recordings Messrs. Albini and Elvrum are known for simply wouldn’t make sense if they had been recorded with unlimited resources, but they are certainly not the only ones. (Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes and PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos are two obvious examples.) The Bad Brains’ album i against i (produced by Ron St. Germain) was widely denounced as over-produced when it was released. However, it did yield the classic track “Sacred Love”, famous for HR’s squelched-out, phoned-in from jail vocal track. No array of equalization or effects can match a recording like that. Even the most primitive recording techniques are useful in certain situations. In some cases, it reminds us of what we thought we sounded like 20 years ago, or what we wanted to sound like 10 years ago. In other cases, they’re all we’ve got.
There is no shame in using the tools at hand to capture the raw essence of a musical performance, whether it’s a hard-disc recorder or a faulty Realistic cassette deck, nor is there any greater pride in using the most advanced technology to achieve the same result. Tweaking the equalization or adding effects frequently makes the end product sound like it’s trying to hide something. Too much knob-twiddling and you’d be better off doing demo tracks for the equipment manufacturer than trying to save a poor recording or bad music. Whether it gets laid down on ADAT or cassette hardly matters. There are better things to argue about, anyway, like who left my 8-track on the dashboard?