Musical Chops: Fishtails of the Future

By Todd Smith

Once upon a time you had to calibrate, align and maintain a behemoth tape machine; now all you have to do is power up a computer.

Once you had to hire a string section and coordinate a session; now all you have to do is punch up "String Section" on a keyboard.

Once you had to record all the sections of a song, even if it repeated itself sixteen times; now all you have to do is copy and paste.

And once you actually had to play your instrument; now the only thing you have to perform is a digital edit.

Yes, the revolution is in full effect. Digital recording is to analog recording what relativity was to physics, what the automobile was to the horse and buggy. Non-linear technology has turned the art of recording on its head; it has created whole new worlds of possibilities. But it has also created whole new sets of problems and challenges.

The basic idea of non-linear technology is that you are no longer confined to work in a straight line, from beginning to end, as with a piece of tape. A piece of tape starts at the beginning of a song and finishes at the end. To record or mix, you must therefore play the song in its entirety, from beginning to end. We cleverly call this "linear recording."

Digital technology enables you to record the material to a computer disk, which has the ability to access any point in the song randomly, which we cleverly call "random access." It is therefore no longer necessary to record or edit in a straight line, and this gives ultimate freedom.

You can record the ending first, you can record three different versions of the bridge and choose later, you can record the background vocals for the chorus one time and copy them.

At first you're like, "hey, this is cool. If I don't get a good take all the way through, I can just fly in whatever I don't get." So all of a sudden it is no longer necessary to really know the material, or really know how to play your instrument, because you can fix it later. You can manipulate, time-correct, pitch-correct; you can correct with a computer keyboard anything that you couldn't perform on the ivory keyboard.

We cleverly call this "cheating."

And as history teaches, humanity is wont to take the easy way out. It's like, if we have something to fall back on, we will. So, before you know it, we've crossed the line of using the technology as an aid, or a crutch. We've been walking on it for so long we have become dependent on it, it has become a prosthetic leg.

I suppose it is a phenomenon that occurs with the advent of many technologies. If we can use a calculator, we won't use our math, and our minds weaken. If we can drive, we won't walk, and our bodies weaken.

Darwin has shown us that when something is no longer needed or falls out of use, it is evolved out of the species. Could our ability to play our instruments go the way of our gills and tails?

The challenge is therefore to be vigilant and prudent in our use of our new found powers. Use non-linear editing to edit, not to create what should have been performed by human hands. Sometimes I am tempted to record to tape instead of disk just to force an honest performance. I believe a performer actually plays differently, e.g., not as urgently or sincerely, when he knows a computer can make a decent track out of just about anything he lays down.

Who cares if there's no tape hiss if there is no edge or vitality in the recording? If it were a choice between one or the other, I'd abandon this PowerMac quicker than you could say "natural selection."