"The enemy of art is the absence of limitations."
- Orson Welles
Why Analog? Why Now?
From the early days of recording until the predominance of large format
multi-tracking (16- and 24-track) in the early 1970s, the recording engineer's
job was essentially to capture a "live" performance. Multi-tracking, however,
allowed the engineer and artists to replace individual parts, a practice
which has ultimately served to undermine the importance of getting a good
performance in the studio. While this ability to "fix" performances and
separately track individual instruments gives the artist more creative
options, it has also paradoxically led to a shift in power and
control from the artist to the engineer.
As the equipment and working methods changed in the 1970s to accommodate large format multi-tracking, so did the actual construction of the studio. Large, "live" sounding rooms were deemed unnecessary, as acoustically dead spaces were desired to prevent microphone leakage from track to track and allow for artificial reverb to be added to the performance later. The disappearance of large and acoustically sensitive open studio spaces precluded the use of the techniques that had been perfected over the previous forty years. As most modern studios are simply not designed with live performances in mind, contemporary engineers have no incentive to learn how to properly record them. However, with the right microphone selection, microphone placement, and studio construction, you can record "live" in the studioyes, even the vocals. This was the common practice for decades in all musical genres (from Sinatra to Elvis to Bob Dylan), and it is still possible today.
With today's digital equipment, the ability to control and manipulate performances has increased to even larger proportions, making it now possible, for example, to correct a vocalist's pitch and a drummer's tempo (though not without audible artifacts). Even as recording engineers complain about the tediousness of cutting and pasting poorly performed drum tracks in Pro Tools and bemoan the resulting laziness of their clients, they still continue to enable this deteriorating situation by following the dictates of the record industry and equipment manufacturers. As a result of the reliance on digital multi-tracking and editing, there are fewer and fewer engineers who even know, let alone practice, traditional recording techniques. The effect of this "progress" has resulted in a dehumanization of the recording process and an increased reliance on technology to create art.
Although the capabilities of digital editing has certainly benefited
some genres, such as hip-hop and some forms of experimental music, it
has had a detrimental effect on "live performance"-based music. There
is no pressure on modern musicians to "get it right the first time," one
of the many intangible factors that create emotion and excitement in a
recording. There is much less human interaction between musicians, as
parts are often recorded independently of each other, at different times,
and even in different locations. Producers like Brian Wilson and Phil
Spector understood that there is a special type of energy (borne out of
camaraderie, competition, and excitement) that can only be created when
musicians are playing together in the same room.
Despite, or due to, the relatively recent shift to all things digital, a trend to reclaim the sound of the "golden era of the recording industry" is already developing. I've found that many musicians, regardless of their style of music, would prefer to record using the classic methods and equipment of the 50s and 60s but can simply not find a studio and/or engineer willing or able to do so. One can open any professional recording magazine or pro audio catalog and see that most manufacturers in the industry, both of analog and digital equipment, are trying to capitalize on all things "vintage." The equipment manufactures would like consumers to believe that an electronic box can make a $50 microphone sound like a $7000 vintage Neumann or that a new software program can emulate the tone of a $30,000 Fairchild compressor. Many consumers today want the quality and aesthetics of the past, but only if it comes with a sense of modern convenience and a cheap price.
This nostalgia that has pervaded our culture over the last ten years or so reveals a lot about our ambivalent relationship with technology. It is a specious trend, but one that does show that there is a dissatisfaction with the results of a purely contemporary approach to recording. What the advertisers won't tell you is that you cannot buy your way to a "classic" sounding recording simply because you own a new "tube microphone" or the latest "tube mic-pre." The productions that have stood the test of time are, more or less, the pairing of a great performance with working methods and technology that are sympathetic to the artist's goal. It is my belief that the recordings that have dated the least and are the most aesthetically satisfying, whether it's jazz, rock and roll, blues, pop, or easy listening, were recorded between the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. It is that confluence of technology and recording techniques that our studio is trying to reclaim and make accessible for today's musicians.
Another symptom of the inadequacies of the typical contemporary commercial
studio can be seen in the trend toward home studios and home recording.
While I personally believe that many great recordings have been made using
modest means, there is no real comparison in quality to the fidelity of
the typical home studio with a well-designed professional studio. For
one, most homes simply do not have the volume of space to best record
acoustically demanding instruments such as drums and piano. I believe
that a sizable part of the trend towards home recording is actually due
to the tedious and time-consuming nature of large format multi-track recording
which has turned many musicians off to the modern studio experience. The
recording process can and should be enjoyable.
These are just some of the arguments for analog recording and classic techniques not to mention the fact that the results simply sound better.