Questioning progress narratives in contemporary studio production
Joe Watson, PhD candidate, University of Sussex
In our headlong rush to embrace all thing digital as synonymous with ‘the future’ perhaps we run the risk of forgetting important insights from the past. As contemporary cultures come increasingly under the rubric of ‘the digital’ might there be traction to be gained from a current, practical investigation of ‘the analogue’? This paper presents ongoing practice-based research into recording and production using analogue multi-track tape. The author has many years of experience engineering and/or producing using digital technologies (including Stereolab, High Llamas) and now turns his attention to the DAW’s analogue ‘forebears’ in self-production of his third Junior Electronics solo pop album. Given the skeuomorphic nature of the DAW, and its indebtedness to the legacy of traditional analogue engineering, what insights can be gleaned by engaging with the actual analogue equipment itself? As the DAW increasingly swallows up the whole studio (recorder, mixer, outboard, instruments, personnel) within the ‘square horizon’ (Virilio) of the screen, what can be learn by the digitally literate producer/composer from the extreme constraints of a fully analogue production process? The constraints placed on the making of this album are simple – there shall be no digital audio, or digitisation of audio, at any point in the production of the finished record – the album will be tracked to ½ inch 8 track, mixed to ¼ inch stereo tape and mastered to vinyl. Digital processes and media may be employed for purposes of documentation and demoing. What are the practical effects on the music produced if an artist used to ‘unlimited’ tracks is forced to work with only 8? What are the effects on the production process when editing is restricted to what one can achieve with a razor blade? Given the healthy currency of analogue technologies (vinyl, modular synthesis, cassette labels, traditional tape-based studios (such as Albini’s Electrical Audio)) why is ‘the analogue’ consistently periodised as digital’s early/obsolete ‘other’? This research forms part of the author’s PhD in Musical Composition. Methodology is practice- based, performative and diffractive (Haraway, Barad).
Joe’s presentation opens with a discussion of the semantics of ‘digital’ and the fact that the word can, today, be appended to almost anything. Implicit in the term, as applied, is the idea of superseding the old, analogue, outmoded model (of anything non-digital). He interestingly notes that sales of colouring books have recently increased, and speculates that some people may find an analogue activity appealing after working at a screen all day.
His PhD research (Univ of Sussex) combines a textual investigation of the so-called analogue/digital ‘debate’, and practice-based research – that is, making pop music in the studio. He asks, using his own background as a sound engineer as an example, what pre-digital skills need to be ‘unlearned’. His research also asks what can be learned, creatively, from the extreme constraints of the analogue studio (as compared to a DAW). Although the analogue/digital debate may be seen itself as obsolete, Joe says, there may be a renewed interest in it (he cites some recent articles).
He now addresses the standard/accepted definitions of digital/analogue audio, which describes analogue (audio) as continuous, and digital (audio) as discrete. He describes 44.1kHz digital sampling as horizontal quantising (sample rate) and vertical quantising (bit rate/dynamics).
The theoretical framework takes a turn into the origins of cybernetics, describing this field as a multidisciplinary one that originated, and recurred, at the Macy Conferences on Cybernetics 1946-1953. This leads us into an alternative to the standard/accepted version of the division, citing Fischer (2011) and Sterne (2016). Other scholars who question to binary division between the two, suggesting that A&D are not opposites; they are different sides of the same thing. Joe is making a pop music album that follows one rule – audio shall not be digitised at any time in the production process; all processes are analogue. This, he says, is neither an exercise in nostalgia (he’s digitally literate and has used digital tools throughout his career) nor an attempt at ‘authenticity’. He still has some digital tools – including the ‘binary’ of tape op controls, and the digital brain of his drum machine – but the point is that all the generated audio remains in the analogue domain throughout. The purpose of the research is to investigate how this enforced constraint affects the creative process. We now hear some of the audio generated by the project.
[JB observation – the song we hear is charming, and the material sounds very ‘1980s’ to me. I can’t figure out if this is tied to the constraints of the project. I would guess not – I infer 1980s stylings more from the drum sounds (Roland 606), programming and vocal tracking, all of which would sound the same in a digital medium. Is this a methodological issue? Probably not – lots of people still make historically influenced music].
Unfortunately Joe runs out of time just as he’s getting to the interesting bit – his observations about how the constraints of the methodology affect the creative process. In the last minute or two he gets to some interesting bullet points relating to the ‘lack of undo’, and related concepts such as performance timing and printing volume changes to tape, in an analogue environment. He finishes with a video of live mixing, that all the engineers in the room (that’s most of the people!) find entertaining and, as the young people are saying ‘relatable’.