There were opinion pieces in the ’50s about how equalization and reverb were destroying music. Seriously! EQ was blamed for deceiving the public by being able to give teenage idols, who were chosen solely for their looks, more vocal gravitas. And reverb was about papering over flaws. Apparently, they didn’t realize reverb could reproduce the psychoacoustic effects of ambience.
These days, I don’t think very many audio engineers are tormented by shame and guilt as they add a little high-frequency shelving, or fire up a convolution reverb. Clearly, EQ and reverb didn’t destroy music. But now we have a new collection of things that some firmly believe have destroyed, or at least are busy destroying, music as we know it. Are these concerns valid? Well…
PRO TOOLS DESTROYED MUSIC!
This is usually said by people who don’t realize that “Pro Tools” is not a generic term, nor is it the only recording software in the universe—if they knew better, they’d say hard disk recording destroyed music. They cite the endless edits, copying and pasting entire sections instead of recording new parts, comping vocals almost word-by-word, and the like.
Well, they do have a point. I’m still emotionally scarred by the time that Pro Tools sauntered menacingly up to me, held a knife to my throat and hissed, “If you know what’s good for you, boy, you’re gonna comp that vocal.” I meekly acceded—after all, what else could I do?
Oh, wait…that didn’t actually happen. Oops. I admit it, I’m the one who decided to comp the vocal. But I felt such guilt and shame that I blamed the software instead.
Reality check: You can run a hard disk session just like you run tape. You can punch instead of comp. You don’t have to copy and paste. You can bounce tracks to mix them down if you want.
My favorite complaint about hard disk recording is the person who said that the time spent rewinding tape was a welcome break because it allowed him to gather his thoughts before recording another take. That seemed like an intractable problem, until I came up with an absolutely brilliant, patent-pending solution: “Hey, you could wait a few seconds before hitting Record again!”
People not taking responsibility for their actions is currently a hot topic, as some folks try to contort anything into being someone else’s fault. But if hard disk recording is indeed destroying music, that’s on the people running the hard disk recording session, not the tools.
PITCH CORRECTION DESTROYED MUSIC!
Pitch correction is also charged with contributing to The End of Music As We Know It, because it sucks all the life out of vocals. Well, assuming any pitch flattening is not intended as an effect, it does kind of break the mood when that mechanical voice sound taints a vocal. But does it really suck the life out of music? As I alluded to in my first Open Channel, no—and here’s why.
Full disclosure: I use pitch correction (as well as EQ and reverb, so sue me) because it adds life to my music. I can sing with more freedom, knowing that if a part were far better than other takes but there’s one bad note, pitch correction can fix it. It’s not necessary to re-record or punch, and potentially lose what made that take my favorite.
What’s more, you won’t hear where I fixed it, because it’s possible to do pitch correction with a light touch. And maybe that’s why pitch correction gets such a bad rap: When it’s used transparently, it doesn’t get props because you can’t tell it’s being used. But when someone gets lazy and applies it indiscriminately, all of a sudden that’s the fault of pitch correction. I don’t think so.
QUANTIZATION DESTROYED MUSIC!
And, of course, quantization destroyed music, too. To be fair, some music is meant to be quantized—think Kraftwerk. But if the music sounds quantized, that’s not the fault of quantization. It’s the fault of the person who selected a bunch of notes and quantized them.
I’m not ashamed to say I use quantization, but like pitch correction, it’s selective.
In drum parts, I typically quantize the kick and let the other drums fall where they may. If anything, the timing differences between the perfect kick and the other drums enhances the natural “feel” of the drums that lead or lag the beat on purpose. You don’t have to follow a click track, either, even if you depend on tempo-synched effects; there are several possible ways to create subtle timing variations.
SO HERE’S WHAT DOES DESTROY MUSIC
Laziness, arrogance, fear that creative experiments will end up as epic fails, and making excuses about what’s destroying music rather than learning how to use new tools in the most appropriate and creative ways. As the bumper stickers say, “Machines don’t kill music…people kill music.” Now, excuse me while I go add some EQ and reverb to a guitar part. I have no shame.