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The METAlliance Report: Sound Aesthetics – It’s Written in Stone

Multiple GRAMMY winner Frank Filipetti uses a rock-solid analogy to look at the different approaches to sound design.

Metalliance I recently had the good fortune to find my dream home in a sleepy little Connecticut town along the shore. One of my favorite features of the area is the pervasive use of stone walls to mark off property lines. Our village was founded in pre-revolutionary war times and stone walls are everywhere in all shapes, sizes and designs.

Our property has several distinctly different periods of stone wall building and I began to consider how each variation appealed to me. Eighteenth century walls can be haphazard, having deconstructed over the decades until they’re often no more than piles of rocks, while many of the newer walls are more idealized with meticulously shaped stones, straight lines and even capped concrete.

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So, what do stone wall aesthetics have to do with sound design? Well, for starters, I realized that each of these types of walls moved me emotionally in differing ways. The older, more random (less planned) designs appealed to my sense of well-being, nostalgia, history and oneness with nature. The more perfected designs appealed to my technical sense, giving me a feeling of symmetry, solidity and order—but they also left me cold emotionally.

No other art form is so intrinsically connected to the emotions as music. Popular music began a transformation in the early Fifties from the sophistication of Porter and Gershwin to the foundations of blues, “race music” and rock and roll. Early excursions into simpler melodies and structures mostly relied on an emotional performance as opposed to sophisticated structure.

By the Seventies and Eighties, recording techniques had evolved from a strictly organic process (just get it on tape) to the sophisticated use of multichannel and overdubbed tracking. As the capability to separate the bass from the drums from the voice became widespread, we also began to produce an arsenal of tools to help us improve on the performances themselves. The facility to duplicate (fly) tracks, correct timings, and tune voices and instruments became an integral part of the mixing process.

By the beginning of the 21st century, producers and engineers had a tremendous palette of movers, denoisers, tuners and duplicators to choose from, and with each new tool, we moved closer and closer to “perfecting the imperfect.” Today, we can tune a voice so perfectly that it sounds less human and more robotic. Have we gone too far?

If you look at the oldest stone wall, imagine this represents the music/recordings of the Fifties and early Sixties. Tracks were recorded live and released warts and all. As with the stonework, we had tension and release due to the imperfections. “Tension and release” is what emotion is all about. There is a primal appeal to these vintage recordings, as the performance was king, regardless of the musical or sonic imperfections.

As we moved into the Seventies and Eighties, popular music evolved into more sophistication harmonically, and our ability to fix and remix multitracked recordings became more the norm. Consider the second, more recent wall as a visual representation of this—there’s cleaner lines and shape, but the rough edges and quirks are still there.

Contrast that with the most recent wall, representing 21st century pop production. The lines are technically more perfect, ultra linear by design and topped off with a crisp, clean exterior. It may be aesthetically pleasing to some, but to me, emotionally, something is lacking. I can appreciate the “perfection” in the work, and I can enjoy the symmetry and polish for its own sake. But emotionally, it leaves me cold.

Over the past decade, I have found myself being utilized as more of a fixer than a mixer. My job is now to correct every possible “mistake” in a recording rather than spend the bulk of my time creating an emotional arc to the music. “Mistake” is in quotes as most of these “mistakes” are audible only after having looped the recording for dozens of times.

Now if all this work contributed to better and more emotional music, count me in. But I believe the boring state of modern music is not a result of inferior songwriting or performers, but instead due to the insecurity of the producers and engineers who can’t appreciate a gifted singer sliding into a note from a non-gifted one just missing it. Emotion is about tension and release, and by tuning and fixing every possible musical parameter, all we get is well-crafted boredom.

So, the next time you feel tempted to fix everything, ask “at what cost?” To my way of thinking, “Art is in the imperfection.”

Multiple Grammy-winner Frank Filipetti’s credits include Number One singles such as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “I Don’t Want to Live Without You” (which he also produced), KISS’ “Lick It Up” and The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” He’s worked with acts ranging from Korn and Fuel to Barbra Streisand and Elton John, and has also produced, recorded or mixed albums for Carly Simon, George Michael, Dolly Parton, Rod Stewart, Luciano Pavarotti and James Taylor, among many others.

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