There's always excitement in the air around here as we approach the voting stage for the annual Technical Excellence & Creativity Awards. Now in its 18th year, the TEC Awards has become a major spotlight for pro audio's best and brightest engineers, producers, facilities, service providers, products and technologies.
But while we celebrate new technologies, we retain our reverence for classic, older gear. Pro audio is unique among technology-based industries in that we create with a blend of old and new products. In video production, there is little appreciation for tube-based cameras; in software development, the market in applications for older platforms such as Windows 3.0, Atari ST or Amiga is nonexistent.
New developments in audio are usually accompanied by a certain dose of skepticism — sometimes appropriate, sometimes not. For example, 20 years ago, the Compact Disc was touted as the “ultimate in audio reproduction,” a statement that was, at best, overblown.
Several months ago, I was contacted by a writer for a European audio magazine who asked for comments to support his belief that the advent of pitch-correction devices — such as Antares' AutoTune and TC Electronic's Intonator — had somehow destroyed music. I think he was somewhat disappointed when I replied that such products are simply tools and haven't “destroyed” music any more than the ability to punch-in a passage 75 times until a performer gets it right, or “comping” a final vocal by combining parts from several takes, or using cut-and-paste editing to replace a flawed chorus with a good one. In fact, having a pitch corrector in the vocal chain can serve to enhance a vocal (live or studio) by providing a “safety net” so that the performer can concentrate on the overall performance without worrying about that one tricky note.
MIDI has been a mixed blessing, providing low-cost tools for music production — a definite plus — while encouraging and enabling some of the worst music ever written. At the same time, MIDI notation software allows for the simple creation of printed scores, leaving one to wonder how much extra output masters such as Mozart and Bach could have wrought had they been free of the drudgery of meticulously writing their creations by hand.
In our everyday activities, we may deal with punch-ins, vocal shapers or quantizing MIDI files — simple tools and techniques to enhance rather than replace musical skills. Veteran producers and engineers also rely on time-tested tricks such as sneaking a bit more reverb into a headphone mix, dimming the studio lights to create a mood or pre-recording a “guide” vocal to keep a shaky singer on track. The real artistry comes from knowing what combination of technology or techniques will succeed in creating the best possible performance — the ultimate blend of technical excellence and creativity.