Is the digital recording process having a negative impact on creativity?
The electrifying ambience and energy of a live performance remains unparalleled. Sadly, the opportunity to experience such performances are limited and even if they were frequently available, one cannot ignore the need for what might be called an isolated listening of music. While the live shows highlight the performative aspect of music, recordings magnify the musical intelligence, intricacies and technicalities. In other words, recordings are important for better understanding and appreciation of music.
The sound recording process evolved quickly in comparison to photography or videography. Though the advent of the digital age made things easier to handle, the debate over quality remains. Since there are several misconceptions regarding analogue and digital recording, it’s important to study the differences between these two methods first.
Analogue recordings capture the natural sound, the changes in air pressure, but are dependent on bulky, physical equipment that needs to be set up. The entire recording procedure and editing demand the presence of an expert or at the very least a well-qualified professional. The sound captured during digital recording, on the other hand, has often been called “too perfect to be believed” but that’s not necessarily true in all cases. It requires minimum equipment and is easy to edit since if offers a visual representation of the recorded sound which leads to a better understanding even to those whose ears are not trained enough to spot the anomalies.
The easy accessibility and procedure of digital recording might have hampered the perseverance and perfection of musicians but not creativity. Owner and founder of Tiny Telephone, an analogue recording studio, John Vanderslice highlighted the duality of the explosion of digital recording: “One thing that has happened is a revolution in digital recording, and overall, that’s great for art, but parallel to that there’s been a revolution in boutique audio companies making excellent gear.” It’s a point which means that whatever your preference, there are options to suit your wont and need, and rightly so.
Music is a natural phenomenon and we are introduced to it from the time of our birth. What is natural shouldn’t need anyone’s sanction. There are certain standards with which we measure musical capabilities be it in the West or in the East. A person might not fit those requirements but can still have immense musical sensibilities. With the digital recording process, they can explore their creative talent on their own and present it to the world. The music industry has diversified immensely with the easy recording and editing process. It has certainly acted as an incentive in music production.
Since I casually mentioned “perseverance” and “perfection” in the previous paragraph, I’ll take the opportunity to discuss it briefly. Analogue recordings demanded musicians to be more fine-tuned or skilled. For example, it didn’t have features like auto-tuning. Even though tracks and vocals could be recorded separately, it was preferred to record songs with live instrumentations because the process of editing became too complicated and exhaustive. Similarly, instrumentalists and vocalists were driven to deliver the song perfectly in a take instead of a fragmented recording process. All of these required immense concentration and practice and, as we know, practice makes a musician perfect.
The digital recording process has put many instrumentalists out of work as music can be easily produced through various applications. For example, one can digitally add instruments such as the guitar, sitar, piano and tabla and so on without having the knowledge of how to play the actual instrument. Similarly, vocalists without the precision of notes can easily produce pleasant audio with the help of auto-tune — but then again to criticise them would mean measuring them by the conventional standards. Easy utility and accessibility come hand in hand with misuse. The formula is to find the right balance.
There’s also a case for digital recording’s ease of process being romanticised and, concurrently, the idea of analogue recording being especially difficult is exaggerated, “People are so into digital recording now, they forgot how easy analogue recording can be,” said Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters fame. For some though, it isn’t about ease or efficiency but the lack of ‘feel’ or ‘atmosphere’ on digital recordings which hampers the entire listening experience. Peter Hook may have been at the cutting edge of the digital revolution in music, his band New Order pioneered much of it, but he sees the pitfalls of digital’s clinical sound: “When digital recording came in about ’84, everything started to follow into digital. Now, you’ve got the best recording media in the world, but it’s not very pleasing to the ear.”
Personally, I think the analogue method beautifully captures sounds that of large productions such as a wall of orchestral sound, for example. It gives a more natural, ethereal and wholesome experience for all those listening. There can be no winner in the debate of analogue v/s digital recording or whether it affects the creativity of an artist. Instead, it depends on what kind of sound one is expecting to produce, or perhaps more poignantly, what kind of artist is trying to produce it. But there is a clear choice to be made: perfection or performance.