Feeling Their Pain

This ruction over “Fake News” is fascinating. There are so many angles and interests.

I won’t say much here (tonight, at least) about some of the more widely discussed angles on this story — freedom of speech, the struggle for power, or the general deliquescence of the very idea of Truth, of which this latest tussle is just another of a thousand symptoms. What I will comment on is seeing an powerful guild losing its grip on production, because I know a thing or two about that myself.

It all reminds me, you see, of what happened in the recording industry when music went digital. Not only was file-sharing eating into record sales, which put terrible pressure on record budgets, but cheap samplers and sequencers were making it possible for people to make records at home without ever setting foot in a recording studio. For those of us in the priesthood — recording engineers and studio owners — this was not only a threat to our livelihood, but also an affront to our craft. Those early “outsider” records, made with eight-bit equipment, cheesy-sounding loops, and stolen snippets of recordings that we had made, sounded horrible — but that was part of their appeal. They thumbed their nose at the sonic Establishment, and suddenly beautifully crafted soundscapes, sculpted by highly trained professionals using expensive German microphones and million-dollar consoles in magnificent acoustic spaces (this was the one I used to work in every day), seemed stuffy and bourgeois. Having spent tens of thousands of hours honing my skills, suddenly I was being told by clients “now don’t make it sound too good!” Can you imagine?

It wasn’t just that we hated losing our monopoly — which we did, for all the obvious reasons — it was that those records just sounded so amateurish. How could anyone really prefer that? But of course an awful lot of people did; it was what you might call a “populist movement”. It was certainly “leveling”: all of our hard-won expertise, disciplined craftsmanship, and professional standards suddenly meant pretty much nothing, and no longer gave us any competitive advantage. People already at ground level always enjoy leveling, but those being leveled seldom do, and we certainly didn’t.

So, having gone through this myself a while back, I have to say I do feel a twinge of sympathy for old-school journalists these days.

Just a twinge, mind you. More on that later.

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15 Comments

  1. Anonymous Bro says

    Wow thanks for that inside look into the music biz. Being 27, I am of the last few cohorts of kids that grew up actually listening to physical music (on CDs), and even then, I was kind of a weird kid growing up. I remember countless hours after school meticulously staring at the labels of my Hendrix and Sabbath records as I listened to them through my earbuds.

    The bit about the polished sound-yes, it actually does get old really quickly for me. The small imperfections in the music are what really give it character and endear me the most, like those early punk records. If you listen carefully enough, it sounds like it was done by amateurs, but that’s the point.

    Nowadays, I listen to all my music on Pandora or YouTube.

    Posted December 10, 2016 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi AB, and thanks for dropping by. One thing I should make clear, though:

    The changes I described started in the late 80s. Everything before that — Hendrix, Sabbath, the Stones, the Beatles, the Ramones, everything — was recorded by the professionals, in real recording studios. The range of production styles varied, from the radical experimentation of Tomorrow Never Knows and I Am The Walrus to the spotless perfection of Roger Nichols’ Steely Dan albums, the raw and ragged energy of London Calling, or the warped and preposterous drum-sounds of, say Addicted To Love — but always the priesthood was in command, and the resources were lavish. The sound you heard was a conscious choice, whether polished or cacophonous.

    The early sample-based “outsider” records I mentioned were something else altogether. Because of the limitations of the equipment, they had to sound like that.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 12:34 am | Permalink
  3. I don’t feel any of the old-school journalists’ pain. They lost even a smidgen of a twinge of my sympathy when they slipped their masks of unbiased reportage.

    Honor can only be lost. Once lost, it can never be regained. Never.

    F*ck ’em if they can’t take a joke.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 12:43 am | Permalink
  4. Days of Broken Arrows says

    …it was that those records just sounded so amateurish. How could anyone really prefer that?

    Because the main reason people listen to music isn’t because they’re looking for sound quality, it’s because they’re seeking an emotional connection of some sort.

    Unfortunately, these two aspects of the listening experience are often at odds with each other. When it sounds too good it becomes emotionally distant. There are exceptions — like “Dark Side Of The Moon” and “Abbey Road.” But from the ’70s onward, too much music sounded to glossy and I think the audience tired of it, which is why punk rock and then hip hop grabbed the interest of a lot of younger listeners.

    Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend,” the Clash’s first UK singles, and the Ramones first album might sound like the cheap home-brew jobs that they definitely were, but they hit you with feelings in a way scads of more professionally-engineered records didn’t.

    I also think mistakes humanize records and that also attracts people. One reason people keep going back to the classic ’60s recordings is that we like to hear the distortion pedal click on in “Satisfaction” or the Beatles voices get scratchy and hoarse in backing vocals on “You Won’t See Me.” Sonic perfection is boring; quirks and mistakes are memorable. I can’t recall one oddball musical detail in any U2 album, but I could list hundreds from ’60s records that are ingrained in my brain. There has to be a reason for that.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 5:31 am | Permalink
  5. Whitewall says

    That sound studio quickly gave me a flashback to most any early Moody Blues album. Blinked twice and I easily saw an Allman Brothers session. To this day I still prefer vinyl records and still have a boat load of them just waiting for decent equipment on which to play.

    I would be ecstatic to find a good recording of the Young Rascals’ Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore. All I can find is black and white mono.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  6. Malcolm says

    Hi DoBA — nice to see some new commenters with this post. (Maybe I should write more often about music and recording! It’s certainly something near and dear.)

    You wrote:

    Because the main reason people listen to music isn’t because they’re looking for sound quality, it’s because they’re seeking an emotional connection of some sort.

    Oh, we always knew that. Music is one of the deepest human experiences. But the rhythm tracks on those early sample and drum-box records were exactly the opposite — mechanical loops and artificial sounds, spat out in unvarying repetition by cheap computer chips, with grainy digital sound.

    All records were human performances until this technology arrived. How we made them sound, and how much we fussed over perfect takes, worried about extraneous noises, etc., was just a choice we made.

    You mentioned the Ramones’ first album. Wikipedia has this to say:

    Author Nicholas Rombes said that the production’s quality sounded like “the ultimate do-it-yourself, amateur, reckless ethic that is associated with punk,” but concluded that they approached the recording process with a “high degree of preparedness and professionalism.”

    As for Satisfaction, as raw as it was, it was recorded twice: in Chicago and L.A., with that famous Gibson fuzzbox being a carefully chosen element of the production.

    And sonic perfection is just another choice made by the priesthood, and certainly doesn’t necessarily work against a record’s appeal. Two of the biggest hit albums of all time — Thriller and Rumours — were meticulous productions, painstakingly crafted over months of studio time, and costing millions. Aja and Avalon are also good examples of that type of detailed work; they sold millions of copies, and are still cherished albums. Bruce Springsteen’s The River has a big, raw, human sound, but it took a more than a year to record (in that very room I linked to above).

    I’m not trying to nitpick here, and your point is a good one: that there is some ineffable human element that makes a great record so appealing. But that is, of course, exactly what the producer’s and engineer’s job is: to find just the right setting for the jewel.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  7. As a fan of much of the terrible-sounding music from the late 70s and early 80s punk and death metal DIY scenes, I understand the misery at watching the art of production go under-appreciated. But really what happened was, in my view, that good production became paired with big studio releases, which were becoming more and more vapid to appeal to a broader audience. By the late 1980s, this was out of control, and the rise of inexpensive MIDI sequencers (think an Amiga 500) and relatively cheap tape technology made this easy. Only fifteen years later, the desktop computer was capable of recording the whole record at 80% the fidelity of a studio, in the hands of competent people. This pretty much terminated a big studio sound as a good thing. But the aesthetic of rough and aggro was there from the 70s punks, carried on by the 80s indie rockers, who pointed to a bigger problem: mainstream music was no longer about anything important, making it artistically irrelevant. The big labels refused to see this and so got destroyed. The CD peaked in sales in 1996, and the digital denouement was just the market absorbing a failed enterprise. Remember that starting in the late 80s, the studios staked their future on rap music, alienating anyone who was not already a big fan of that.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink
  8. Malcolm says

    It’s important to keep in mind, when considering the impact of file-sharing and mass-market recording gear, that the record business (the labels) and the recording business (the studios and engineers) are different things. The former were battered by file-sharing, while the latter were slaughtered by both.

    Posted December 11, 2016 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  9. JK says

    Just time enough for a quick “drive-by” (all is well) …

    Thought I might add a little something for both the classicists (our host) and .. well mostly for y’all newly arriving. And, as if its necessary, Thanks, [nearly] always good to have fresh blood.

    Check the left side of this blog out under; “Posts By Category.” Just maybe its only my hillbilly mind but, I think maybe y’all new bloods can come to an appreciation of what our host’s takeoff point means:

    https://havechanged.blogspot.com/

    Posted December 12, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  10. random observer says

    Reader for a few years on and off, returned this past summer. This may be my first comment.

    I’m 46 and followed an odd path with music. I was a teen in the 80s but not that into music so it has limited [not no] nostalgia value for me. I liked a mishmash of what was on the radio, music taste I picked up from my dad, and classical [that had no history in my family…]. I listened on mostly cassettes. Didn’t get acquainted with CDs until the mid 90s, very late.

    I was lucky to live in a heyday of three things that made life grand: the CD, music retail, and classical recording. The classic and jazz floor of HMV on Toronto’s Yonge Street was an overbuilt, glorious palace.

    I’m not immune to the charms of the live recording with little coughs, but I will never quite get the back to vinyl movement. I just can’t hear those little humanizing touches everyone speaks of. Either I don’t get in on some auditory level, or they mean static and background noise and I hate those.

    FWIW. I own thousands of CDs [not all classical by any means, my tastes broadened] and revel in their auditory magnificence.

    I miss the 90s, and not just for that.

    I wouldn’t mind more on music – art, business, technology, personal reminiscences, or all of the above. But please don’t slack off on other issues. You’re back on my regular rounds and I’d miss all that.

    Posted December 12, 2016 at 7:07 pm | Permalink
  11. Malcolm says

    Hi RO,

    As an engineer I’ve always been vigilant about little noises and blemishes: buzzes, hums, rattles, and so on. I’m also downright obsessive about the little cutoff breaths you might get while “punching in” or “comping” vocals. (It’s much less of an issue now that everything happens in Pro Tools.) I figure that no matter how hard you tried, imperfections are going to creep in anyway, and the very least you could do is to deal with the things you can. I also hated tape hiss, and was an early adopter of digital recorders. (I was lucky in that regard, because at Power Station, where I was on staff from 1978 to 1987, we were always among the first to get new stuff.)

    That said, the music comes first, and I’d always rather have a great take with a technical defect than a pristine recording of a bad one.

    Thanks for your kind words about the blog. I don’t see myself slacking off on the “other issues” anytime soon (though I’m tempted from time to time — with right now, I’ll confess, being one of those times).

    Posted December 12, 2016 at 11:14 pm | Permalink
  12. Tina says

    Malcolm, it is always exciting to hear from someone who mastered his profession at a time when the industry was at an apex. Thanks for sharing, and I hope you will share more. I am not into music, but I am enthralled with tales of work.

    My 17 year old grandson plays bass. He is very much into vinyl records, and has a record player. He also collects CDs. I’ve encouraged him to always keep his physical copies, so that he will never be at the mercy of copyright or access wars.

    One of my hobbies is letterpress printing, and over the past 10 years I’ve read many accounts by old newspapermen who share a similar history with the recording engineers, in that their industry was killed by the newspaper business long before it was killed by digital. One parallel in quality of work was that perfect printing used a “Kiss impression” – the type touching the paper so softly as to leave only ink behind but no indentation from the type. Now, the young printers need a deep bite into the paper so the palpable feel can prove it was “letterpress printed”. The young printers tho, mostly use computer design & photopolymer plates rather than to handset their type (I do handset exclusively, but am only a hobbyist).

    Posted December 12, 2016 at 11:44 pm | Permalink
  13. random observer says

    ” I’d always rather have a great take with a technical defect than a pristine recording of a bad one”

    Agreed on that. This past August I read someone’s post on the virtues of the late pianist Walter Gieseking [active 1930s-50s more or less] as an interpreter of the Mozart and Beethoven canons in particular. I ordered two discs, one mostly 1930s and one postwar recordings. AAD of course. And you could hear the noise more than even in some AAD transfers from the 1980s.

    Still gorgeous. Well worth it.

    Posted December 15, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink
  14. Olorin says

    Among Philly punks–the real ones, not the ones who shopped at Zipperhead–it was said that punk ended when CBS signed The Clash (January of 1977).

    “What I will comment on is seeing an powerful guild losing its grip on production, because I know a thing or two about that myself.”

    Not sure I agree they’re using their grip on production per se.

    The means of production are there for them to use. But they are stuck in an audience model, economic model, and institutionalized information system that keeps them from using it.

    We’ve seen in the recent election cycle how stuck they are in their own propaganda. We’ve seen their incendiary contempt for those who resist it and vote for the other guy.

    My media were newspaper, magazine, and radio. I went over to the internet early–mid- to late-80s, and into citizen journalism on the internet by 1990. Again and again I’ve seen “audience members” choose the ruggedly fresh over the institutionally polished when it is clear the latter is primarily propaganda herding the masses with PR and advertising. Last study I saw of “news” content was that some 60-75% of it was press releases from advertisers, government agencies, foundations’ NGO front groups, and such.

    Arguably mass mediated “journalism” never existed except in snips and snaps that squoze through the cracks. Have you seen W. Joseph Campbell’s Media Myth Alert blog?

    https://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/

    Posted December 19, 2016 at 5:53 am | Permalink
  15. Malcolm says

    Thank you for that link, Olorin. And welcome to the blog. Good to see some new commenters here.

    Posted December 19, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

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