New Technology Bites Back

A few days ago I read an article in the New York Times by Kevin Kelly about achieving techno-literacy and lessons he’s passed on to his home-schooled child regarding uses of technology. I want to look at each of these lessons in regards to the use of studio technology and how we can maybe use these lessons to our advantage.

The first lesson is this:

Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.

There is a lot of powerful technology used in the modern recording studio, and always has been one of the hallmarks of the recording industry. Back in the bleeding-edge days of studio technology, Les Paul added another record head to his Apex tape machine and gave us sound-on-sound technology. Those were the days when the same people that worked on nuclear weapons also worked on advancements in audio recording (see Tom Dowd’s documentary, The Language of Music).

However, over time, the producers of technological advancements and the users of those advancements began to separate. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because there became many more users of the technology than creators. Maybe it’s because the technology grew to be more complicated than most users could wrap their brain around. Either way we’re at a point now where there seem to be very few creators of technology but many, many users, and most of those users don’t seem to understand what’s going on that actually makes the technology work (which is a strong point of contention for many seasoned veterans out there).

Which brings me to the lesson: Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs. 

The bite comes in many forms: bad music that can be recorded and propagated to the masses, giving a glimmer of hope to an untalented and unmusical by begin able to pitch-correct, time stretch, or otherwise fix bad notes, or relying on that technology in a performance and the technology not coming through for you (see Kanye West’s Saturday Night Live performance form December 2008 – he actually got booed while on stage). 

Now I’m not saying we need to forgo the technology, or shun its use in our studios, but know that technology bites back. Even beyond the musical and creative bites that technology will take, music technology makers have figured out that one way to create a sustainable business is to come out with a product that either breaks after a few years’ usage or needs to be updated (at $75 per .X update) to stay “current”. Reminds me of a great article written by a friend and former co-worker of mine, Tom Day, for TapeOp Magaizne a year or so ago (if you subscribe to TapeOp, look for it and read/re-read it). So, there’s an added bite of continual costs that keep biting us over and over as well.

Does Kanye  abuse Auto-Tune? I don’t know. What I DO know is that I saw his performance from SNL when he sang “Love Lockdown” with no Auto-Tune. He’s a good musician and not an idiot. He should be able to hear that the technology was biting him squarely in the butt by not actually doing what it was supposed to do. He could have fixed it by actually singing the correct notes, but he didn’t.

We now have the power to do more with less in the recording studio than ever before, and that paradigm isn’t going to change anytime soon. What technology we choose to use and how we use that technology is up to us. You know this technology will come back to bite you. You have been warned. Choose and use wisely.

Powerful gifts get abused powerfully, like a super-villain in a comic book. Choose to be a hero and save our music and our future!

Achieving Techno-Literacy in the Studio

The recording studio is an intrinsically technological environment. To survive and thrive, the participants need to comprehend how technology works in order to ensure continued success. Notice I say “comprehend how technology works”, not understand how specific technologies work.

This past week, New York Times writer Kevin Kelly wrote an article about this very subject. He describes how he spent this past year home-schooling his child and the technological literacy that came with the schooling.

He included this list of “technological smartness” lessons in his curriculum:

• Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.

• Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.

• Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.

• Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls. If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.

• The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.

• Every technology is biased by its embedded defaults: what does it assume?

• Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?

• The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.

• Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

What I’m going to do is take the next few weeks and explore each of these lessons in the context of the recording studio so that maybe we can learn a few things about the use of technology in the recording studio and maybe even become smarter engineer, producers, and studio owners.

Control – Now I’m All Grown Up

The decentralization of the recording studio industry is in full force now, and musicians are able to do more for themselves than ever before (so we’re told). This mindset trickles down to the studio industry as well. So many studio owners are concerned about the well-being of their studio but also don’t seem to want to do anything to change their business practices.

I was reading this article from The Independent (a U.K. newspaper) about Arcade Fire and the article mentioned the fact the band was a pretty cost-conscious operation:

“they controlled their own rights from day one…[t]hey very cost-effectively made their first album, and then made some strategic deals that would bring in some money for them to buy their own recording studio and be able to be self-sufficient and make their own recordings. They pay for everything themselves and deliver it to their licensees. No label will ever commission anything that they do. Their videos, their artwork, their photographs – they pay for everything. They have complete control.”

I remember the first time I head about a band buying their own equipment with record label money. It was Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and it was in the mid 90’s. I’m sure that’s not the first time a band has bought recording equipment, but I do remember that was the first time I thought about the fact that there doesn’t have to be a separation between musician and engineer.

If we want to keep this studio business thriving and want our own studio to stay afloat, don’t forget that the power is in the musicians’ hands. Can they take the equipment that’s available today and make a great-sounding record by themselves? Yes. If we as studio owners understand that fact and work with artists to achieve their musical visions instead of feeling like we have to fend off attacks from the digital home recording world, we may do a lot better than we’ve done in the past.