Digital technology has enhanced music production, recording and distribution in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago, but are we losing something more essential in the process? Chris May talks to ambient pioneer and friend of technology Brian Eno about the dangers of digital dependence in modern music.
Words: Chris May
Back in the early 1970s, Phil Spector launched a Bring Back Mono campaign. More of a publicity stunt than a real protest movement, it fizzled out after a couple of stories in Rolling Stone and failed utterly to change the course of history. Four decades on, another, more serious guerrilla-action is being fought, this time against the digitisation of recording and production.
Recording history since the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll can be divided into two halves, analogue era and digital era. In this model, analogue is equated with authenticity, digital with artificiality. Proponents of the model argue that, from the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, analogue recording was primarily concerned with making musicians sound as good on record as they did on stage. By contrast, since the adoption of digital technology in the late-1980s, studios are said to have been expected to make musicians sound not merely as good as they are, but better. Digital tools have made it possible for the most indifferent singer, drummer or guitarist to sound like the business. Real music made in real time by real people has become an endangered species.
The model is a crude over-simplification, of course. It ignores the conveniences and benefits of digital technology, not least the fact that affordable, home-studio set-ups have democratised recording. But is the price we are paying for digital’s upside too high? By embracing the new tech, are we losing the human factor which has been at the heart of music making? Are we ceding too much power to the machines? Is gloss replacing substance?
Techphobics are not the only people asking these questions. Brian Eno became an early adopter of new technology as a teenager. At art school in the mid 1960s, Eno studied under the modernist art-theorist Roy Ascott, who introduced him to the idea of “process not product” and encouraged his first experiments with tape recorders. In 1972, Eno began working with Robert Fripp on the tape-looping system later known as Frippertronics, and, in mid-decade, introduced his own tech-rich, ambient music. Eno’s current enthusiasms include generative music, which, in essence, involves writing some algorithms, pointing them in the right direction and standing well back.
After 50 years at the sharp end of technological innovation, Eno is the last person you might expect to have doubts about digital recording.
Yet in an interview for Jocks&Nerds magazine recently, Eno said: “As a record producer, digital technology makes me wonder about the whole direction recording is taking.”
Last year, Bob Dylan went old-school, though not across-the-board analogue, while recording his album Shadows in the Night. In an interview published in US magazine AARP this February, Dylan explained: “I could only record these songs one way, and that was live on the floor with a very small number of mics. No headphones, no overdubs, no vocal booth, no separate tracking…The engineer had his own equipment, left over from bygone days, and he brought all that in… There was no mixing. That’s just the way it sounded… We used as little technology as possible.”
Far from diminishing, the debate about authenticity and artifice is building. Artisan music is not about to roll over and surrender. Neither is digital technology going to disappear. But if commercially-successful producers such as Eno can find a humanistic accommodation between analogue and digital aesthetics, the sun will continue to shine.
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