The Black & White

Too much studio editing has led to the generic music age

By Tim Klepp

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Music should be edited just a bit less in studios and it will sound better. Photo courtesy of recordproduction.com.

Taking a look at the past decade, the evolution of music formatting and editing has drastically changed popular music.  Producers compress and equalize most songs on the radio to remove all blemishes from the original recording, which unfortunately has a real effect on the sterilized sound of today.  Call me dated, but I think a little less work in the studio and retaining the quirks of the recording would go a long way towards boosting music quality.

In past decades, analog tapes severely limited the ability of studios to manipulate recordings, but today the smallest slip-ups are vanishing with innovations like AutoTune, an audio processor that corrects pitch and tuning issues.  The AutoTune program can be set from zero to 400, which determines how fast the program tunes the note.  Setting the program at zero will instantaneously change the note, eliminating the tension between notes and creating the jumpy, electronic sound heard in music today.

But these imperfections gave the music and its artists’ character.  Rock and Roll was built on mistakes; its typical instruments and vocals can be as imperfect as any, but much of this is gone with recording innovations of today.  On Led Zeppelin’s “Black Country Woman,” the song opens with Robert Plant scoffing at the recording engineer, telling him to leave the airplane heard flying overhead on the take.  The Beatles’ debut album Please Please Me was famously recorded in a one-day marathon.

What makes music great is the irreplaceable relation between the individual musicians, which is part of the reason why so many great bands lose their chemistry when a band member leaves the group.  Listen to Janis Joplin just once and you’ll be humming her raspy voice in your head for the rest of the day.

And here lies the problem with the music of the iPod generation: it all is starting to sound the same (don’t all jump on me at once).  Turn on Hot 99.5 or 93.9 and you’ll be hard pressed to find a song without an earth-shaking bass line or bouncy, sugary melodies.  Thanks to the karaoke my sister got for Christmas, I’ve become well acquainted with Miley Cyrus and Carrie Underwood, yet still can’t tell the difference between the two.  With perfect pitch, it becomes harder to distinguish who’s on the mic anymore.

Granted a certain amount of tweaking goes into most any studio recording and can add the finishing touches to a great album.  However, there’s a fine line between hiding a bad artist behind layers of production and erasing an uncharacteristic blemish from an otherwise good take.  A couple hours in the studio can remove that sour note or uneven dynamics, but is it worth losing Plant’s sneering quips or Joplin’s hoarse vocals?

Click here to watch AutoTune taken to the extreme by T-Pain.

3 Comments

3 Responses to “Too much studio editing has led to the generic music age”

  1. David B. on January 16th, 2010 1:47 pm

    Completely agree with everything said here. Some of my favorite artists ever, from Neil Young and Jimi Hendrix to the Rolling Stones and the Band, cherished raw recordings of their music that made it all seem so real and untarnished. It’s also sad to see artists who over-edit their music who are unable to perform their music well live.

  2. Tim Klepp on January 20th, 2010 7:22 pm

    It’s nice to see that some people still have their ears on straight. You hit the nail right on the head in bringing up Hendrix. Try listening to “Killing Floor,” a great example of the raw energy that’s missing in radio music today. I appreciate the support.

  3. R. Kerr on January 25th, 2010 1:27 pm

    Sounds like you’d be on good terms with Steve Albini. Look that guy up. Pretty much any of his interviews will touch on similar topics.

    When I was playing with a band we went to record and the producer dude wanted to record all of my beats (I was on drums for that particular track – can’t say I’m perfect at them because they weren’t my main instrument) into MIDI, then align them to perfection using software.

    Digital recording has made a lot of things easier, but it has also made it a lot easier to make everything boring. Why should I even play the drum part on the recording if it’s going to be the same if I typed each note in individually? Maybe we should have waited to record the track until I had played the part until I was sick to death of it instead of putting it through a digi-blender.

    Anyways, I’ll post some links later, I am very hungry.