When technology injects more of its personality into an artistic act than the artist does, it’s a warning flag . . .
Technology can do so many cool things, sometimes it seems like it can do just about anything we want: Smooth out my timing in a sequence! Correct my vocal pitch! Give me 200 tracks! Just click your mouse, and it’s all yours.
But some ideas that seemed so good at the time may prove, years later, not to be what they appeared. When quantization first showed up, people were ecstatic: Now they could have perfect timing, without the years of practice required for rhythmic mastery. Only trouble is, those years and years of practicing didn’t go into creating robot-vibe music with metronomic precision, but in mastering the control needed to add slight timing “tweaks” so that a given piece of music could “breathe.” Now, decades after quantization made its debut, we have DAWs that include groove and feel templates to put some of that humanized vibe back into our otherwise perfect sequences. Sure, quantization has its uses—but should “perfect timing” be a musical goal? I don’t think so.
Or take pitch correction. The idea sounds like a dream come true, since if a vocal performance is flawless except for one flat note, you can fix that flat note and salvage the part. However, this brings back memories of a vocal session I did one night while very tired, and under a pressing deadline. Quite a few notes were less than perfect pitch. So I loaded the vocal into a digital audio editor, and pitch-shifted individual notes until they were perfectly in tune with the rest of the performance. Mission accomplished, I thought, and pressed the play button with a sigh of relief. But . . .
Something sounded really weird, and it wasn’t formant changes (the tweaks were minor enough that the timbre survived). No, it was something subtler, something that just wasn’t right. Was it possible that perfect pitch isn’t desirable? I went back to the original track, but this time tweaked the pitch just enough to make out of tune notes sound okay. For example, if the pitch was way flat, I adjusted it to be just a hair flat instead of right on pitch. Amazingly, the vocal now fell perfectly into place, but the best part of all this was that I learned a valuable lesson: When technology injects more of its personality into an artistic act than the artist does, it’s a warning flag.
In fact, I’d recommend that when technology starts to nag and nit-pick your every move, tell it to take a hike. But in the broader sense, this underscores once more that you have to be careful what you wish for—because it might come true. We clamored for budget digital to free us from the tyranny of tape hiss, and now we’re incorporating tube preamps and grunge plug-ins so we can mess up the sound. We wanted synthesizers with a zillion parameters for programming, resulting in machines that were so unwieldy we needed computers just to edit them. We wanted computers and software for rock-bottom prices, and we got them—but without the tech support that a higher price could afford to implement.
Maybe it’s time to count our blessings and use the fantastic tools that already exist before thinking that what looks like it might be a good idea actually is a good idea. Otherwise, we may have to hit “undo” a few years later when we find out that “progress” isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
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