In the chaotic pursuit driving art to the lowest common denominator, where does responsibility lie, with technology or the people behind it? Has the computer really fomented an insane banality of overproduction and commoditization of art? There was a time where the band would lay down some rough tracks on tape, and the engineer, after applying some rudimentary EQ, presented to the band a simple tri-state choice: left, right, or center. In the modern era audio engineers have incomprehensible flexibility. Autotune can pitch correct and is well recognized, but other pitch and tempo correction techniques in the hands of the skilled engineer can take the banging of a toddler on toy drums, process them, and, superficially, rival John Bonham. What once was somewhat colloquially termed audio engineering has now taken on a literal definition…the modern era has allowed sound to be carefully engineered, re-engineered, re-spun; it is a producer’s dream. The artist is just another input; with technology the sound is now limitless in its malleability. If the artist is formidable, the producer – often rightly – believes his own greatness is necessary to render the rough-hewn organism suitable for playback media. And if the artist is inadequate, so what? The producer’s facility with gadgets will bridge the gap.
So where does that leave us? Does art require the atavism of manuscript notation, composing works for orchestras that will never exist? These tools offer great sonic possibilities, but to make proper use of them require all producers and audio engineers to become aware that they are just part of an entirety of a creative process. Their job should not be to add and morph sound into something salable, but rather to become part of a dynamic process. This is no more ludicrous than puppet musicians who exist solely for marketing purposes allowing producers to assume total responsibility for the trajectory of the band. This method is fraudulent not only because the drive is purely pecuniary in nature, but because it perpetuates the role of the producer as the arrogant overman who will eventually get a ridiculous perm and shoot a b-grade actress in the mouth. The artist, engineer, producer, must become one. Any artist unwilling to follow his/her art through to the end is unfit; similarly engineers and producers must open their minds and realize they are also artists, just not at the expense of the people they are recording. These tasks which used to be separated by technology are merging into one, all work together to create a collective sound reflective of the best influences of all.
It is hard to overcome the temptations that technology offers: infinite reproducibility, infinite malleability, fine tuning and correction to the point of making art merely mechanical. Compressing the shit out of everything. Competing in the loudness wars. Getting the modern pop radio sound.
These tools present composers, musicians, artists, engineers with insane flexibility. Imagine what Revolution 9 might have been with these tools in the hands of John & Yoko. And now imagine how it could have been completely ruined as a result of having too many options and precious few reasons.
The impact of autotune and digital audio workstations is here to stay. Our goal should be to leverage the tool to create and improve art, to embrace this new era of a multicorporeal artist beyond performer, producer, engineer. Not to use it to cloak mediocre talent or twist the composer’s will. Not to use it to pursue methodical rhythmic and tonal perfection.
These new tools do allow unbounded creativity. That much is certain. These tools alone, however, do not result in great music. It requires everyone involved to not only respect their power as artists, but, more importantly, to embrace it and work at every level collaboratively and creatively. Arrogant producers and engineers beware: these tools must not be used to create the artist ahead of the art but to enhance the art the artist can and will produce – like an orchestrator, take the simplicity of beauty and enhance it to make it shine.