It's no secret that for many years record producers have relied on various types of electronic equipment to enhance, modify and transform the natural sound of music and the human voice into something that it's not. As a matter of fact, some of the most significant recordings of the last century may never have existed if it weren't for the artificial manipulation of sound in the studio. Consider guitarist Les Paul's innovative multi-track layering, George Martin's magical cut-and-paste construction on the Beatles' albums and the unique sonic aura of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. All of these are considered classics, and yet all are defined as much by the technology involved in the recording process as by the music itself.
These days, the widespread use of digital technology allows producers to manipulate recorded sound in unprecedented ways. Never before in the history of pop (and country, for that matter) has it been so easy to manufacture stars, finding first the look then tweaking the music to fit the image. Sound-enhancing software such as Pro Tools and Sonic Solutions have made it possible to take a recording of the most tone-deaf singer and bend each bad note into perfect pitch. Producers can also sample a perfect note or riff, and insert it into the accompanying music as many times as necessary to create an instrumental back-up that's completely error-free; not a beat out of synch. Conveniently, this allows the "talent" to get away with less talent, and focus more on the visual appeal that drives the celebrity industry.
Of course, there's also a positive side to the new technology. As in the past, many artists look at innovations not as corrective tools, but as opportunities to create new sound, to use technology as an instrument in itself. While this has long been the case with some of the more creative dance music, digital technology has begun to make inroads into the conventionally traditional and rootsy world of Americana. In the past several years, artists such as Greg Garing and Parlor James have incorporated sampling and programming into the framework of country and bluegrass, with somewhat mixed results. More recently, new releases by the longtime Austin band the Bad Livers, New York (by way of Atlanta) songwriter Robert Burke Warren, Michigan rootsy artist Jim Roll and former Green on Red jangle-rocker Chuck Prophet cover similar stylistic ground with various applications of modern studio technology.
The Bad Livers' Danny Barnes is a staunch defender of the new technology. On his group's new CD Blood & Mood (Sugar Hill), Barnes and bassist Mark Rubin make a radical departure from their traditional gothic bluegrass sound by using extensive studio manipulation. "Everything you hear was sampled and screwed with," Barnes writes in an email. "Why do I use these techniques? Because this technology is available to me. ... Sampling is another name for recording, don't forget."
Blood & Mood is a sonic bombardment of drum machines, samples, sequencing and treated voices surrounding Barnes' acoustic guitar and banjo, with a small dose of Rubin's steady upright bass. The songs are semi-twisted tales of small town life, oddballs and stilted snapshots that somehow gel into a cogent listening experience. Barnes, clearly adverse to the use of labels, sees his music as non-categorical. "Modern examples of the styles you describe (alt-country, bluegrass, roots rock) bore me shitless. It isn't an 'idea' to go and play a lame version of something else. It's a cop-out, and the records that adhere to these dogmas make me want to puke."
Robert Burke Warren, who incorporates studio technology into his new and otherwise acoustic-based album ... To This Day (Jackpot Records), also sees the machination as a positive. "I feel the new technologies are, for the most part, a beneficial thing," he writes, also by e-mail. "I've always liked the mixture of synthetic and organic sounds. As I was putting the album together, I liked the way the folk and country elements sounded with the machines in there."
Warren debates the issue of analog versus digital recording in terms of his own work, and looks for a reconciliation based on personal taste. "I've used both vintage analog equipment and cutting edge digital usually both at the same time. There are plusses and negatives to both mediums. The ever-heightening sensitivity of both digital and analog make it possible to capture low-fi sounds in such a high tech way that they sound more palatable than ever before. The Alan Lomax field recordings, the Beatles Anthology ... great examples of the marriage of the two."
Jim Roll's debut CD Lunette (New West Records) is a fine product with limited but still noticeable technological augmentation. Produced by the Silos' Walter Salas-Humara, the album is a pleasant collection of diverse and captivating tunes. "I hired Salas-Humara to produce my disc because I respected his past dedication to simplicity and tone and was intrigued by his recent tasteful experimentation with sampling, etc. on the last Silos' record," Roll emails.
While the focus on Lunette remains on the songs themselves, Roll acknowledges and justifies the use of programming to enhance a couple of tracks, and more extensive use of correction through sampling to fix minor audio errors. He recalls, "We used it [programming] on two songs as far as I can remember. We just picked out those two songs as ones that we thought could benefit from some ethereal techno noise."
Californian Chuck Prophet has added even a newer dimension of techological enhancement on his latest release, The Hurting Business (Hightone), with the incorporation of a DJ on several tracks. Throughout the CD, Prophet relies heavily on sampling and programming effects to create a masterful collection of tunes right on the cutting edge of today's innovative musical hybrids. It's a logical step forward in his path from a basic roots rocker to one of Americana's most creative artists.
While each artists' approach vary slightly, all agree on two particular benefits to new studio technology. Barnes writes, "Artists can work at home, without money flying out the window every second. Then we can take things into a studio, bump it up to 24 track and work for a week instead of a month."
Warren echoes Barnes, writing, "As a singer/songwriter living in a tenement, I look to machines that I can use with headphones. Also it's cost effective. When you're on the clock, it adds up."
Roll supports the use of sampling as a financial deterrent and as a quick fix-it. "In many cases human error correction is okay," he writes. "If you have a limited budget and a wrong note can be fixed in 10 minutes (instead of paying the musicians for three more hours), then that is a blessing." Both Barnes and Warren agreed with Roll; they felt the final product is ultimately what matters in recording music.
The debate will continue over the use of studio technology, particularly in the tradition-based world of Americana, where "real" music is seen as a virtue. But in the end it boils down to the individual choice of the listener. Some people will claim fraud when producers enhance and correct the vocal tracks of their next big thing; others will simply enjoy what they hear. And until CDs start being labeled with the percentage of studio enhancements on them (which, face it, will never happen), the only recourse is to separate the creative use of technology from the corrective, and beyond that, to let the buyer beware.
The Bad Livers play the Star Bar Fri., April 14. For more information, call 404-681-9018. Jim Roll performs at The Earl Wed., April 19. For more information, call 404-522-3950.
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