Since the dawn of rock and roll, purists have decried the use of tools and tricks, claiming they mask a performer’s lack of innate talent. But tools became a part of the music as soon as anyone with a creative ear took notice of them. The sound of the Kings of Rhythm playing in the room at Memphis Recording was not the same thing the rest of the world heard by the time the purported first ever rock and roll record, “Rocket 88,” was piped down to tape and, finally, to a 7” record.
The process of squashing all that raw energy into just 1/4-inch of mono recording tape was part of what created the sound that knocked people off their feet in 1951 (not to mention a torn speaker cone that gave us our allegedly first recorded distorted electric guitar).
Since then, the recording of music has been a collaboration between artists, producers, engineers, and the machines with which they surround themselves. These machines needn’t be dystopian harbingers of doom. No matter what technology you put out there, it can be manipulated to enhance a recording provided someone has the intent to conquer it and still remember who’s the boss. Hence, arguments about the perniciousness of auto-tune don’t really sway me. Yes, now we laud fake singers, whereas in the Milli Vanilli era we drove them to suicide. Yes, auto-tuned vocals are homogenizing pop music. But this is inevitable. Pop music has been engaged in a tireless quest for ultimate homogenization since before American Bandstand first aired. After all, Ricky Nelson’s tepid “I’m Walkin’” (1957) was released only a little over a year after Elvis’s then-shocking “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956).
There is a key element to making great music and not becoming a slave to technology, or really a slave to anything. Human League’s Phil Oakey made this comment about working on the follow-up to their hugely successful Dare LP:
“When he started with us, he was doing the traditional producerly thing, which was to to use your ears and decide what was good. And by the end he was programming everything into the computers and not believing it was right until it was programmed. Which in a way is absolving your responsibilities.”
This is only a situational slight on the great producer Martin Rushent, about whom Oakey is talking. Oakey is not coming from the standpoint of a purist: Human League records are renowned for being performed solely by synthesizer (more often than not programmed and sequenced rather than played by a human). Not a single guitar or drum or bass to be found, and they were proud of that fact. Oakey didn’t object to programming per se (nobody minded it when it delivered a brilliantly weird song like “Don’t You Want Me,” heavily reliant on Rushent’s production skills), but the key is that last sentence. In the quest for greatness, one must never absolve oneself of responsibility.
When making music, if you lose the presence of mind to listen to something - just listen, and say, “yep, that’s right. It may not be technicallyperfect but it’s right.” — you’re fucked. That’s where an over-reliance on auto-tune, or quantizing, or overdubbing, or a la mode stylistic touches, really will sink your work. If you’ve let go of your authority, you have no business being part of the process. A computer screen is never going to reveal to you whether a performance is “the one.” Only your ears and your brain can do that.
Of course, nobody’s fool enough to think that some absently produced, contrived pop ditty can’t result in a hit, but you can pretty much guarantee that it won’t be great. And if you’re not seeking greatness, what are you doing?
Aaron Tap is a guitarist, vocalist, music producer, and overall sound-obsessed human. He spent years in the Boston music scene before relocating to Los Angeles with frequent collaborator Paula Kelley. He now records and produces in his own studio, QuailTop. When not making records, he tours the world with Matt Nathanson, The Paula Kelley Orchestra, Jesse Macht, and others.