Music

How Pro Tools Is Destroying Music

Scott Oranburg

Computer programs are killing the old recording studios, and the engineering knowhow once harnessed there is disappearing.

At 54th Street and 9th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan are six duplex penthouses with thousands of feet of premium-grade oak hardwood floor, designer fireplaces, color video intercom systems, stainless-steel Sub-Zeros, and Halila limestone in five-fixture master bathrooms. But the sumptuous touches throughout these newborn penthouses may only be contrived attempts to overshadow the ghost of the space's previous inhabitant. Where these condominiums are being polished, waxed, and re-waxed, one of the greatest recording studios in history once sat, the Hit Factory.

Over the years, the Hit Factory served as the studio for 41 Grammy nominees. There, Springsteen recorded parts for "Born in the U.S.A." Whitney Houston recorded "I Will Always Love You," and Stevie Wonder composed Songs in the Key of Life. But now, the only voices heard are condo owners singing in the showers.

It's nothing new for historic buildings to be cleared for a quick real estate buck. But the Hit Factory's demise may be the first sign of a larger problem. Studios throughout the world have been struggling for business like never before -- there are more closing studios than platinum albums these days. In the past few years, Manhattan’s Sorcerer Sounds, where Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop all recorded tracks; the Record Plant, where Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, and Aerosmith recorded, and California's Cello Studios, where Frank Sinatra and Ray Charles once crooned into the high quality mikes; have all closed recently.

So why has a blight suddenly struck the highest-caliber studios in America? Although music piracy has stricken labels and record stores, you'd think that there would be a greater need than ever for high recording quality as the Bob Dylans and Patti Smiths of the past are replaced with Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. Today's artists need pitch correction, high quality sampling, and note-perfect backing musicians. But roles that recording studios used to fill are now being taken over by computers, whose digital-data-crunching power is sufficient to turn any of those Hit Factory condos into a studio that only a decade ago would have taken up the entire building.

Sonic space-design programs such as Digidesign’s ReVibe or Logic’s Space Designer have become commonplace in home recording studios, capable of making a guitar part recorded in your parents’ basement sound like it was laid down at the Hit Factory, an English church or even underwater. As these reverb programs grow commonplace, the need for a studio's acoustically optimized rooms has waned. And more important, programs like Apple Logic, Digidesign’s ProTools, and Propellerhead’s Reason have become ubiquitous on musicians’ laptops, because they supply the resources once available only at professional studios just a few years ago. Now, with a few grand, a novice composer can create a studio with a mixing board, amp simulators, unbeatable EQs, an endless number of synthesizers, MIDI controllers and all the other bells and whistles any audiophile could possibly desire, and a virtually limitless number of tracks to work with.

According to Propellerheads founder Ernst Nathorst-Böös, “A recording studio historically has supplied a number of things: Instruments that weren't available otherwise, the room to record in, the recording equipment to do it, and experts that help you use all these resources.” But, as Nathorst-Böös argues, the software supplies a bevy of instruments and sounds and acts as mixers and recorders cheaper and more flexible than the mammoth boards of old. And because the studios are being boarded up, there's not a network in place for keeping the experts employed anymore.

As Nathorst-Böös concedes, professional recording studios are still one of the only places for musicians, engineers, and producers, but the expanding bandwidth and faster speeds for internet connections these days threatens even this modest function. The ability to quickly exchange music files over the Web has already yielded the Postal Service’s Give Up, made through collaborating by email, and …Miles From India, a recent tribute album to Miles Davis, which includes realtime jam sessions recorded with musicians in studios time zones away.

Moreover, collaborative internet networks such as eSessions.com let studio musicians record parts at home and send the files to engineers across the globe to have them mixed, tempo-corrected, and pitch-corrected. ESessions also allows composers to search for particular musicians in the network, circumventing the professional studio as meeting place.

The home-studio revolution may not be as benevolent as it seems. Even though engineering techniques have become vastly easier and cheaper to implement, it still takes study and training to know how. Regardless of how sophisticated recording technology becomes, engineering music will always depend on understanding the ways speakers change air pressure -- not something many guitarists have studied. So as more records are made inexpertly by amateur producers in home studios, those who were responsible for the 41 Grammy winning albums recorded in the Hit Factory will be unemployed, and the quality of these home recordings will suffer in unexpected ways .

For example, in the post-studio era, producers commonly compress sound files in order to make albums sound bigger, squashing their dynamic contrast to make the track louder as a whole. As a result, snare drums have less crack than ever, and vocal ranges are more limited; both are less emotive and expressive. And because music-recording programs are designed to use uniform tempos, keys, and time signatures, almost all the songs put out these days don't vary any of these. It's nearly impossible to find a hit song now that has a modal or key change.

Without the recent technological innovations, artists like Daft Punk and Timbaland would never have existed. But as the ease and convenience of music-production software grows, the ways that computers inhibit composing overwhelm the ways they might enhance it for a few innovators. Since it's cheaper to use pitch and tempo correction than find a singer who can sing or a drummer who can drum, the shoddiest musicians can go into a recording studio and spit out a perfectly adjusted loop. Nothing is to prevent producers from selecting musicians for qualities other than their musicianship. Marketable faces now move albums more than ever before, and the money garnered from music sales has been siphoned away from those with talent, songwriting ability, or chops.

But the worst consequence of computer-assisted composing is that it is dehumanizing music. With the human touch inherent in any performance autocorrected digitally, we lose much of the element that gives music its emotive contours. Sometimes, playing slightly behind the beat or slightly below the correct pitch is what makes a piece inspiring. And as we continue to formulaically fit compositions into the strict guidelines that computers give us, musicians will cease trying to innovate and taking risks. They become stymied in their exploration of an art whose beauty fundamentally stems from its limitlessness. Although computers must be given credit for a spectrum of art that would have otherwise been inexpressible, this trend could very well change an art form into Paint by Numbers.

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