The Process of Recording

Curb your doggie like you’re spoze to do
Just don’t let that dog
Curb you.
-Langston Hughes

Manny Festo

Recording has been with us for more than a century now and it has become an integral part of our sonic landscape. Most of the music we have been hearing for the last seventy years has been pre-recorded and most people don’t make much of a distinction between music that is live and music that isn’t. Even a lot of ‘live’ music isn’t actually live in the sense that its processing is integral to it.

Along with photography, television, phones, etc. recording has redefined our most basics conceptions of presence. While on one hand we now live in a global village, on the other we accept as present things which aren’t really anywhere at all. The town square of our global village is essentially a vacuum.

Absence and presence are basic elements of human consciousness and emotion, possibly the first things we are aware of. They are fed by our senses and living in the global village has changed our relationship to our own senses to the degree that we now live with absence-as-presence.

This is our reality and there isn’t much point in getting upset about it. Still, it would probably behoove us to be conscious of it. We appear to have come to accept an equality of communication between the present and the absent. For instance, often one is engaged in conversation with someone and that person answers an interrupting telephone, valuing the absent over the present or at least putting them on equal footing. Similarly, many pop music shows are mimicked rather than performed, the presence of the performer in the flesh is a token gesture to the old reality of what you see is what you get.

As we lose contact with the simplest forms of presence, we also lose contact other aspects of our nature that were once rooted in our consciousness. The vital withers incrementally away into the virtual. We live more and more not in events, but in symbols of eventfulness and so our fellow beings become, in a way, symbols of beings as much as or more than actual beings.

There is nothing really new in this. Degrading other humans to symbols is as old as tribalism, politics, and religion (even though it reached its early peak –through the use of radio- in the Nazi era). The difference is that now everything is essentially propaganda, i.e., it is manipulated, mediated, and intentionally constructed to be symbolic before it comes to us. Prior to this time what was present possessed a reality and significance that the absent did not. In the new paradigm, when presence does not exist, neither do other people. It’s only a spectacle. It’s our culture.

Absence has come to hold a power greater than presence. The cult of celebrity is an obvious symptom of this, as is the antiseptic compulsion that drives a lot of modern design, and the minimalist aesthetic in music and fine art. In the escapism that permeates our culture, presence has come to be seen as undesirable, awkward, and inconvenient.

The paradigms that dominate our social interactions naturally dominate our systems of communication. They are hierarchic and centralized, essentially distant from us, alienating to the extent that we have come to embrace our alienation as if it were presence.

Absence is a propertarian concept. One accepts the absence-as-presence ethos because it reaffirms one’s own sense of the rightness of property, allowing one to have a sense of engagement while being physically disengaged (those familiar with the work of Brecht –along with Joyce and possibly Picasso the first post-modern artist –will have considered this idea of escapist identification). The illusion of non-participatory, asensual, engagement is the vacuum that lies at the center of the global village. The empty, "clean", surfaces of modern design, minimalist art and music are essentially hollow spaces into which one can pretend to project oneself, their deep neutrality generating an absence of exclusion (a passive state) that has come to be mistaken for inclusiveness (an active one). In short, anyone can feel large and substantial in the presence of a vacuum, the ego of the perceptor is encouraged to expand without any consequent increase in physical engagement or responsibility. This is the same paradigm that has fostered the ownership of enormous polluting cars, big, empty houses, and other common bourgeois accoutrements –the celebration of the irresponsible power of the powerless. The desiderata is to generate a cloud of emptiness around oneself in which one can enjoy the sense of dominion.

It’s no coincidence that popular art reflects and recapitulates this.

Part of an anarchist’s mission is to challenge and shift such paradigms.

The question is how.

There is no legitimate simple answer to this. We are so encompassed by the world we live in that all we can reasonably hope to do is to try to be as aware as we can of the implications of our undertakings and seize what small opportunities we see to create alternatives. Rigid, dogmatic, reactions are useless (i.e., the failure of communism, the collapse of inclusive liberalism into exclusive "political correctness"), the situation we find ourselves in has been generated by dichotomous logic and the same philosophical approach won’t produce any better results. The logic itself needs to be innovative.

Prior to the existence of the global village, culture was an accumulation of positive ideas and techniques, innovative practices retained over time because they contributed somehow to the general well-being. Development was incremental and additive as long as it was rooted in physical reality. When culture became mass media instead of this sort of folk wisdom, it became an accumulation of absences, substituting a generated illusion (idealism) in place of a physical reality. The pie-in-the-sky ethos that had previously been the province of manipulative religion slowly permeated all facets of life. In a mass media society lives are defined more by what they lack, what they will-or-should have, than what they have. An economic culture driven by advertising and consumerism demands this. Selling the ideal (sizzle) rather than the real (steak) has in our time become even what science does (nuclear power).

How do we counteract this tendency?

It is incumbent on us to be products of ourselves and our own lives rather than products of our culture. It is important to keep our idealism in its place and not make it the enemy of the real. This is not to say we should not be idealistic, only that our idealism should inform the realities we generate with our lives as opposed to diminishing our perceptions of their beauty and importance. When we use the ideal as a benchmark by which to validate or invalidate the real we can only end up disempowering ourselves. The ideal is (by definition) incapable of being anything but symbolic.

The history of the 20th century may well be viewed in hindsight as the period in which the abstract symbols of living eclipsed life itself. This can be seen in a number of instances ranging from Hiroshima (physical) to semiotics (intellectual).

Because of this shift the drama of selfhood now comes as much from (mediated) outside pressure as from inner vanity.

A few years ago I was sitting on a sidewalk with some friends and we noticed that nine consecutive passers-by were wearing exactly the same (Old Navy?) shorts (six were one color, three another). We thought it was funny, but at the same time I found it deeply unnerving. These people had succeeded in voluntarily turning themselves into symbols, preferring that to being individual humans. Symbols can exist in a vacuum where actualities are automatically marginalized and pressured to dissolve. (Earlier that same evening my friends and I were hassled by a cop for no apparent reason besides the fact that none of us looked generic enough to belong in the symbol world of people who wear the same pants.) Anyone engaged in resisting co-optation will have similar anecdotes.

The upshot of the symbolic modern paradigm is that I am not re-assured by the familiar (as my grandparent’s generation was), but increasingly disturbed by it. It gnaws at the edges of my consciousness like the Ligeti music that plays in The Shining while Jack is being interviewed for his job at the hotel. This is not because I am somehow markedly different from them in a human sense, but because the nature of what is familiar has changed. It is now rooted in symbolism where a few generations ago it was rooted in a compilation of shared practicalities.

Our sonic universe (along with our sense of ourselves as individual beings) seems to be collapsing like Jack’s sanity.

Over time it has become harder for me to hear through the veneers of sonic sameness that coat most of the music that presents itself to me. The sonic sameness that existed in earlier soundworlds originated in a different context and served a different purpose. It celebrated its marginality, its ethos of originating from individuals and specific regions. These samenesses were the inevitable results of the technologies and materials at the disposal of their users over long periods of time and in specific geographic locations rather than a condition they aspired to (listen to any three Delta Blues musicians and the perceived similarities between them become shallower and less meaningful with every exposure). This no longer seems to be the case. A good way to examine this is to compare "world music" recordings from the 60s and 70s with those from the 90s and 00s. The oddness and diversity (of tonality, timbre, and meter) present in the earlier music has slowly been filtered out. Style is an idealistic construct and musicians all over the world have come to aspire to it (or at least come to feel compelled by market forces to submit their imaginations to it –modern capitalism institutionally suppresses marginality wherever it is able to).

My sense of this is that we must challenge sameness at its root level, the aspiration to it, the acceptance of it’s a priori valuations about sound, the pursuit of comfort that drives it, the methodologies it makes easily available to us. Great music (whether its Debussy, Eric Dolphy, Bob Marley, or Morton Subotnick) has always initiated itself from the rejection of current style, accepting the accrued wisdom of precedent (content) but not the received ideas (form). We will not all see this the same way. Each of us will perceive different oppressions acting upon our individual creativity. The propagandic success of the ideal is that a vacuum is by nature nearly impossible to identify while the specific objections to it are easily identified and therefore simple to attack. In our current politics the candidates who use the most words to say the least are invariably the most successful. In a culture based on idealism any attack, regardless of merit, has its desired effect in so far as it is able to undermine the sense of the vacuum.

We should aspire to making art which is incomplete, unresolved, which cannot be enclosed in the vacuum of style, which aspires to its own realities and not to idealism, which works outward from its own specifics rather than toward accepted generalities, which pushes us from it in a way that makes us hear for ourselves, according to our own realistic intentions rather than those of its author.

Only that which is filled with contradictions is alive!

Part 2

Chain Gang

What is media?

That which mediates between the maker and the receiver of some object of communication (book, cd, telephone, radio, DSL, etc. –for current purposes we’ll stick with music). To some extent media is an enabler, but it can (and often does) introduce inertia into the exchange between the maker of music and the receiver. As recording allows us to hear music which we do not witness, it also allows the music we hear to be manipulated so that what we hear is different from what was made.

How much do we want our listening experience to be mediated? How much inertia do we wish to allow into our exchanges? Is what is made in the medium itself real, or is it purely inertia? Is inertia what people have come to expect, come to value, from music?


In recording lingo front and back refer to areas along the recording chain. The front end refers to the sounds before they reach the medium (tape, hard drive, etc.) and back end refers to what happens to them after the medium. The front end includes everything before the mixer. After tracks are recorded they are mixed down to a stereo signal.

This schematic is simplified with "mixer" including many options (mikes, preamps, EQ, etc).

Back in the days of, say, Robert Johnson, this chain was very short: a microphone, a tape recorder / a tape recorder, a disc presser; or a microphone to a wax master / wax master to disc presser.

Over time it has become longer.

Through the mid-60s the emphasis was primarily on improving the front end technology. Since then most of the innovations have been on the back end. The impetus behind this is that the producers of music have a lot more money to invest in the research and development of equipment (and the incentive to make product involving the musicians as little as possible) than musicians do.

Obviously, the longer the chain of processes becomes the greater the amount of inertia between A and B.


The Politics of Listening

Listeners, as opposed to performers, only experience music on the back end, as consumers, and most of them are (reasonably) only concerned with how it sounds to them.  Nevertheless, it can be instructive to draw analogies to other consumed products.  In the case of food, it behooves the consumer to consider more than the flavor of what they are eating: is it nutritious?; does it contain pesticides or other toxins?; will it contribute to obesity?; how does one feel about agribusiness, GMOs?    In the case of clothing, factors other than appearance come to mind: will these (cool looking) shoes injure one’s feet?; are they made by children in a sweastshop?:  what are the ethical implications of wearing fur?

These things matter only to the degree that one cares about or accepts responsibility for them.  Beyond "me like, me buy" lie a whole range of questions that depend on the depth of ones involvement.  Beyond "me like, me listen" lie a similar range of questions.

The ethos of back-end music is that it "sounds better", that it’s more listener friendly, that it’s "easier".  In the back end of production mistakes can be removed, sounds can be enhanced, pitches corrected, effects added, etc. The back end, as ‘spin’ does with the news, inserts a layer of interpretation (inertia) between the performer and the listener.  This disengagement from the process of music making can be soothing (creating a vacuum into which the listener can project him/herself), but it also limits the listener’s depth of understanding, hiding the made sound (if there was one) behind a screen of edits, effects and other manipulations.  To the degree that this separates the listener from the maker of the sound the level of the listener’s engagement is limited.

There is a widening gap between "produced" (tightly controlled) sound, which has an unnatural and sterile stillness to it, and what I think of as "actual" (living) sound, which is more prone to unexpectedness and characterized by less easily recognizable timbres.   

This "produced" (as opposed to performed) kind of music is ultimately controlled (often created) by a listener (an engineer / producer) rather than a performer or group.  In a bottom line way this makes good sense, the (commercial and aesthetic) logic that drives the concept is clear.  In addition to that, music pre-screened by a professional listener will already have been purged of potentially objectionable elements before it reaches the target listener. The process of production in these cases is like ‘enriching’ bread or even irradiating it in that it substitutes a perceivedly beneficial extrinsic element for a perceivedly undesirable intrinsic one. To process sound most efficiently the initial sonic event is simplified (or generalized) as much as possible, ideally generated by code, controlling events after they’ve happened as opposed to dealing with them directly.

The simplification of sound naturally simplifies the messages it is able to communicate, as a "lifted" face lacks the expressive range and subtlety of an un-lifted one.  For music to be extremely popular (and therefore profitable) it needs to generalize its appeal as widely as it can and it is completely logical for the business of music to develop sonic techniques that enable universal generalization.  For their purpose these techniques are very good, but for the  expression of less generalized ideas they are often a liability and the pervasiveness of their use and the kind of sonic standards they’ve established tend to militate against any "otherness" of sound.  After a generation of listening in this soundworld it has become difficult for people to hear possibilities that exist outside of it without at least an initial impulse to reject it.    

I equate this sonic sterility emotionally with the complacency (and denial) I sense is devouring our world (westworld) on several levels at once, whether it be about our social constructs, our attitudes towards our environment, our aesthetics, whatever.  The same way I feel alienated in a shopping mall, a room full of similarly-dressed people, or a traffic jam of shiny cars and SUVs, I feel an outsideness listening to organizations of pre-ordained sounds, whether made by conventional instruments or synthesizers. (An instructive way to examine this would be to listen chronologically to an artist like Bob Marley and hear his voice slowly disappear into clouds of echo and synthwash.)

Everyone listens differently.

There are different levels and desires of activity and passivity and different musics encourage or discourage them.

There are listeners who expect the music to bear the burden of engagement and listeners who expect themselves to engage it.  There are listeners who never initiate engagement of any kind.

The ethos of front-end music is that it comes more directly from the maker of it, that it hasn’t already made decisions for the listener.  In the front end of production sounds can be ‘captured’, ephemeral phenomena preserved.  This type of music expects and often requires a high degree of engagement and even participation on the part of the listener.

As a player of instruments, I am almost always an active listener.  My normal response to music is to engage with it as fully as I can.  Because of this I have developed a sense of revulsion toward music that assumes non-engagement, that has made decisions for me, that has generalized itself to avoid offending me.  I don’t want my experiences to be mediated.  I don’t want to listen to listeners.

My revulsion is not with the commonplace, but with the equation of conformity with the commonplace, the symbolization of even the most ordinary things, the lack of challenge to received ideas about what is of substance, the devouring complacency that codifies human errors into a priori assumptions that come to seem unassailable (the 4/4 beat, the honorability of american intentions, or the ascendancy of product over process).

As I’m not willing to spend a significant amount of time promoting myself, external mediation (radio play, distribution, press, etc.) is largely beyond my control.  My personal effort can have the most effect (and engage my interest) in matters of internal mediation.  In this my interest is to do what I can to minimize inertia.

For this reason, aside from equalisation and cleaning up of beginnings and endings, I don’t subject my recordings to any back end processing.  In addition to this, I shorten the front end chain –microphone or pick-up / pre-amp / EQ / mixer- as much as possible.  I don’t wish to create any illusions, only reveal the sounds as they are made.  What I want the eventual listener to hear is the instrument and the playing of it rather than the manipulation of what was played.  A certain amount of front end technology (good mics and preamps) and technique (well placed mics, properly tweaked eqs) reduces inertia by increasing transparency –poor recordings don’t help anyone listen. 

So, in short, my methodology is to use the technologies available to me as passively as is practicable.  We have much better equipment at our disposal than Robert Johnson did, but this does not make it compulsory for us to lengthen the recording chain.  Because we have automobiles at our disposal doesn’t make it healthier, more enjoyable, or a better contribution to our common environment to give up walking. 



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