Computers, Miracles or Crutches

This may sound odd coming from a computer programmer (what I actually do for a living rather that just exist as a starving composer and blogger [which has yet to bring in any income]), but I'm not sure all advancements in computers in the music industry are a good thing.

Peter Neubäcker has developed software that can fix music in the mix, that is to say, it can adjust notes in a recording to fix mistakes. I realise there is already AutoTune on the market which does the same thing for a single track during the recording (or performance) process, and done well can make a mediocre singer seem pitch perfect. This new software will allow engineers to fix recordings rather than have the entire ensemble re-record the passage - a real cost savings for the recording industry.

However, we have already begun to set unreachable expectations with our audiences, particular in terms of classical music. Seldom do we hear live recordings of pieces by orchestras, because live recordings are fraught with all those mistakes, even when the orchestra is world class (they are still human, after all). These not-so-live recordings are done is a studio where if a passage isn't quite right it can be done over (and over again) until it is just so. The problem is the listener doesn't necessarily appreciate this effort, but rather listens to the recording amazed at the seemingly effortless precision of the music. Yet, when that same listener attends the concert hall, they are left feeling somewhat frustrated; it just wasn't as good as the recording.

Pop music, particularly rock bands, actually end up with a better concert experience than their recordings, not because their recordings are treated in exactly the same way - recording over and over each section until it's perfect - but rather the "energy" of their performance is so over the top, the audience is feeling the "performance" rather than the music. (Don't mistake volume with performance; just getting louder doesn't make it better).

Orchestras tend to be fairly static, sitting ever so politely in their seats, playing away. Some conductors, like Gustavo Dudamel, perform up on the podium and so add to the live performance. But these conductors are rare, and having stood up in front of several ensembles, not all musicians like having the emotional hysterics on the podium. So, it comes down to the performance of the musicians. Live musicians already can't compare with recordings and this new software will only widen the gap - because it can alter "live" recordings as well as studio ones.

Having said all this I use computers for composition. I use computers to produce midi realisations or provide much of the background sounds in my film work. My computer has recorded (and re-recorded) numerous pieces and I've edited the sound, using the computer, to make it the best possible. So, aren't I being a bit hypocritical?

I guess what I am really hoping is that there will be some "labelling" of recordings that use this new technology (as I think recordings ought say when AutoTune has been used). Not all listeners will read the label (if it's anything thing like other fine print, few listeners will take the time), but some will, most notably critics. This would give us the chance to appreciate the difference between live and enhanced performances. Viva la spontaneity!

At the end of the above article there are a couple of sound engineers who agree this software isn't necessarily a good thing.


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