Zeitgeist, it's a German word which means the prevailing spirit of an age. I heard it used in a radio documentary this week and it got me thinking, what is it for this period of recording?
My money is on shortcuts.
It's hard to wonder what came first in this chicken and egg situation, did we find ourselves with almost no budgets from the labels and movie/TV production companies and impossible deadlines and then necessity became the mother of invention. Alternatively has the technology that's given us almost every piece of software imaginable to get a task done quickly seduced is into compromise? After all, who would walk 10 miles to work if a bus service were introduced?
The answer to the walk or bus question is a complex one, at a first look, many would think that only an idiot would still walk? Someone who wants to stay fit and healthy perhaps is one answer. When I stand in stores, and they are running my purchases through the cash register I mentally add then up and also then use mental arithmetic to figure out the change I'll be getting, depending of course on what note I use. I can't help myself, but I always tell the cashier what the change will be before the computer tells them, I'm racing to beat the computer.
Why? I want to stay sharp; I want to make sure I can still do something that I could have a machine do for me.
Let's be clear; I'm not a member of the flat earth society or anti-technology, walk into my home and anyone would soon realise that I love technology. I love how my car turns on the lights, window wipers and even applies the brakes without me thinking. I love the way it beeps when reversing to show my wife how close an obstacle is, of course, I don't need that feature! ;)
We have a heating system that we can control from our phones; we also have a lighting system that is controlled by our phones. We tried Alexa, but within a week both my wife and I were so exasperated by her being next to useless as well as butting into conversations she wasn't invited to, that the only thing we screamed at her was 'shut the f*ck up Alexa!' We turned her off, so if you lie awake at night thinking robots will take over the world, then try Alexa or Siri for any length of time and that should put your mind at rest.
So despite our falling out with Alexa, you can say we've got a home that runs on a lot of technology.
But I want to return to my mental arithmetic and why I do it. Like anything in life, the less you do something then, the more likely you are to lose that skill. Even worse, the less an entire group of people do something then the more likely that skill is lost, sometimes forever.
There are some skills in our industry that this generation of recording and mixing engineers have never had to do. Set up a tape machine, or at it's most basic put a reel of tape on a machine ready to hit record. Few modern recording engineers have had to set up real tape sync with a SMPTE device, or believe it or not, had to wire up a set of MIDI synths. In many cases, they may never need to do this as they may prove unnecessary.
However, there are plenty of skills ignored that are completely necessary. These recording skills transcend technology and are the bedrock of excellent recording; they include mic positioning, gain staging and even planning a recording session, there are of course many more. I work a lot in film production, we say film, but these days most of it ends up on cards and drives. The amount of people who go shooting a movie for a day and then send you the hard drive with no labelling or shot logging expecting you to make sense of it in the edit is far higher than it should be! 1% is too high!
You see, while technology can make our life easier we should not mistake that for allowing us to cut corners and be sloppy. Technological advances should free up our time to pay more attention to detail, to offer greater excellence - sadly it's creating a generation of those who think everything can be fixed in the mix.
As I've already said, the power of DAWs, plug-ins and associated software can make our lives easier and give us tools to do things not imaginable even a decade ago. This capability means we can do things even better than before, so why are so many people cutting corners?
I'm returning to my mental arithmetic analogy one more time; please humour me. I wonder if there's a recording or mixing skill that you have either never acquired or have abdicated to a computer, is it time for you to learn or refresh that skill, to become even better at it than ever before - to master it as a recording craft?
I've been watching a new documentary this week on the store IKEA, the kings of flat-pack furniture. IKEA serves a purpose, there are plenty of IKEA products in our house, as I suspect there are in most homes. They produce millions of pieces of furniture a year on a production line, so the Billy bookcase you have is the same as everyone else. There's also some beautiful pieces of handcrafted furniture in our home, something no one else has, it's unique and has the heart of the creator running through every joint.
I suppose what I'm trying to say is that you can either spend your life creating flat-pack or be a real artisan. I know which I'd prefer to be known for.
At the start of this article I asked which came first, the restrictions placed on us by those paying the bills or the technology seducing us to cut corners and which led us to where we are? In a sense, it doesn't matter how we got here; the real question is how we move on.
Do you want to craft your recordings or stamp them out like some industrialised manufacturing process? The decision is yours.