Our family is just back from vacation, and this is one activity that shows the gaping personality difference between my wife and me.
Planning for a trip is something my wife loves to do. She makes endless lists about what we need to get and what we need to pack, our spare bedroom became a staging post for all the things we would pack for several weeks before. I, on the other hand, throw a load of stuff into a bag the night before.
When I was a kid making sure the camera was packed was essential. Once we returned from a trip my Mum would get a self-seal envelope from Supersnaps or Megaprint, put the film cartridge in it with a cheque and then post it off to have it developed, it usually took about a week before we saw the results. When the pictures came back, we would all gather around to look at the reminders of our trip, but there was always some prints of the dog or some flowers from the garden because we had to use the last few prints before sending it off... I'm sure we weren't the only family who did this.
We have over 300 digital snaps of the seven-day trip, featuring images of everything that include (mostly) pictures of our three-year-old daughter, meals, places we went to, including a day trip out into the Atlantic to see dolphins in the wild. There was no need to put anything in an envelope and wait for the photos to return, they were instant - there are certainly no filler shots of the dog or plants, that's the benefit of digital photography and camera phones. There are no limits to the number of images we create, and there is no waiting for them to develop. It's heaven... apparently.
My mum has about a dozen pictures of me when I was a kid, mostly of me from school photos with the haircut from hell. However, every one of those pictures is kept in a box by my mum and cherished as a magic moment in time. She can hold them in her hand and in doing so make an almost physical reconnection with the past in ways that digital images don't seem to offer.
The resurgence of analogue recording over the last few years, I mean real mixing desks, tape machines and hardware, not skeuomorphic software and in the same way vinyl records for listening has been attributed by many to nostalgia. However, I think there's more to it than that; I think it's a desire for many of us to find the human connection offered by the physical that digital music production and listening, despite all implied benefits of being limitless, cheap and plentiful fails to deliver. Downloading an album on TIDAL doesn't come close to the feeling I had when I went to the store and held a new record for the first time, even if the sonics are better, the product is cheaper, and I can get it instantly. Some of you reading this will never know that feeling.
Many of us thought a world where we could own software that would allow us to work on our own by putting a studio in every house was a dream. We thought unlimited track counts, possessing every instrument we could imagine and bit-by-bit recreations of vintage hardware would give us more freedom and feel like a creative heaven, but for many, it has ironically left us wanting. Digital has many merits, but there's more to life than ubiquity, as I've said before Google has proved to many of us that omniscience is overrated.
I've spoken and written before about this, but I'm convinced that some of my best songwriting was done on a four-track cassette based Portastudio. Every TDK SA90 mattered, and every one of those four tracks had to count for something. I had no UNDO and REDO button, especially once I was bouncing stuff down as I recorded overdubs at the same time. There was no fixing in the mix or endless choices of effect; I would choose a Great Britsh Spring reverb and commit it (in mono) to tape. I had to know what I was going to play before I hit record and I had to get it right the first time; there's a reason we all wore sweatbands in the 80s!
You might think I'm looking back with rose-tinted spectacles and of course, there is an element of that. If you had told me then what I would have now to record with and offered me a swap, then I would have bitten your hand off. Yet at the same time, the modern world of recording with limitless options seems to make many of us less, not more effective. In the same way, the thousands of pictures on my camera phone still don't evoke the same feelings of opening up my Mum's shoebox of half a dozen real photographs.
We still want the human experience of physical touch that digital does not offer. That's why reading a real book that you hold, you smell the print on the page and turn the corner to save your place cannot be replaced by a tablet or Kindle with a thousand books in your bag.
I wonder when you last held a pen in your hand and wrote on paper? When did you last write a letter? Again the process of writing with pen and paper requires us to think carefully about each word we write, the spelling and the grammar has to be considered before we commit to the page, in the same way, I had to make decisions before I hit record on my Portastudio. I'm writing this article on software that's pointing out each spelling and grammar mistake as I type, I love that I can do this, but it doesn't encourage me to gather my thoughts before I press the keys. Instead, I am splurging and hoping that what I'm writing makes sense after the event and not before it. It does make one wonder what the discourse on social media and forums were like if people had to write each comment by hand, I think it would improve as people had to stop to reflect on what they were saying and how to say it.
Most commenting on social media and in forums suffers from the author having the ability to write without considered thought. Just last night I saw a discussion on Facebook about an issue with the new Apollo X and Mac Pro compatibility, many of the comments were ill-informed and frankly utterly stupid, but now everyone can comment instantly and without thought and we are all poorer for it. That's why on the whole I avoid discussing on social media these days, having taken several months off Facebook I have come to realize that sharing my opinions of Trump, Brexit, plug-in development and every other subject under the sun frankly doesn't matter, the world will continue without my minute my minute commenting on everything.
In much the same way this malaise applies to modern music making, the limitless seems to have made many of us, myself included, worse not better at doing this because there's no resistance in the creative process. We want the easy, the fast, the cheap but often craftsmanship is found in the hard, the considered and the costly, has music creation gone from the hand carved to flat pack?
I recall asking many of my friends who have or still work with tape in studios what they loved most about it. I was expecting them to talk about sound, but many spoke about how they liked the time they had to think each time they hit rewind, those small moments allowed them to gather their thoughts, something lost with modern DAWs.
Please don't think this is some polemic against modern audio production, who wouldn't want to live in this fantastic era where almost anything is possible? However, the world of the physical and of limitations has far more to offer us humans than we give it credit.
In modern music making and audio production, there are few limitations and little time to stop and think about what we are doing and to make considered decisions about our work.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting we all sell out Macs and buy tape machines, but perhaps it's time for us all to step back, to pair down, to be more considered and take a deep breath before we hit record? Maybe we need to have those rewind moments, those reflections on how to get 18 tracks on 4, or how to record a drum kit with two mics?
It seems many of our productions are moving at the speed of light rather than the speed of sound and suffering because of it.