How Technology Affects Art

I’ve been thinking lately about how technology affects the quality of art being made.  Now art is not monolithic.  Just because digital recording became the norm doesn’t mean that analog gear isn’t still used.  Just because photography was invented obviously doesn’t mean that there stopped being painters.  But I am talking about trends in general.

I have mentioned numerous times that I have spent a lot of time listening to The Cure lately.  I want to use two of their songs as an example.  I am going to post YouTubes, but it would be much better if you could listen to higher quality recordings to really get the details.  First I want you to listen to Play For Today from their album Seventeen Seconds, which at the time was a low budget recording (However you are listening, I would recommend headphones):

Now I want you to listen to a song called Sleep When I’m Dead from their album 4:13 Dream album.  This is a song that was written much earlier in their career, in what many fans feel was the best period of their career.  I purposely picked this song because it was written at an earlier period.  Although there are probably reasons this didn’t make a record, I wanted to get the argument that Robert Smith isn’t as good of a song writer as he used to be out of the way.  I’m not trying to talk about taste in writing or performance, merely the technology to capture each song.  (I personally like all periods of The Cure, though I have slight preferences for some.)  Anyway, here is the song:

Now it is impossible to know what creative decisions went into recording each song.  However, what is going on in each song is part of a bigger trend in music, so that I don’t think you can just base the sound of each recording to the taste of the artist.  I would also imagine that the budget was much bigger for Sleep When I’m Dead, given the fact that The Cure has gone on to be a band that can play stadiums.

On the earlier song there is much more clarity to the way it sounds.  Each instrument is discernible no matter how loud or quiet they are in the mix.  There is also much more depth of field.  When things get it seems like they are farther away.  In a lot of modern recordings when things get quieter, part of the instruments seem lost in a way that does not happen naturally in reality.  The newer song has less clarity and less depth of field, despite probably having a bigger budget for recording.  This is also despite the fact that technology has progressed.  I’m not doing this to knock later period Cure.  Too many times fans of any band develop sentimental attachments to artists that don’t allow them to view their newer work clearly.  I personally prefer the older song out of the two, but I am happy to hear any new material by an artist that I like.  Plus, there are newer songs by The Cure that I prefer to certain older ones.  It just comes down to the material itself.  However, I feel that the way the earlier material was recorded gives it a better chance of flight.  It has more sonic ambience and atmosphere in just the recording itself.

Anyway, I’m using music, but this really could apply to many art forms.  Although there are certain movies that look great when they are filmed digitally, there is something about the way film looks, which is a longer and more expensive process, that often wins out on average.  It always, at the end of the day, comes down to the choices that each individual artist makes and how they use a medium that matters most.

Technology often makes things easier and less expensive.  This is good because it allows more people to express themselves.  The downside to technology is that sometimes less of what is made, as a percentage, reaches a certain level of quality.  It is easier to record than ever before, which means more recordings are being made.  This is a good thing.  However, even average quality recordings of earlier time periods usually have a higher standard that average quality recordings today.

I’m not trying to make a point necessarily.  There are people on both sides of the argument.  Both have valid points.  I only am trying to get you to think about how technology can affect art both good and bad.  Technology in art, as it does in life, can often make things better and worse at the same time.

Technology and Magic

It seems like when older artists try to recapture the glory of their youth through a comeback record, they often leave out one of the most important things that made their old records sound the way they did:  Technology.  These records are too numerous to mention, although Rick Rubin has probably produced half of them.  I’m going to focus on one, which I actually quite like, that is a good place to start. 

The new Black Sabbath album 13 was an attempt by the group to recapture the gloomy stoner metal of their first few releases.  It’s actually quite good.  As far as songs, singing, and playing go I have no complaints.  It’s clear that Rubin was trying to steer them towards making a classic Sabbath album in the vein of Paranoid or Masters of Reality.  Some fans and critics complained about Bill Ward being replaced by Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine.  I understand why Bill Ward is great drummer and I can see how people would miss his drumming.  However, Brad Wilk actually does a great job and after listening to the album on headphones I realized all of the little subtleties that he brings to the record.  I don’t believe that his contributions are what keep the record from not sounding exactly like the original Sabbath recordings. 

It’s really the mix and the mastering that made this new album sound drastically different.  Again, this does not make it a bad album, but it is different sounding than those classic recordings.  The early Sabbath records, especially their debut, were recorded quickly and cheaply and were done to analog tape.  Although to be honest I have no idea if tape was used in the early stages of 13, it’s clear that at some point a computer became involved.  Because of the analog sound of the early Sabbath records, they have a dark mysterious murky quality to them.  This is not to take away anything from what the band did at that time, only to note that the technology on which those records were made had an impact on the overall sound. 

The new album is highly compressed using modern mastering and this greatly differentiates the sound.  It has a much heavier, louder, and modern sound then the old Sabbath recordings.  If you listen to Sabbath’s debut next to a modern heavy metal recording you will be surprised, given their reputation, at how “heaviness” of the record comes from the playing, and not from the production.  Their early records are quite thin by modern comparison.  Again what this analog sound does for them is help create a sense of mystery to the proceedings. 

Now I understand why any band would not want to look backwards.  Most artists want to move forward and do something that they have never done before.  So on one hand I can’t blame any band for not attempting to make a record exactly like they did in the past. 

But with this release, and many others that have been released in modern times, it seems bands are trying to recapture what made them great in the first place.  Rick Rubin clearly wanted to produce a “classic” Sabbath record.  If you have gone far enough to write songs that sound somewhat like your old material, use effects that were used on old records, why would you ignore the technological side of recording that plays such a large role in how the records actually sound? 

Again, I actually really like 13.  It does give you a large does of what you are looking for in a Black Sabbath record.  This is just the record I am thinking of now and the modern production techniques actually don’t get in the way of me enjoying this particular record.  However, there are some records, which escape me at the moment, where I can’t help but think that if they had really gotten back to basics, they would have been better off.

No matter what form an artist is working in, technology shapes the end product of what they are doing.  This should let out a collective “duh”.  If you are looking to make a retro record, remember that the sound is every bit as important as the performances.