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Rise Of The Humans: How Artists And Studios Are Pushing Back Against The Robotization Of Music

Musicians work to reestablish the value of real, live humans in the music-making process. And as live shows become more important, “real” music may be on the upswing.

Rise Of The Humans: How Artists And Studios Are Pushing Back Against The Robotization Of Music
Los Angeles violinist, arranger and producer Eric Gorfain leads The Section Quartet. [Photo by James Slay]

In many ways, 2013 was a year of music makers standing up for themselves and reminding the general public and other musicians alike that all that streamed free content is made by real people who require fair compensation for their labors. The surge in musicians’ advocacy is in part a reaction to today’s streaming music model (Spotify and others) of which musicians such as David Byrne and Cracker’s David Lowery have written cautionary op-eds, denouncing a false economy based on easy access to their creative content by the non-paying consumer. Aimee Mann took legal action against MediaNet, a firm with clients such as Yahoo Music, Playlist.com, eBay and other online radio services, for allegedly infringing over 100 of her songs.

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Additionally, Byrne was recently one of many musicians who recently posted a selfie bearing the hashtag #IRespectMusic in solidarity with a project urging Congress to support artists’ pay for radio play, I Respect Music, a movement based around musician Blake Morgan’s compelling op-ed last December in the Huffington Post.

But while most of the above grievances and complaints have mainly dealt with the digital delivery of music, another revaluation movement appears to be emerging among recording studios and session musicians who have found themselves feeling minimized in the wake of laptop recording and the ubiquity of digital samplers. Many are finding it necessary to not only re-educate consumers but to remind their fellow musicians and producers of the value of having living, breathing musicians perform in real time within the acoustically maximized walls of a well-designed recording studio.

For these professionals, the question is how do they re-value their specialized services in a post-digital marketplace?

Los Angeles violinist, arranger and producer Eric Gorfain leads of one of L.A.’s most in-demand string quartets, The Section Quartet. Gorfain says that despite having a client list that includes Fiona Apple, Aerosmith, Foo Fighters, Kanye West, Band of Horses, and Belle & Sebastian, he still finds himself having to prove to potential new clients that while a string synthesizer or digital sampler may be cheap and easy, there’s no replicating a highly functioning, warm-blooded string section.

Image: Flickr user Freshly Diced

The Next Tech Isn’t Always Best Tech

“Music was made by humans for most of history,” says Gorfain, “until relatively recent technology made it possible, first on the phonograph, to replicate musical sounds using electronic instruments. Traditionally the people making the technology are always striving to just do the next thing, and the next thing. So in my world, that meant they worked at making string samples sound more real, often just to prove that they could do it technologically, rather than for some other benevolent reason. Having said that, I will often use keyboard string samples to create a demo version. But the plan is to humanize it when the real musicians show up, and they’ll play the parts with more human dynamics, pulse, attack, and articulation. The samples only show you the notes, the pitches.”

Build Your Own Wall of Sound

So while Gorfain is clearly no Luddite, he does make a compelling argument for the days when producers like Phil Spector or Brian Wilson would cram large ensembles like the so-called Wrecking Crew into tiny little rooms, recording directly to tape, all at the same time.

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“I think that is why that era of recorded music is still revered, because it was real people doing real performances. I think we lost some of that when recording technology advanced, and there were more channels and you could isolate tracks and overdubbing.”

Image: Flickr user Dylan O’Dowd

Human Heartbeats Vs. Robotization

And while Gorfain understands that using full orchestras can be cost-prohibitive, particularly for indie projects, he sometimes fears what he refers to as a “downward spiral” into a world where records are made with nothing but digital samples. Hope, he argues, is where the heart is.

“The heartbeat of music still has to come from hearts, and the robotization of the economy isn’t right for every industry, least of all music.”

Revaluating The Role of Humans

Because strings are often left to the end of the process, Gorfain notes that the budget for strings is often depleted or gone entirely by the time he’s approached and he finds himself having to remind the client just what they’re paying for.

“First,” Gorfain laughs, “their lack of budget is not my problem, and second, I’ve got rent to pay. So I think it’s essential to revaluate the human role in that process and you just have to say ‘This is what I’m worth.’ In my own case, hopefully my reputation will mean something to somebody, and of course, once we get into the studio, producers and artists can clearly hear what we’ve brought to it. And if they want this, they have to pay for it. Whether you’re buying a suitcase or a turntable, or hiring a plumber, you get what you pay for and my performances, and those of my colleagues, have value. And some producers will try to get around paying for quality or getting the players for free or very little because they sense weakness in the pool. Also in the field of music for film, I’ve seen certain film people pay every last grip full union rates but with their composers they put in contract stipulations that they will not hire union musicians. These are contracts with major corporations, so that really irks me.”

Rehumanize Yourself

Meanwhile in Toronto, Award-winning music producer and engineer Michael Phillip Wojewoda sees an encouraging trend toward humanization, almost as a direct reaction to a generation from roughly 2000 to 2010, when Pro-Tools or similar software based recording systems allowed musicians so much editing and trickery that their precision timing and tuning was becoming impaired. But according to Wojewoda, a new breed of players is taking the time to master their instruments, after years of being able to fake it on computers.

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Michael Phillip Wojewoda

“They’d make these records that sounded really great, but when they played a live show it would be disappointing, and the audience wouldn’t be moved, even if they couldn’t tell why. But what’s been happening lately, since the recording itself has become just another piece of merch to be sold alongside posters and T shirts, is that live performance has become more and more of a staple of this newer generation of bands. I’m finding a great wave of fantastic new players who really immerse themselves in all aspects of really playing their instruments. The idea that you really need to be able to pull it off live has returned with a vengeance and I find that exciting.”

Additionally, Wojewoda has been tasked with producing a series of commissioned recordings, for a new Toronto studio called Revolution Recording, aimed at re-introducing clients to the human factor. The studio hopes that their emerging clients will be more likely to pay for the added value once they know what they can achieve in a big studio.

Revolution Recording Studio

The Revolution Will Be Humanized

“Many of these younger players have never worked in proper studios,” says Wojewoda. “People will come up and ask ‘What kinds of drum sounds can you get? What kinds of string sounds or guitar sounds can you get?’ Traditionally studios would refer to well-known albums that came out their studio, but Revolution wanted to isolate various custom recorded sounds from their facility, and create a catalog of disembodied examples of what the studio is capable to create using this old classic recording equipment and this beautiful acoustically designed space.”

Capturing The Living Performance

Tanya Coghlan is the Studio Manager at Revolution Recording, who opened their doors in June 2011, after two years of design and construction. She says that their audio library, while still under construction, will eventually consist of performance samples recorded in their various rooms, of as many types of instruments and styles of music as possible. The idea was to allow less studio-familiar clients to hear how their room and equipment react to different instruments and musical styles. And she echoes Wojewoda comments about the new breed of client.

“We designed the studio to be able to set up a full band and have them record live and feel great while doing it,” say Coghlan. “It seems that a lot of the young bands today have a strong emphasis on live performance but when it comes to recording, DIY with a laptop at home really doesn’t capture what they do. We do a lot of live to two-track sessions so that bands can experience what it’s like to perform as a unit in the studio. It’s always a real eye opener for people, especially those that have only ever experienced small studio computer recording where you tend to do everything piecemeal. A computer can fix a lot of things but it can’t compensate for a lack of performance energy. It takes a lot of time to build a performance from the ground up that feels as good as a great band take where every instrument is being captured together.

Image: Flickr user David Swift

Go Human: You Get What You Pay For

Still, as a recording studio veteran, Wojewoda admits he finds it remarkable that younger producers and artists would need to be educated before taking the economic plunge in a “proper studio.”

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“I think of it as a very odd marketing tool,” says Wojewoda, “but I think it’s a good response to these younger musicians who have tried, and maybe failed, to get these classic kinds of sounds in their basements. It’s probably not necessary to anyone of my vintage, but it is needed to convince these people to spend the most that they could spend on a recording, and to understand the value of what they’re paying for.”