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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published June 2017

Automation is a double-edged sword...

If you were to peer into a studio control room in the early ’70s, you might have seen what looked like a musical version of the game Twister taking place. Three or four people would be leaning over the console and each other, hands and fingers on faders and knobs, waiting for their cues during a pass at a mix, each with one or more critical roles in an audio ballet that was sometimes as physical as it was exciting.

Those were the days before console automation. By the mid-’70s, however, Allison, Neve, API and a growing number of other console manufacturers and independent developers were bringing first VCA, then moving-fader and snapshot-recall automation formats to the market. They weren’t doing it just because they could, but rather for a very practical reason: they were responding to users facing larger track counts from recently introduced 24-track decks. If they only knew what was coming, they would have just curled up into a fetal position and been done with it.

Off The RecordJust as some religious philosophies will assert that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, technology seems ready to provide solutions to whatever problems it creates. That brings us to the next precipice, one that will have profound implications for any in music production: Automation 2.0.

Remotely Interesting

Automation’s effects appear everywhere in audio production now. Remote control over mic preamps is now a fairly common function and one that keeps getting better as audio moves further onto digital networks that combine control-data signals along with audio itself. The expanded need for remote control can be largely traced to the live-music side of audio, as shows became bigger and more complex and cable runs became longer and longer, but the idea works just as effectively for a recording engineer on the other side of the glass 15 feet away as it does for the FOH mixer 150 feet from the stage.

More recently, that same live-sound mixer is the one who first benefited from putting most of the console’s mission-critical controls on an iPad, allowing him or her to roam the venue during soundcheck, no longer reliant on an assistant’s ears to determine if there was a bass bump in the balcony. That is, when they’re not using an automixer, using frequency- and level-based cues, to handle parts of the mix. It also means that fewer people can manage a bigger, more complex production.

Over in sports broadcasting, those audio assistants are also disappearing. The major sports networks, notably ESPN, are increasingly turning to what’s come to be known as the “at-home” or REMI (remote integration) production model: deploy as few assets (human and otherwise) in the field as possible; utilise as much automation as possible, such as remote PTZ cameras and microphones programmed to respond to certain cues; and then do the actual broadcast mix from a studio back in New York or LA, using employees who would have been in the studio anyway.

For better or for worse, automation is fostering economically driven productivity solutions. As we’ve noted in the past in this column, the massive proliferation of content has created a need for more efficient approaches to mixing and mastering. The market has responded. Services such as MixGenius’s LANDR algorithm can churn out tracks putatively mastered/optimised for streaming using algorithms that apply compression and equalisation based on key data points in the track itself and the environments it will pass through. They can do so for a few dollars a song, because once you’ve established the process, using AI and machine learning, it can be fully automated. How artistically well they do it is open to debate, but what’s not debatable is that they exist in response to the needs of a changed market.

The Canary In The Coalmine

These productivity-boosting tactics are eliminating a lot of the grunt work in audio production. Propelled by the need to squeeze more revenue out of media productions, automation, apps and artificial intelligence are becoming ever more important in scenarios ranging from Premier League broadcasts to music recordings.

On one hand, that might be great — it’s harder then ever to eke out a living in music production now, and anything that boosts efficiency ought to be welcome. But the longer-term implications are a bit more dire. As any recent graduate of one of the many, many audio academies can attest, the number of entry-level vacancies in commercial and traditional production environments has not kept up with the graduation rates. Even allowing for a majority of them to go right from cap and gown to a spare bedroom with a laptop and a pair of speakers, not only were there never enough starter positions available for those who did want to jump into the deep end of the pool straight away, but the number of those potential entry positions is now declining, as automation and other forces grow ascendant. By its nature, automation targets the most basic functions first, but those are also the functions performed by an industry’s novices. And without entry-level opportunities, where does the next generation of music producers come from? Many of you reading these words will remember 18-hour sessions at the beck and call of engineers, musicians and producers, all for minimum wage, if that; and you would not have traded that experience for anything. It made you who you are today. Imagine yourself without that experience.

Those on the first rungs of this industry’s ladders will be the most vulnerable — peruse the listings of some larger gig-economy platforms, like Task Rabbit and Fiverr, where a seemingly endless line of aspirants will offer to mix or master your tracks for $5 (and up). Uber for music production is already here.

Arguing with the economics is futile. What can be done is to make the mental adjustments necessary to incorporate the inevitability of relentless automation into future career strategies. The romance has been leaking out of the music balloon for decades now, thanks to increasing complexity, but that still doesn’t stop people from wanting to do it. Anticipate where automation is headed and look for ways to live with it.