A few years ago, I commented in this very column that, despite advances in recording technology, many of our readers still seemed to want to create records that sounded like the hits of the '60s and '70s. If that's for your own amusement fine, but other than the resurgence in classic blues fuelled by the likes of Joe Bonamassa, today's records sound very different to those from half a century back. And if you're going to produce records that sell, you have to accept that, along with everything else around us, music evolves, and in accordance with Darwinian doctrine, only the strongest survive.
That's not to say that we didn't have records made to a very high standard back in the day. Recording technology may have improved and we have far more tools now to allow us to fix the unfixable, but the biggest differences are really in musical fashion, not least the metronomic perfection of songs produced to a click track. We can also record far more tracks than was ever possible with tape, and when these extra tracks are used wisely, it is possible to create amazingly intricate musical arrangements, drawing on both 'real' and software‑inspired sounds. On the other hand I get to hear many recordings that have been compromised because the composer hasn't known when to stop adding things, so it seems that no matter what the technology may offer, you still have to be able to make a musical judgement as to what a track needs and what it doesn't.
Having grown up with analogue tape, then digital tape, and then computers, I've witnessed the change from making decisions prior to hitting record, which you had to do in the days of tape, to leaving many of the choices until the last minute. Being able to change something later on in the mix can be a life‑saver if you run into problems, but at the same time, a well-crafted piece of music is one where the various sounds have been chosen to support both the parts being played and the way the various parts fit together. If you don't know pretty much what the sounds are going to be at the start of a session, how do you know how to best play the part? I know some people can work in this way, juggling sounds and changing effects throughout a project, but I've almost always had the best results when I've had a suitable palette of sounds to start with, even when composing electronic music.
Other than the influence of dance music on mainstream pop and a greater emphasis on strong bass lines, perhaps the biggest change between music now and music back then is that today we often aim for a much drier sound, especially vocals. Maybe that's because in the days when a good reverb unit cost about the same as a car, you wanted to get your money's worth out of it? Whatever the reason, we use a lot less reverb now, and on the whole I think that today's vocal sounds are all the better for it. Even so, I guess the main thing to keep in mind is that music is a creative art form and if the rules of modern production fit in with what you do, OK — but you also need to have the confidence to break the rules when your instincts tell you that's the right thing to do; that's how progress is made. And who knows, maybe big reverb will make a comeback!
Paul White Editor In Chief