In some ways, progress can be regarded as a good thing. Without the invention of the wheel, for example, we'd all be dragging things along the ground to get them from A to B; and although we wouldn't have the traffic congestion we have now, I think it's probably safe to say that the wheel was an OK step to take. If we now just skip the contributions of the Roman Empire, the Industrial Revolution and the invention of electricity, we eventually arrive at a time when music can be recorded onto tape, and given the cost benefits of mass production, progress delivered to us what we now know as home recording. It's hard to say when home recording really took off, but comparatively few musicians could afford to indulge in this activity until the '80s, so perhaps 1980 is as good a nominal date as any.
Back then, a studio comprised an eight-track recorder if you were lucky, a Teac open-reel four-track if you were a little less well off, and one of what was then a comparatively small range of suitable analogue mixers. Reverb came from a spring, delay from a tape-loop echo, and capacitor mics were only ever seen in professional studios. At the time, the whole business of recording seemed quite complicated, but looking back now, it was all so trivially easy. What's more, different makes of tape machine and mixer tended to operate in more or less the same way — if you could use one studio, you could use them all. And then along came progress, towing MIDI and computers along behind it...
Computers have opened up an entirely new world of recording: we have fantastic sequencers with plug-in effects and instruments, and it seems like we've never had it so good. However, the problem is that instead of progress getting a well-deserved pat on the back for doing such a great job and being sent on a nice long holiday, it's accelerating at such a rate that we're now in danger of getting caught up in the turbulence of its wake. By the time we've got used to one computer operating system, it's already obsolete. We embrace VST plug-ins, and then Mac OS X comes along and we're told that they all need to be recompiled — either that, or they'll be dropped altogether in favour of supporting the native audio capabilities of OS X via a completely new plug-in format.
Even the media we record onto change at such an alarming rate that there's genuine concern as to whether we'll even be able to find hardware to play back our archive recordings a decade from now. Just as CD-R looks like it's here to stay (at least for a respectable while), recordable DVD sticks its head through the window and proclaims itself the new standard. And while this is going on, the systems we use have become so diversified in features and layout that it's very rare for anyone to be able to operate any studio other than their own.
We never really get a chance to consolidate our approach to making music, because what's cutting-edge one year is abandoned the next in the constant frenzy to force-feed us with more progress. Before we've learned half the capabilities of a synth or a piece of software, it's been replaced, upgraded or discontinued. Everybody wants to create something new, but it seems nobody wants to maintain what's worthwhile anymore.
So is it any surprise that much of today's music is just as disposable as the equipment it's created on?
Paul White Editor