Throw away the rule book!
In the year of the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, it is worth remembering the impact the album had at the time, and its relevance to musicians, engineers and producers today. It is well documented that Sgt. Pepper was recorded on four-track tape machines at Abbey Road studios, with extensive use of bouncing to free up the multitrack for further instruments. 'A Day In The Life' even had the orchestra parts manually sync'ed on a separate tape machine.
Rather than hindering them, the limitations of the technology of the day had a galvanising effect on the Fab Four, particularly on John and Paul. And in George Martin and Geoff Emerick they had the perfect producer/engineer axis to realise their ideas.
It's remarkable, considering the aforementioned limitations and the four decades that have passed, that the recordings are technically excellent. If you listen to the recent Beatles Love album, the quality of 'A Day In The Life' is simply stunning, especially in the surround sound mix, which gives a greater degree of separation.
By comparison, little of today's music appears to push the technological boundaries in quite the same way. Admittedly, the standard of songwriting and playing is still high, but there is little released that produces that 'wow' factor or leads us to ask "How did they do that?"
Coupled with the fact that the mastering of CDs has resulted in a loudness war, much to the detriment of sound quality, we find ourselves in a situation where music is difficult to listen to for long periods.
A major challenge for artists is to produce a piece of work that is totally original. Every generation tries to make its mark by doing something different from the generation before. This obviously becomes increasingly difficult and may be the reason why today's music often sounds like an assortment of influences that you can easily discern.
The rate of change of technology has been both a boon and a curse for the recording musician. What you can achieve now with modest equipment could only be dreamt of 20 years ago. Computers are powerful enough to provide a seemingly unlimited number of audio tracks, and software developers have given us virtual effects and instruments that can produce almost any sound imaginable.
The down side to this is the lack of experimentation that it causes. If your computer can easily handle more than a hundred tracks, how do you learn how to plan ahead with a song, or when to stop adding to it? If all you have to do is click a button on a mouse to get the sound you require, where's the creativity in that?
The Scissor Sisters have proved that success can be achieved with modest equipment. Their debut album sold in excess of three million copies, yet it was recorded using a reasonably affordable computer-based setup. Whatever technological limitations they came up against, these didn't stop them from producing a wonderfully creative album.
When describing the 16-track tape recording process of his early career, producer Martin Rushent talks about limitations being a good thing. "You had to make decisions there and then, but the fact that the number of options was fairly restrictive was an extremely good thing for the creative process." [See the feature in SOS February 2007 and at www.soundonsound.com/sos/feb07/articles/martinrushent.htm .]
Perhaps it's time for us all to have a rethink in our approach to recording music: consider using less to increase creativity. How about, for one, song limiting yourself to 16 tracks, or even eight? Try restricting yourself to only using a couple of effects. Do you think you could do a song justice by only using any single instrument once? Let's try to challenge ourselves.
Around the time of the twentieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper, Paul McCartney remembered trying to change people's perceptions of what could be done: "EMI had very firm rules, which we always had to break. It wasn't a wilful arrogance; it was just that we felt we knew better. They'd say, 'Well our rule book says...' and we'd say, 'They're out of date, come on, let's move!' We were always forcing them into things they didn't want to do. We were always pushing ahead: 'Louder, further, longer, more, different.' I always wanted things to be different because we knew that people, generally, always want to move on. And if we hadn't pushed them, they would have stuck by their rule books."