You are here

Sounding Off: Chris Mayes-Wright

Imagine A World Without Undo... By Chris Mayes-Wright
Published March 2007

Apple-Z, control-Z, step backward, or just simply Undo is a feature that is ubiquitous in technology today, but taken for granted by us all. How has it changed the way we record? Has it made us complacent or less worried about getting it wrong? Can you even get it wrong these days? Or do we just use Undo as a safety net?

I think it's fair to say that Undo is a feature in every single piece of creative software available on the market today. It's also ever-present in digital hardware, such as hard disk and CD recorders, and it's not specific to music production, by any means — some digital cameras have an Undo function; I even found it on my mobile phone!

However, those of us who have been brought up in the so-called 'computer age' (like me) know little different. In fact I can't remember a time when I've not been able to correct a mistake I made, as most of the work I've done has been on computer. So far, I've used Undo three times when writing this piece.

This leads me to wonder whether the use of the Undo feature has changed music somehow. I know that, when I edit audio, I can rely on the Undo function to save me from certain peril. I must admit that this makes my approach to mixing somewhat casual, but certainly more experimental, as I know that a foul move or slip of the mouse can be followed by a single keystroke to restore the edit to its former state. But is this a bad thing?

Perhaps I should take a more responsible approach to all this, and back up at every stage of the project. After all, this is what would have happened (so I'm told) in days of yore, but quite frankly, I don't feel the need to do so at such regular frequency, because I have my best pal, Undo, under my left hand. (To redeem myself from a hail of criticism, I do back up my projects at the occasional milestone — but many don't.)

An added dimension is the Undo History concept, a function that often lurks near Undo under the edit menu. These days, it isn't uncommon to have unlimited Undo (MOTU's Digital Performer is an example), meaning that the levels of Undo go back to the start of your project. Depending on the software, an Undo History lists actions as basic as fader movements, along with things like plug-in parameter changes. This means that you can happily revert to any part of your project at any time, and it's particularly useful if, for example, you accidentally change the tempo and make several more changes to your project before realising you've done so (I remember that this was ridiculously simple in Cubase VST: merely hitting the plus or minus key on the keypad notched the tempo up or down by one beat per minute).

While we're on the topic, we mustn't forget Redo, Undo's arch enemy. Redo also hides under the edit menu (I often wonder whether Undo and Undo History gang-up on Redo when the edit menu is closed...) and can be used to great effect. The ability to carry out everything from a single action to a complex sequence of events, then Undo it, listen to what it was like previously, and re-apply the exact same sequence of events, is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal in a modern DAW. This ability to A/B practically any conceivable edit using a single mouse-click or keyboard shortcut was unimaginable in the early days of recording. I imagine all seven edits in The Beatles' 'She Loves You' would have been much smoother had there been an Undo function at Sir George Martin's fingertips. But would it have lost its charm?

And here's the crux. We revert to the analogue vs digital argument, where a human using a razor blade and splicing block, with only one chance to get it right, represents the unpredictable analogue domain, and a human using sample-accurate equipment coupled with an infinite number of chances to get it right (and a bit of trial and error) stands up for the sterile digital domain.

Try this: in your next project (providing it's not too critical, or you don't have your next record deal relying on it), make a concerted effort not to use the Undo or Redo commands, and see what happens. I know it would take me a while to get used to, but I reckon that in the end I'd slow down and concentrate more on the task in hand, take a more measured approach to songwriting and editing, and perhaps end up with more characterful results, instead of surgical cuts and precise automation curves. Don't take the powers of Undo for granted, and do what you know you should: back up! 

Published March 2007