About a year ago I was introduced to a documentary by legendary Foo Fighter & Nirvana rocker Dave Grohl. The documentary was, “Sound City” and it was a mind-blowing collection of stories and an eye-opening reminder of where our music is today as compared to 30 or 40 years ago. If you are under the age of 40 this is a MUST WATCH as we have been eyeball deep in the digital age for nearly 25 years and much of what was, is just a distant memory to some, and is non-existent to others. If you have not seen this yet please watch the Official “Sound City” Trailer here…

Unlike today, most people did not have recording capabilities in their own home 25 plus years ago. That’s right, you had to go to the studio, with an engineer and record to TAPE. Which meant you had to have your shit together and do things the right way unless you wanted to blow a hole in your pocket. There was no linear editing on a computer, no copying and pasting and no quick fixes or auto-tune to clean you up. This was organic and raw— but the feeling and emotional elements that came out of something so organic were amazing. Truly, the songs that have stood the test of time and probably always will were not pieced together on a computer. Case in point:  (Recorded at Sound City Studios)

             My son checkin’ the mic for me..

Fast-forward to today. I sit at home in the evening fiddling around with a melody and some chords that have been in my head. A brilliant song comes to me! I pull up Cubase, open up some tracks, lay down some chords on the keyboard (yea, I played it a little sloppy) but I can just QUANTIZE IT and then fix some bad notes in the midi editor. No problem. I usually always have my condenser mic set up as I do a lot of voice over work, pretty much on a daily basis. I turn on the phantom power on my pre-amp, test my mic levels and lay down my melodic idea. But wait! I have the perfect drum loop for this!! I pull open some loops and input something that gets the idea across. I’ve got my song idea laid down for further production in an hour! Amazing! Sounds great right? And for me it is! I’ve been given direct access to do the things I love in my own home and then collaborate with others across the country!

Listen to the music on the radio and on the top 40 charts. Whether you know it or not, or even care, most of these songs have been sliced and diced and tuned to absolute perfection. No human on his or her best day could ever duplicate this studio mix live, because well, 50% of it has been fine tweaked by the computer. Although it’s not immediately apparent to the general public, to a trained ear there does seem to be an alien-like/robotic-like tone to auto-tuned vocals, and it really makes me cringe. Why? Because it doesn’t sound like an honest to goodness flesh and blood human being! And no I’m not referring to T-Pain or Kanye West who use this, ahem… “Interesting” element as a vocal effect. I’m talking about when you watch “Glee” or when you watch the movie “Rock of Ages” or when you watch the “Pitch Perfect” movies, or listen to the majority of the Top 40 artists on the radio. Perhaps it doesn’t bother you but it makes my skin crawl! Here is an example: 

This goes for instrumentation as well, the “live” feeling is gone, as there is no push and pull with tempo or emotion of the playing. It’s safe to say, I’ve “lost that loving feeling” for the music of today. I always have and always will be inspired by Pat Banetar (yes, another Sound City grad), Foreigner (and another!), Journey and U2. All of which incorporate an “earthy”, true to the sound element. Hell, what about The Roots??? Come on people, this down to earth stuff. Perhaps, it’s my age or my experience, but it is a disturbing thought that some people think this is what music is. Music is supposed to make you FEEL, and without putting a FEELING into a recording you cannot express a FEELING to a listener. Much of the feel comes from IMPERFECTION—that’s right, a growl or a crack the voice, or a slightly imperfect vocal can give a song its style—and is relatable because nobody is perfect. This being said, although I find much top 40-radio material catchy, it’s fleeting.

To further dive into this issue I made a phone call to a long time friend Dan Brenner, who happens to be a former band mate, writing partner, amazing drummer and vocalist as well as a High School Jazz Teacher and quarterfinalists for GRAMMY Foundation Music Educator Award. He is a massive Chicago fan and informed me about a recording technique I was relatively familiar with to a point. It’s the use of drum replacement. Mid 80’s this technique started to catch on (due to the advancement in digital technology which is also covered in the Sound City documentary). When using drum replacement, the producer of the track can simply replace any or all of the drumming with drum samples of their liking. It sounds real because it’s samples of REAL drums but it is almost too perfect. You can learn a little bit more about drum replacement here: Drum Replacement: The Dirty Little Secret that Changed Rock. My buddy Dan also mentioned a story about the legendary band Chicago that I wanted to share. Obviously, I did some digging to find a 1994 interview with Danny Seraphine, original drummer and co-founder of Chicago to authenticate his claims. Below is an exerpt from the interview..

JD: The last few albums you were on with Chicago, the drumming got more and more computer-oriented.

DS: Yeah. Absolutely. At first I really, really fought it. I hated it. And then, what happened was, whenever there was any programming done–none was done on 16, 16 was all live drums–but 17…I was one of those guys that really, really tried to stay away from anything to do with drum machines. Hated ‘em. In those days, it really put the drummer in a very subservient position. People started really bashing drummers, you know? Keyboard players, especially. It was terrible. “We’ve got a machine now that’s gonna replace you guys and it doesn’t talk back, it keeps perfect time, and we can program it to play exactly what WE want.” You know what I’m saying? And then I started hearing all these records that were being programmed by what I could tell were keyboard players–non-drummers. You could just hear it. So I said to myself, “Well, you can fight it or you can learn it and take it to another level,” so I bought a SP-12, which at that time was the top drum machine. It was the only sampling drum machine. So I bought one, and we were off the road for quite awhile, so I just took it and learned it inside and out. And then I got myself this really extravagant MIDI setup, with pads, and a computer, and the whole shot, and in fact I just put my sticks down and started programming, because I thought, “Shit, if I want to hear better programming, then I better do it myself.” So the 17th album, I didn’t like some of the parts that were programmed off that 17, but it’s a great record. It wasn’t all programmed, but parts of it were. Now the 18th album, I think I programmed every note except for one ballad–I forget the name of the song–I overdubbed some drums” -10/21/94, Hofnet Communications, Inc, Read Full Interview Here

Granted, I’m friends with many great studio engineers and producers with a lot of mileage under their belts, and some amazing credits to their names. I’m sure they are all laughing at what I am saying right now…. “duh, we do this stuff all the time, it’s industry standard now.”

I suppose the question I am posing is, what is more important? Striving for absolute perfection in a recording? Or is it more important to have more humanistic elements that have feeling? After all, songs are written to make you feel an emotion. Does this pure perfection (that is simply unattainable live) make you feel the same kind of emotion? Or does it trick a generation of ears that know nothing about music into thinking that this is the standard, and then wonder why someone’s performance totally blew live or why they can’t personally sound like Arianna Grande when they sing? As a former vocal coach myself, I can attest to having students who have tried to learn to sing by duplicating the odd auto-tuned vocals of Britney Spears, including the computer generated vocal movements. By all accounts they were pretty good at duplicating this unusual effect. I however, was pretty disgusted with the fact they were learning technique off of something like that. Perhaps it is a matter of balance. I’m not a Top 40 artist but I do write, record and distribute my own material, and it is my own personal expectations that I use live instrumentation on most of my tracks. I however have used plenty of samples and loops as well. I have also made it a point to not have vocals tuned to the point of ridiculousness. I’m pretty sure most of us artists distributing material want slight perfection in our recordings. However, does this perfection take away from the song in the way it is perceived by the listener? What are your thoughts?

Do you think in the pursuit of recording perfection that we have lost the emotion and feel in our music?



Katie Robinette

Business Development & Mulitmedia Design at Talent Provider Network
She has been called "ubiquitous" and there could be no better word. Katie Robinette enjoys all aspects of the music business and likes to keep active in as many avenues as possible. This includes actively singing Jazz, Blues, & Mo-town to 80s Pop/Rock and Dance covers and actively works behind the scenes in the industry with the Talent Provider Network.

During the boy band era she sang and danced her way in front of Universal and Virgin Record Execs and performed in front of thousands for the famed Showtime at The Apollo.

Meanwhile, Katie discovered another love; the love of writing music. Katie attended the famed Musician Institute in Hollywood, California for Commercial Recording and finished out her college years at York College of Pennsylvania with her Bachelors in Music Industry & Recording Technology all while improving her vocal chops with diverse and innovative training in the Classical, Jazz Blues & Pop arenas.

Katie has been a member of outstanding corporate bands and entertainment entities from Philly to LA and Dallas to Chicago.

She is currently working on writing, recording & producing her first full-length solo album.

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