More than ever, the world is rapidly changing. Somewhere -- probably in a college dorm room -- the next Mark Zuckerberg is creating a better iteration of Facebook, a more efficient GPS system, and a TV with an even clearer picture than that of the best HD-TV in stores now. “Convenience is king” is a profoundly accurate axiom in the service industry.
In music, however, the use of similar technological advancements engenders a fervent debate that pits perfection against authenticity; musicians must decide which quality is more tractable. The discussion surrounding this polemical topic peaked after Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters launched a harangue denouncing the growing infiltration of technology into the recording studio while accepting the award for Best Rock Album at this year's GRAMMY Awards back in February.
“For me, this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of making rock is the most important,” Grohl said in his speech. “Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning your craft is the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect. It’s not about sounding correct. It’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in [your heart] and what goes on in [your head].”
There’s certainly a cogent argument to be made in support of Grohl's point. After all, art is not necessarily meant to sound infallible. While enhancements in the studio nullify many of the hindrances that have frustrated artists in the past, the pursuit of a great album meshes with the intricacies we associate with different musicians. Furthermore, the more enhancements an artist uses, the more problems that arise during attempts at replication in a live setting.
“Especially now that people deal with Pro Tools, they make the grid of a song, basically, and then play it a hundred times and take the perfect snare hit and perfect vocal take and assemble it that way,” Ben Maddox, guitarist and lead singer of the band Hundred Visions, said before their show with Archers of Loaf at Central Square’s The Middle East on Friday night. “When you cut a grid where every kick is as loud as it could possibly be and every snare hit is in the perfect spot, it doesn't sound like a person. It sounds like a synthesizer. It is like an assembly line. I've never really liked recordings that have been made that way.”
Hundred Visions' first record is due out this fall, but they released a three-song EP to offer audiences a preview before embarking on tour this spring. And although Maddox and the rest of the Austin-based band were apprehensive in totally agreeing with Grohl's sentiments during our conversation, just one listen to that recorded material gives insight into their opinions (or at least their preference). Overall, Hundred Visions’ sound is best described as abrasive. The lo-fi recording style is evident in the scratchy guitar work, vocals rife with reverberation, and aggressive backdrop provided by the drums.
“The drums and guitars are recorded pretty hot,” Maddox said. “The level of the instruments is pretty high in comparison to other recordings, so it yields a distorted sound. I feel like the production choices are based on the way we wanted it to sound in the practice space and in the garage. We wanted it to translate to the record.”
The translation Maddox is referring to goes back to the original quagmire between the authenticity and flawlessness of sound. When artists rely on technology, the difference in sound tends to manifest itself on stage. It’s a common misconception that this dilemma is limited to pop music and rap -- specifically those who unabashedly AutoTune their vocals -- but when I spoke with punk rock band Say Anything’s Max Bemis earlier this month, he said that while recording many of his past albums, he would go as far as to correct not just lines in songs, but words as well.
“Maybe it's just an excuse to not nail it,” Maddox said jokingly. “We enjoy those imperfections. It sounds like a band playing in a room.”
That joke brings up a point in Grohl’s tirade that often gets lost: the idea of perfecting a craft. In some circumstances, the advent of programs like Pro Tools may obviate that critical step in becoming a celebrated band.
The ethos of rock music revolves around the stigma of revolution and progression, but what happens when progression reaches the point where sonic exactness is feasible? The irony, of course, is that in 10 years, a band who can boast that they’re great in concert may be worth more than one that’s won even numerous awards for recorded material.
About Ryan -- Ryan Hadfield is a writer for WEEI.com, predominantly covering the Boston Celtics and hosting a media podcast. He is currently working on his first book, The 25th Year: 12 Months of Suspect Choices and Strange Events. Follow him on Twitter @R_Hadfield.
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