The Joys and Sorrows of Digital Audio


There is strange poetry in working with digital audio day in and day out. Between the familiarity with the look of a sound (like how amazing a Fender Rhodes’ waveform appears) to developing odd relationships with time because of digital editing, I have to say that my interaction with music at large has been fundamentally altered by these digital dimensions. However, sometimes while striving for “perfection,” digital editing sits somewhere between boredom and madness.

Take Your Breath Away
I’ve been heavy in mixing land these days, finishing a complicated score for a feature documentary with a lot of recorded elements, from Pong sounds to sax quartet, jazz harp to the Turtle Island String Quartet. I have to watch myself because I keep reacting negatively to “extracurricular” string sounds, like bow noise, that should be loved on and not discriminated against. These sounds, perhaps no different than Glenn Gould humming along in the Goldbergs or Yo-Yo Ma’s inhalations in the Dvorak, give recorded music the guarantee of organic, living, breathing, DNA attached to notes. In these “bonus” sounds we glean originality and interpretation.

(Speaking of breathing: Nothing makes for some good, old-fashioned sonic anxiety more than removing all traces of the breathing sounds in vocals. The singer takes on super-human powers, defying oxygen and singing, breathless, phrase after phrase. In fact there is a plug-in called DeBreath made by Waves, which is advertised to “Take Your Breath Away.”)

Time Machine
When you are manipulating music in zeros and ones, time can become very malleable. Music from one section easily slides into an earlier point, a performance is “fixed” and the listener (hopefully) never perceives a time-tinkering.

I think often of crab canons and other contrapuntal feats when planning out music that will be ultimately experienced in a processed way. While you’re recording, you are thinking in retrograde, thinking through the lens of digital processing, creating sounds that will be heard thoroughly manipulated. Recording music in this way can be a real mind bender, but it’s deeply exciting.

I recently scored a short film that included a fleeting moment of magic realism, as a funeral procession crossed paths with the protagonist in the woods. I scored this section with a hyper-slowed down rag-tag band that was clearly manipulated and out-of-time. I think it really framed the clip into an Antonioni-esque surreal vision, out of the world of the narrative unfolding.

(By the way, I’d like to cast my vote that in this world of backwards time, could someone please beam back to 1966 and rescore the end of The Blowup, when the mimes play tennis with Jeux?)

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

A short final thought—What’s up with the autotune fad? This pitch vocoder effect is now in virtually every track that my 12-year-old niece listens to. There was an article in TIME last year that wonderfully referred to this effect as, “a chorus of ’50s robots singing Motown.” So who is going to write a string quartet with autotune? Maybe that’s the secret to getting new chamber music on Kiss FM.

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