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Separating Product from Process

January 7, 2009

Some time ago I wrote, "Enjoy the boxes that make the music, but don't lose sight of the music... and don't disrespect the music because of how it's made. As a case in point, just last night a very good friend of mine had to eat his words when he adored a composition by someone who was using gear he didn't approve of... but that's a topic for another blog." Welcome to said other blog.

The process of making a piece of music and the product that results from that process are intertwined, but they don't have to be joined at the hip. It is possible to hear music you love, produced with gear you hate (or think you hate), just as it is possible to hear music you hate, produced with gear you love. More importantly, it is possible for your idea of what constitutes a "good" or "bad" recording equipment setup—or, more dangerously, a "good" or "bad" recording process or mindset—to be at odds with the results of that process. One of the wonderful things about this business of recording our music is that we are constantly surprised, and the surprises aren't always nasty ones.

The example in question was a set of songs I was playing on my Internet Radio show one Sunday night, celebrating the return to active airplay of an artist known as Gareth Lancaster a.k.a. Pamplemousse (see my accompanying blog entry). The cool thing about Internet Radio shows like mine is that many of them have an accompanying chat room, where listeners can compare notes about the music being played.

That night, one of the people in the chat room was John DuVal, a gentleman who's written for us in the past and will again in the future, a tasteful guitarist, excellent composer, and self-admitted curmudgeon of the first order. John styles himself a knuckle-dragging Luddite, but in his case it's not a matter of what he can't do (he's perfectly capable of working with music computers and does so when he has to) but what he doesn't like to do (he hates computers as part of the music-making process). John's an old-school analog gear user, and it's a common theme in his discussions of music how much he dislikes computer-generated tracks. But he was a gentleman and bowed in concession to the brilliance of Gareth's music, even after he learned that it was entirely done on a computer. He separated the product from the process.

To assume music is no good because it was produced in a way that was "no good" is dangerous. To assume music is good because it was produced in a "good" environment with "good" equipment by "good" engineers is even more dangerous. The major labels, even as they cry out in the agony of plummeting CD sales, still manage to churn out a fair number of impeccably produced crappy records every month... apparently people don't listen to resumes or liner notes any more, and are actually insisting on good music to listen to these days. Tsk. What are we coming to?

The purpose of learning to record music well is to ultimately serve the purpose of recording good music. Bad music recorded well is still bad music; good music recorded poorly is still good music, but may be harder for listeners to appreciate as good; and good music recorded well is not only our ideal, but actually an ideal that's within our reach. Hence this magazine and its goal of guiding good process toward good product. Let's face it, this whole argument goes away when both the way in which music was captured, and the music itself, combine in a constructive manner, right? 

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