The Trouble With Pro Tools

I think I officially gave up on the music biz as I knew it about a year ago. I'd been hired to play guitar on the recording of a very successful artist's CD. This artist's prior CD had done very well, selling in excess of millions. Being asked to participate in the follow up was an honor to say the least. Not just because of the predecessor's stellar sales, but because the other people involved in the new record, namely the producer, engineer and other musicians, were among the best in the industry. I arrived at the studio the first day of tracking, full of excitement at the prospect of making music. I made sure to be there with plenty of time to be set up and ready to go when the down beat came. The other musicians were also arriving when I got there. After saying our hellos, we all loaded our gear into the live room and made small talk while getting ready. I finished setting up with plenty of time before our 11 a.m start, so I double checked my equipment, and mentally prepared myself for an intense and exciting day. At 11 a.m, the artist still hadn't arrived. No worries, the artist reserves the right to show up late (or not at all as the case is sometimes). As long as I'm being paid for my time, I'm okay. Around noon, the artist ambled in and after the requisite introductions, we all jumped into action learning the new songs. I was thrilled we had begun and was really enjoying listening to these fantastic new tunes. What a privilege! The process lasted about an hour, after which a song was chosen from the batch to start our maiden voyage. Hooray! It was decided that a drum loop would be made first. We had one of the best drummers in the world on the session, so he and the producer set out to make a loop out of his performance on an exotic percussion instrument. Cool, I thought, this will sound great and shouldn't take long. Several hours later, the desired effect still hadn't been achieved. Problem was, it didn't jive so well with the programmed drums on the demo. Moving on, they brought in the bass player to overdub on said demo, which had now been dumped into Pro Tools. He picked up his bass, played a few takes and that was that. Then, I was asked to add some guitar. Now we're cooking! I thought happily. I picked up my axe, and the producer, artist and I discussed some different ideas and approaches. After agreeing on the direction they wanted to go in, I played a few passes. Seemingly, the producer was satisfied. Then he proceeded to "correct" my performance with a plug-in. Now, I'm a pretty humble guy when it comes to record making. I'm there to do whatever is needed, and I'm the first to admit when something I played isn't happening. But it was puzzling they wanted to alter this particular performance, because to me, and to other people in the room, it sounded... good. When I asked the producer about it, he said something like- "Your performance was 95% perfect. This new plug-in will take care of that last 5%." I thought the whole reason you hired musicians was because of that missing 5%, for the "X" factor, as we sometimes call it. Most of us prize the X factor because it contains, dare I say it... Humanness. However, it started to become apparent that for this particular project, the X factor was not as highly prized as I'd thought. (BTW, In case you're wondering, the bass player and drummer were also treated to the X factor reduction, so it wasn't personal!) Anyway, that was all the recording I did that day... About 45 minutes worth. I hung around the studio for another few hours until the producer sent us all home. Day two was more of the same, except this time, I didn't play at all, and neither did the bass player or drummer. The producer had just bought a new plug-in and decided to explore it's use on the song we were doing. I get it, it's all about the music and what it needs, and like I said, as long as you pay me, I'm good. Day three, just like day two, except I started to feel silly getting paid to do basically nothing. At the end of the day, the producer must of felt silly too, because he took me aside and as gently as possible, explained the direction of the record had changed and I was no longer needed... Ouch! (A few days later the bass player and drummer got let go as well.) But hey, I got paid, and the producer honored me as best he could while putting the artist's needs first. Not an easy position to be in for sure. So, no hard feelings on my part. What was the new direction that record went in, you ask? Basically, it ended up being more software than human driven. Flash forward to a few months ago... I'm in Tokyo rehearsing with a Japanese artist. I go to the Men's room to take a leak. Rehearsals were long, so I was a regular visitor to that little grey tiled room. Usually, the bathroom speakers softly pipe in some saccharine J-pop or the occasional American smash from J wave radio, and I tune it out as I'm doing my business. I mean, how many times in a day can you hear "Womanizer" before you start to lose your mind?? About five times, actually... But on this day something was different, the song playing sounded sort of familiar. I cocked my ear towards the tiny speakers in the ceiling and listened more carefully. Lo and behold it was one of the songs from that other artist! I remembered the tune well. I remember charting it, pencil and yellow legal pad in my grubby hands, furiously scribbling down chord changes in the control room while the artist played it for us. It was a thrill to hear the song completed after all that time. It was finished, and on the radio! Wow! The production was rock solid, but to be honest, sonically it sounded similar to a-lot of songs out there now. Which isn't to say bad. Actually, it was quite good... Just not so much my thing. I guess I'm too old school, because in my mind, I could almost see those multi colored audio waveforms scrolling by on the computer screen as the song played. I felt a twinge of sadness when it ended. I wondered, what might it have sounded like if the bass player, drummer and I had all played on it, together at the same time? You know, looking into each other's eyes, inter-dependent, knowing we all had to work seamlessly as a group to create something magical?? I know at least one urinating guitar player that would've loved it! I'm not pretending we don't live in the age we do. I know better than most the old regime is DEAD. I have to live with that truth and it's consequences every day like so many of my bewildered peers. I accept that. This new regime has changed the game entirely. I accept that too. But it doesn't mean I like it! Flash forward to now. I have ZERO interest in making records in this "contemporary" software reliant style. Why? Because the very thing this modern recording technology set out to do (make music easier to create) has actually made it harder! Guess what kids, there's no more spontaneity in recorded music anymore. In the "old" days, you showed up for a session, the engineer got the sounds, then the band played the song... TOGETHER!! If you happened to be listening in the control room and stepped out to grab a smoke, chances were by the time you came back the bulk of the song was finished! And most importantly, because editing on tape was limited, the musicians had to be able to really PLAY their instruments... Well! Seems like every time I'm on a session now, hours are wasted as the musicians take a seat while the engineer "corrects" their performances. When did we all become so inferior? These days, if it's not the timing, it's the intonation. If it's not the intonation, then the timbre of the guitar is wrong, or the snare drum needs to be replaced... And don't even get me started on vocals! When a peer tells me they spent hours and hours editing a vocal, do you know what that means? The singer can't sing! Or to put a finer point on it, that "singer" ain't no singer! Back in the day, the guitar player would just plug into a different amp, or the drummer would simply put up another snare. Now it's hurry up and wait as the engineer and producer muse over what kind of virtual amp and/or drum samples should replace what someone played. Of course, most "engineers" these days are just musicians who bought some Pro Tools software and a laptop, and after reading a few recording articles on the web think they're f-ing Al Schmitt... Years back, editing, (especially cut and paste style editing) was a pain in the ass (not to mention costly), and used only AS A LAST RESORT. You know, like a defibrillator on some unfortunate soul when they suffer a heart attack! Cut and paste was never meant to replace PLAYING the song! That is, unless you were just plain lazy, or going for an effect, i.e like a fake, sterile un-human kinda thing. In those glorious "old" days, the singer had to sing in tune. Heck, the singer had to be able to SING!! Even singers that couldn't really sing had to squeeze out something real to make you believe them. The drummer had to groove and keep time... I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. Or maybe you don't if you're too young to know what I'm talking about... This morning I was driving from a coffee shop back to my house. I turned on the radio to listen to NPR (talk). I accidentally punched in a station that was playing music. I immediately turned the volume down. I literally feel assaulted listening to modern music now. The mixes are usually compressed to the point of making the recording dynamic-less, which not only takes away one of the most powerful of musical devices, but also fatigues the ear to the point of serious hearing damage over time. However, something was different about the song that was playing. It was good!! What made it good? It made me feel something. It drew me in. I was attracted to it. Cautiously I turned up the radio a hair. Not a bad song at all. Good chord progression, interesting singer. But there was something more than that pulling me in. The drummer was great, (sure his time was a little shaky), but he was all heart. The guitar player was picking a humble but earnest arpeggiated ostinato. The transients on the drums themselves were pleasing. The way the stick hit the snare was nice and squashy, but not crushed. There was plenty of breathing room in the track. The singer was even slightly out of tune at times... Delightful!! These were REAL HUMAN BEINGS playing this song!! Fantastic!! I drank it up, my soul felt nourished. I had to pull over and listen to the whole song. As the rest of the track unfurled I thought about life, the good and bad of it. I thought about the people I love, and have loved, and those I used to know but no longer do. Oh yes, THIS is why art is important. My day had suddenly gotten brighter. When the song finished, I got back on the road and drove home, feeling more than just a little better about the world. Who was this magical band? Turns out it was an old R.E.M. song, and I drew the conclusion I've drawn often these last few years; I love records made on tape, AND I HATE MUSIC MADE ENTIRELY ON COMPUTERS!! In fact, the more involved the computer is in making the music, the more I hate it!! Just imagine if ALL bands today had to record exclusively to tape!! How f-ing HILARIOUS would that be?? I guarantee you at least HALF of 'em wouldn't be able to do it!! Remember folks, Dark Side of the Moon, Songs in the Key of Life, Sgt. Peppers and SO MANY MORE amazing masterpieces were all done to tape!! Not Pro Tools!! Now I don't blame Pro Tools per se. It gave the cash strapped underdog a chance to compete with giants. It's been a true game changer. One that helped spear head the implosion of the once mighty fascist record company evil empire. And after all... It's just a software program... You know, like, guns don't kill people, people do?? But bottom line? it's made a-lot of people lazy. Worst, it's distorted the way we perceive right and wrong when recording music. Being a starving artist on a budget is one thing. But if you have access to really great musicians, and the budget to hire them to record in a real studio, Why are people depending on computer programs to do the bulk of the work? How much time does it really save? Is it really superior? Because to those of us who know better (and there's more of us out there than you think), most of the records made this way today kinda sound like shit. Not to mention most new songs suck too (which is a whole other problem that must be addressed separately!) I'm not saying throw the baby out with the bath water. I'm saying it's gone too far in one direction. It's too software and computer reliant. I'm asking my fellows to consider swinging in the other direction a little. You know, get a real drummer to play it in one or two takes instead of you programming fake drums and spending days trying to make it sound like... A real drummer! Or how about making the singer sing their heart out instead of having them sing it down once or twice without really trying and then you spend the next three days "editing" their performance to achieve a crappy and fake comp. These are just suggestions, I'm sure you could come up with some ideas of your own... And BTW, I welcome opinions on this. Maybe you think I'm nuts. Maybe you love the way records are made today. Alright. Defend your case. Who knows... Maybe you can help me feel better about it! Lastly, if I could give the youngsters any useful (but highly subversive) advice, it would be this- Practice the hell out of your musical craft, and when you're good and ready, go into a proper recording studio and make an amazing record, to tape... If you dare!! Oh yeah, and whatever you do... Don't go back to Rockville!

1 comment

  • Randy Chiurazzi
    Randy Chiurazzi
    yes, yes, yes! That is what draws me to those REM songs! I will try the tape thing-if I can find it! Even in my favorite experimental music, the artist has rigged the manipulators so that they can give and take in a "human" way. Fucking with digital signals can be fun, but, the art is in processing it through a human "filter".

    yes, yes, yes! That is what draws me to those REM songs! I will try the tape thing-if I can find it! Even in my favorite experimental music, the artist has rigged the manipulators so that they can give and take in a "human" way. Fucking with digital signals can be fun, but, the art is in processing it through a human "filter".

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