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Does Creative Abuse Drive Developments in Record Production?

 

Andy Keep - Bath Spa University

 

Abstract


This paper considers the notion that developments in both the technology and many recognised production techniques in the field of recorded music are driven by the misuse of music technologies in practice, rather than the introduction of new technologies. The approach to tools and technology known as creative abuse involves more experimental techniques then that of ‘recommended use’. In the sound studio this could be through the desire to find that elusive sound or effect, but is more likely to be pure heuristic experimentation. The historical starting points for many widely recognised audio production equipment and techniques seems to have been informed or inspired by a wrong use of the technology of the day. Classic examples include the ingenious method of overdubbing on 2 track reel to reel machines, the thickening of solo instrument timbres using ‘flange’ or ‘phase’ techniques, and the use of distortion as a sound shaping tool.  Within the digital domain creative abuse aesthetics can now be seen to inform emerging software design, only for it to be wrongly used again by innovative users. This paper looks at a definition of creative abuse, and the possible rationales as to its use during record production. Through citing key historical examples we learn that many developments in record production have been driven by the urge to abuse its technology.

Introduction


This paper considers the notion that developments in both the technology and many recognised production techniques in the field of recorded music are driven by the misuse of music technologies in practice, rather than the introduction of new technologies. The approach to tools and technology known as creative abuse involves more experimental techniques then that of ‘recommended use’. In the sound studio this could be through the desire to find that elusive sound or effect, but is more likely to be pure heuristic experimentation. The historical starting points for many widely recognised audio production equipment and techniques seem to have been informed or inspired by a wrong use of technology of the day. Classic examples include the ingenious method of overdubbing on 2 track reel to reel machines, the thickening of solo instrument timbres using ‘flange’ or ‘phase’ techniques, and the use of distortion as a sound shaping tool.  Within the digital domain creative abuse aesthetics can now be seen to inform emerging software design, only for it to be wrongly used again by innovative users. This paper looks at a definition of creative abuse, and the possible rationales as to its use during record production. Through citing key historical examples we learn that many developments in record production have been driven by the urge to abuse its technology.

Defining Creative Abuse


Creative abuse within music making and its related technologies was evident long before this particular phrase was adopted. The terminology used to describe the practice is dependant upon both the historical and aesthetic context. Terms such as experimental, prepared instruments (Nyman 1999), wrong (Henritzi 2001), hardware hacking (Collins 2003), and edge boundaries (Nevile 2001), all appear to be descriptive of a conceptual approach to the use of technology. The inclusion of the entry creative abuse in the Electroacoustic Resources Site perhaps establishes it as a current umbrella term. The entry describes the approach as ‘using instruments, objects and/or digital protocols for use in manners that differ greatly form those known generally’ (Atkinson and Landy 2004). It is the deliberate use a piece of equipment beyond the manufacturers recommendations to look for unexpected timbres and behaviours through faults, flaws, or processing errors. This encompasses both a type of activity and an underlying aesthetic approach. In discussing early developments in record making producer George Massenburg’s comment that ‘the process of invention is non linear’ refers not just to non-linear editing and construction, but non linear approaches to the use of the technology itself (Daley 2004).

Influence or inspiration


The selection of key production examples listed below evidence that innovative or experienced record producers often seek personalised uses of sound processing and editing tools. This can be driven by one of two possible rationales. Either through the influence of, or reference to, non-mainstream techniques used in experimental or electronic art music, or through being inspired to explore beyond the boundaries of common practice, known techniques, and factory given presets.

One obvious point of reference or influence from art music is that of music concrete’. Almost the whole technical palette of tape editing and manipulating, developed by pioneers such as Pierre Scheaffer, were adapted into key record production techniques by producers like George Martin the late 1960’s. Most of the techniques have remained core practice in both hardware sampling and software audio editors. The shift to digital technologies was not in itself innovative, merely a change of platform. Originally, recognised production processes and tools were simply modelled in the digital domain. However, it did open the door for a new era of creative abuse due to additional and accessible editing parameters with extended ranges. Through their misuse in experimental contexts a whole new language of audible resultant artefacts has been exposed. When looking at recent trends in studio production, the influence from digital audio arts has extensively informed the broad stylistic umbrella of electronica, which now straddles an independent underground scene as well as mainstream international artists.

When considering the inspired exploratory approach to creative abuse we can look at further defining the rationale behind the activity. Within the field of live electronics organology spans everything that can be used in performance, from a cello to a series of relay switching units (Chadabe 1997). The activity of developing or processing a sonic image in a studio environment equally involves a responsive and interactive performance on an array of audio technology. When discussing the track mixing process Tony Maserati suggests that ‘you could ‘play’ the analogue console like an instrument’ (Daley 2004a). This can be seen as a form of applied improvisation, as defined by Smith and Dean. Pure improvisation consists of completely un-programmed events unfolding in front of a live audience, whereas applied improvisation does not normally occur in public. It is a step toward producing a work that will eventually be played to audiences, is not looking for the ‘right’ solution, and has a readiness to accept any possible outcomes (1997: 27).

Perhaps a more revealing model of exploration to use in the context of this paper would be that of distinguishing between an experimental and an improvisational approach. According to Alvin Lucier, experimental performance involves a reduction of self-expression in order to get at sonic phenomena, whereas improvisation brings personal choice and preferences into unfolding sounds and structures (Cox 2004). A further distinction could be made within improvisation along a continuum of exploratory and informed approaches. An exploratory approach would typically be heuristic (Prevost 1995, 2004), often led by unpredictable discoveries of intrinsic properties in the sonic media used. An informed approach would involve the use of practiced operational skills, perhaps a developed language, and an awareness of potential timbral nuances available in an ‘instrument’. Within a recording studio these innovative approaches occasionally result in sonic details or entire productions that seem to arrive out of nowhere, and can only be attributed to sheer inspirational moments by pioneering producers. The resulting production ideas may take a while to become adopted generally as professional practice, and often need endorsing by a key artist or producer. A good example of this can be found in the extensive use of digital artefacts in Bjork’s self produced 2001 ‘Vespertine’ CD release.

Documented examples


Listed below is a selection of examples that have all emerged from varying degrees of creative abuse. Most are specific techniques, or uses of equipment, that yield particular results. Some of these were slowly absorbed as accepted practice, whereas others have enabled paradigm shifts in equipment design and use. All have subsequently changed the sound of music production.

The first Spring Reverb unit was one of Joe Meek’s black boxes, and was originally fashioned from a broken fan heater in 1958. He processed ‘unknown’ sound sources in the spring reverb, including the knocking of the unit itself. The results were passed through a tape delay with excessive regeneration levels, creating sounds and textures, which added depth to productions (Cleveland 2001).

Joe Meek was also the first producer to press the ‘hottest possible levels’ to tape to exploit tape saturation as form of compression, and to use compressors to create pumping and breathing effects (Daley 2004b). These are still key practices today. The audible artefacts from over compression have become key signifiers in all contemporary dance music.

Tape machine abuse originated from the Scheaffer school of music concrete’ as early as 1948. Generally accepted techniques adopted into popular music production include:
•    Scrubbing to access audio on tape in a non-linear fashion.
•    Varispeed to change the speed and spectral content whilst recording or in playback. Within the digital domain mainstream applications such Ableton LIVE now offer extreme audio file playback techniques and parameters in comparison to tape varispeed. These include variable and independent speed, pitch, and vector parameters.  
•    Tape Delay is achieved by running a parallel signal through tape machine and monitoring off the ‘repro’ head. This was also commonly used to give pre-delay to plate reverb.
•    Tape loops. In commercial productions this was more specifically used as a method of making steady drum loops. The Bee Gees 1977 release ‘Night Fever’ was built upon just two bars of live drumming. With the machine running at 30ips the loop ran over 20 feet long around the control room (Buskin 2005).
•    Flanging is achieved by touching the flange of a tape reel on a parallel duplicate play-through machine, thus affecting the phase relationship. It was reportedly invented by Les Paul in the 1950’s, but only first ‘noticed by the public on The Small Faces 1966 hit ‘Itchycoo Park’’ (Owinski 1999: 43)
•    Overdubbing and multi-track tape recording. Until ‘the first four-channel tape recorders were introduced in 1958’, ‘the original form of [overdubbing] practice was achieved on single-track tape recorders by re-recording from one deck to another while adding in another live recording at the same time’ (Chanan 1995: 144). It is doubtful as to whether this practice, or the technique of forcing the tape machine into record part way through playback to enable overdubbing, was considered at the design and development stage of the machine.

Turntablism can also be seen to have its roots in the avant garde, although many modern techniques have been developed that are specific to Break Beat and DJ culture. Broughton and Brewster’s How to DJ publication documents and historically contextualises a catalogue of technical and physical abuse used on the Technics SL1210 turntable. They range from simple intervention of the rotating platter during playback for re-arranging syntax and beat juggling, through to the deliberate misalignment and overweighting of the cartridge and tone-arm (2002: 174-195)

Distortion is achieved by running overly gained signals through audio equipment so that there is; an ‘inability to maintain linearity, the addition of unwanted harmonics, an inability to pass the complete audio spectrum equally, the inability to handle transients, and the inability to pass all signals in the same amount of time’ (Atkinson, Landy 2004)

There is also the  un-credited discovery that the classic Urei 1176 valve compressor allows the jamming down of all four ratio buttons at the same time to producing an irregular compression effect. Its use had become such common practice that it is now an available feature on the digitally modelled plug-in version VS1176LN for Tascam VS machines.

Software Abuse:

•    Over processing artefacts through the excessive, random, or ‘wrong’ use of plug-ins and GUI parameters. The most obvious example here would be the auto-tune parameter setting used on ‘Believe’ by Cher.
•    Zipper noise from audio buffer changes on plug-in parameters. There is now a commonly used freeware plug-in that deliberately accesses this phenomenon called ‘buffer override’ distributed by Destroy FX.
•    DC offsets, often used for rhythmic or textural material, are normally captured from the failure of audio or digital connections, cracked software coding, misreading CD or DAT playback, or simply drawing wave data in an audio editor.
•    Bit rate or sample rate downsizing as a colouration process of digital audio became so common that the Logic Audio virtual studio package includes it as a standard plug-in – Bit Crusher.
•    Data-bending involves converting any raw computer data, through manually changing the file extension so it will be recognised as an audio file. It can subsequently be used as an audio gesture in its own right, or used as wave data for varying synthesis techniques.

Conclusion


Regardless of whether it is a purely artistic or aesthetic pursuit, an informed extension of existing practice, or a deliberate disregard for accepted practice, the notion of music production being driven by creative abuse appears to stand up as a premise. Much studio equipment design and manufacture can be seen to follow emerging production techniques, which have actually been discovered through acts of creative abuse on previously available equipment. Multi-track tape machines, spring reverbs, distortion, flange, and delay became standard studio tools. Recent production features and tools are enriched by the sonification of digital errors exposed by creative abuse. Many of the techniques have become so accepted that ‘more and more audio software is being developed which enables one to simulate the sounds of digital failure without actually experiencing it’ (Thompson 2004).

In acknowledging the realisation that many developments in record production are driven by the creative abuse of its technology, one basic question arises. If we use this practice on current and emerging technologies, can we begin to predict future developments in the use of those technologies in music production?

 

References


Atkinson, S. and L. Landy. 2004 EARS: ElectroAcoustic Resources Site. http://www.mti.dmu.ac.uk/EARS/

Broughton, F. and B. Brewster 2002. How to DJ: The art and science of playing records London: Bantam Press,

Buskin, R. 2005. ‘Classic Tracks: The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive’ in Sound on Sound. August 2005

Cascone, K. 2000. ‘The Aesthetics of Failure: “Post Digital” Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music’. In Computer Music Journal. 24. 4: 12-18.

Chadabe, J. 1997. Electric Sound: The Past and Promise of Electronic Music. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Chanan, M. 1995 Repeated Takes: A short history of recording and its effects on music London: Verso,

Cleveland. B. 2001. From Creative Music production – Joe Meek’s Bold Techniques. Omnibus Press

Cox, C. 2004. ‘Positive Feedback: an interview with Alvin Lucier’ The Wire 245: 40-46

Daley. D. 2004a ‘Mixing engineers: the next generation’ In Sound On Sound. February 2004

Daley. D. 2004b ‘Engineers who changed Recording: Fathers of Invention’ In Sound On Sound October 2004

Ghazala, R. 2000. Anti-theory Home Page. http://www.anti-theory.com/

Henritzi, M. ‘Extreme Contemporary – Japanese music as radical exoticism’. In F. Stofer (ed.) Independent Japanese Music 31-37. Bordeaux: Sonore.

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Massey, H. 2000 Behind the glass: Top record producers tell how they craft the hits San Fransisco: Backbeat Books

Nevile, B. 2001 ‘An interview with Kim Cascone’. http://www.cycling74.com/community/cascone.html

Nyman, M.1999 2nd ed. Experimental Music: Cage and beyond (second edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Owinski, B. 1999 The Mixing Engineers Handbook California: Mix Books
 
Prevost, E. 1995. No Sound is Innocent: AMM and the practice of self-invention; Meta-musical narratives; essays. Essex: Copula

Prevost, E. 2004. Minute Particulars: Meanings in music making in the wake of hierarchical realignments and other essays. Essex: Copula

Smith, H. and R. Dean 1997 Improvisation hypermedia and the arts since 1945 Harwood Academic, Amsterdam

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Duke University Press, 2003

Théberge, P. 1997. Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/Consuming Technology. Wesleyan University Press

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Young, R. 2002. ‘Worship the Glitch: Digital Music, Electronic Disturbance’. In R. Young (ed.), Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music. 45-55 London: Continuum.


Recommended listening


Bee Gees. 1977 ‘Night Fever’ on 1996 (re-release) Saturday Night Fever. Polydor: 8253892

Bjork. 2001 Vespertine. One Little Indian: TPLP101CD

Bowie, D 1975 ‘Fame’ on 1993 The Singles Collection. EMI: CDEM1512

Cher. 1998 Believe. WEA: 3984253192

Kid 606. 2001 Down with the scene. Ipecac Recordings: IPC07

Meek, J. 1958 ‘Telstar’ (artist – Tornados). On 2005 The Legendary Joe Meek. Pulse: PLSCD769

Scheaffer, P. 1990 L’oeuvre musicale. Inagrm: INA C 1006-7-8-9

Small Faces, 1966 ‘Itchycoo Park’ on 2003 Ultimate Collection Sanctuary TV: TDSAN004