Limitation-Loss-Lament

There’s something magical about engineering and creating under hardship.
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Ah, the old routine. First you’d clean the heads and transport, then thread the machine. After rewinding and re-threading, you’d go about the tedious process of setting record levels and bias. This took some time, as you were often tempted to try new settings or tape formulations, so you had to be on your toes before the session ever began. You’d place all your mics, get the cans working, get the band playing, listen to your inputs and then ask yourself questions like, “Now, what can I combine onto the same track? What inputs can I live without? How much space do I need to save for overdubs? What can I track now and then bounce down later to free up more space?”

Classic analog tape machines, a.k.a., desirable limitations from days of yore. For the benefit of our younger readers, when I say “space,” I’m talking about something that used to require some serious consideration to work within (not available space on your hard drive). I, for example, had a total of 16 tracks of “space.” All this effort for a mere 16 tracks of record? Yes, and I relish the memories.

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While I don’t miss all the tape machine setup, getting only 16 minutes of record time on a reel, and so on, I sure do miss constraints: the handicaps, the limitations, the boundaries, the hard lines in the sand that the analog world always provided and that our digital world will not. I conjecture there’s something magical about engineering and creating under hardship.

Please don’t think this is another Luddite rant about the good ol’ days, the lost arts of the past, etc., as you couldn’t get this Mac out of my hands with a crowbar and a pistol. I’m not lost in Analogland either; sure, I love a good, beefy, 2-inch or 1/2-inch tape, but modern converter technology, analog emulations and high sample rates have narrowed associated performance gaps down to academic arguments.

Here, I’m lamenting the loss of limitations (both artistic and technical) that forced us to commit, to scheme, to solve, to compromise, to refine and to clarify. Responses to such limitations are human nature; without them, is our work increasingly less than human?

I’m no student of psychology, or sociology or religion, so I don’t understand why it is that humans are often a bit boring, lazy and wishy-washy when entirely comfortable, yet often creative, focused and ultra-productive when forced, often uncomfortably, by hardship. Are we somehow wired to only give 100 percent when absolutely necessary? Does this somehow explain why many performers only do their very best when facing difficult odds under unreasonable conditions? Perhaps the human mind needs the clarification that challenges bring to truly excel.

Tell a performer and/or a producer that they have unlimited track count available; that you can undo anything; that you can correct tone, rhythm or pitch. Suddenly, where’s the motivation to push?

This may ring familiar with you — I am friends with a producer who has told me of his successful Manhattan client with literally hundreds of vocal takes per song. This (obviously well funded) client insisted on keeping all takes, month after month, just in case, all at 96k until the point where my friend had multiple drives full of data with sessions that seemed to take forever to open. And yes, the client never went back and used these tracks; they obviously served as some form of performance pacifier, a security blanket, and a means of putting off decision-making and artistic/personal committal.

Time constraints aren’t really the ideal handicaps to introduce here (as they sometimes simply create panic). I’m thinking some kind of physical or conceptual limitation to force ourselves into the “hero mode” — limitations that force creative problem-solving, prioritizing and focus. A maximum acceptable track count may be helpful, but maybe more inspiring types of negative stimulus are the key here. Forced spontaneity; unfamiliar instruments or conditions; recording an ensemble completely live; an absence of processing or effects; minimal microphones: All these things just might elicit once-in-a-lifetime performances.

Even as a little kid, I knew I wanted to be an audio engineer because I always fantasized of re-mixing my favorite records, those that I thought had less-than-stellar production. I dreamt of re-recording them with the highest fidelity, all the right fader moves and then bowling over the masses. Yet now, high fidelity is pretty easily achievable to most anyone, and I hear virtually perfect, simply fantastic recordings all the time that do not bowl over the masses. Are our listeners simply jaded from the sheer number of technically high-quality productions out there today, or are they simply missing more emotion, more sincerity, more humanity than our typical modern methodologies allow? I believe they recognize an absence of underlying tension, heightened passion and the sounds of a struggling underdog while overachieving.

Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte.