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Playing Technology Like An Instrument

The practitioners of the audio engineering sciences that we all admire the most are the ones who’ve mastered the marriage of creative and technical.

I recently heard a radio interview with Kevin Kelley, the founding editor of Wired magazine. Intrigued by a comment he made on the air, I did an online search that led me to his website where I found the following version of the thought: “Imagine Beethoven being born 2,000 years ago when there was no orchestra or piano; what a loss that would have been. He, of course, would have made the best music he could have with whatever he found, but we would not have the glorious work that he did. Same with George Lucas and film.”

Surely, at one time, there were inspired musicians who could only offer voice or a whistle, maybe while banging on a log or smacking rocks together, but who regardless evidenced legitimate musical inspiration, even if we might today consider it unsophisticated noise. Over time, what are now established musical forms developed as a foundation for further creative endeavors, the results more identifiable in the context of what is now considered viable musical expression.

Technology has continuously played a supporting role to musical creativity. The first instrument makers may have done little more than hollow out logs or choose the right stick with which to beat the log, but instrument-making developed into quite a sophisticated art of its own — witness the current value and desirability of classic instruments like a Stradivarius violin. Formulae and procedures were developed for creating paints and blank canvas for the visual arts.

As with the physical manifestations of the visual arts, paper and ink were combined with the creative and scientific development of ways to chronicle musical compositions. This might be considered the first variation of analog recording, albeit a very indirect playback paradigm with significant variability.

There’s only been a short period of human history where we’ve been able to directly record an individual performance for later and repeated reproduction. From the first (primitive from our perspective) recording devices, we’ve developed quite the sophisticated infrastructure for the capture and manipulation of sound.

The mechanics of recording and reproduction are arguably an art form of their own. Knowledge of the scientific aspects may be enough to get sound into a reproducible form, but the capture of the aesthetics of music, or facilitating the polish and coalescing of musical raw materials to achieve the artist’s sonic vision, requires an artistic mindset, an intuitive leap from the mechanical to the emotional.

As with the example of Beethoven, the technology of our time has both been a vehicle for creative expression, and had an impact on the art produced. As with the example of Lucas, the art forms used by a broad swath of current creative expression, let alone the artistic content, cannot exist without an engineered foundation. In addition, a team approach that combines the efforts of artists and artistic technical facilitators has become the norm for such technology dependent art forms.

The practitioners of the audio engineering sciences that we all admire the most, whose work stands the test of time, are the ones who’ve mastered the marriage of creative and technical. Your profession, at its apex, requires such mastery.