Apr 172020

by Jef Knight

“Modern music sucks”. Is that what you think? You’re not alone. Many people believe that modern music is “objectively” bad.

Who are these people? Well, in the 1950s it was Christians. They fought tooth and nail to prevent modern music, the Devil’s music, from being played.

In the 1960s it was parents who grew up on big band, jazz and classical music. Or worse, WW2 era pop songs from Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. They all proclaimed loudly that modern music was the worst music ever written. Electric guitars and catterwalling. That’s all I ever heard from older people in the 60s.

In the 1970s these same people, older folks mostly, now accompanied by those who thought that 60s music was “the only good music” were decrying heavy metal, punk and prog rock as “not music”.

By the late 70s articles began to emerge whining about how music had no melody anymore, and that beats were becoming too simple and sterile.

Then modern music sucked because: disco. This was the first rallying cry of “beat boxes are not music”.

Then along came the 80s. Everyone from the 60s and 70s hated 80s music. “Synths and drum boxes ruined music” was their battle cry.

Then guitar rock made a short-lived comeback in the mid to late 80s and these same cats hated it because it was, “hair bands” or “cock rock”, but it was certainly “not music”.

Not to be overlooked were the nostalgists who hated the 80s music because “new country isn’t country”.

By the 90s these old timers, now in their 40s, hated grunge because they thought it sounded too unpolished and profane, somehow.

And let’s not overlook rap and hip-hop. I never met a white man who had anything good to say about that stuff. And the things they Did say can’t be repeated in polite society.

The next victim of progress was the humble CD. “CDs sound like crap” was heard in stereo stores across the land. “Vinyl rules!” was their anthem.

Then it was computers. “Modern music is sterile” is the most overused phrase of the current generation.

The common thread running through all of this is that it’s all bullshit.

Music is great, no matter which era it’s from.

I’m going to re-coin an old aphorism to properly express my sentiments on this topic: “If you hear a song in the morning that’s terrible, maybe it’s just a terrible song, but if you come home at night and all the music you heard all day is terrible, maybe it’s you that’s actually terrible”.

But wait, there’s more!

Let’s take a look at what the real problem is and see if we can determine a solution to your dislike of modern music.

There is a common myth among modern commentators that music today is sterile and “too perfect” (as if that’s even a thing). They see bands from history as being somehow magically wonderful because of all the imperfections in the recordings and their use of “real” instruments.

This is a made-to-fit-the-argument way of approaching the subject. Most bands were, indeed, not perfect, but the engineers of the day used a lot of tools to try and get them close to perfect so they could get the record completed within their allotted time and budget.

Back in the day audio engineers had, HAD, to come up with ways to stay within budget. If the band was paying out of pocket, almost inevitably, the day would come when they showed up at the studio and the guy tells them, “sorry, you’ve run out your budget” and the band would be, like, “but we’re not finished!” and the guy would have to tell them, “well, get more money then”.

If the studio time was funded by a record company then there was a producer and some suits from the label making sure the album came in on time and within budget. If not, the project got canned, shelved and the band usually languished in obscurity because, essentially, they sucked at making albums. There was no money, for most bands, to do unlimited numbers of takes or spend exhausting amounts of time doing drum tracks.

Audio engineers, producers and record labels all had a vested interest in having music in the can and out the door in the highest quality, shortest time, lowest budget possible. Perhaps the lawyers for the big acts could negotiate for more time or money, but for the vast majority of bands it was “get it right, quickly” or die.

It was to this end that audio tools for pitch correction and track editing were invented.

If you’ve ever looked at vintage photos of bands in the studio you may have noticed that they are often wearing headphones, especially the drummer. Some drummers even gaffer taped their headphones onto their heads so they wouldn’t fly off. What do you suppose they were listening to, Bach? No, they were listening to a metronome or click track.

It’s a common myth that bands from history had “great timing”. Sure, many musicians did have great timing, but it was far more common that drummers would speed up and slow down in ways that were incongruous with making a great record.

Because of this, recording drums became the running joke / consistent problem in the recording industry. Stories of having to take a month to record the drums are a staple of music history. It’s why, in many cases, ringers were used. These ringers were highly skilled professional drummers who would come in and replace the drum track on a recording, after hours and unbeknown to the band. It saved time and money and the record got finished on time and within budget and the recording was excellent.

This little trick was even used by many studios and producers to replace the entire band on recordings, mainly because the band was too drunk or stoned or bad at their craft to make a recording that didn’t suck. The Wrecking Crew famously did this on many of the greatest hits of the day. For instance, the Beach Boys were great live, but their greatest album, Pet Sounds, is mainly the Wrecking Crew. If you think autotune is cheating, what the hell do you say about this tactic?

Remember, it’s the music Business, not the musical mutual appreciation society.

Vocals were another source of hardship for engineers. Great performances ruined by a few pitchy notes. So, engineers, at the behest, and by behest I mean, “constant threat-based financial pressure from the suits who represented the record labels” had to figure out how to fix those problems. Often this was done by working at solutions all night long, after the band had left. Engineers crafted some of the cleverest solutions to the problem of vocal pitch correction.

These tools were essential to music recording because music is about emotion, feel and those other intangible properties that make a recording great. To that end, are you going to scrub a really great take because it’s pitchy? The singer might not ever be able to recreate that take and you can spend a week trying, but who’s going to pay for that? It’s far better to be able to tweak a great performance, than chasing some imaginary ideal of perfection.

The earliest story of pitch correction that I have found dates back to the early 1960s and stars Frank “I only do one take” Sinatra. As the story goes he was recording a song and despite his “only do one take” mantra, was on take 32 before he gave up and left the studio. The engineers were left with lots of material, but it was not Frank’s best work. So they devised a way to correct the pitch using multiple tape machines, manually working the capstan motor speed and “flying in” the new, pitch corrected, vocals. It worked. Once that little secret got out other engineers started experimenting with it.

I’m not going to go into the entire history of pitch correction, but by the late 1960 electronic engineers were working on, and producing, some early versions of time-based correction devices that become sought after studio gear, if you could afford it. The 1970s ushered in a new era of gear that could micro-tune vocals.

Most studios could not afford this exotic gear, and hence there are a lot of recordings with pitch and timing problems from that era. It’s not precious, endearing or magical that these bands were loosey-goosey. Everyone in the industry hated it and was trying really hard to invent tools to “fix” these bands so they sucked less.

If you move much beyond the 1960s you can noticeably hear that music became “tighter” and subjectively “better”. Bands used metronomes. They also “cheated”, as most modern artists do, by tracking the basic bed tracks of the song, then every individual went into the control room and sat with the engineer and re-tracked their parts to perfection.

This was so common it became a running joke. There are thousands of photos from history showing pretty much every major band re-tracking in the control room. How is that any different from today’s music that is layered track by track?

By the 1980s half the bands in the world were using drum boxes and synths for bass lines, the same as today, the only difference being that today we have “presets” for sounds and back then they had to dial in every sound they used. They had binders full of synth-sound recipes they carried around with them.

By late 80s, as reported in Modern Drummer magazine, which I read faithfully every month, articles were being written about how “real professional drummers” would sample their kit and bring a disc with samples to their studio sessions.

They had to do this because budgets were tightening from record labels and studio costs were at an all-time high. These drummers would show up and play either their own kit on which MIDI triggers were mounted, or a studio kit that was already equipped with triggers. They would play their parts, with a metronome, then use those MIDI tracks to trigger a sampler loaded with their own drum sounds. You never knew the difference.

Much of your favourite 80s music was done this way. It was exactly what audio engineers had being having wet dreams about for 2 decades. They now had a great drum performance, great sounds without spending a week getting a drum sound, and the ability to edit the drum track without an xacto knife.

Yes, an xacto knife. That was how music was edited since, forever. Don’t like the second chorus? Cut/splice the first chorus in and BAM!, song fixed. You can imagine how tedious and nerve wracking this was for those engineers.

Joe Satriani, in a guitar magazine interview for his Surfin’ With the Alien album said that his engineer, John Cuniberti, made extensive use of physical cutting to create that album, as well as Not of This Earth.

Frank Zappa would xacto out just one, thin, guitar solo track on a 2 inch tape and put it in another song. Now that’s dedication. It’s no wonder he became one of the first composers to use digital recording devices. They are simply labour saving tools.

Audio engineers demanded better ways to edit recordings. Computer programmers, who were also audio engineers and musicians, were working hard to come up with ways of digitising audio so it could be more editable.

The earliest form of digitising that was commercially available was the Sony PCM. Frank Zappa, famously, had the first and largest Sony PCM rig in North America in 1979. Rush was also an early adopter of digital recording.

I worked for a company in Toronto where I had the pleasure to meet some of the tech crew for Rush. They claimed that as early as Hemispheres Rockville Studio in Wales, where it was recorded, was using digital multi-tracks to import some of Alex Lifeson’s guitar parts and “fix some notes here and there”. Zappa used them for the very same reason, getting it exactly right without the need to do take after take or use a knife.

In the early 1990s, software for the personal computer was released that allowed engineers to fully track and mix recordings in the digital domain. There were two competing products Pro-Tools and PARIS. While the PARIS system, made by Ensoniq, was a far superior system, the company was more of a cutting-edge hobby shop and failed to create a market for themselves. Pro-Tools, on the other hand, became the industry standard simply because they gave away entire computer systems, rigged with their software and hardware, to many of the major studios. If they hadn’t done that, there’s a good chance it would not have become the “industry standard” (and, by the way, that’s not the recording industry saying that, it was the merely the Pro-Tools marketing slogan).

Back in the day Pro-Tools was hated, despised even, because it was hard to work and, for technical reasons such as low resolution, early version A/D, D/A converters and slow, low bandwidth hard drives, was only used as a tool of last resort. It was universally calls ALLSIHAD, because engineers only used if it was “All’s I Had”.

PARIS continued with a robust community of users until Ensoniq sold out to EMU, who sold out to Creative Labs, who eventually killed the system.

But by this time Cubase, Nuendo, Cakewalk/Sonar, Logic all were becoming software that was capable of handling the entire recording chain.

With these advances pressure was mounting from both the audio and video editing industries for computer hardware manufacturers to produce hard drives with higher RPMs and greater bandwidth and throughput. Computers as recording studios were becoming the norm.

And they were becoming affordable. A recording studio in 1980 that cost a million dollars could be had in 2000 for about a tenth of that. By 2010 that same million dollar studio could be had for 10-20 grand.

Home studio recording also became more affordable. Time was that if you wanted to record music you had to go to a very expensive studio. This was out of reach of all but a few, well funded, bands and songwriters. Advances in affordable electronics launched a home recording revolution that allowed musicians to record all their music effortlessly and affordably.

The home studio revolution started in full when Fostex and Tascam began producing open reel 8 and 16 track recorders and 4 track cassette recorders around 1980. Outboard effects became affordable by the mid 1980s, as did monitor speakers and other ancillary studio gear.

Electronics manufacturers saw a great market demand for better audio converters and signal processors with less noise and artifacting and greater frequency response. And with the entry into the market of the Alesis ADAT recorder, the age of modern music had fully arrived.

Along the way from the 60s to the 2000s audiences were slowly fed more and more music that was becoming less and less sloppy and pitchy. Their ears were becoming used to hearing well timed and correctly pitched performances. There was no turning back.

Now, in the age of “modern music” the biggest problem is the oldest problem: the next guy wanting to be as famous as the last guy.

Back in the day when record labels ruled the world you had to have an act and be at least a little dedicated to the business. The growing trend, since the 80s, has been that if you can record your own material you might be able to skip the record labels altogether and release music to your audience without the aid of the middle man.

With the advent of the internet this growing hoard of songwriters has increasingly built their own recording environments and released their own albums unaided by record labels. This has lead to an unprecedented glut of music and talent.

Nashville is all but dead, for this very reason.

Modern music isn’t sterile because of the tools. It isn’t actually sterile at all. Most major artists still use full-scale production facilities just as they always did. Even Billie Eilish, who’s marketing team pushes the myth that they recorded her album in her brother’s bedroom, leaves out the part about her being groomed for years by top tier management, record labels and major studios and engineers. So, not really a bedroom album, although that does make it sound like anyone can do it.

I think the sterility part comes from a specific difference in older vs newer music: the audio engineers.

A real audio engineer will make anything sound great. But in today’s market glut every guy with Logic on a Macbook thinks he’s an audio engineer. To that end, all these inexperienced, even if well intended, musicians don’t have the skills required to produce quality recordings that have that “certain something” required for great music. It’s not the magic chords or the lilting melodies or the “backbeat” of the rhythm, it’s the audio engineering.

Bands don’t make great records, audio engineers make great records.

Add to that the very real truth is that “songwriter” used to be an actual job tittle, and today still is when you are talking about top-level music.

Unfortunately, the market today is stuffed full of little girls singing country and folk songs about their trials and tribulations out of their unicorn diary and fashion-driven doofuses trying to reinvent Led Zeppelin riffs.

The problem with modern music isn’t the tools, or even how you use (or over use) them, it’s that in the past there were, maybe, 100 bands you could buy, and another thousand “in the bins” at the back of the store all lovingly created by top-shelf audio engineers. Now, there’s 80 million songs competing with each other on the internet, and growing by millions every year, produced by non-professionals who, for the most part, suck at it.

And I say that not out of malice or derision, but out of the Soundscan statistic that says that of those 80 million songs, more than 79 million have ZERO plays. Not even their mother listened to them.

So let’s stop blaming the tools and start a new project for a better music landscape.

If someone says, “I should learn to play an instrument.” tell them to just not bother. It’s too much work to be good at it and why do something you’ll be bad at. If you’re a music teacher, just stop. We already have too many musicians. And they all, mostly, are not great. But they think they are and they’re putting out albums. Albums of Modern Music. Music that, according to Rick Beato and many others, sucks.

Do you’re part to make music a great thing again. Discourage people from polluting the world with their poorly made music.

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