Dynamic Range Insanity: The Effect of Digitalization on The Art of (Popular) Music Recording (Briefly)

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A presentation detailing how popular music recording has been uniquely effected by the use of digital recording devices and practices, and the digital phenomena that is a direct result of these devices and practices.

Analog Vs. Digital:

First things first: a sound wave is continuous. Analog recording is analogous (hence the word), meaning that an analog recording is a continuous approximation of a sound. Imagine drawing an apple with one continuous line. Digital recording is discrete, meaning that a digital recording is made up of thousands of samples of the sound which are put in sequence to create an approximation of the sound. Imagine drawing an apple with many, many tiny straight lines.

Dynamic Range:

Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and softest parts of a signal. Digital recording has a greater dynamic range than analog recording. However, in recent years, in an apparent effort to make their music “stand out” in a noisy, low attention span world, musicians and producers have used the dynamic range of the digital form to “push” the signal to its loudest point by compressing the signal. The result is usually a recording that actually has less dynamic range than an analog recording.

Consider the songs “Angel” by Massive Attack and “Let’s Get It Started” by the Black Eyed Peas. Both were recorded using digital processes. However, “Angel” displays a greater dynamic range than “Let’s Get It Started”, which displays little to none. The song is basically all loud all of the time.

Why is this interesting/important? Mainly, it has to do with aesthetics. When an artist’s music exhibits a greater dynamic range, the music is richer and more, well, dynamic.

Digital Editing:

At a concert in November at the Somerville Arts Armory by the Scottish rock group Travis, singer Fran Healy told a story about his band being asked to record a song for a BBC project in which multiple artists were asked to each cover a song from The Beatles’ 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, using the same (analog) recording technology that The Beatles used to record it in 1967. Healy talked about how much the band enjoyed the experience, even to the point that they subsequently recorded their next album in the same way. He also recalled that the young British band Kaiser Chiefs, who were also asked to be part of the project, struggled mightily with the task of recording using analog technology. Having only experienced digital recording, the band was used to “creating a performance” by recording multiple takes of a song and editing them together, rather than recording an actual “good” performance of the song.

The Future:

It is entirely possible that digital recording will be used as a Process/Working Tool rather than a final document of a performance.

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