So I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about the media formats on which we compile and listen to music – tapes, CDs, iTunes playlists and so on – and how the various affordances of each of those formats shape the nature of the mix.
Spotify, for instance, allows us to drag and drop songs to a playlist. As a result, I’ve created Spotify mixes with over 1000 songs on them. And for some playlists, there are always more songs to be added. By way of contrast, the limitations of real-time recording and 90-minute cassette durations split over two rigidly 45 minute sides create different types of mixes. But the limited tape real estate problem / opportunity is not the only difference between the analogue and digital formats presented here.
For instance, the pause button on a tape deck allows us to choose, more or less, the length of the gaps between the songs. And that matters. I’ve written quite a bit recently about the silence between and before songs too. It’s one of the interesting cul de sacs this particular line of enquiry has taken me down recently.
And of course the recording medium can dictate when, where and how those selections of music can be listened to. A reel-to-reel tape tends not to be played in the car or at the beach, but rather in a particular kind of setting. There’s a reason Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace has one in her home in Pulp Fiction. She could probably just as easily have played Urge Overkill’s ‘Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon’ on some other device, but that particular machine carries meaning – and it’s a meaning that sits within that particular architectural, socio-economic and decorative context as much as it has anything to do with sonic reproduction.
I was at a party not so long ago, and the host had in his living room a lovely refurbished mid-70s Sony reel to reel machine on which he had a tape consisting of songs all recorded around the time of the production of the device on which they were being played. Anything much newer, he figured, would seem – or even possibly sound – wrong. Anything much older would seem to overtly draw attention to the anachronism of the player in that context and immediately turn it into a museum piece.
As far as I know, this is the only tape he plays, though I could just be making that bit up.
It appeared to have something to do with the idea of ‘authenticity’, which has always struck me as a strange concept when it comes to recorded music. You’ll be aware of the Jack Whites of the world who are very interested in this elusive quality of authenticity and how it not only connects to but positively dwells within particular music formats. They’re excited about the idea that ‘real’ music is played on particular types of instruments, and that certain recording media and methodologies capture the ‘real’ sound and honest intention of the artist.
I’m not especially convinced by such arguments. Apart from anything else, one of the things I like most about records is that they do not sound authentic. I’ve spent a lot of time in recording studios, and I’m incredibly interested in the things that quite deliberately get in the way of the performing artist communicating, unfiltered, with an audience. There are many, many records on which those additions, filters and processes are my favourite attributes of the resulting music.
Quite often, the artist’s original intention is not as good as the finished product ends up being, and even more often, the artist is not able to single-handedly express that intention – and that’s what those other gadgets, devices and trained professionals are for.
I’ve been criticised for not being a ‘proper music fan’ for not fetishising vinyl more than I already do (and to be clear – I am an avid vinyl collector and regular purchaser – I just don’t happen to think it has magical properties), and even more so for preferring recorded music to live performances for the most part.
One of the things I like most about recorded music is the skill, effort and technological wonder that goes into presenting the artist’s intentions in some repeatable, possibly even unperformable version contained within some artefactual form that I can listen to in a context of my choosing with perhaps a beverage from my own kitchen.
I don’t happen to believe the experience of music is enhanced by standing in the rain with people you don’t much like.
Vinyl records (just like tape decks, CD players or iPhones) are, by definition, layers of mediation between the performer and the audience. They’ll always contribute their own characteristics to the finished sound and experience of the music. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
There is, of course, such a thing as audio fidelity and it’s something I’m very much in favour of. I’m also in favour of the some of the lovely characteristics of vinyl records that get in the way of transparency and fidelity, and instead draw your attention to the fact that is a record that you are listening to and not just ‘some music’. But these things have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘authenticity’.
Incidentally, also along that chain of mediation I mentioned are things like the choice and placement of microphones, the EQ settings selected by the recording engineer, the unique characteristics of the recording console, outboard effects, the mastering suite, the ideas and energies of the record producer, the pressing plant, the stylus, cartridge and platter of the listener’s turntable, their amplifier, speakers, room dimensions and characteristics… and so on.
What you are listening to is essentially soup: Artist’s intention minestrone.
All of this goes to make a complete mockery of the very idea of authenticity of a music recording.
And such an idea deserves to be mocked. How is a blues musician capable of greater authenticity than a K-Pop artist – unless, let’s say, both are having an attempt at Buddy Guy’s The Sky Is Crying – and, so like in which case, as both can only ever be approximations or reinterpretations, perhaps the least mimetic version contributes its own particular brand of authenticity, yeah?
How is the 20th century technology of vinyl more authentic than the 20th century technology of compact discs? Or vice versa? Is an mp3 more ‘real’ than a stream? An ‘original’ song that borrows from an uncredited traditional source more ‘true’ than a cover version of that same song?
I mean, there may be other things at work here – personal preference and cultural history certainly being among them – but, let’s keep it real: authenticity is absent.
Which is not to say that music cannot be honest, that these formats are no different from each other or even that the difference doesn’t matter. Certainly none are entirely transparent and nor would that be desirable. But to suggest that one is inherently better than another misses the far more interesting question: better at what?
So anyway, for what it’s worth, I haven’t yet encountered a music recording format I haven’t liked. DAT tapes came close, but they had their own charm and I have a box of them under the bed and a player in the shed. Reel to reel machines are among my favourite music recording and playback technologies. I have a special place in my heart for the grace and elegance of a well-tuned Studer Revox A77 or the workhorsey braun of an Otari MX5050-ii with a fresh reel of Ampex 456 threaded and ready to go.
But all of these would struggle with absolutely everything about my Ultimate Road Trip Singalong Mix which, at last inspection, was a good 84 hours long and only makes any sense at all when played in Random mode as you set off – in, it should be pointed out, a car rather than, say, a luxury inner-city apartment interior with cream leather sofas and small plastic envelopes of powdered heroin on the coffee table.
To be clear, I am referring here to the Pulp Fiction scene, and not the party I went to. That one had brown furniture.
Incidentally, I’ve started an email list for people who want to be kept more up to date with what’s going on with the book I’m writing about this sort of thing: playlists, mixtapes and other collections of music put in some sort of order for whatever reason. It’s called The Right Next Song. I won’t bother you any more than once a week at the best of times, but you’ll act as my sounding board, I’ll ask the odd interesting question, and you’ll get to read bits of it before anyone else and tell me where I’m going wrong.
Sound like fun?