Putting It On Display: The impact of visual information on control room dynamics

1. Introduction

In contemporary recording sessions, digital technology mimics that of older analog tape-based processes, so that for the performing musician the experience is nearly indistinguishable. In either case, takes are recorded, overdubs and punches are executed, and the results are auditioned. However, the clearest indication of a computer at work is the presence of the computer monitor, though the significance of this addition to the control room environment is often overlooked. This paper seeks to identify the various ways that visual displays influence both the recording process, and the musical and professional identities of the various recording personnel.

Much has been written regarding the democratizing effects of technology, particularly in the realm of recording practice.1 The computer monitor contributes to this shift by bestowing a measure of understanding, inviting participation, and making the recording process generally more accessible. Significantly, such democratization has resulted in a reconfiguration of previously established roles of the producer, engineer, artist and musician, and these changes in recording practice hierarchy have introduced new tensions in the recording process.

Furthermore, the power of the monitor extends beyond the more obvious educational function, and into the realm of personal identity. Graphic measurements of the musical value of a performance often become associated with the musical value of the performer, and exert a force that can dramatically alter the sense of self for those individuals whose work is microscopically examined and transmitted by the monitor screen.

In the analog realm, playback is verified aurally. DAWs amplify this verification by making the aural, visual. The control room during an analog recording session is filled with multi-hued flashing lights that indicate activity, but which for most observers bear no direct relation to the sounds pouring from the loudspeakers. However, when recorded sound is visually represented as a waveform, the computer monitor not only indicates recording functionality, but also illustrates time, history, and process.

Consider the enormous amount of information that is conveyed by the computer monitor. DAW waveforms can be expanded to illustrate milliseconds of sonic activity, or condensed to represent a recording in its entirety. This has the obvious benefit of making the ephemeral ‘real,’ as a song appears to exist as a kind of object. The sound ‘object’ is represented within a measurement of time, and the shape of the waveform may be ‘read’ so that the form of the song is discernable as a series of hills and valleys. When the DAW begins playback, a vertical line moves across the waveform displayed on the screen, illustrating the passing of time relative to a location within the recording. History may be presented by calling up the ‘history’ window from a pull down menu where a display lists every instruction programmed into a songfile, from the timing and location of record initiation and cessation, to adjustments in sound processing, to a list of structural edits – a chronicle of decision-making. Sound processing options in the DAW software are represented visually as well. Changes to sound will be reflected as changes to the waveform, and the tools employed to make these changes will also have a visual correlative. EQ ‘knobs’ can be turned, delay timings represented as numerical values, reverberation illustrated as three-dimensional space or with color coded analogies to acoustic reflections and diffusion, often leading technicians to remind musicians to ‘listen with your ears, not your eyes.’

The combination of monolithic illuminated broadcast, and the chronicle of process read as a kind of text, exerts enormous power over everyone present in the control room. Whether located front and center above the mixing console, or perhaps off to the side of the engineer’s chair, the visual display captivates, demands attention. In almost all of the sessions I have observed, everyone in the room stared at the screen, entranced by the bright colors, moving images, and confirmation of progress being made. For some, this irresistible force is more of a distraction than a tool, as this musician/producer related to me,

I don’t like to be in the studio staring at a screen when I should be listening. It’s like in a bar, if there’s [a television] there, people go to it. ‘Looks like a great take.’ What?!? (Author interview – Jim)

A number of informants in this study commented on the incongruity of visual language in an audio medium, “Looks like a great take,” but I discern an underlying suspicion and resentment of the processes and practices of DAW recording that the computer monitor represents. For this musician, visuality and aurality are posited as oppositional binaries – “staring at a screen when I should be listening.” This statement insinuates that DAW recording practices are unmusical, at least in comparison to recording in the analog realm. Despite efforts at resistance, the computer monitor enforces its presence in the control room, literally projecting itself into the visual consciousness of all of the inhabitants.

2. Putting It On Display

In the analog recording realm, the control room, and all the equipment contained in it, is the domain of the engineer and producer. To the uninitiated, all the machines collectively merge into an unfathomable sea of knobs, faders, meters and cables. The engineer is the keeper of secrets, and these secrets distance musicians from the recording process. Even when musicians are invited to participate in editing and mixing, the technical methodologies often remain a mystery. Without a thorough understanding of each component, the musicians hover on the periphery of their own musical creations. Try as they might – and many musicians try very hard – they remain witnesses, their participation limited to voicing vague critiques or giving tacit approval to the work of the engineer and producer.

Lacking the proper vocabulary, a musician’s comments can be as difficult to interpret as they are to articulate. Musicians’ requests or critiques can be viewed as interruptions or distractions, grudgingly endured, and often ignored. As the work of editing, processing, and mixing progresses, the musician becomes increasingly disaffected. Some accept this breach easily, and quickly adjourn to the next room. Others may linger for a while, then, frustrated at being excluded from what is taking place, abandon all pretense of active engagement.

A lack of understanding can lead to a general disinterest in the technological side of recording practice. One musician I interviewed spoke of “all this technical stuff, talk that I have no interest in, don’t know anything about. Talking about amps and Pro Tools, and I’m just not interested” (Author interview – Mary). On many occasions during analog sessions, I witnessed musicians’ apparent boredom with the activities going on in the control room. For many of these musicians, a mild curiosity about the technological processes shaping their musical contributions quickly dissipated, and after a few awkward moments, they would depart for the more congenial and collegial atmosphere of the lounge.

But the presence of a computer screen dramatically alters this dialectic. Though the DAW represents the virtual over the physical, the abstract over the concrete, and thus potentially widens the divide between musician and technician, it is my contention, based on ethnographic observation, that the computer monitor makes private knowledge public, invites active participation, and serves to educate the viewer in the myriad possibilities of sonic manipulation. The following italicized passages recreate a set of incidents and exchanges that I both witnessed and participated in during the course of my research. They are meant to illustrate how information is visually transmitted and socially processed during a session.

In the control room, Joey, the lead singer, and Brad, the engineer, are intensely studying the computer screen as they listen to a piano track. “There!” shouts Joey. Brad hits the space bar. The image of a waveform is frozen on the screen. “Copy that, and fly it into the other verses. Let’s use it every time.” Brad drags the cursor over a portion of the jagged line; the region changes color. A couple of key commands, and the image on the screen begins to shrink. The piano waveform is joined by other waveforms, and soon twenty jagged lines dance across the computer monitor. The little red box that has been created just moments before, now appears at several points on the screen, as Brad moves the mouse and quickly executes a set of key commands. Cueing the cursor a short distance in front of the newest red box, the music begins to play. A vertical line travels across the screen and a palpable sense of anticipation builds as the line nears the red box. “Almost,” says Joey. The playback stops, and as Brad taps a few keys, the red box shifts slightly to the left. Once more the vertical line advances towards the red box. This time, the edit meets with approval, and the process continues as each edit is auditioned, adjusted, and accepted.

“That’s better.” These words come from the back of the control room. I turn to see Jason, who has quietly entered the darkened room, but is now a full participant in the editing process. Andy stands beside him, his eyes focused on the computer screen. “Is that from the first take?” he asks. “Yeah,” says Joey. “Let’s listen to the whole thing.” Brad makes the requisite commands, and the song begins. The vertical line travels across the sea of undulating waveforms. Everyone in the room is transfixed by the animated display. At the song’s end, Joey turns to me, the adjusted pianist, and says, “Hey Alan, now you sound good, man.”

The display is guide, tool, advisor, and educator. As the vertical line travels across the screen, it tells everyone present what to listen for, and when to listen for it. The visual display captures the temporal moment and presents it as a static whole. The entire performance may be read left to right. Features emerge; the eye begins to correlate images to sonic events. Rhythms are clearly demarcated; the alternatively densely packed and flat-line inactive vocal track corresponds to the song form. It is a way of mapping time.

Music has left the realm of the ephemeral, and is now viewed as a set of movable objects. A sequence of prioritized adjustments is formulated – ‘first we will do this, then we can do this or that.’ By making these strategies public, each individual, musician and engineer alike, is invited to contribute, to help prioritize, approve or dissent at each step of the process. But the display does more than invite input, it constructs a framework that generates ideas. The software program introduces the uninitiated to the concept of editing, as the animated image appears to literally ‘fly’ musical parts around the screen. Observing the ease with which an engineer can delete, repeat, stretch time, or literally “flip it and reverse it,” the musician is given access to a staggering number of creative possibilities. As a producer related to me,

Once people start to watch a mix go down in a Pro Tools session, all of a sudden they have a million ideas. It’s good. Once they get it – that not only can you move it all around, it didn’t erase it. You can go back to where it was. And I think that that opens up an enormous amount of potential creativity. (Author interview – Jim)

3. Mysteries Revealed

Graphic user interfaces (GUI’s) for audio software, were initially designed to emulate the look of pre-existing technical equipment. The contours, knobs and faders of traditional mixing consoles were replicated on the computer screen, a functional representation of the familiar. Certain programs were designed to simulate the function and sonic qualities of vintage hardware, right down to a glowing red power indicator and dancing VU meters. Such designs made seasoned technicians comfortable with what are in fact radically different technologies at work. Though the tactile sensations of mouse and keypad bear little resemblance to the feel of taking a three dimensional knob between thumb and forefinger and feeling the triumph of motion over resistance, the eye and ear are still rewarded with the expected cause and effect – turning this in this direction should produce this sound.

Later generations of software engineers have taken advantage of the computer GUI’s ability to communicate through visual metaphor. Commonly used adjectives for describing sound such as ‘big,’ ‘wet,’ or ‘dark’ now have a corresponding visual component. Digital sound processing programs allow a new generation of technicians to more quickly and accurately control the sonic modifications they desire. Rather than turn a knob until it sounds good, or guess at a set of numerical values and parameters, an engineer can envision the physical space and make adjustments based on the validation granted by a visual representation of sonic phenomenon – ‘Yes, this is what you’re hearing.’

Such design makes audio manipulation a more fluid and intuitive process, but the graphic display also has the perhaps unintended consequence of educating any observer in some of the finer points of recording science. Difficult to grasp (and even more difficult to communicate) concepts such as multi-band equalization and compression become more readily understood by anyone watching the screen. As a musician learns to correspond the sounds they hear with the representation of these processes on the screen, they begin to understand the ratio of cause and effect, and this understanding makes it possible first to absorb the possibilities audio processing affords, and second to bypass the linguistically privileged technical jargon in favor of pointing to representations of shape and color. In short, these displays give the musician the tools to conceive and the language to communicate.

Such agency radically shifts the power relationship between engineer and musician. It levels the playing field and often serves to empower less dominant personalities within a group of musicians to voice an opinion, exercising their newfound intellectual capital. This situation is borne out in my work with the trio described earlier in the paper. Normally, Joey is the far more dominant member of the group, as indicated by his constant presence in the control room. But as Jason and Andy view the proceedings from the back of the room, they become more engaged, then as their confidence in their visual/sonic associations builds, they begin to contribute to dialog, often in very constructive ways. Their ability to communicate has been greatly enhanced by what they have learned by observation. Specific terminology is lifted straight from the software displays, or particular events, effects, and musical passages are referred to by their color-coding. In the event that words still fail the musician, ideas may be expressed by directly pointing at the screen (where the tell-tale fingerprint residue often remains).

Curiously, the engineer seems to embrace the level playing field. Rather than feel challenged by this intrusion into his domain, he welcomes more informed input. The clearly articulated directives make the task of delivering a desired end product much easier, while shifting the responsibility for any aesthetic failures from himself to every active participant. The graphic display facilitates more direct communication, making the process more enjoyable for all.

4. Weakness Exposed

However, while the computer monitor may act as a central clearinghouse for the broadcasting of knowledge and process, it remains insensitive to the emotions triggered by creative collaboration. In the absence of producer-as-mediator, the graphic display is as likely to instigate conflict as it is impotent to prevent it. Some of the dangers borne out in the public revelation of individual performance idiosyncrasies are apparent in the following scenario involving the use of a pitch correction program on a vocal track.

Days of tracking and mixing have taken place without a single negative comment about Andy’s vocal. Even as Brad solos the track, taking the vocal performance out of its instrumental context, none of the band members anticipate the processing his voice would be subjected to. As they watch Brad scroll through the many effects program options, it is assumed that he will select a reverb program, or maybe some sort of EQ fix. But when the now familiar pitch correction window appears, Joey immediately remarks to Andy, “Oh man, we’re gonna fix you now. Some of those notes, man….oohh.”

By simply opening an effect program, Joey has framed Andy’s performance as deficient, a judgment that will be confirmed by the visual representation of Andy’s vocal flaws.

The vertical bar in the middle of the display begins to dance as Andy’s exposed voice fills the room. A red line in the center of the graph oscillates up and down as his intonation departs from the prescribed parameters of acceptable pitch fluctuation. Moments that are particularly sharp or flat result in a corresponding shift in the red bar of judgment. If his fellow band members were previously unaware, or unable to identify these performance weaknesses, the display not only establishes and confirms moments of questionable pitch, but plants the idea that the entire vocal is woefully out of tune. Brad adjusts the sensitivity of the display, and the red indicator becomes much less active, but the damage is done. Andy’s performance is branded as sub-par. Subjected to a great deal of derision by his bandmates, he eventually withdraws from the control room after good naturedly enduring most of the criticism. Over the course of the next few sessions, he internalizes the idea that he is a weak singer, and will later turn over most of his remaining vocal parts to Joey.

In this example, the graphic display not only informed the participants of the methods and processes involved in digital pitch correction, as well as the solutions that such a software program can provide, it also helped to shape the identity of the musician being subjected to the sonic manipulation.  Perhaps the reason this public display has such a powerful effect is that the mechanically generated illustration provides proof of quantifiable performance flaws. The subjective hunch becomes a scientifically verified ‘fact.’ The band no longer thinks Andy has pitch problems, they know he does. And Andy now knows it as well. This is a shame because Andy is no more out of tune than his fellow bandmates, and in some ways possesses the most interesting voice of the group, a voice partially silenced by the all-knowing graphic display glowing in the darkened control room.

5. “My Little Friend” – Accepting Digital Practice

Some recording participants incorporating DAWs for the first time have been unnerved by the presence of the computer monitor, and by extension, the virtual processes it represents. One musician outlined the progressive stages of acceptance, first hiding the monitor behind equipment no longer in use, maintaining the illusion of prior practice, then gradually coming to embrace the monitor, and by extension, the process of computer-assisted recording.

[Hiding the monitor] kind of made it feel normal. But now we’ve moved it so that the [other equipment is] in the corner and the screen is up front more. And now, I want to have it on. Even when I’m writing… it’s weird, it’s really weird. Cause it’s my little friend. (Author interview – Tracy)

From disconcerting distraction, to comforting confidante, the computer monitor exerts a presence that must either be banished or embraced. As this musician indicates, a tentative acceptance of this intrusion into her creative space has given way to something bordering on dependence – “I want to have it on.” The acceptance of the monitor indicates an acceptance of new recording methodology. The period of historical lag has passed; the computer is no longer hidden behind a bank of familiar tape machines, it is at the center of the control room, the sole means of recording. The powerful attraction of colored lights projected on the monitor screen exerts its pull on the musician, should it be turned off, its absence is noticed. Using the computer at the writing stage also indicates how recording has become inextricable from composition, a result of building a home studio and locating all acts of musical creation within that space. The computer monitor signifies the creative process in action. Solitary creation becomes a collaborative act even if the visual display simply serves as a witness.

6. The Reality of The Virtual – The Ephemeral Made Concrete

The computer monitor displays a virtual reality, whether it is a visual representation of sonic information as a waveform, or as a simulacrum of the office desktop. Analog tape recordings are stored on shelves, labeled with identifying information, verifiably ‘real’ with a quick glance of the eye, or by pulling the box down, opening the lid, and holding the contents in one’s hand. Digital soundfiles have no physical component, thus technicians and musicians look to lists and icons visually representing soundfiles for reassurance that their work exists.

Now I have them all in a file, and then I have all the songs, and then I have like, ideas. … It helps me organize it. So I can see it and go, ‘Ok, I’ve got that, got that, got that.’ For some reason, when I get an idea, I want to put it down. Cause it makes it more concrete to me. (Author interview – Tracy)

The very act of creating a file, labeling it, makes an idea “concrete.” For this musician, evidence of creation in the form of file names confirms progress towards compiling enough material to warrant an album. The need to apprehend process is commonly remedied by visual forms of demarcation. In many analog sessions, notes are posted to studio walls or lists made on dry-marker boards to keep all of the participants informed as to the status of particular tasks in the processual template. Often, small rituals develop over the crossing off of itemized lists, or the removal of paper notes from the control room wall as an overdub is completed, a composite take is edited, a final mix achieved. The honor of deleting items from the to-do list may be allocated to a musician or technician who has struggled with the item in question. The vocalist marks progress by checking off the lead vocals that have been successfully recorded; an engineer tears up the note indicating a problematic edit has been resolved. In this way, triumphs of delivery or of correction are publicly enacted – ‘Take THAT, you list of anxiety-inducing chores!’

Similar moments may be marked in the computer, though less theatrically, by moving items from the ‘to-do’ folder into the ‘completed’ one, or by discarding items into the trash bin and executing ‘delete.’ The value of demarcating compositional progress – ‘got that, got that’ – illustrates a larger benefit of the computer display, the verification of process. When DAWs disrupt analog conventions of recording process, the question arises, ‘Just where are we?’ Representations of file names, possibly organized in terms of completion or as works in progress, help to locate a particular point in time, in the process of the recording project overall.

Cultural theorist Slovoj Zizek challenges the notion of the computer monitor simulacrum of an orderly desktop as a means of making the ephemeral concrete. According to Zizek, the computer monitor interface not only fails to make the virtual real, it makes the actual functions of digital technology unreal to the user. “The price of this illusion of a continuity with our everyday environs is that the user becomes ‘accustomed to opaque technology’ – the digital machinery ‘behind the screen’ retreats into total impenetrability, even invisibility” (Zizek: 1997, 131). I agree that the illusion of an office desktop obscures the actual technology at work. However, I also posit that these illusions can give form to otherwise unmarked process, and can educate and inform users and other observers about specific technological practices that were once held as secret information for technicians working in the analog realm. The illustrations of time, history, and process that the monitor displays projects simulacra of various aspects of recording practice. The visual representation of an audio compressor may not indicate how it works, but can reveal what it does. Likewise, the vividness of the display serves to obscure the actual computational calculations occurring in the CPU. The user may learn a great deal about audio compression, even if they know nothing about computer operation.

7. Monitor as Liberator

The presence of the graphic display in the recording environment significantly alters the collaborative process, wresting secretly held knowledge from the control of engineer and producer, thus extending the role of the musician beyond the performance stage, while simultaneously exposing vulnerable human weaknesses in a harsh, unblinking light.  More than a simple tool for the presentation of information, the graphic display exerts a powerful influence over the recording process because the kind of information it communicates fundamentally enhances or undermines each individual’s status within the creative collective.

But as musicians observe such powerful programs in action, they also witness the irrelevance of producers and engineers. If such drastic changes happen automatically, then musicians who acquire the basic computer skills required to operate the software can completely seize the ‘means of production’ from the recording technicians. For many musicians, the promise of total control over the recording process, and the liberation from studio hierarchies provides the incentive for investing time and capital in mastering DAW recording technology, a development not always championed by the displaced technicians. As one engineer related to me,

It’s out of my hands. But this is kind of where we’re at now. People say, ‘I have this. I can do this. I want to do this.’ … In this day and age, the drummer has got Pro Tools at home. The drummer can go out and buy his own hard drive and he’ll say, ‘Give me my drums. I’ll be back in a few months, and they’ll be greater than they are.’ And there’s nothing wrong with them to begin with.  That’s where we’re at. It’s a brave new world out there. (Author interview – Sam)

Performing the edits at home keeps the musician out of the technician’s control room, but emasculates the power of the technician – “It’s out of my hands.” The “brave new world” the engineer refers to is one in which musicians have reclaimed the power over their performance, re-assigning the technician the subservient role of capturing sound. Engineers perform the tasks that a musician requires, but the standard of acceptable performance is now determined by the musician.

8. Conclusion

More than any creative possibility enabled by computational processes, it is the visual representation of recording practice that has truly transformed the recording industry. Participants are granted access to previously held secrets, expand their understanding of technological possibilities, and incorporate that understanding into the creative process. The history of sound recording contains numerous examples of such musical transformations, amassed over decades of professional activity. But the visual display of the computer monitor has greatly accelerated this acquisition of knowledge and control. For beyond waveforms and faux-vintage gear, the computer monitor broadcasts a subversive manifesto that calls out for a revolution in recording practice, a radical changing of the guard. The result of the widespread democratized recording process, brought about in large part by the power of the visual display, is that long established roles and hierarchies have been challenged and redefined. Recent scholarship notes the shift from big budget projects undertaken in professional studios to an exponential number of recordings created on laptop computers in the privacy of the bedroom.2 This swift transformation would be unthinkable without the graphic interface of recording software.  While the focus of this paper as been concerned with the effect of the visual monitor on more traditional recording practices involving group dynamics and interaction, one lesson that many of these individuals have learned is that they have the ability to record themselves, free from much of the tension and the resulting compromises of studio practice. I posit that the seeds of the demise of the commercial recording studio may have been sown by thousands of pixels, projected on glass.

About The Author

Alan Williams

University of Massachusetts Lowell

alan_williams@uml.edu

Notes

General note: Upon the request of the participants in this research all proper names have been changed to protect their identities. As with any ethnographic work, the purpose of the research is not to seek authoritative answers or pronouncements, but rather to observe musicians of any musical and professional level, making comparisons between the various actions observed and thoughts articulated. In some cases, the participants in the research are amateurs new to the recording process. In most others, they earn their living from recording and touring, both at the independent label/solo touring level, as well as some whose playing has contributed to Grammy-winning recordings and top grossing tours.

All italicized passages are narratives constructed from ethnographic fieldnotes. In most instances, phrases within quotation marks are taken verbatim from these notes, though there are a few cases where conversational dialog has been re-constructed.

The extended quotations found in this article are derived from long-form interviews, conducted as a series of conversations. Thus each interview follows its own course, rather than adhering to a set of pre-written questions common to all. Most of the interviews lasted approximately 60 minutes, though in a few cases they approached lengths of nearly two hours. All interviews were transcribed in full and it is these transcriptions that provide the quoted text.

Text Endnotes

1 A selective survey of such works would include Théberge, 1997; Toynbee, 2000; Veak, 2006; Hesmondhalgh, 2007; Katz, 2010.

2 I have been informed in this regard by Carlo Nardi’s unpublished manuscript from 2004, available through Philip Tagg’s website, as well as selected chapters in Hodgson, 2011.

Bibliography

Hesmondhalgh, David. 2007 (2002). The Culture Industries. London: Sage Publications.

Hodgson, Jay. 2010. Understanding Records: A Field Guide to Recording Practice. New York: Continuum.

Katz, Mark. 2010 (2004). Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music.Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nardi, Carlo. 2004. “Playing by eye: music software and visuality,” delivered at the IASPM-Canada Annual Conference, Carlton University, Ottawa, CA.

http://www.tagg.org/xpdfs/NardiPlayByEye.pdf

Théberge, Paul. 1997. Any Sound You Can Imagine: Making Music/ Consuming Technology. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

Toynbee, Jason. 2000. Making Popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and Institutions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Veak, Tyler J. (ed.). 2006. Democratizing Technology: Andrew Feenburg’s Critical Theory of Technology. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Zizek, S. (1997) The Plague of Fantasies. New York: Verso.