Tradition and Innovation in Creative Studio Practice: The Use of Older Gear, Processes and Ideas in Conjunction with Digital Technologies.

Introduction

There is a tendency in the West to valorise individualised innovation as the single most valuable set of conditions in creative practice (Niu & Sterberg: 2006). This valuing of innovation is often set against what is seen to be stodgy and safe, rule bound and static, that is, those things that have stood the test of time, the things that have become in effect ‘traditional’. However, there is a very real need to look at both continuity and change, the things we keep and the things we discard, when investigating innovative practices. This imperative moves well beyond the nostalgic, in the use of what we can see as traditional tools and pre-existing knowledge, to realise that the use of tradition is very much part and parcel of the process of being innovative. Rather than being diametrically opposed to each other tradition and innovation are in fact complementary. For Negus and Pickering:

tradition shouldn’t be taken as the antithesis of innovation. Rather than seeing them as deeply divided, we want to consider tradition and innovative forms and practices as informing and supporting each other. It is only by thinking about their interrelationship that we can understand processes of creativity and cultural change. Creativity doesn’t emerge out of a vacuum…creative talent requires a tradition so that it can learn how to go further within it or beyond it. Innovation should be understood by rejecting those approaches which set it squarely against tradition and established cultural practice. (Negus & Pickering: 2004, p.91)

Furthermore, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asserts that the ‘new is meaningful only in reference to the old. Original thought does not exist in a vacuum’ (1999, p.315). He goes on to state that ‘without tradition there can be no novelty’ (ibid). As Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (1955) more prosaically put it: ‘Try, try, try to separate them/It’s an illusion/ Try, try, try, and you will only come/to this conclusion /… You can’t have one without the other.’

Literature review

The research literature on creativity and the literature on innovation have been steadily moving closer together (McIntyre: 2011). The literature on innovation has moved beyond the simplistic idea that creativity is having an idea and innovation is carrying it out (Nemiro: 2004), although this is a persistent view (e.g. Hartley: 2005), and the literature on creativity has moved beyond thinking that creativity comes about only as a result of what gifted individuals do, although this idea has also been part of our common sense.

In terms of innovation there is a problem with seeing creativity and innovation as two distinct processes. ‘Part of the problem is the either–or assumption, the dichotomy that artificially separates creativity and innovation’ (Nemiro & Runco in Nemiro: 2004, pp. 14-15). Nemiro contends ‘there is no dichotomy between creativity and innovation. They are intertwined, as ideas are generated, developed, finalized, and then evaluated’ (Nemiro: 2004, pp. 14-15). Similarly, for creativity there are certain mythologies that have tended to drive the use of innovative products, process or ideas. There are not only myths that exist around particular pieces of studio equipment but there are also mythologies that surround the common sense romantic and inspirationist views of creativity that tend to prevail in the studio. As Margaret Boden asserts:

these views are believed by many to be literally true. But they are rarely critically examined. They are not theories, so much as myths: imaginative constructions, whose function is to express the values, assuage the fears, and endorse the practices of the community that celebrates them. (2004, p.14)

In order to explain this act of bringing novel things into being by using a rational approach to it, Keith Sawyer suggests that we are required to ‘look critically at our own cultural assumptions about how creativity works’ and many scientific studies of creativity ‘fail to support our most cherished beliefs about creativity’ (2006, p.33).

Eschewing the mythology, research approaches investigating creative and innovative practice are progressively seeing both creativity and innovation as systemic. For example, Strumsky, Lobo and Tainter assert that ‘innovation is a complex system embedded within other complex systems’(2010, p.498) while Sawyer arrives at a similar conclusion, suggesting that instead of using mythology to explain innovative action, we need to see creativity as an emergent property of a system in action (Sawyer: 2010, p.377). Hennessy and Amabile (2010) also suggest this systemic view will be far more fruitful in understanding these practices than our prior set of myths has been. In line with these ideas Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proposed a systems approach that accounts for the complex multifactorial components that are at work in bringing new things into existence. He argues that:

For creativity to occur, a set of rules and practices must be transmitted from the domain to the individual. The individual must then produce a novel variation in the content of the domain. The variation then must be selected by the field for inclusion in the domain. (1988, p.315)

The domain is seen as a body of knowledge, skills, techniques and conventions a creative agent draws on in order to produce something new. It exists in what Bourdieu calls a field of works. As Jason Toynbee explains in his book Making Popular Music: Musicians, Creativity and Institutions (2000):

Bourdieu uses this term to describe the historical accretion of cultural work done. He also includes established techniques and codes of production under the same head. As he puts it, ‘the heritage accumulated by collective work presents itself to each agent [writer] as a space of possible, that is as an ensemble of probable constraints which are the condition and counterpart of a set of possible uses’ (1996: p.235). (Toynbee: 2000, p.38)

The practices that accompany the use of technology fall within the domain of studio practice and this use exists as a form of knowledge within the field of works. As Howard Becker (1982) points out, though using different terms, an agent’s ability to make creative choices is circumscribed by the limits they work within. These include, amongst many other things, current technology and the techniques needed to utilise that technology (Becker:1982, pp. 26-28). Technology and its use thus form part of the tradition that affords current studio practice to take place. It has a utility that provides options or possibilities for action.

While some suggest that in employing the option to use older gear and processes this action can be simply explained as a form of ‘technostalgia’, a naïve longing for a better time, the reality may in fact be a little more complex. Becky Shepherd justifiably argues that the music press in particular pushes an idealised past using a set of particularly ubiquitous approaches ‘as a means of fuelling this rhetoric of nostalgia and maintaining the supremacy of ‘classic’ or canonical rock music’ (2011, p.2). Sam Bennett pursues these ideas further by arguing ‘it is indeed problematic to suggest that the use of technological precursors in modern recording can be put down to nostalgia alone’ (2012, online). Bennett argues that this position ignores many critical factors that also need to be accounted for when looking at recordist’s choices such as ‘sonic characteristics, aesthetic intention, preferred processes or techniques, availability or accessibility of preferred technologies’ (ibid) and possibly others. As Bennett indicates the choices these recording agents make in the use of older gear, what she refers to as precursors, are not necessarily rebellious by not following a desire to conform to current digital usage (ibid). There may be other more pragmatic reasons at play in their choice making not the least of which is the recognition that recording practice, while a comparatively young art form, can now draw on a tradition that recognises certain pieces of equipment or established processes which have achieved reliably consistent results which now, in turn, have a certain relative quality attached to them.

Just as there has been a variety of digital applications and tools introduced and used over the past twenty-five years, some of which were quickly shelved and some of which have become standard, ‘there is not “one” analogue. Analogue spans over 100 years of technology and all those decades sound completely different’ (Durham in Bennett: 2012, online). Drawing on this array of sounds, either via digital or analogue mediums, is not simply a matter of fashion or technostalgia but is directly related to the way creativity actually operates. What one sees as quality work is always in relation to what one already knows. Quality might be derived in part from the technical but it is by and large a culturally defined attribute. Judgements of taste are not separate from the social or cultural values one holds (Bourdieu 1984). When making aesthetic decisions, a process embedded in creative studio practice, choice-making agents draw on a pre-existing set of knowledge systems. What Csikszentmihalyi calls the domain and Bourdieu (1996) asserts exists in the space of works, then informs their opinion, taste and judgement about what is good or bad, what is valuable or not, what to keep and what to erase. Each operative in the recording studio draws on deeply held and often tacit knowledge to make these decisions as audio professionals (Schon: 1983, p.54). How do they come by this knowledge?

In becoming record producers and engineers these studio professionals acquire a habitus, a ‘feel for the game’ or practical sense of what works or what doesn’t (Johnson in Bourdieu: 1993, p.5). They immerse themselves in the traditions and conventions of recording until this knowledge becomes so naturalised for them that making a judgement call on the quality of a performance or what is the best equipment to use on a session is almost intuitive. But these decisive intuitions are not ‘intuitive’ in the sense of some para-psychological process. Tony Bastick presents sufficient evidence to claim that intuitions are highly explicable as a form of non-linear parallel processing of global multi-categorised information (Bastick: 1982, p.215). In short, all creative people make value distinctions based on the traditions they are part of. Sometimes they are consciously aware of them – sometimes not. When we recognize that something is innovative, judgment is involved in making that recognition. These judgements don’t happen in a vacuum and works judged to be creative and innovative ‘are thus only creative within a specific sociocultural framework’ (McIntyre: 2012, p.5). These propositions can be traced, in part, to the ideas first put forward by Harry Stack Sullivan (1955, p.43). Building on Sullivan’s work Morris Stein proposed a definition of creativity that asserted ‘the creative work is a novel work that is accepted as tenable or useful or satisfying by a group in some point in time’ (1953, p.311). This has become a standard definition. Rothenberg and Hausman suggest that also ‘subsumed under the appropriateness criterion are qualities of fit, utility, and value’ (1976, p.8). It is the mechanism of value distinction coupled with that of social validation that allows us to differentiate between what is creative or what is just eccentric or banal.

Simply because a set of ideas or artefacts is combined in a novel way, this combination, in and of itself, does not make the combination creative or interesting. A judgment, based on knowledge of pre-existing work, needs to be made to distinguish one work from another. (McIntyre: 2012, p.6)

With the above brief literature review as a guide we can then claim that tradition is important in establishing value and while it is argued that digital recording ‘didn’t always produce the most pleasing tones’ (Simon in Bennett: 2012, online), there are complex reasons why digital processes and applications are now also firmly part of the recording tradition. In the case of a number of engineers and producers working in Newcastle NSW, they are used in conjunction with precursor technologies to produce current creative work. In order to contribute to an understanding of this process a series of ethnographic interviews and observations were conducted by the author.

Methodology

Ethnography as a methodology involves a complex set of interrelated methods (Punch: 2005, p.149). Alan Bryman (2001) sets out a series of components that typify this methodology. These include: the immersion of the ethnographer in the group they are studying for an extended period of time; the observation of the group in their natural environment; listening and engaging in conversations with group members; gathering data through interviews with the group; collecting secondary data and documents relating to the group; developing an understanding of the group’s behaviour in context; and carefully writing up the findings of the observations and research (Bryman: 2001, p.291). Prime among these are interviews with key informants and observation in the field. The ethnographic researcher should immerse themselves in the world they are studying (Lull: 1990, p.19) and this requires an investment in certain relationships with key participants (Cohen: 1993, p.125). This research project involved in-depth semi-structured interviews with four experienced record producers from Newcastle NSW and an examination of publicly accessible websites, coupled with a long term involvement on the researcher’s part in the milieu of recording practice in the city. The interview subjects are all working record producers.

Discussion

Each of the record producers observed and interviewed for this project has an idiosyncratic story that explains how they became immersed in both the domain (the traditional skills, practices, techniques and conventions of recording) and the field of record production (the social organisation centred around recording practice). Robbie Long, for example, is an experienced session player, multi-instrumentalist, Australian Flat Pick Guitar Champion and a highly experienced record producer with at least thirty-six commercial releases to his credit. Long moved into the Newcastle region after working extensively in the Sydney metropolitan area. He owns and operates Sound Ideas, which is a ‘32 Track Pro Tools studio based in Newcastle Australia that has been in operation since 2002’ (NMD: 2014, online).

Terry Latham, as a further example, is a classical guitarist and lecturer at the University of Newcastle who teaches guitar and music technology at The Conservatorium. He also teaches aspiring record producers in sound production courses at the University of Newcastle (Latham 2014a). Latham is a respected music industry figure having produced and engineered a wide variety of recordings for numerous artists across many genres for quite a number of years. He currently owns and operates Impromptu Studios in Tighes Hill (Impromptu: 2014, online) which is a central recording facility in the Newcastle popular music tradition. Latham’s regionally iconic studio is featured in Mark Wells’ recent video for Sly (Wells: 2014, online).

Rob Taylor, on the other hand, is an award winning engineer and producer who has worked at the national and international level (Taylor: 2014a, online) with numerous mainstream, independent and digital charting albums and singles to his credit dating from 1992 to the present. He has received multiple-platinum and gold sales awards as well as holding an Advanced Diploma in Audio Engineering and a Masters in audio and acoustics. He is a highly regarded member of the AES and published his work on hyper-compression internationally. Taylor owned and operated Sky High studios in Jesmond, moved to Sydney where he ran 48 Volt and has worked extensively at Rich Studios, Alberts, and The Grove. He was the producer of the highest selling independent album in Australian history, The Whitlams’ Eternal Nightcap, and his recorded work has been positioned four times as Triple J Album of the Week. He produced ARIA award winning albums, recorded with international stars INXS and re-mixed Madonna’s Like a Prayer (IanSandercoe: 2014, online).

Newcastle musician/composer/producer Gareth Hudson owns Hazy Kosmic Jive studio which is built into the side of a hill in Kotara and is one of the more ‘hip’ facilities in the city. Hudson continues to tour internationally and record with his guitar and strings quartet, Hudson Arc. He has produced albums across a wide diversity of genres for award-winning artists such as The Buddy Knox Blues Band, Amy Vee and Auriel Andrew. He has also recorded and written arrangements for artists including The Hilltop Hoods, The Last Kinection, Briggs and The Beards” (Hudson Arc: 2014, online). Hudson is an experienced producer with twenty-three commercial releases to his credit who began immersing himself in the traditional skills, practices, techniques and conventions of record production as a young performer, starting by dubbing from cassette to cassette, before beginning a life-long engagement with professional studios as a band competition winner. In this process he met Mark Tinson, a highly experienced producer who mentored Hudson further into the conventions of the recording tradition. Mark Tinson, commonly known as Tinno, was the house engineer at Studio 21, who recorded with Vanda and Young, was signed to Alberts Records and has performed with two major national acts. Across his forty-year experience as a record producer Tinno produced and mentored bands such as Warner Bros act The Screaming Jets and internationally successful Sony Music artists Silverchair. Gareth Hudson worked with Tinno absorbing information about recording guitars, ‘in particular tuning and intonation and what works, recorded, with guitar parts and all that kind of stuff… I still come to Tinno asking for advice a lot’ (Hudson: 2014). Without an absorption into the tradition of recording, in this case facilitated by mentors, it’s unlikely that any innovative action would be possible for these producers since ‘the continuities of tradition can provide opportunities for innovation’ (Negus and Pickering: 2004, p.103).

Similarly, Robbie Long began his interaction with the tradition of studio work as a session player. While in Sydney he was befriended by Mike Stavrou, an engineer who was trained at AIR studios in London with George Martin, now seen as a much loved figure in the popular music recording tradition. Just as Martin was his mentor, Stavrou was in effect Long’s studio mentor. Satvrou introduced Long to a set of traditional and innovative techniques and conventions. In the process Stavrou reiterated a multitude of studio stories with Paul McCartney, the Pretenders, Elton John, and showed Long techniques such as how to position microphones, set up a mix and appropriate studio behaviour.

Rob Taylor, on the other hand, had a supportive family who helped him build his first studio outfitted with whatever equipment he could find. His father liquid-nailed egg-cartons to the walls, one of Taylor’s sisters gave him an amplifier and speakers. A family friend ‘had an old Teac four track, reel to reel, which they gave me. Somebody else gave me an old Toa mixing console, like a p.a. system, and then I just had some really crappy microphones’ (Taylor: 2014). He began his absorption of the tradition of recording, principally through trial and error with his band and through reading whatever books on the subject he could find. He eventually undertook a Visual Arts degree at the University of Newcastle (UoN) specialising in film and television for its audio component. He began work at the University radio station, 2NUR FM, as the audio component of the course required an engagement with the radio station. Since everything was done on a Revox, editing was undertaken with ‘a chinagraph pencil and a razor blade and some sticky tape and a block. And you’d cut all the vocals up and it was mind numbingly tedious’ (Taylor: 2014) but it gave him a grounding in editing that would prove useful when he eventually moved to Protools. Taylor also trained using 2NURFM’s mobile recording unit and spent ten years working there as a producer eventually winning a Newcastle Music Award for his contribution to the industry. He then moved on to become an assistant engineer in studios in Sydney. ‘It was the most unregulated industry in the world. It was like slave labour. And you were young but you would have done anything’ (Taylor: 2014).

Terry Latham settled in Newcastle along with his brother and his brother’s friends and began playing music with them, recording as much as he could employing a sound-on-sound process originally pioneered through the innovative experiments of Les Paul, before encountering the then ubiquitous Tascam four track cassette recorder. Latham quickly moved on from there, combining an eight track cassette recorder with DAT bouncing to DAT and back again, innovatively reinventing the sound on sound process for himself. Once Atari computers were introduced Latham ‘started digital recording from there’ (Latham: 2014) enveloping himself in what were then new techniques but whose central devices are now seen as historical artefacts of the recording tradition; ‘now I have a few door stops that are old pieces of equipment that were then, you know, state of the art’ (ibid).

One traditional piece of equipment that has not been discarded from the customary toolkit of many experienced producers but continues to be part of the generation of innovative recordings, is the Neumann U87 microphone. The U87 is one of those pieces of equipment which has achieved reliably consistent results, is now conventionally valued for its quality and is especially used in an effort to reintroduce certain desirable audio characteristics into what is perceived as a ‘brittle’ digital environment. As Rob Taylor insists, ‘You can’t go past a Neumann U87’ (Taylor: 2014). While he himself is not a big fan of the U87, he argues they still perform a particular role along with the traditional AKG 414s and 457s which are his favourite microphones. For him they add a certain grainy character. Taylor explains the changes their innovative use has produced and reiterates the idea that analogue recording was a battle between noise floor, distortion and headroom, while the digital recording tradition has centred its customary practice around adding warmth, graininess and character to what is perceived to be a pristine audio world:

Analogue was very dirty. So everyone tried to be very clean. Then we had digital, and digital was really clean, and so it was kind of like a reverse process, you wanted to dirty it up a bit. Now, when you go to old circuitry, you’re including a lot of noise. Noise is good. Noise is not bad at all. It adds a certain character, but I think it plays with your mind, I think there’s a psycho acoustic affect to this. (Taylor: 2014)

Gareth Hudson, the least traditionally inclined producer in this group, is moving however toward the use of older ribbon microphones hoping they will be useful as drum overheads, for guitars and to compensate for the bright surfaces his studio exhibits and especially for piano since the sound in the room ‘is quite tinny with the bricks and stuff and the Coles Ribbons, along with the ETR pre-amp, might just kind of warm it up a little bit more’ (Hudson: 2014).

Robbie Long, on the other hand needs no convincing of the use of what can be now seen as traditionally conventional microphones, having a dedicated collection of older U87s and U87As which he uses for vocals and acoustic instruments. He has been using the U87s with the customary practice of using mid-side miking techniques on guitars and mandolins. However, for the U87s, he switches to a figure eight pattern, turning the microphone sideways and then adds a small pencil microphone ‘over the top and shoot it straight at the instrument and it just captures something really nice. You just combine them and, wow, it just brings it alive’ (Long: 2014). However his ‘secret weapon’ is the Electro-Voice RE-20 a microphone developed over fifty years ago for radio broadcast use which was then innovatively adapted for use in the recording studio. Despite his use of much newer digital recording devices, Long asserts that, ‘there’s not much you can’t throw the RE-20 in front of. I use it a lot for vocals and it’s kind of cool because it’s much more forgiving than a big condenser’ (Long: 2014).

Terry Latham, while also maintaining a collection of older microphones, eschews these traditional devices for the innovative Audio Technica designs. His ‘go to’ microphone for acoustic instruments is the AT4050 multi-pattern condenser with a 10db pad. He believes it has the same function as the AKG414 insisting the 4050 is ‘just a beautiful clean sounding mic…If it’s an instrument that needs a bit of help I’ll go to another mic’ (Latham: 2014). His choice at this point also includes a Rode NT2000, an innovative microphone recently designed to replicate the U87, which has an infinitely variable polar pattern ‘so you can actually get some really interesting things happening’ (Latham: 2014).

Each of these engineer-producer’s microphone choices is coupled with an array of pre-amp choices. Given the lack of necessity to use a traditional mixing desk to route signal in the digital environment, preamps have become the favoured mode of inputting signal in this world. Hudson in particular favours what was then an innovatively designed ETR pre-amp made in Newcastle in the ‘80s and which was sold to him by Tony Heads, another noted and long-time Newcastle producer. ‘It’s a Class A, really low noise, beautiful sounding piece of gear. The circuitry is transistor primarily’ (Hudson: 2014). Hudson has added a few innovations of his own to the pre-amp having it modified and rebuilt but he insists he can now ‘drive it a bit harder and get a bit more distortion if I need it. It’s really nice on vocals. I use different mics on vocals but that pre-amp is just super clean and I like the warmth’ (Hudson: 2014). On the other hand Terry Latham favours his Universal Audio 4-710D which ‘combines UA’s classic design approach with several modern innovations’ (Putnam:2011, p. 6) but he does not use it conventionally, reasoning that he can achieve a wide set of applicable sounds with it:

It’s just four channels which can be used up to 192 kilohertz on its digital output or it’s got a straight analogue output. And I find although it’s a great device the A to D in the SSL is better than it so I actually use it only on its analogue side. There’s valve components in it but it actually has a system where you can go from a blend of solid state through to valve. You can just tweak it to get that little bit of distortion if you’re driving it hard. And it also has soft compression onboard, quite warm actually. It’s a beauty yeah. (Latham: 2014)

Robbie Long has ‘a bit of everything’ (Long: 2014). He favours the Avalon 737, has APIs for drums because of their suitability for mid frequency range instruments. Long also has a UAD solo 610 which he is impressed by. ‘It’s just warm. It’s just fat, really fat and warm’ (Long: 2014). The UAD uses more traditional valve technology and Long adapts it for his own purposes. It has ‘a really nice EQ. I don’t like the compressor. I don’t even turn the compressor on but the EQs are great’ (Long: 2014). He also taps into the traditions established by ‘big name’ producers who may have been innovative in their day but are now working methodically in their own well-established mode. Long, displaying a high degree of both social and symbolic capital, proudly claims he has:

…an old real sort of show piece I guess. It’s a Siemens Telefunken V72 which was probably the first one I got. [Award winning producer] Garth Porter had a whole bunch of them. And every second engineer you talk to or producer’s got one that they got off Garth. (Long: 2014)

These sets of microphones and pre-amps may or may not be used by these engineer-producers in conjunction with traditional mixing desks, an innovative approach to studio set ups that has become increasingly customary. Terry Latham, for example, has eschewed the use of a classic desk in his studio set up, moving progressively toward a fully digital set up arguing that the reason for this move was the increasing demands of his client base. This commercial imperative in turn led him to sell off his analogue 24 track:

What I currently use now is SSL I/O for Pro Tools and Cubase. And it works on MIDI and it gives me up to 64 channels in and out of either a Mac or a PC but I’m running it mainly on a PC at the moment. And then preamps I’ve got Universal Audio, PreSonus, AFX, a plethora of things and, yeah, and then it’s all controlled via a SSL Nucleus controller. (Latham: 2014)

Emulating the traditional use of mixing desks, the introduction of controllers such as the SSL Nucleus or the Avid C24 control surface were largely attempts to re-invent and re-purpose what was an ergonomically friendly working tool. However, Robbie Long has resisted this return to an outboard signal router not finding it necessary to use a mixing desk at all. He debated for a long time as to whether to equip himself with a traditional mixing desk wondering whether it was simply ‘the lure of the dials and the knobs and the faders’ (Long: 2014). He couldn’t justify the purchase as ‘I need total recall’ (Long: 2014). He is considering a control surface but prefers to use a mouse and mix in the box. He asserts that ‘No one really likes mixing with a mouse but you can get there’ (Long: 2014) and he uses ‘a lot of quick pre-sets and templates and that sort of thing so I can pull up this, that and the other, so yeah, I can work reasonably quickly with a mouse’ (Long: 2014). However, he also realises the advantageous ergonomics of using a desk or control surface that may be worth considering especially in regard to his history of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) (Long: 2014).

Gareth Hudson has other reasons for not using a traditional mixing desk working, as many in the digital world do, solely with preamps and a DAW; ‘I’ve just never experienced anything else for what I do’ (Hudson: 2014). However, he has been taking note of what his more traditional mentor has been doing and may succumb to the romance of the knobs and dials, updated through the use of a surface controller, and is considering purchasing ‘something like the one Tinno’s been using. Because I do like the idea of just being able to not use the mouse and just be able to kind of use faders and stuff’ (Hudson: 2014).

Also steeped in the conventions of recording, Rob Taylor has used a wide variety of classic desks in his career (including the SSL E and G series), and in the process has seen the shift from more traditional tape-based recording devices to what was then seen as innovative digital software. When Taylor set up his first owned and operated studio, Sky High in Jesmond, he and his partner, Dave Henderson, used a Tascam DA800 as a recording device. ‘Very, very popular machines. They defined a generation, to me, in the ’90s’ (Taylor: 2014). Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) also became increasingly popular in this transitional period before software such as Pro Tools became ubiquitous. Taylor remarks that Pro Tools was initially used as an emulator but when he took the position of chief-engineer at The Grove (formerly Mangrove Studios), he used a Sony 3348, then a Studer A827 and then an A80. ‘We had a Logic system, which we used for sequencing in those days, your MIDI programming, and it would lock up really well to any kind of machine, beautifully. So it all happened all of a sudden, around mid-2000’ (Taylor: 2014). As with Latham’s experience, described above, the change from analogue to digital became a matter of commercial necessity for them. As Taylor explains:

suddenly the manager, Fiona Simpson, said “We’ve got to get Pro Tools. All the sessions are coming in on Pro Tools”. And it literally was, “well, okay, can we afford it?” We had to go out and spend $30,000 for a really basic Pro Tools system 24 track. One of the fantastic things about the Pro Tools system was that they could synchronise to an analogue tape machine and they could word-sync which all the others couldn’t do. If you were running audio from Logic and you’re trying to sync to an analogue machine, forget it, because they couldn’t sample rate follow. The analogue machine would be wowing all over the place. But Pro Tools could actually sync and follow the tape. So in those days it was still an extension to the analogue. (Taylor: 2014)

For Robbie Long the move was from four track cassette which eventually progressed to programming with an MC500. ‘So I kind of saw that whole tradition’ (Long: 2014). For him, the first computer he used had a version of Cubase on board that just did MIDI. ’ kind of held back for years before I really went the full hog with the computer. I just didn’t trust it. I didn’t believe it’ (Long: 2014). His experiences with a faulty tape based digital recorder, a Tascam DA88, one of the first produced, didn’t help his initial approach to what were then very innovative digitally-based recording devices. He then purchased a Fostex eight track hard drive before using an ‘Atari version of Cubase, or whatever it was, for MIDI’ (Long: 2014). He then bought a Mac G4, with a DIGI001 interface and the Pro Tools LE system and after ten years the G4 became redundant. Once again the client base proved influential in the change:

There were customers coming in who had better rigs than me, so I went, ‘Righto’. One of the customers had bought himself a Cubase rig on a pretty lightning fast PC and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not going back to PC’, but he said, ‘Well look, it works great. How about you use it’, because he didn’t want it and he just dumped it on me. So I had that for years. (Long: 2014)

As they progressed in their recording careers, melding innovative practice with traditional equipment and innovative equipment with customary practices, each of these engineer-producers became very familiar with the variety of innovative plug-ins that are now conventionally available to them. Most of them have encountered, for example, Universal Audio’s UAD plug-ins and they are all familiar with the now customary suites that come with programs such as Cubase and Pro Tools. Terry Latham suggests that:

They let you get to a certain point. I prefer to capture the best sound quality I can and do as minimal amount of onboard editing as possible unless I’m trashing something. So there’s a few things that I’ll sometimes come back out of the box and do, whether it’s re-amping a signal or its actually just getting a room sound, because some of the rooms at my studio if I place mics in the right spot and fire the signal back in I can actually get another reverb. (Latham: 2014)

In which case one can claim that Latham is innovatively using the traditional real-time procedures some of the plug-ins have been designed to replicate. However, he does not seek out plug-ins that are simply replicas of older outboard equipment using what comes with the package but he does appreciate their link to what is now a traditional view; ‘a couple of them emulate valve technology which is the pinnacle really’ (Latham: 2014). Robbie Long declares that, for him, plug-ins have become a necessity and they are themselves fast becoming traditional. ‘Well I rely on them’ (Long: 2014). He has become accustomed to particular plug-ins and the way they work using the API EQs and the SSL modules. Indicating how quickly innovative designs can become traditional tools he refers to these devices as:

sort of old school style plug-ins that I understand and can quickly pull up a pre-set and then go from there or just tool around. I mean, I’m starting to buy hardware EQs and compressors and I’m really finding that’s making a difference, especially tracking. It’s night and day. (Long: 2014)

Rob Taylor, however, has ‘got tons of custom plug ins. Oodles. The Logic plug-ins are probably the best you’re going to get that are bundled with any system’ (Taylor: 2014). In terms of specifics he also thinks the ‘Ad Limiter, which is the mastering limiter, is probably the best. It’s better than anything…It’s always a mainstay’ (Taylor 2014). While the Logic Adaptive Limiter is not completely replicating older equipment many of the plug-ins Taylor uses are. The Logic Tape Delay, for example, has become a standard tool for him because it ‘sounds like the real thing’ (Taylor: 2014). Many of the plug-ins he uses are constantly being compared to the sounds of the more traditional outboard gear he ‘has in his head’ such as the Roland Space Echo. This much sought after older device forms part of, as Bourdieu (1996) argues, the ‘field of works’ for record production and is composed of the accumulation of gear, all prior recordings and the body of conventions and techniques they represent. This accumulated heritage ‘presents itself to each agent as a space of possibles’ (Toynbee: 2000, p. 38). Drawing on this field of works allows an agent, choice making producers such as Taylor, Long, Latham or Hudson to engage their habitus, that is, the set of learned dispositions to action that have become naturalised for them.

A similar tacit audio memory operates for most experienced producers and engineers in regard to monitors. Taylor prefers the Genelec 1031A’s since ‘I know what they sound like and I know how they translate’ (Taylor: 2014). He sees these monitors as the successor to the use of NS10s or even Auratones as traditional reference monitors:

I listened to NS10s for 10 years and I always hated them. But I had a really good set of NS10s which were sort of hot-dogged and I had a really good Perreaux amplifier which went with the NS10s and I had them tweaked, I had a bit of circuitry thrown in there and stuff, and they actually sounded really good for NS10s. (Taylor: 2014)

Terry Latham declares that his ‘favourite are the Dynaudio BM15A powered monitors’ (Latham: 2014) which he bought second hand approximately twelve years ago. He ‘just can’t believe that they’re still so good now and everyone loves them’ (Latham: 2014). Gareth Hudson uses Tannoy 800s which he has used customarily for a decade. Hudson isolates one simple reason many record producers and engineers build customary practises around certain monitors. He says, ‘I know how they sound and I’d be a bit scared, I think, to try anything else. I’m used to referencing everything on those… For everything, the speakers are so valuable’ (Hudson: 2014).

Apart from the use of particular pieces of equipment that form a bedrock of continuity within a fast changing technological field there are some innovative studio processes, as opposed to equipment, that have themselves also become traditional or conventional; a standard set of procedures techniques and conventions so naturalised they now no longer warrant a great deal of attention. One of these is the use of a click track. These are used to keep musicians in regular time and were an innovation introduced in the ‘70s for a number of reasons. While musicians may purposefully increase tempos through a song, especially as they transition to a chorus, the need for editing various pieces together, either from within the one take or across a number of takes, precludes this musical tendency toward variable tempos. To circumvent the rigid feels that then began to proliferate in the ‘80s many drum machines such as the Yamaha RX7 were innovatively designed to sway around a regular beat. But this process, according to Rob Taylor, who has used click tracks extensively in his career, didn’t account for the musician’s intent of playing around the beat on purpose:

Those drum machines had a swing algorithm that just randomly threw the time out. But it was all too random; it didn’t have the human element behind it. Whereas you know, a drummer will go back beat, and then on beat, and then ahead of the beat, specifically. (Taylor: 2014).

For this procedure, one that was at one time innovative and is now simply a traditional part of recording, Hudson, Long and Latham tend to agree that there are both advantages and disadvantages to its use some of which are musical and some are technical. ‘Look, it’s really project dependent’ says Robbie Long who eschews a click for styles such as rockabilly. However, for approximately 75% of his sessions he uses a click track especially:

..if there’s going to be a lot of editing down the other side, a lot of post-production stuff, it’s so much easier to work on a grid, so I’ll tend to go that way…It’s just really knowing how this is going to work later. I’m happy to do some tweaking on the way in, whereas back in the day I was told just to leave it alone but these days, I’ve done enough to sort of know… I’m thinking ‘what do I want the end product to be’. It’s kind of up to me because it’s probably going to be mixed by me and quite possibly going to be mastered by me as well. (Long: 2014)

For Long the necessity of taking on the function of mastering as well as recording and mixing is a process that is becoming more conventional. This adaption of a traditional process is primarily a function of reduced budgets. ‘If there’s budget, I’ll tell them straight up “please try and keep a thousand or 15 hundred dollars for mastering at the end and then we’ll take it offsite” ’ (Long: 2014). In which case he will employ Rick O’Neill at Turtlerock Mastering and ‘sometimes it happens, if they’re serious’ (Long: 2014). Despite some of the budgets he works with, Gareth Hudson also realises the efficacy of using a specialist mastering engineer. He regularly uses the work of Don Bartley from Benchmark Mastering who tends to innovatively route the final mastered digital signal through an old analogue Ampex ATR 2-track ½” tape machine. ‘He gets a couple of extra dB that way and the transients all come together and it just sounds more cohesive. That sort of sounds more natural, that compression at the end, I think’ (Hudson: 2014).

Apart from a belief in the necessity of quality mastering, each of these producers also has a particular adaptive attitude to either digital or tape based procedures. For example, Terry Latham has found an innovate approach to manipulating pitch and time:

Some of the things you could do with tape just by slowing it down a little bit you can’t really do in the digital domain. The problem is trying to keep it at the same pitch and time stretch it, which you can’t do in analogue. In time it gets very grainy very quickly especially if it’s polyphony as opposed to a single line that’s happening which is a little bit more forgiving. But there’s some things you can do with the clock speed in some devices where you can actually change the clock speed ever so slightly and it emulates it but some software will just crash on you and say no, no we’ve lost sync. But I’ve got an old [digital] hardware recorder which is a Mackie HDR and you can actually tweak the time there and it slows down. So it just gently changes the sampling rate and then brings it back up again and it does emulate it a little. You’ve got to cope with it as an engineer especially if we’re using MIDI as the basis for a piece. (Latham: 2014)

Given Latham’s experiences, he finds the digital approach very convenient especially in regard to editing. He has become expert at visual editing, a change from the importance of audio editing, which has increased his work rate. ‘Another friend of mine in the industry says ‘it costs me money to go this way because I’m so much quicker’ [laughing]. But, unfortunately, no it just works’ (Latham: 2014). Even the tape-based process typified by reversing audio ‘is so much easier to do in the digital way’ and ‘then the way cross fades work now is just so much easier as well, yeah’ (Latham: 2014).

For Gareth Hudson, digital recording is paramount not because it’s easier but because ‘it’s all I know really’ (Hudson: 2014). However, looking back he is intrigued by the possibilities tape-based procedures might present. For example, his piano tuner is at the point of retirement and will be selling his equipment including some older tape machines. Hudson is considering purchasing them to ‘learn how to use them properly and just have something different in the studio as an option’ (Hudson: 2014). His approach is to experiment as much as possible using whatever innovative techniques come to hand even though these may have been developed in an older time and transferred to his favoured digital environment. For example, he likes to reverse certain tracks.

You might have a particular line playing normally and then you create another track and reverse it against it so it gives it a kind of…it’s almost like a reverb delay kind of effect underneath. I do that all the time with pianos in particular. And you can do that in the box too with reverbs. You can reverse the reverb signal but it always sounds better to do it manually because you can just manipulate certain notes…you get a note tailing off on a piano and then something sneaks in behind it and it sounds really cool. Everyone’s feeling it. (Hudson: 2014)

Rob Taylor has also been considering the future implications of what each world, the traditional analogue and the supposedly innovative digital approach, will bring to the future of recording. What will be kept that will be innovatively useful and what will be discarded from the tradition? For him there is the consideration of the difference between digital summing and analogue summing. By routing signal out of the box into a product such as the SSL Sigma, a DAW automated Super Analogue summing engine, there is more of a chance to create ‘that analogue feel but you’re getting the digital thing’ (Taylor: 2014). He believes this confluence of analogue and digital ‘is going to be the future of it…so there’s an example of using something from analogue that has now become part of the standard’ (Taylor: 2014). For Taylor this confluence of both worlds is not, at its heart, novel:

With the advent of digital technology, there are a hell of a lot of processes that are new and there are a hell of a lot of processes that are old but just made in a different way. The older processes have become more ‘amplified’ because you have so much more control over it. So yes, of course, you’re always using a lot of the old techniques but you’re having to deliver them in a different fashion. Anything to digital now is all just sort of locked in to a specific zone. (Taylor: 2014)

For Taylor there are specific ways to deal, as an engineer or producer, with either an analogue or digital approach to recording processes:

When you go back to sitting in front of an SSL and a tape machine, like an analogue tape machine, it’s a different world, and you engineer it completely differently. You think about it differently and luckily I have all that in my head, but the kids wouldn’t know. They’d have no idea…Whereas, you know, it was a completely different headspace. You had to think differently. It was like a chess game. You really had to think in advance. You couldn’t say ‘Well, look, that will be fixed up in the edit’…And you didn’t have half of the ability to repair…So, yes, a completely different headspace. You would engineer completely differently and you would produce differently. (Taylor: 2014)

Taylor also suggests that there are other factors to consider not the least of which is, once again, budget:

In those days, there was an acceptance that things took time. There was an acceptance that things cost a lot of money to make. Now there’s no money…So it’s as fast as you can possibly get it done. So no. You have to use everything you’ve got in your power to make it happen like within a fraction of a second so that somebody’s not sitting there bored, or saying ‘I’m not paying for this’. It would depend upon the scenario. If I was doing something for myself or something for a client who understood the process and didn’t mind spending some money, I would draw on everything from the previous era, and just augment it with what we’ve got now. (Taylor: 2014)

He argues that with the number of young engineers being schooled in various audio engineering colleges around the world, with Pro Tools being the prime medium, those engineers who are mainly familiar with digital are often ‘romancing about analogue and they’ve hardly ever heard it or worked on it…They’re remembering something that they’ve never had anything to do with’ (Taylor: 2014). But as an engineer-producer who has seen a number of significant changes in the recording world, as Long and Latham also have, he knows ‘exactly what it does, and I can tell you there’s limitations’ (Taylor: 2014). Taylor agrees that there does appear to be a nostalgia for a period many people have never lived through but for him ‘it’s a remembrance of stuff that works and a remembrance of stuff that doesn’t’ (Taylor: 2014).

Conclusion

With the above as a guide we can see that Csikszentmihalyi’s assertion that the ‘new’ is meaningful only in reference to the ‘old’ and the point that ‘original thought does not exist in a vacuum’ (1999: p.315) may be apt. All of these producers are moving forward with their techniques, skills, processes and equipment with an eye to keeping the best of what works and discarding very quickly what doesn’t. They bring a wealth of experience to their productions and while they rely on tried and tested pieces of equipment they realise each project delivers its own set of constraints and affordances. They are all adept at making decisions, using their experience to guide them, experience that draws just as much on their musicianship, engagement with other operatives in the field and accumulated aesthetic judgement, as it does on their knowledge of the studio, their equipment and the various processes they engage with. Each has drawn on a tradition of recording they have been mentored into or learnt through a hard won process of trial and error, or both. They were absorbed into the complex system of studio practice by immersing themselves into the knowledge system of recording which continues to present itself to them as ‘a space of possibles, that is as an ensemble of probable constraints which are the condition and counterpart of a set of possible uses’ (Bourdieu: 1996, p.235). The tradition they engage with is a dynamic one. It is added to, subtracted from and built upon by the collective input of engineer-producers like these. Their innovative studio practice and their ability to create works of popular music in the studio is what they are paid for. Through that process they continually judge work to be worthy, of value, of quality, as they draw on the accumulated heritage available to them. In this case we can claim that tradition is very much part and parcel of the process of being innovative and this realisation moves us well beyond the idea that this engagement with, and use of, the past is simply a form of nostalgia. There is a complexity to this process that must be accounted for. Finally, we can also affirm that rather than tradition and innovation being diametrically opposed to each other they are, in fact, complementary.

Acknowledgements

This research has been made possible by an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project grant, Creativity and Cultural Production in the Hunter: An Applied Ethnographic Study of New Entrepreneurial Systems in the Creative Industries, undertaken in collaboration with TehnicaCPT and Newcastle Now.

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