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Is technology robbing music's soul?

Is there a hole in the soul of music? Have human imperfections been completely removed from nearly all music, and is that a bad thing?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read

Have you ever really thought about the difference between the way older and present-day recordings affect you? I'm not so much talking about sound quality; older recordings have a very different feel. They have more juice, more soul, more life, and that's why they connect with people in a completely different way than hyperprocessed contemporary music does.

There's a big hole in the soul of music Steve Guttenberg

Today, for example, Auto-Tuned vocals are so ubiquitous that my friend, mastering engineer Dave McNair, exclaimed, "The only way to know for sure a vocal hasn't been Auto-Tuned, is an out of tune vocal." So once a new technology is available, the engineers can't resist using it. This isn't so much about analog versus digital recording formats. No, it's the way recordings are made. Too many are assembled out of bits and pieces of sound to create technically perfect, but soulless music. It's not that great music can't be made with computers, but it's sure less likely to get my mojo workin'.

That's not just my opinion. Daptone Records founder Gabe Roth said, "You used to have people together in a room playing a song; now they make records that try to sound like people together playing a song." Drummer/producer Steve Jordan is very much aware of the problem that plagues so many contemporary recordings, and he said, "When you're spending too much time 'perfecting' the music, you're probably going to lose the feel. Human beings' heart rates aren't steady, they go up and down, but that's exactly what's being extracted from a lot of today's music."

So the question is: has music become too perfect, and lost its way? Lord knows I'm not talking about the sound (quality) of music. It generally sounds like crap, and it's overly compressed, equalized, and processed. Computer editing systems scrub every last bit of humanity out of the music, so all that's left is glistening perfection, which has little to do with the way the band played in the first place.

In the days before a computer ever graced a studio, great recordings were regularly made in a day or two. Bob Dylan's earliest albums, the first Beatles, and hundreds of now classic Blue Note jazz albums were all knocked out in less than a day. A record might be recorded, mixed, mastered, and released in a week. That was possible because in those days engineers captured complete performances; most of today's pop/rock music is assembled out of fragments of highly processed sound. The robotic, mechanical, purely synthetic perfection can take weeks or months to accomplish. I thought computers were supposed to streamline creativity, not slow it down.

Novelist Rick Moody ("The Ice Storm"; "The Four Fingers of Death") was on the Soundcheck radio show this past Monday, discussing the same trend.

I wrote about soulless sound in greater depth in a recent Stereophile article, The Deflavorizing Machine.