Henri Matisse (Painter, 1869-1954) was once quoted as having said: “Much of the Beauty that arises in art comes from the struggle an artist wages with his limited medium.”
This strikes a chord with me. First, a little background: I remember buying my first recording device somewhere around 1996. I sat in my room for hours and hours at a time, putting together little “experimental” noise jams and writing terrible songs and recording them. Around 1998, I got a 4-track cassette recorder, discovered how to bounce tracks and started trying to put together more elaborate songs, struggling all the while against the hiss of the crappy tapes I bought, while trying to stay focused for so long.
As home recording started taking off, 4-tracks got cheaper and I ended up with a pretty nice tape recorder that had an onboard EQ. By this time, I could play the drums and bass and I started going wild with making recordings. It was fun but it was still a struggle – I had 7 tracks, at most, that I could record to and then I would record that to my mom’s stereo tape player, so that I would end up with a cassette that I could listen to in my walkman. [This means that for a three minute song, I would have to spend at least 25 minutes recording it, not including FF & RW time and providing that I pulled every track off flawlessly the first time - which never happened.]
Today, musicians have access to almost unlimited available tracks to record to on their home computers. For just a few hundred dollars’ investment, you can make an epic recording with 6 guitars, 2 basses, 25 mics on your drum kit, 5 tracks of vocal harmonies, a tuba, flugel horn and viola – and then double track those and still be able to invite the neighbourhood kids out to do a vocal track each.
This is a pretty awesome time to be a creative musician.
All the same though, when I think about those old songs and I listen to those dusty tapes, I feel like there’s something …’more’ in those recordings. I’m a much better writer now and I understand a lot more about audio and recording than I did then. I have better microphones and I still try to write and record songs that are dynamic, layered and interesting to listen to but somehow, the ones from when I was younger just FEEL more.
I think a part of the reason is because of the struggle that it was to capture my ideas back then. The fun turning into frustration, morphing into motivation and finally growing into the sense of achievement at having completed a song, no matter how crappy the song might have been – that kind of stuff comes across in art. Nowadays though, I can do whatever I want and if I screw it up, I can just punch-in a new part. I can sing the refrain once and just copy+paste it, I can sample literally any song ever recorded and just add my voice on top. I can change any sound so that it sounds like anything I want – and I do! But it doesn’t feel quite the same as it used to.
Maybe this is a part of the reason why so many complain about the “state of music” these days. Maybe it’s just that we’re not having to fight so hard anymore and so we lose the feeling of sweat and inspiration in the recorded material. Maybe this is why so many bands’ debut albums touch us so profoundly but their sophomore releases get bad reviews. Maybe, like Henri Matisse said, when a thing becomes too easy, much of it’s beauty is lost.
I think I’m going to dust of my old 4-track cassette recorder and try giving it another go …I’ll have to find a place that still sells cassette tapes. Maybe I’ll write a song for my son, Quest. Maybe it’ll be almost as beautiful as he is.