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The music industry is fighting for its analog soul

The music industry is fighting for its analog soul


‘Don’t let the technology get in the way of your old-school values’

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2019 NAMM show.
2019 NAMM show.

The energy, hairstyles, and noise of the National Association of Music Merchants show, NAMM, are unlike anything I’ve witnessed in a decade of trade shows all over the world. NAMM brings together the crowd that’s fighting to keep music’s analog soul alive and well. You may think that the future of music making — and even the present, judging by the charts — is to be reduced down to a box, like most digital things, but NAMM’s attendees show how the music industry continues to embrace its analog roots.

Over the course of this past week, the Anaheim Convention Center was filled with a raucous cacophony of guitars, ukuleles, banjos, drums, cymbals, harmonicas, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, tubas, trombones, pianos, and a few weird hybrid creations in between. Even the synthesizer companies were touting their ability to recreate real-world instruments, with brass being the latest innovation. DJ decks and production consoles strewn with knobs and buttons, fog machines, spotlights, arena speakers, and cute accessories like ornamental guitar straps and perforated plectrums just kept adding to the pile of analog delights to be touched, played, and experienced at the show. In one of the sessions discussing how future sensor technology might be used to turn every surface into an instrument, Shaun Detmer, marketing chief for the very techie and not at all musically inclined Touch International, put it into words: “NAMM is the last outpost of the analog world.”

Tech’s progress over the course of my lifetime has been toward digitizing everything. Most of the icons on your smartphone’s home screen were once physical devices in the real world. Much of that is happening in music as well, though the particular crowd assembled at the NAMM show was more enthused to hear live performances and try out instruments, and many of the music industry’s leading lights were warning novice music makers away from boiling everything down to a software interface on-screen.

Julian Colbeck and Alan Parsons
Julian Colbeck and Alan Parsons.

The question of how to blend music and tech together is both fascinating and polarizing

Legendary audio engineer and producer Alan Parsons represents this dichotomy well. He was in attendance to talk up the potential of Sennheiser’s Ambeo microphones to create a whole new class of binaural recordings. And he had praise for the democratization of music making that’s taken place over recent years with the help of technology. So he’s no musical Luddite. However, he offered a note of caution to his audience: “A dozen microphones and a thousand [production software] plug-ins come out every week ... but I don’t think necessarily that plug-ins win Grammys. Don’t let the technology get in the way of your old-school values.”

The instinctive attraction toward keeping the organic, the serendipitous, and the imperfectly beautiful seems to be at the root of music’s enduring relationship with analog tools and instruments. Walking by a Mix with the Masters session, I caught a long-tenured audio engineer saying, “That’s how I got it, and I could have fixed that, but I liked it so I kept it in.” Vance Powell, a producer with six Grammy awards who says he likes to have the entire band playing in the studio at the same time, said in another session that he doesn’t mind having recordings of individual instruments bleeding into one another, and he has posted a cool YouTube explainer for how to mic up a studio to generate a natural sound.

The defining quality of digital things is their unerring and untiring precision. There’s no human fallibility involved. It’s automatic, which also leaves little room for a musician to distinguish themselves with their performance. Acoustic instruments, on the other hand, each have their own character. The same note will sound different when played on a guitar versus a piano. And the same guitar design will sound different depending on the wood that was used to make it. Even microphones and headphones, whose underlying design purpose is to not color the music, each add a particular flavor to the audio they capture and produce.

Music is more than just an arrangement of pleasant sounds; it’s a performance, too

One of my favorite NAMM show moments was when I stumbled upon a gent, already soaked in sweat from having been performing for a while, playing a set of drums with brushes. He was gesticulating, grimacing, and leaning in and out of his performance — and all of that went into the fun of watching and hearing him play. I was impressed by the high tempo and precision he was maintaining, despite the fact that everything in his body will have been telling him to slow down and have a drink of water. The self-discipline required to create beautiful music on command is part of why we value live music more highly than a pre-recorded version, even if the latter is more perfect.

Pro DJs are familiar with the performance deficits of digital music, which is why they keep adding more performative elements to their acts. More strobe lights, smoke machines, hair dye, extroverted costumes, etc. It’s why deadmau5 wears a giant mouse mask and Bear Grillz dresses up with a bear mask with illuminated eyes. There is certainly skill and art in what they do, but it’s not really physical. This is very much analogous to the struggle of competitive gaming to earn respect, on par with athletic sports. We like to see people transcending human limitations, but when they do it via digital means, it feels like cheating. At any rate, the achievement becomes less obvious than when it’s reached through physical exertion.

The question of how to best blend technology and music together is neither new nor likely to find a clear resolution anytime soon. But it’s deeply fascinating and often polarizing. There are those who believe Auto-Tune is the work of a ruinous demon (many of them Verge commenters, it turns out), and then there are others who see it as a useful creative tool, supplementing what we already have. At the NAMM show, I got to hear mostly from people who feel like music is, as Erykah Badu sang, an “analog girl in a digital world.” Stalwarts of the music industry like Parsons aren’t aloof to the benefits of digital technology, but they embrace it selectively, using it to augment rather than completely transform what they do. And that’s how it should be.

Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge