Dan Newcome, blog

I'm bringing cyber back

DIY wins the day

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In the mid-90s, I was a college student, newly relegated to a dormitory room after having had ample room for my music endeavors at my parents’ home several hours across the state of Pennsylvania.

What I lacked in space, I made up for in newly-acquired access to the wonderful World Wide Web of information. You see, having a dorm room ethernet connection was my first link to the world outside of single-user bulletin board systems that I used to dial into in high school. Those boards had something called `email’ that was sent over the `Internet’, but the power of such things were masked to me because they were hidden behind the disconnected nature of the dial-up bulletin board.

How does this relate to making music? In high school, I was very involved in recording bands using the best gear that I could afford. This included an enormous Tascam 38 1/2 inch tape machine and associated mixing desk, along with DBX noise reduction units, snakes, and requisite wiring harnesses to make the whole thing work. I learned by trial and error on this cumbersome rig using time-consuming tape handling and splicing techniques. During this time, I became aware of many independent music labels and bands embracing the DIY or `do it yourself’ ethos of recording music. DIY was something I could certainly relate to, because that is exactly what I was doing! However, I was missing an essential idea that was espoused in the burgeoning DIY scene: I was trying to hard to be `good’ — to be perfect.

The idea of not obsessing about the technical details of the recording was so endemic in the DIY scene, that it had its own term: lo-fi. The way that the term was bandied about didn’t sit well with me. Of course the idea of making records was to make it sound like a `real’ recording — like something that you would hear on the radio — something that would separate you from the amateur recording engineer.

Being separated from my beloved recording rig, I sought a new outlet for my recording urges. Luckily, I had gravitated to recording-oriented Usenet groups and found what I thought was a good temporary solution: the lowly 4-track cassette recorder. I would buy a cheap unit and when I would get home for the summer I would do `real’ recordings on my `real’ equipment.

Little did I know that buying a 4-track would change the way I thought about recording music forever. I became fearless. Having constant access to a recording device was intoxicating. I quickly filled up tape after tape with reckless abandon, owing to the fact that tapes were so much cheaper than 1/2 tape reels that I was used to, that it almost felt free. There was practically no set up time. I could record anything I wanted to anytime. If I had a riff in my head I could record it in seconds rather than rolling out tons of equipment and spending hours setting it up just to get to the first step of actually getting a sound on tape.

I was now recording anything and everything. I began building a corpus of sound bites that I would go back to for more  inspiration. This iterative process of coming up with ideas did not exist for me when the barrier to entry was high just to commit something to tape. As profound as this change was, it didn’t hit me fully until later, when I got back home to my big recording setup.

As personally liberating as the 4-track was, I didn’t see the same reactions in other people. Not yet. Lo-fi music remained an underground phenomenon, albeit an influential one, but self-recorded, self-released music was regarded as inferior by most people.

Technology has a funny way of accelerating things in ways we don’t fully understand until we are profoundly affected by the change. We are in control one minute, and hurling toward an unknown destiny the next. Take the music industry for example: technology worked in its favor during the heyday of the Compact Disc, but was its undoing in the era of the mp3. Both technologies were digital distribution forms, but the music industry miscalculated how long it could continue to milk the CD cash cow before turning its attention to digital downloads. Mp3s were good enough to be disruptive but not good enough for the incumbents to take notice until they were reeling from the impact.

Fast forward to today, where we live in a world of mass-market products and cheap goods. Cost of distribution is approaching zero for many things, and on-demand production is a reality. Authenticity is the new scarcity. Sites like Etsy thrive on people’s desire for handmade products.

Similar sentiments are emerging in the world of web technology. Standards are essential to enabling communication on the web, but complexity is the enemy. Standards that are too complicated are difficult to implement correctly, limiting its effectiveness. The idea of worse is better, is not so much that worse is the goal any more than lo-fi was the goal of indie recording artists. It was simply a side effect of a mantra to reduce complexity and increase communication, whether it is creative ideas in the form of music or code.

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Written by newcome

January 14, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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