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The Soul of a Song - By David Flitner - Perspectives on Today's Music World

The Soul of a Song - By David Flitner - Perspectives on Today's Music World

David Flitner is a writer, musician, music lover and friend.  Here, he brings his thoughts to the new world of music from his unique perspective. 

Enjoy the read and feel free to comment on from your own perspectives.

Cookie Marenco - Editor, founder DSD-Guide



The Soul of a Song

By David Flitner


Back in high school I had a motivated English teacher who would often throw a “word of the day” at us in the interest of expanding our vocabularies. One of these was “idiosyncracies,” his definition of which I’ve remembered to this day: “characteristic peculiarities.” 

I’m mentioning this because we are facing a strange conundrum in music today: specifically, the challenge of maintaining the human element amidst a smothering level of digital processing in the recording of a precious vehicle of the creative spirit. Of course, just saying this doesn’t exactly add any illumination, so we should consider the confounding yet exhilarating question of what makes for a good recording. (If you want to sound like a machine, that’s fine, too. But at what point does it cease being music?)


As long as there’s been recorded music, producers and musicians alike have wished for – hungered for – ever more clear representations of sounds. Some early electric basses, for example, with their otherwise sonorous hollow bodies were nonetheless seen as (oh, horrors) inconsistent. Thus, the arrival of Leo Fender’s Precision bass, and later Rickenbacker’s 4000 series basses, heralded much greater clarity and uniformity up the neck. This was good, especially for recording to magnetic tape. And the dynamic led, over the decades, to countless innovations and great gear.

All of which culminated in the grand arrival of digital. Now, rather than struggling with signal degradation and all manner of (wait for it) idiosyncracies, utter clarity was possible, sonic uniformity - maybe even perfection. In fact, it rather quickly reached the point where it wasn’t even necessary to learn an instrument in order to make a record! The great democratization of the people’s music had dawned.

But the true art is in the sharing of something fundamentally human. And how this is done, how this is embraced and held sacred throughout the audio process, is the challenge. This is where the little devil on one’s shoulder must be balanced by the little angel on the other. The producer is generally under serious pressure to deliver something of commercial value. The artist presumably desires recognition and even recompense for the extraordinary investment they’ve made of their time, energy, and soul. If a label is involved, well...

So, the onus is on everyone to come up with something that will get attention. And there’s the rub. Because the way to do this is increasingly seen as being via software, inhuman ones and zeroes that some ridiculously talented designer figured out, thereby helping his company gain market share. 

And somewhere in here the whole idea of music becomes second to the idea of product. 

I’ve been lucky to know and work with a lot of gifted musicians and audio professionals. They occupy all sorts of rungs on the ladder of success in The Biz. But I’d be hard-pressed to identify any of them who were drawn to music in order to make a “product”. They do the work because it nourishes them at the deepest level and because, in one form or another, they have something to say. (Club owners and booking agents are widely aware of the unfortunate secret that most musicians would work for free – and often end up doing so.)

In the studio the goal must now involve a commitment to something organic despite the temptation to rely on the bright shiny objects beckoning from a computer screen. What comes out of the studio monitors will tell the tale. Because getting it “right” is not necessarily the same as getting it “perfect.”

If you want to know the ingredients of the best records, start with what was accomplished at No. 3 Abbey Road, London. Pro Tools? Nope. Multi-track recorder and console? Not exactly. Samplers? Google “Mellotron” and prepare to be humbled. The Beatles, forged in endless club dates, alive with inherent talent, driven by relentless and exuberant passion, and serendipitously brought to the unique care of producer George Martin, did more with less than anyone ever will. 

The conversation starts with openness to good music, wherever it may be found, regardless of genre. This is followed by a devotion to learning one’s craft, even if one’s chops are only modest. Then, and only then, do the tools of the studio become relevant. Audio gear is the final mechanism for making the passion manifest in a manner both imaginative and pleasing, perhaps even inspiring. One rides this energy of output as long as one can.

But the story precedes even that of The Beatles. Listen to what was done in the relatively primitive environment of Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios. The electric energy of Scotty Moore’s iconic guitar sound on Elvis’s records, for example, came not from any special equipment but from Moore’s own stylistic innovation and decidedly low-tech miking in a 20 x 35-foot room. And it’s great. Phillips would later say, “To me, simplicity and naturalness are the key ingredients for a good recording, and I still feel that way even with 48 tracks today.” 

Much music represents a very human attempt to come to terms with, among other things, splendor, pain and irony. Examples abound of efforts that succeed spectacularly or fail miserably, embarrassingly. And, clearly, perceptions of what constitutes achievement or disaster vary enormously. But the constant thread must be the attempt to make this creative journey honestly. It’s not necessarily about soaring arpeggios or 

“ver. 2.new” plug-ins. As Ringo has said, “I could never work a fill out. It comes in the emotion of the song.” Exactly.

So, am I advocating for Ned Ludd? (Look him up.) No. Great music is about a balance of honed chops, well-shaped ideas, solid tools, and authenticity. A judicious and creative interaction; not an either/or but a both/and. The celebrated British composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, said it this way: “Modernism and conservatism are irrelevant. What matters is to be true to oneself.” Listen to any number of Chris Isaak’s records. They are compelling, more often understated than overstated. Yet his discs’ liner notes will include credits for Pro Tools operators, people who’ve used the new technology to enhance the art rather than as an excuse for avoiding learning craft. 

And this is all the more important now because the truth is that today’s studio is more likely to be in someone’s home than in a megabucks facility. It means it’s all the more crucial to avoid the pitfalls of over-reliance on technology since the burden is entirely on the self-reliant composer/performer/engineer/producer. Percussion great Kenny Aronoff tells of being handed a CD by a young musician, the latter saying that he’d done everything himself and asking for Kenny’s impression. Kenny indeed listened, complimented the guy and then said, “It sounds perfect – but I feel nothing.” He suggested the musician spend time interacting with other musicians; an experience which can range from the hair-pullingly exasperating to the ineffably joyful but which is undeniably and invaluably human.

Take a look at any professional audio magazine. Its articles proclaim the virtues of the newest digital tools. Its proliferation of ads promises extraordinary capabilities to all (“Mastering in your own home!”). Yet, as many listeners can attest, the omnipresence of these tools leads to a search-and-destroy assault on idiosyncracies, to instruments that run no risk of serendipitous intrusion upon one another’s sonic space, to ensemble vocals (if, in fact, rendered by members of homo sapiens) so densely compressed that the dynamic range – the life – is squashed to the point of no longer resembling the sound of human beings. It’s perfect – and you feel nothing. And, over time, it proves incapable of being durably listenable, as eminent mastering engineer Bob Ludwig has argued.

What’s the most fundamental default setting in the studio? Authenticity. How do you get this? Where do you get this? You live it. You keep an open mind. You learn. And you persist in your dream. And then you power up the computer, install the plug-ins, and try to say something worth hearing. Believe me, it’s worth the effort.