Manipulating neutral sound

With the advent of recording technology in the last century, music was attempted to be recorded in its most perfect form. Instead of a single live recording for the audience, this allowed the studio to do as many takes as needed to capture the “perfect” performance.

Les Paul discovered at the end of the 1940s that with two recorders you could gradually record a kind of orchestra of guitars and voices by putting one recorder on playback while the other recorder is recording while you play a different part. A kind of audio ping-pong. And Les invented yet another revolutionary trick, by half speed recording his parts these sounded at normal speed as a lightning fast virtuoso performance:

In the 1960s, classical pianist Glenn Gould became frustrated when performing at concerts. He never felt that the performance was perfect, while he heard that perfect performance in his head. He therefore completely stopped giving concerts and was only to be found in the studio. In the studio Glenn chose the best parts and pasted the audio tapes together to create the perfect performance.

With the arrival of the multitrack recorder in the mid-1950s, it became possible to record instruments track by track across multiple channels. This even more control over music and its sound. The Beatles in particular were true pioneers in this field. Their music no longer sounded like a live performance, but like music that can only be made in a studio. The Beatles stopped giving live performances in the same period as Glenn Gould and because of the same argument. It forms a striking parallel between these pioneers.

The drum computers, polyphonic synthesizers and samplers were successively being introduced to the market and the musical parts were programmed instead of being played by musicians. This also made sound control ever more precise. By now, with the help of the computer and digital technology, the playing of musicians has become totally elastic. This way, the sound selection can be adjusted afterwards, after recording, the timing can be improved and the pitch can be adjusted inaudibly. Even vocal lines that sound quite false during recording can be made perfectly in tune without the audience hearing that the voice is only a source of sound for a melody modelled by the engineer.

We can say that nowadays every sound can be a source for making sounds that sound like music. For example, one time I was commissioned by Disquiet Junto to make a piece of music that had as a basis 1 sample: a recording that I made of ice ticking against glass. Thanks to the sampler and extensive manipulation tools I was able to squeeze a piece of music from that one sample of just a few seconds:

Thanks to complete control over sound, we can produce every sound. It provides unprecedented freedom. We are at most dependent on our imagination, knowledge of sound and the ability to manipulate it. Knowledge about how to manipulate sound is still increasing. And thus also the possibilities and tools that help us to do this. We can zoom into sound and adjust it on a highly microscopical level.

The manipulation of sound seems limitless. It is not tied to a particular style. Not bound to a certain form. It is neutral in character, blank. Like a white screen where the writer tails in. It challenges me.

Also published on Medium.

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