Smiths' producer Stephen Street lets off some steam.
What does Stevie Wonder's Linndrum have to do with the sound of contemporary pop music? Plenty, according to record producer Stephen Street...
I recently heard Lenny Kravitz being interviewed on Radio 1. In answer to a question about his style of record production, he gave the example of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions LP being a great recording and how (in his opinion) the 'sound' of records has not really improved since then (Stevie's masterpiece was released in 1973). Now I know that there are many of you out there who would take great offence at Mr Kravitz's comments, call him a Luddite and point him towards a studio fitted out with a digital desk, 48-track digital tape machine, external D/A converters, Synclavier system and all the latest MIDI gear you could find. "There you are Lenny," you would say. "No tape hiss, no distortion, an infinite way of arranging tracks in your sequencer — this is the way of the future". No doubt this is what occurred to Stevie Wonder — and look what happened to him.
Innervisions is full of wonderful Moog synth touches and artfully real funky drumming by the man himself. Unfortunately, someone had to go and buy Stevie a Linndrum and loads of digital keyboards and he started to lose his way. I still cannot believe that the guy who played the rhythm section on 'Higher Ground' was responsible for that insipid drum programming on 'I Just Called To Say I Love You'. You see, he got lazy, and he's not the only one. In the '80s there was a plethora of new companies releasing an ever-expanding range of equipment that sounded initially impressive when we tried them in the shop only to find that if you wanted to really edit the sounds, it helped to have a degree in algorithms, and for God's sake don't listen to it without the reverb! So, for a while we made do with the equipment and when we got bored of hearing the same sound/patch on every record, jingle, etc, convinced ourselves that we simply had to get the newest model with the latest synthesis!
Well, that now seems to have stopped. According to a recent report, synth sales have dropped dramatically. For the last decade, recording technology has advanced so fast it's going to have to wait for us to catch up (that is, if we want to). I've seen the future and it's the past! We're sampling anything that moved two decades ago (drum loops, Moogs, CR78s, Mellotrons, and so on), and if you can't be bothered to do it yourself, you can buy them 'ready packed' in a 'vintage' module. There is also a growing market for sample CDs crammed with classic synth and drum sounds. Basically, we've heard all the variants on digital synthesis and recording and decided that we prefer the sound of crunchy drum loops and distorted analogue sounds. Don't be fooled into thinking that just because a recording is 'direct to digital' it will sound more dynamic than one recorded on 24-track analogue. It won't have any tape hiss, but can you honestly admit that when you listen to your CDs/LPs at home you allow this to be a major factor in your enjoyment of the music? In fact, do you actually notice the hiss?
Perhaps the manufacturers have realised that there are more people who agree with Mr Kravitz than they would like to admit. There are only so many sounds that are pleasant to the human ear in the context of music, and perhaps we've heard them all. Perhaps there will never be a further big leap forward in synth technology. I bet there are some concerned people in Japan who never realised that the success of the sampler would be at the cost of their research and development in synthesis. Now, if the technology race is over, can we get back to the music?
STEPHEN STREET is perhaps best known for his production work on three Smiths albums, but his credits also include The Railway Children, Sandi Shaw, Psychedelic Furs, The Darling Buds, Blur and Thousand Yard Stare. His latest work includes remixing 'World Exploding Touch' by The Fat Lady Sings.
Opinion by Sue Sillitoe
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