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April 27, 2009 2:16 AM   Subscribe


 
Heh, is this why it's been four years since his last album?
posted by Edwahd at 3:12 AM on April 27, 2009


To be fair (and that's difficult for me when Sufjan Stevens is involved), TapeOp does NOT look at it as exposing in the sense of showing his dirty laundry. The reason TapeOp is such a glorious recording rag is that the folks there are open to all kinds of recording techniques, be they ghetto or upper-class. Whatever gets the job done.

Doesn't matter how gloriously gritty your recording techniques are, though, if your songs are mediocre. Zing, says I!
posted by nosila at 4:22 AM on April 27, 2009


I don't know much about music, but I do know some things about tools. The interviewer seems to be thinking that the music is so awesome that Sufjan isn't ruining it much with his antiquated equipment, with a side order of Sufjan himself being awesome. This idea seems a little needlessly "old stuff is crap!!!"

Not that I want to turn this into "old skool" vs "new fads" nostalgia, but: A new class of tools makes previously impossible things merely difficult. More modern versions in an existing class of tools only makes difficult things easier. The leap from "no drill" to "manual drill" is a lot larger than the leap from "manual drill" to "electric drill". Singling Sufjan out for making wonderful music in "primitive" conditions is blind to the fact that the Beatles, or Bach, worked in conditions just as "primitive" if not more so.

...to make something incredible....gear is truly secondary, maybe tertiary. Is it raw material/technique/equipment in that order?

Equipment shouldn't even be on the list. Does anyone put "brand of quill, parchment and harpsichord" third in the list of causes of Mozart's genius?

Not that tools are unimportant. Even in the creative process, they are a source of ideas and sometimes make impossible things possible. But equipment isn't having the ideas or acting as the motive force behind the performance. Equipment is not the source of "something incredible".
posted by DU at 4:56 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


There's a cut-off period, sometime in the early to mid-70's, when pop and rock recordings are pretty much interchangeable with whatever came later, at least in terms of "good-enough-for-broadcast-FM" quality.

I sometimes wonder what Hendrix, Joplin and the Beetles might have sounded like if they had made it past that horizon. And, sometimes, I wonder what Metallica and Nirvana would have sounded like before it. (I suppose I could wrap an old boombox in a wet pillow, but you know what I mean... )
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:27 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Equipment shouldn't even be on the list.

Unless you're looking at the end product--the recording--as the primary work of art, instead of a byproduct of The Music.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:31 AM on April 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Actually, to follow up DU's comment - equipment makes a difference. Mozart's stuff would be vastly different if he had access to a grand piano or a saxophone or a tape recorder.

There is art - which can be made at any time with any thing, and true creative genius is not stifled or enhanced by lack or abundance of quality tools and material to work with.

Then there is craft - which is workmanlike, requiring intense study, practice and constant refinement. It is entirely dependent on the quality and abundance of the materials and tools the craftsman has at her disposal (but, these can be improved, substituted or compensated for by a master of the craft.)

Music is generally more pleasing when you have artists who are obsessive about their craft and deeply involved with the process, from beginning to end.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:36 AM on April 27, 2009


I didn't mean to imply that equipment isn't important. In fact, I deliberately meant to imply the opposite. In fact, I wouldn't even put art in a separate category from craft in this criterion. Even "art" depends on materials and equipment. Brushes and paints for painters, clay for sculptors. Even storytellers, who need almost nothing, are affected by the language and culture they employ.

However, my point is about "the magic" because the part I quoted talked about how to make "something incredible". I think Mozart-with-access-to-a-saxophone would still be a genius. You can add or remove equipment from Mozart and the music may or may not change, but the genius remains. Therefore to make "something incredible" equipment isn't even tertiary.

I firmly believe that genius is 99% perspiration. If you take away a master cabinet maker's table saw his work will temporarily suffer. But he'll perspire and perspire and perspire until he can hand saw to the quality his work demands. After all, master cabinet makers 100 years ago did the same thing.

That said, Mozart-in-a-windowless-box would probably not be a genius. You need *some* equipment or materials. That was my point about "a new class of tools". However, once a set of goals is reachable with some set of tools then people are going to reach those goals. Incremental improvements in those tools may make the goals easier to reach, but aren't necessary in the same way.
posted by DU at 6:25 AM on April 27, 2009


Heh, is this why it's been four years since his last album?

Dunno. It seems that running Asthmatic Kitty takes all of his time.
posted by chuckdarwin at 6:40 AM on April 27, 2009


"he's a total recording rebel, Tape Op style"

I can't wait until the Kool Kids culture is totally destroyed.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:44 AM on April 27, 2009


I don't know if it's a productive exercise to imagine what a great artist's music would be like if he'd had different tools. Certainly, we all owe a huge debt to Pythagoras for coming up with the scale we all know and love and to Daddy Bach for figuring out how to tune it properly... but past that point, we only have those 12 notes to work with no matter if we're playing an early clavier or the most modern keyboard available. I don't think Sufjan's records would sound vastly different if he had had better toys and know-how. It all happens in the fucker's head before he pushes a button, I'm sure.

Conversely, this reminds me of people playing old works on 'period instruments' - you want it to sound slightly crap for what reason, again?
posted by chuckdarwin at 6:50 AM on April 27, 2009


You mention that 'genius is 99% perspiration', but yet the way that you invoke Mozart implies that his genius was almost fully independent of the tools he interacted with to create what he created.

The problem that I see with this view is that it takes that which can be notated on staff paper--the sequence of notes, and tempo and phrasing to a certain extent--as the essential part of the work, and that which can't easily be notated--timbre, studio production, 'the grain of the voice'--and hears it as peripheral. But we're talking the recording about pop music here, and ever since Jazz bands in the early 1920s had to rearrange their ensembles in the recording studio so that the bass drum didn't make the needle skip, what happens in the studio is central to the definition of the music itself.
posted by umbú at 7:00 AM on April 27, 2009


There's a cut-off period, sometime in the early to mid-70's, when pop and rock recordings are pretty much interchangeable with whatever came later, at least in terms of "good-enough-for-broadcast-FM" quality.

I'm deeply, deeply ambivalent about the current attitude towards studio perfection. On one hand, yeah, perfection's better than sloppiness when it comes to giving an artist the best chance of achieving what he or she set out to do. On the other hand, some pretty fucking great music was created with terrible studio equipment/procedures (Husker Du is one of my favorite bands, and the only way to describe the production on every one of their records is "total ass;" and after years of thinking about it, I honestly don't know if I'd prefer that they'd gotten a decent recording). And the Cult of the Perfect Studio Sound does take away some humanity, I think.

I wrestle with this a lot with my own band. We've kind of adopted low-fi, unpolished recording as part of our sound. It might be us being lazy, but, on the other hand, old sessions where we tried to get everything perfect (both in terms of recording setup and our musicianship) wound up sounding really stiff and dead, and being a lot less fun.
posted by COBRA! at 7:03 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


You mention that 'genius is 99% perspiration', but yet the way that you invoke Mozart implies that his genius was almost fully independent of the tools he interacted with to create what he created.

There is no contradiction, because the tools don't do the perspiring. I don't know about Mozart in particular, but if you talk to most geniuses, they'll tell you they aren't doing anything special. They are just out there, working on it, all the time. That's what it means to "master your tools". You are the master of the tools, meaning you can tell them to do whatever you want. Replace the tools, re-master and you are back where you started, modulo a few things that are now possible/impossible. The perspiration is the mastering, plus whatever effort is required to get something other than what the tool "naturally" produces.
posted by DU at 7:11 AM on April 27, 2009


COBRA! I think that's the rub... and why people employ producers.
posted by chuckdarwin at 7:13 AM on April 27, 2009


Self-link warning.

I also read this article about Sufjan Stevens and was surprised/inspired by the revelations of his less-than-optimal recording technique. It made me take a closer look at my own ghetto techniques and document them to a) see what I was doing right, i.e. what works for me and b) what I could be doing better.

I blogged my process. At the end, I mention the Stevens article and its implications for amateur home recording hobbyists.
posted by BoatMeme at 7:23 AM on April 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


The best part about this article is the revelation that in high school Sufjan and a viola-playing Missy Eliot used to get together and write songs.
posted by jokeefe at 7:28 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Equipment shouldn't even be on the list. Does anyone put "brand of quill, parchment and harpsichord" third in the list of causes of Mozart's genius?

Mozart wasn't doing an interview with a recordist magazine. If there was a CompNotes magazine back in 1780, they might have asked about nib and stock as a lark (or as more than a lark, I have no idea if Mozart leveraged his success to buy really awesome pen and paper for the time), they probably would have talked keyboards, working habits, favorite late-16th/early-17th C. composers, what he's got in the pipe, etc.

The intro on the Sufjan article is silly and gushy, but I don't read TapeOp for the staid, careful prose. It's not what the magazine does best, whereas getting musicians talking about recording, from A-Z, pretty much is exactly what they do best.
posted by cortex at 7:29 AM on April 27, 2009


Heya, BoatMeme, you should repost that over on Music Talk if you feel like it, too. Could be the start of a fun thread if other folks jump on the bandwagon.
posted by cortex at 7:30 AM on April 27, 2009


I should mention that one of the reasons I found this inspirational is because, for novices like myself, there's often an omnipresent, nagging feeling that you're doing something wrong, even if you're essentially happy with the end product.

File this article under added confidence that you should trust your instincts more and get the most out of what ya got.
posted by BoatMeme at 7:31 AM on April 27, 2009


Thanks, cortex, for returning us to Sufjan. Bringing Mozart and genius into a thread like this is like Godwinning.
posted by umbú at 7:32 AM on April 27, 2009


No, sorry. Not Godwinning. Just a detour, I should have said. Carry on...
posted by umbú at 7:35 AM on April 27, 2009


Mefi Music definitely needs to hold a challenge based around the concept of 'Mozart With Access To A Saxophone'.

oh, and I'd love to hear those Sujan & Missy Elliot recordings
posted by mannequito at 7:38 AM on April 27, 2009


MOZART IS HITLER

And, yeah, what BoatMeme and a few other people have said already: it's nice as a recording musician to be reminded sometimes that "it's the music, not the tools" really is an okay mantra and not just some bullshit you tell yourself to feel better about the sad state of your toolset.

A lot of what TapeOp ends up publishing goes past the horizon of personal applicability to me—I don't really care that they changed up the console at Apple from an X to a Y or which specific cabling David Gilmour's houseboat studio ended up using. Something a little more on the lofi always makes me smile because I can actually chew on it.
posted by cortex at 7:39 AM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Snippit of the interview, but with a newline inserted before each "I":

Q: So when you were done with that record, what was the next thing that
you did?

A:
I didn't do anything!
I graduated from school and
I went to New York to writing school.
I went to The New School.
I wanted to be a writer -
I kind of gave up doing music.
I was working at Penguin/Putnam [publishers]...as a graphic designer. That's
when they had those new, teal green [Mac] G3s.
I was an aspiring writer and
I had a great job, but
I wasn't writing any music.
I was on the computer all day. At night,
I'd be in class, then
I would go home and write on the computer. Some of these guys who worked
in the tech department at Penguin who were total geeks gave me
[Propellerhead's] ReBirth software.


Wait...with minimal editing these could be lyrics for the next Sufjan ditty!
posted by cleancut at 7:43 AM on April 27, 2009


I perspire like a motherfucker and you won't find my name in your book of Who's Who.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:53 AM on April 27, 2009


cortex, I'm sure you're correct: if such 'interviews' had been done at the time, Mozart would have gone on at length about his favourite claviers and harpsichords... dropping names of favourite makers, etc. I imagine (I did music history in grad school, but on with WAM himself) that he was a huge snob about makes.
posted by chuckdarwin at 8:10 AM on April 27, 2009


Some of these guys who worked in the tech department at Penguin who were total geeks gave me [Propellerhead's] ReBirth software.

Uh-oh, is he gonna get in trouble like YACHT did when he admitted stealing software?
posted by fungible at 8:34 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dunno when Stevens acquired his copy, but ReBirth has been free since 2005.
posted by box at 8:43 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dunno. It seems that running Asthmatic Kitty takes all of his time.

I hope that's not true. Any douche can run a record label.
posted by smackfu at 8:52 AM on April 27, 2009


Heh, is this why it's been four years since his last album?

He is too busy hanging out at BAM. I've seen the dude there probably five times, just hanging around.
posted by Falconetti at 9:23 AM on April 27, 2009


Mozart wasn't doing an interview with a recordist magazine. If there was a CompNotes magazine back in 1780, they might have asked about nib and stock as a lark (or as more than a lark, I have no idea if Mozart leveraged his success to buy really awesome pen and paper for the time), they probably would have talked keyboards, working habits, favorite late-16th/early-17th C. composers, what he's got in the pipe, etc.

Yes. Also Mozart's medium was a written one. This is all about making an album, the medium is completely different. The quill, the parchment are not part of the creative process. When you record the equipment that you use is of central importance to the finished product.
posted by ob at 10:51 AM on April 27, 2009


to reinforce ob's comment--in fact, there are entire musical genres, like "glitch," that depend for their existence on the availability of certain computer-based audio production tools.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:07 AM on April 27, 2009


Glitch, that is.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:08 AM on April 27, 2009


Snippit of the interview, but with a newline inserted before each "I":

How dare he talk about himself while he's being interviewed!
posted by incessant at 11:45 AM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I love Tape Op magazine! It's free and offers great insight. I highly recommend a subscribe for anyone interested in creative recording.
posted by Magnakai at 1:16 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the argument about tools v. talent is missing the point. The article is not really looking at the fact that his tools are primitive, but more that they are of lower quality. He's getting outstanding sonic results (independent of the music itself) from really crappy equipment not intended for the purposes he's using it. There's only so much dynamic range you can get from recording to a cassette 4-track, and he's managed to eek out most of it. Recording to ProTools at 32k is a sonic limitation. It's not that they're gushing over his brilliant music that transcends crappy recording techniques, they're gushing over his ability to wrest good sounds out of crappy equipment.
posted by nonreflectiveobject at 1:18 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


It's not that they're gushing over his brilliant music that transcends crappy recording techniques, they're gushing over his ability to wrest good sounds out of crappy equipment.

Repeated for emphasis. And to me, that's what true recording artistry is all about--the craft of working with recording tools of all different kinds, working with the grain of the wood to an extent, to get good results. A lot of craft goes into the recording process beyond even the musical performances--every choice of recording format and audio production tool comes with a host of distinct benefits and trade-offs.

This post is especially interesting to me because it's surprising to see how closely Stevens' tools and methods have tracked with my own over the years. I've never been a big Sufjan Stevens' devotee or anything, but I respect him as a working musician. Thanks for the post.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:04 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Have we seriously not matured past the point where 'ghetto' is considered the cool/hip way to say 'having no money'? Jesus Christ.
posted by waxbanks at 2:49 PM on April 27, 2009 [2 favorites]


Singling Sufjan out for making wonderful music in "primitive" conditions is blind to the fact that the Beatles, or Bach, worked in conditions just as "primitive" if not more so.

This isn't even close to being true. The Beatles had great instruments in amazing sounding rooms, working with dedicated engineers who knew what they were doing using Neumann mics that to this day remain state of the art. And they could call in a string quartet or French horn whenever they felt like it.

Sure you have more turd-polishing options nowadays, but if we were taking photos, most pros would take a quality SLR with a good lens over a cameraphone and a copy of Photoshop elements.
posted by kersplunk at 3:43 PM on April 28, 2009 [2 favorites]


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