Media & Entertainment

Revisiting Brian Eno’s ‘The Studio as a Compositional Tool’

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Dylan Eller

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Dylan Eller is a freelance writer and musician.

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In 1979, Brian Eno gave a lecture at the inaugural New Music America Festival in New York on a very Brian Eno-ish topic. Titled “The Recording Studio as a Compositional Tool,” it is most definitely worth a listen or a read. In the lecture, Eno discusses the ever-evolving relationship music has with technology, beginning with the invention of audio recording.

“It was not only a technological history, or a technological series of changes,” he explains. “There was also a change in concept of what music was for.”

From the first melody ever hummed, or the first rhythm ever patted, until the late nineteenth century, music existed as a fleeting, ephemeral experience never to be replicated. Memories, with all the malleability we now know them to have, were the sole records of musical events.

This concept is incredibly alien to someone with instant access to the millions of songs available on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Prime, SoundCloud, Bandcamp or any other streaming service. Music is inconceivably more available to people of today’s world than it was 120 years ago, 50 years ago or even 10 years ago. This has changed the role music plays in society, as well as our personal lives.

Eno qualifies the effects technological advancements have on music into two categories: changes of degree and changes of kind. The one with lesser impact, as you may have guessed, is a change of degree. These are typically changes for the sake of convenience. The move from tube to solid state amplifiers, for example, is a change of degree. Not a lot changed.

If a change of degree is the difference between Texas Hold ‘Em and 7-Card Stud, a change of kind is the difference between poker and building a house of cards. It changes the game completely.

The shift from music as a temporary, irreplicable experience to a recorded one that can be revisited is a change in kind. It has forever changed the way people think about, make and listen to music. With nearly 40 years between the current date and the delivery of Eno’s lecture, many changes of kind have occurred that weren’t born in time to be covered, but are game-changers nonetheless.

Changes of kind

Two of the major changes of kind Eno covers are multi-track recording and overdubbing. Multi-track recording allowed, for the first time, parts of a recording to be mixed without needing to physically change their relative location to a microphone. You could make the sound of someone brushing their teeth louder than a drummer. Overdubbing allowed sounds to added after the initial recording had taken place. For the first time, one person could play every instrument on a song.

Two big changes of this gravity have occurred in the past few decades. One is the mass availability of home recording equipment and distribution tools. The other is the introduction of our current “on-demand” culture, where any song is available to listen to at any time. Both of these have changed how creators and listeners alike understand music. They change music’s function in our lives.

Home recording and distribution

The exclusivity of recorded music for its first century of existence begs the question: How many great songs were never recorded and subsequently forgotten forever? If an artist didn’t have a record deal, there was very little chance they would have the opportunity to record any of their songs in a studio. It was just too expensive. Landing a record deal, of course, heavily relied on creating marketable music, but more often than not, innovations in music don’t originate in marketable ways.

This changed when basic tape recorders and home computers became widely available and affordable to the public. The approval of a record executive was no longer necessary to record an album, and the definition of a recording studio was broadened. Anyone could make an album practically anywhere, creating a distinct DIY recording ethic.

Now services like SoundCloud, Bandcamp and YouTube function as platforms for these artists to distribute their music at little or no cost. The means to record practically any combination of sounds, as well as find an audience to listen to them, are accessible to anyone with a relatively small amount of money and a little tech know-how. Many artists are seeing this as an opportunity to leave major labels for smaller, independent ones, self-releasing their music or crowdfunding studio expenses.

Of course, the very technology that makes all this possible is also responsible for new aesthetic choices, as well. The digital manipulation of sounds has become ubiquitous. Effects and plug-ins utilized in a digital audio workstation, or DAW, have almost entirely replaced analog recording tricks, speeding up the process of getting the precise sound desired by the producer.

The added dimension of a visual display has also shifted the paradigm of creating music. Much like Eno’s description of tape making music a physical, manipulatable thing, visual elements of music software give it more of a sense of putting pieces together like a puzzle, allowing for slight variations to be tried in order to find the right fit.

On-demand culture

When recording technology became widely adopted in the late nineteenth century, music became a replicable experience. The same performance could be listened to again and again with no variation. Now, with instant access to practically any existing recording through streaming services, music hosting sites and Internet piracy, the effects of this replicability are infinitely exaggerated.

It’s no longer necessary to dig through record bins to find a song you haven’t heard in forever. The song can come blasting out of your speakers within seconds of you starting your search. This, for a lot of us, changes the function of music in our lives. While we still put on music we like just for the enjoyment of hearing it, most of the music we consume functions as filler or background noise while we work or do another task. If we don’t like a certain song, we skip it. Sometimes we use services like Pandora to choose the music for us.

This has led artists to try creative new ways of releasing music in an attempt to draw attention from the blur. Blimpscryptic numbers stationsairport speakersbrief television adssurprise releases and live streaming to movie theaters have all been used to bring attention to artists’ new albums. It’s reached the point where the release and promotion for new releases has become an art form in itself.

While these factors don’t necessarily directly affect the in-studio composition process that Eno discusses, they are linked to the shifts in the way we think about creating and listening to music.

Much like the invention of multi-track recording, overdubbing and sound recording in general, the ability to produce and distribute music to be accessed instantly by anyone has greatly altered the entire paradigm of recorded music once again.

Trends spread rapidly and new developments are expanded on almost instantly. Just as innovations in virtual realitymarketingpolitical campaigningtransportation or really any other field have picked up incredible momentum in the ever-connected world, small steps forward in the creation of music have been replaced by frequent leaps.

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