In the late 1940s, musician Les Paul began experimenting with a machine that allowed him to record himself playing music, and later record another track while listening to the first. In 1947 he released “Lover (When You’re Near Me)”, a song that featured himself playing eight different parts on electric guitar. It was the first song ever released using this multitrack method, which is a monumental achievement, since pretty much every commercial album recorded in the past forty years uses the same process.
If you don’t find that impressive enough, also know that Les Paul invented the electric guitar.
It doesn’t matter what sort of music you listen to. It could Britney Spears or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. No matter how fringe you think your music tastes are, almost all artists use this sort of recording to some degree or another. Even classical music makes extensive use of the process, as orchestras will often record many versions of a piece and build a composite version of the indivdual recording, achieving a sound impossible to record live.
Recently some Internet research took me to a message board debate over the sound quality of analog vs. digital music recording. One guy made a (seemingly innocuous) statement about how modern digital equipment far surpasses the fidelity of the old technology, 2-inch analog tape, and some other guy vehemently disagreed. “Tape sounds warmer,” this other guy fairly screamed. “The purity of sound is preserved. Digital is harsh and mechanical and has no soul.” Or whatever.
The debate went back and forth, with the digital guy explaining why, technically, the modern method is more accurate. The analog guy couldn’t muster the same proof, so he just went with “Analog is better!”
In fact, the analog guy went so far as to blast the music production techniques of digital users. Who would you rather listen to? Def Leppard or Radiohead? As if his “superior” musical taste somehow had anything to do with the quality of one technology over another. (What if you like both of those bands? And besides that, Def Leppard’s most popular albums were in fact recorded with 2-inch tape.)
What this guy wouldn’t acknowledge is that analog recordings sound a certain way because the scrape flutter of magnetic tape introduces distortion that happens to sound pleasing. It’s a lucky accident. Digital recordings don’t have this sort of distortion, although many producers will use a computer to add it in later. The fact remains that digital music recording is more accurate and real than the analog method.
You see these types of arguments everywhere in life. Someone feels passionately about a subject but doesn’t have much proof for his point of view, while someone else has done research and knows in detail about the subject. And these two fellows rarely see eye-to-eye because one of them is so misinformed that a real debate is impossible. One person respects the facts, and the other lives in a demon-haunted world where analog is magically better, where records really do sound better than CDs.
There are so many things in this world that we honestly don’t know. Even now, in the 21st century, we are still very much in the dark. So why do we still have to argue about the things we DO know?