The New Analog: a musician's view on why we need noise in a digital world
Have we lost all feeling in a pursuit to perfect digital audio signals? Or can we readjust our ratio to noise? Musician Damon Krukowski says contextual sounds, like analog noise, stop us falling off our bikes.
DW: As a musician you would have seen a lot of different technologies along the way, including retrospective trends, but you say you would like to see a more nuanced approach to old and new technologies. You say, for instance, that some aspects of analog audio technology should "survive" - like analog noise. Why?
Damon Krukowski: For one, there's a huge pressure, not just in audio but I think in our communications generally right now, to switch to the new: The whole idea of disruptive businesses - this digital ideal of the company that's going to completely change our interaction with the world - that we seem to be rewarding inordinately as a culture right now. That idea of disruption depends on a clean break with the past, and I think it can be an unhealthy one.
So to take audio, this is what I mean with "survive." Yes, in audio there's always been a push to the new, like in all technologically-driven aspects of our lives. But I have lived through a lot of vogues for different kinds of new. And I've seen first hand and experienced that they are not always an improvement. That break with the past can lead to a lot of confusion. It can lead to a loss of expertise.
I keep being struck with my own use of computers and digital gadgets. As soon as you gain some measure of control or expertise over a given tool it is often removed from your use. Apple [for instance] will routinely update the iOS [its mobile operating system] and the next thing you know: the app you were relying on is gone. And this drives me crazy because you don't gain mastery over your tools.
Have we come to some kind of critical point, a critical mass in a sense, where people are no longer using digital technology to their own advantage, but that they are being used by it?
I think that's very well said. In audio, I see it very clearly these days in presets in audio recording programs, mixing programs. And the preset as a concept is such a crutch - and everybody is familiar with this no matter how they use their computers. - It's such an easy way to jump towards something that looks good or professional, or sounds good or professional, like an Instagram filter.
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You can put a filter over your iPhone photos and suddenly they look much better than they used to. But you're not learning any individual control over the variables that go into that filter. You're just adopting a software engineer's shortcut. And those shortcuts are then shared by millions of others - which means we're all making our photos look exactly the same as one another's, not in terms of content but in terms of technique and style.
And if you translate that into audio terms, the exact same thing is happening. You have all kinds of presets in these digital programs for how a reverb sounds, how a compression sounds on various instruments, how vocals sound. You have these dropdown menus that say, "Give me rich, creamy men's vocal," or whatever …
In a large or a small room …
Yes, and everyone uses the same ones. You get this sameness across the board which I find very dull, and I find it eliminates a whole realm of individuality and creativity that is expressive of people's own ideas.
Damon Krukowski, musician, writer and Harvard lecturer: I am not a Luddite!
In other words, when you have a microphone as a tool, and sure many people buy the same microphone - in fact, the same thing happens where people will say, "For a men's vocal, it's really good to get the Neumann TLM 103." So, okay, you have all kinds of people buying the same microphone. But you put it in a room and every individual room sounds different and reacts differently with that microphone.
And there's not the same kind of sameness you get with digital tools, where, to get to the argument in my book, the noise of an individual circumstance, like a given room, has been eliminated, and all you have is the signal of a man's voice, and then you have it effected, in an identical way, by this algorithm, this program, this set of presets that has been predetermined.
And the consistency of that output can [hinder] creativity. So I hear a lot of mixes now that are very lazy, but they sound nominally good, because they sound professional.
Like it's been flattened into a norm that we, unfortunately, are all learning to accept as normal …?
Exactly. And that pressure toward normalcy, toward acceptability …
And an idea of perfection, is it? Perfection, and ease of perfection?
No, not so much perfection … I read it more the other way, like it's "good enough." Like photographs on the iPhone are good enough. They're not the same as [those by] a true creative photographer who takes hold of a tool and uses it in their own individual way.
Now, I do believe you can use digital tools in that way, just like you can use any tools, and that's why I'm not a Luddite - I use digital tools myself, because they are tools: They are fantastically powerful and incredibly flexible if you use them that way.
But what the culture is accepting as the use of these tools is the other version, which is a quick jump to normalcy, to a nominal professionalism, or … what's the term they have now for between amateur and professional … erm, prosumer. I don't know if you have that in Europe?!
Analog recording equipment, like this reel-to-reel tape machine, creates noise. Humans need noise to survive
I've heard it, but it's one of those words I've tried to noise cancel!
Yes, it would be good to eliminate that word!
You write a lot about telephony in your book, The New Analog, - how we've had this pursuit of perfection, we've tried to perfect the signal to get a clearer, more efficient signal that can travel over longer distances, but the result is that every signal is equally loud, no matter whether we're in a quiet room or a busy street. And I wonder whether in the pursuit of that function we have killed off the feeling? Because aside from your being a musician, as you explain, hearing the ambiences, the noises around us, the other stuff that we have not filtered out, allows us to contextualize our environments.
Yes, and I think they also individualize the experience from the consumer's end as well. So we were just talking about this normalcy, or push to acceptability of audio production with the ubiquity of digital tools and their consistency. But I think it's mirrored by the same thing in our reception of communications as well, where it's just "good enough." You have a sense of, "I'm getting enough from this means of communication and I'm not going to demand more."
So how can we turn the corner? At the start of your book you tell this story about a cyclist who was so self-absorbed, listening to music on headphones, probably without the noise, that she got disorientated and fell off her bike. How do we stop ourselves heading into a similar self-absorbed, disorientated future like that? Can we pull stuff back out of the trash? Like back in the 90s digital musicians would add vinyl crackle to their tracks …
Well, will we have to fake it like that or is there a way to revive the noise?
To me I think it's the easiest thing in the world but it's not what we're automatically doing. And that is simply - take your headphones off and listen to the sounds around you in the street. The means of analog communication are there all the time. We can't get rid of them, because our senses are analog.
So be more conscious about that moment of transition back to analog space and time. It doesn't go away and it won't go away in the future - unless we get turned into cyborgs - because our bodies are analog. Our sense of touch, taste, sight, or hearing, they are all analog.
Digital studios aim to elminate "unnecessary" noise to produce clearer, louder signals. But isn't something missing?
I take this from John Cage and other artists that I apprentice myself to intellectually. That sense of consciousness is crucial, and if we keep that consciousness, then you don't have to banish the headphones from your life. Nor do you have to banish these digital tools, any of them, or the conveniences that some of them present.
But if you keep it conscious and remember that it is a subset of experience […] I think that brings a heightened awareness of the potential for listening and the potential for sound in your life and how you perceive it, and it brings, ultimately, a type of critical listening which to me would be the real goal, to listen critically.
Listen critically to digital music, listen critically to analog music and listen critically to one another in the world, you know?! Because god knows, here I am in the USA where people are struggling to even hear the difference between a true and a false statement - a fact. It's becoming staggering, like a parody of this loss of critical awareness.
Damon Krukowski is the author of The New Analog - Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (MIT Press, 2017 / 2018). He is also a musician. He was in the indie rock band Galaxie 500 and is now one half of the folk duo, Damon & Naomi. He is a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, where he has taught writing and sound (and writing about sound).
A select glossary of audio technology terms according to Damon Krukowski:
Murphy's Moore's Law: "If aspects of a given technology functioned better before the introduction of integrated circuits, they must be getting worse at the same fantastic rate." Moore's Law (which isn't really a law, more a wishful prediction made by computer chip entrepreneur Gordon Moore in 1965) suggests that integrated circuits - and with it, computers and other digital equipment - "follow a pattern of doubling in power and capacity every eighteen months." Murphy's Moore's Law is Krukowski's revision of the original idea.
Cross Talk: Is "feeding a part of one channel's sound into the other in order to re-create the kinds of binaural clues we use to locate sounds in space. […] Yet crosstalk is viewed traditionally by engineers not as a boon to perception but as something to be eliminated in search of clarity."
Digital black: "The silence on a cell phone is what audio engineers call 'digital black.' Digital black is not just the absence of signal but the absence of noise." The lack of noise makes it virtually impossible to know whether the person you're speaking to is still there. Hence, the ubiquitous call of "Are you there?"
Perceptual coding: a psychoacoustic approach to eliminating "the noise framing a signal [as well as] those parts of the signal itself that are unnecessary for communicating data."