Steven Poole

Distress signals

Damon Krukowski complains bitterly of the new focus on ‘signal’. But electronic dance music, entirely computer-generated, makes for a surprisingly rich sound

It’s an increasingly common lament that computers have ruined everything, and a longing for the days before Google and Twitter, when everything was somehow more organic and authentic, is on the rise. As someone who can remember writing early reviews on an electric typewriter and then going to the library to fax them to a literary journal, I’m partial to this kind of unplugged nostalgia myself. But it can get out of hand.

So it does in this book — ambitiously titled to evoke John Berger’s classic of art criticism, Ways of Seeing — which explains that computers have wrecked music along with everything else. Early on, Damon Krukowski rails against the soulless practice of recording to a ‘click track’ (a totally regular electronic beat), saying that this began in the late 1980s. In fact, though, mechanical metronomes provided click tracks in the studio long before computerised drum machines existed. According to Ian MacDonald’s definitive account of the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, the recording of ‘Penny Lane’ began with the piano parts being laid down one over another, and Paul probably played them to a click track to keep in time.

Krukowski also thinks that the slight ‘latency’ or delay introduced by digital recording (to give the computer time to process things) is ‘not like anything we experience in real time’. But we do experience latency in everything we hear, because sound takes time to travel to our ears. If you sit ten feet away from a speaker, you’re experiencing more latency than a modern digital studio introduces. And before the renovation of Big Ben began, if you stood on Westminster Bridge just before 6 p.m. with an FM radio, you would hear the bongs on the radio before you heard them in real life — because radio is transmitted at the speed of light, while sound ambles along much more slowly.

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