The Politics of Digitizing Analogueness #iaspm2017

Pat O’Grady
: Macquarie University

The Politics of Digitizing Analogueness

Plug-in hardware emulation – are looks as important as sound to the user?

ABSTRACT: In the field of pop music production, audio companies such as Waves and Universal Audio claim to reproduce the sound of ‘vintage’ analogue signal processing recording technologies. They use software to emulate the form and sound of technologies that, in their hardware form, became highly valued parts of recording studios from the 1960s and 1970s. These digital technologies are marketed towards the increasingly capable and more affordable personal computer market, often used in home studios. The companies claim to provide the user with the comparable results to analogue. Since the 1980s, similar changes to the recording technology landscape have been understood as ‘democratization,’ as music production trended towards a digital economy. However, these emulations also exist alongside a reemergence of the use of analogue technologies in music production, particularly in large studios. In this paper, I explore how the popularity of digital emulations can be partly attributed to shifting attitudes towards analogue vintage technologies. I draw from an analysis of industrial discourses within music production in order to show that rather than democratize the field of music production, they reinforce the social order of the field of recording. In doing so, they continue to promote within a discursive space the importance of large studio music production.

Pat begins by leading us quickly through the development of the technologies that led us here, through the rise of digital recording in the 80s, the rise of the workstation in the 90s and the plugin in the 2000s and beyond. We are now, he suggests, in the ‘Analogue Comeback’ era, and he cites both analogue hardware and UAD emulation plugins in some Australian professional studios’ advertising. He notes that due to the four-decade establishment of digital recording, there now exist professional studio practitioners who did not grow up with analogue equipment.

Acknolwedging listener subjectivity, Pat reminds us that some of the perceived ‘advantages’ of analogue equipment cannot always be proved in blind listening tests – and audiophiles sometimes reject the findings of experiments [I infer he is referring to the wine-tasters phenomenon, where test subjects sometimes choose cheap wine, to much embarrassment].

Now to the theoretical framework. Like many in our field, Pat applies Pierre Bourdieu’s idea of ‘cultural capital’ to the way studio practitioners value analogue-ness. Relatedly, he discusses the association with hardware – most UAD plugins are emulations of specific hardware from decades past. The two most famous are the [hardware compressors] LL2A and the 1176. The remodeled plugins represent a manifestation of recreating cultural capital. By contrast, Waves (for example) also sell plugins but do not emulate their own hardware (because UA began as a hardware company). UA uses ‘scientific practice’ in its advertising to describe the faithfulness of the reproduction, even though, as Pat notes, agents often trust their own subjective hearing over the assurances of such claims.

Pat touches on ‘skeuomorphism’, noting that graphic emulation of the physical object isn’t necessarily the best interface design for a computer [JB note: as anyone who’se ever tried to turn a rotary knob with a mouse will know]. Some UAD plugins even have scratches on the graphic front panel of the interface. The point is that the plugin designer is trading usability for the user’s perception of authenticity. [JB note: I can remember this feeling the first time I used an 1176 plugin – it really felt like it sounded better with that floating window looking exactly like the real thing… although of course I can’t really know the extent ot which it did].

To the discourse of vintage analogue. Favourite words include ‘warm’, ‘glue’ and ‘smooth’ [JB: opportunity here – it would have been good to pull these words apart and deal with how they manifest themselves technically. Presumably this would be low-pass filtering curves, band-specific compression ratios, attack time, soft clipping etc?]

Artist endorsement follows: we see quotes from Vance Powell (LA2A), Jacknife Lee (Oxide Tape Recorder), Richard Devine (FATSO) etc, all of whom use the word ‘warm’ to describe the plugin for which they are endorsees. [Bourdieu again – these producers have ‘social capital’ which they transfer to these products’ marketing].

UAD, Pat says, brings into focus the complex politics of the field – of authenticity, fetishized technologies and cultural capital.

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