New Wave

Is digital recording technology helping New Orleans' recording scene -- or is it taking away the soul of the music?



Keith Keller saw the writing on the wall.

For the last decade, Keller's Chez Flames recording studio on Magazine Street was one of New Orleans' finest recording studios. Keller put a premium on using vintage recording equipment, and a host of national and local artists took note, including blues legend Charlie Musselwhite, rootsy hip-hoppers G. Love & Special Sauce, and local heroes the subdudes, the Iguanas and Royal Fingerbowl, who all made acclaimed recordings at Chez Flames. But in recent years, a digital recording software program named Pro Tools started making inroads into the industry.

"I knew my days were numbered when I went out with a friend who's a bartender and part-time musician," says Keller, "and he told me he'd bought a Pro Tools 24-bit system and dropped $30,000 to set up a home studio. If a bartender's buying that to make music with their friends, there won't be any marketplace for people with classic equipment."

Keller didn't want to wait to prove his theory wrong. He recently sold most of his prized recording equipment, closed the doors to Chez Flames and started a new career as a real estate developer.

"What's happened is the entire industry has morphed from classic analog audio-based equipment to digital," says Keller. "Digital is more user-friendly and cheaper to manufacture, because they're selling software rather than hardware. There's a hoax being perpetuated by these manufacturers, saying that these products can write a digital emulation of what an analog processor does."

Keller's never minced words, but his sentiment reflects one segment of the debate over the pros and cons of digital recording technology. The Digidesign company's Pro Tools software, available for less than $1,000, is helping turn bedrooms and basements across New Orleans -- and the country -- into makeshift recording studios. (Similar software models, including Ensoniq and Vegas Pro, are also prevalent in the market.) And unlike Keller's bartender friend, aspiring recording stars don't need to spend $30,000 to realize their dreams. Anyone with a computer, digital recording software and some basic recording equipment is on their way to recording a professional-sounding CD. With Pro Tools' ability to convert music into visual waves on a computer monitor -- resembling a hospital EKG monitor -- the editing possibilities are literally endless.

In the case of New Orleans alternative rock band Veloka, it means that the five-member group intends to have a full string section on its forthcoming CD -- and they won't have to hire one. The band was playing a gig at the Mermaid Lounge, and when they saw opening act Amerigo's string section, a lightbulb went on.

"Instead of having just one violin part, you can have a whole section of them," says keyboardist Chad Buckheister. "You have the same person play the same musical part two or three times, and then you can double it digitally, so you have six parts. Then you can add delay techniques, and build it up to a sound much bigger than you could record it. You can have them do it three times, and if the first part is good and the second is bad, you can chop them up and take the good part of each take. That's one of the definite attractions of Pro Tools."

It's the audio equivalent of skin grafting -- without the pain and exorbitant costs. Singer/songwriter Jim McCormick recorded his song "Love Will See You Through" two years ago for inclusion on his debut CD, but a chance collaboration with another songwriter prompted him to add entire sections after the first verse, so he called recording engineer Mike Mayeux to see if changes were possible on the completed take.

"I said, 'What if I told you I wanted to retrack the vocal, and that I had added a chord to the progression in the chorus?" says McCormick. "Mike said, 'Is it a chord that's already in the song the way it was originally tracked?' I said yes, and he said, 'No problem.' We duplicated and plugged it in so the new melody and new words would seamlessly flow, and paced the drum track so it kept going into the new sections. Otherwise I would have had to retrack the whole thing with another band. It saved a lot of money. There were five players on the original song, and even at the really cheap rate of $100 per man, it saved me $500."

The savings in time are equally significant, says pianist Sanford Hinderlie, the president of local independent record label STR Digital. "We were just recording [vocalist] Kim Prevost, and if Kim makes a mistake, you just hit a button, and it's ready to start again, just as fast as I'm talking. There's no waiting for the tape. If you were recording a typical album using two-inch tape, you're talking 30 minutes each on a reel of tape, and you might have six to 10 reels of all your takes when you're finished. You factor in all the time for rewinding and cueing all that tape, and it's a much longer process."

The sound quality of digital recordings versus analog recordings remains a spirited topic of discussion in the music business. Just as there is a core group of audiophiles who believe that LPs will always sound warmer than CDs, there are traditionalists who believe that recordings made with analog equipment resonate more deeply than their digital counterparts. Hinderlie has been teaching recording technology courses at Loyola University for 15 years -- he's both an associate professor of music and Loyola's director of technology -- and he hears digital sound starting to approach analog quality.

"There's a bigger sound on two-inch analog," says Hinderlie, "but newer digital is going to 24-bit technology, where the current sampling rate of a CD is 16-bit. DVD audio is here, and it's as close to the two-inch sound as it gets. It's deeper than CDs, and it's just for audiophiles now, but just wait."

Most of New Orleans' top-flight recording studios, including Ultrasonic, are now outfitted with Pro Tools systems. It's not the equipment of the digital revolution that necessarily troubles analog devotees. It's the methods sometimes used to employ the new technology. The goal of capturing a special moment in time between musicians is practically rendered obsolete with Pro Tools-style programs; the editing function's ability to endlessly sample, cut and paste musical data leaves some critics wondering whether the inherent human element in playing music is being lost. Even Hinderlie, who has a vested interest in seeing technology continue to move forward, questions if certain musical traditions and values are losing ground.

"I've been teaching kids in some of my classes who don't know anything about music, but they're able to come up with stuff," says Hinderlie. "You can take sound files from a pro-audio CD of [noted jazz drummer] Steve Gadd playing drums, and put it in there for four bars. You can shrink it or expand it to match whatever tempo you're doing. The technology has watered down the musicianship of the music that's being popularized. I feel that the training of being a musician, that's been lost somewhere."

"You have artistic issues here," says Keith Keller. "When you have a sampler triggering a musical part, all the human nuances have gone away. Wynton Marsalis once told me that he considered nuance to be the highest order of musicality. Nuance and subtlety are something musicians aspire to, but those qualities don't lend themselves to samplers."

Keller's reference to Marsalis is noteworthy, as the meeting of technology and jazz is a particularly divisive subject. Jazz purists have historically decried technology's encroachment into jazz, from the first appearance of electric instruments to Miles Davis' fusion bands. The digital age unleashes a whole new set of problems. "Culture is always going to head toward something that's easy and convenient, and jazz is an idiom with different production values, that's meant to be played live," says Keller.

But even the reigning jazz label in New Orleans is a primarily digital recording operation. Mark Samuels, the entrepreneur who launched the highly successful New Orleans label Basin Street Records in 1998, has overseen albums from a wide range of New Orleans jazz musicians, from contemporary jazz drummer Jason Marsalis to trad-jazz clarinetist Dr. Michael White. With the exception of one of Marsalis' albums that was recorded directly to two-inch tape, Samuels says that every Basin Street release has utilized Pro Tools or similar software. "I can't imagine what it would have been like before, having to cut and paste pieces of audiotape, versus doing it graphically and with digital effects," says Samuels.

The real challenge, he believes, is knowing when to leave the music alone. "You can spend an awful lot of time tweaking it, and trying to make it perfect. You can put together a whole solo if you care to, and that's the question: How much do you use it? In jazz, we would never do anything to take away the live feel of something."

Still, Samuels admits that there have been times when digital recording software has felt like a lifesaver for the label. "If you listened really, really carefully, you could find some interesting stuff," he says. "But I will tell you one example: When we were recording Kermit Ruffins' live album at Tipitina's and he did "The Star Spangled Banner" that night, his voice cracked on the very last note. On the CD, he hits it perfectly."

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