When the man who made a career out of kicking the tires of the digital revolution turns around and starts asking whether we’re getting any benefit from it, people tend to perk up their ears and listen.
“It’s very difficult, and it’s continually under debate actually,” said Eno. “It doesn’t just apply with African recordings. It’s a problem everybody is having at the moment. Do I resist the temptation to perfect this thing? What do I lose by perfecting it? It’s difficult. Because now it is possible to mend anything, correct anything. The rhythm’s a bit out on that bar? OK, we’ll just stretch it a little bit. We can quantize everything now, we can quantize audio so the beat is absolutely perfect. We can sort of do and undo everything. And of course, most of the records we like, all of us, as listeners, are records where people didn’t do everything to fix them up and make them perfect.
“So the question that everybody’s asking is, is it getting any better as a result of all this? But it’s such a hard temptation to resist. You’re recording a song and find a note that is really quite out of tune. In the past, you’d have said, it’s a great performance, so we’ll just live with it. What you do now is retune that note. So you’re always asking yourself, have we lost something of the tension of the performance, of the feeling of humanity and vulnerability and organic truth or whatever, by making these corrections? It does make you question the role of new technology in the studio. And, of course, there are all sorts of reactions against it. You have Jack White with his studio in Nashville, which is all analogue, he doesn’t have any digital equipment in there. And I’ve worked with bands who’ve said, we’re going back to tape. They’ve got in all the stuff, 24-track recorders, all the gear – but within half a day they’re saying, fuck, we can’t edit this stuff. They’re just not used to working that way.
“There’s a very interesting exercise, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried it, not to use cmd-Z when you’re writing something. I write quite a lot on a Mac and like everybody I go back and change things. If you say to yourself, today I’m going to write exactly as if I was sitting in front of a piece of paper and writing – Jesus, it’s a whole different mind-set. Because you have to start thinking before you start writing. It’s really hard to go back to that. I’m not saying there is any advantage in going back to it, it’s just interesting to try it, to remind yourself of how completely you are now part of this new technology of writing.”
Did Eno think that belle époque West African records still sound vital and alive 40 or 50 years on because of, rather than despite, the very basic conditions under which most of them were recorded?
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