Semantic Satiation, Cross-Modal Plasticity, Secure Mediocrity & Other Wonders of Working in Pro Tools

posted in: Essays | 0
By Catherine Vericolli

I consider myself fortunate to have been raised on consoles and tape machines. There was always something wonderful about the feel of faders and knobs, the glow of VU meters, and the smell of tape. Recordmaking in this fashion was a complete sensory experience. Each step taken in preparation to hear that first recorded or reproduced sound was meaningful, exciting, and elegant. There was a palpable sense of satisfaction as each physical element became connected: machine to machine, machine to recordmaker – and as we became connected: recordmaker to musician, musician to instrument. I felt connected. Not only to the physical aspects or to specific moments, but to all the moments in all the studios of the past – a connection to the history of recordmaking. Each physical act was somehow an homage to those who came before me – to all the creators and crafters. Recordmaking was an honorable and prideful act, rich with fundamental process and deliberate action. This is a feeling that still rings true for myself as it does for many others, so it would be unfair to say that this kind of experience is unattainable without consoles or tape machines, or that recordmaking is no longer a prideful or honorable act in the digital age. However it feels proper to present this perspective of connectedness in the past tense, simply because I find this to be a rare insight amongst many recordmakers, as our community becomes more and more dependent on digital technology, long-distance web-based collaboration and an overall tendency toward the ethereal, non-corporeal, diffuse realm of digital emulation.

As an analog focused studio owner and recordmaker (my studio is equipped with consoles and tape machines), I often find it difficult to maintain a healthy balance between a workspace that’s conducive to my own preferences, and one that caters to the digitally dependent. This can be especially challenging when over 50% of my studio’s income comes from rental sessions, many of which don’t necessarily take place in the analog realm. Although at this point in my career I would consider myself to be somewhat of a professional at tuning out annoyances, I’ve found that these all-digital sessions are much harder to ignore.  The non-linear access to the music in particular, as well as the editing capabilities of the DAW, seem to unleash some of the strangest behavior on the part of some clients. I hear things that are so outside of what I would consider to be sensical playback that I’m sometimes half tempted to ask my guest not only about their studio processes, but about their thought processes as well. I’ve also found that these sessions tend to produce more unhappy clients, often completely unbeknownst to the engineer running the session. I can’t say if it was the years of rental session control room bleed, or the fact that I have had to make too many apologies with clients that weren’t my own, but I was inspired to take a closer look at these particular sessions. When I did I found some unfortunate habits and strange attitudes that had manifested in my guest engineers. Some of these habits were unique to the individual and some were not — obviously not everyone had the same approach — but in the end I found that there was really only one obvious and undeniable commonality: they were all working exclusively in ProTools!

This conclusion then lead me to ask myself whether ProTools (and DAWs in general) fundamentally changed the quality of our work as recordmakers?

Now before writing any further, I feel it necessary to provide the following disclaimers:

Disclaimer #1: I have a strong personal opinion about ProTools, and as to as an attempt to dodge any overdramatic or exaggerated rhetoric (and because ‘hate’ is a strong word) I’ll say that I’m not a big fan of ProTools, or any DAW for that matter. However, it is worth noting that I own multiple ProTools rigs complete with the all the trimmings, and I use them along with my analog gear.

Disclaimer #2: In no way do I intend to condemn anyone’s preferred method of recordmaking. I do want to raise questions about the way DAWs have changed our working habits.

Disclaimer #3: DAW’s have their benefits, and there are a number of reasons why someone would be inclined to purchase, integrate and implement any number of them into a recording or mixing environment, but for this piece I’ll focus on what I believe to be the pros and cons of five most common (or in my experience the most talked about) benefits of ProTools specifically, starting with the pros:

1. Pros of Digital Cost
Analog recording gear is expensive. No matter how you look at it, the initial purchase price of a digital interface is almost always less than that of a decent analog console, and the price of plug-ins are much cheaper than that of their analog or physical predecessors, especially those which emulate analog tape machines. Not to mention that hard drive space is much cheaper than tape, and troubleshooting and/or fixing a problem can be a tech department call away, thus a much cheaper endeavor than paying a qualified analog tech (an expensive and dying breed). Therefore, projects funded without the recording budgets of 1970 can take place and still validate a semi-appropriate pay rate for all parties involved.

2. Pros of Digital Speed
Sessions happen much quicker in the digital domain now that we can recall them instantly and move them from studio to studio with ease. Playback is instant, and in the time it used to take us to load a reel of tape onto a tape machine, pull some up some faders and cue a location point, we’ve already got a ProTools session open and running. Records that used to take a year to finish, now may take only a matter of months, and let’s not forget the most obvious time saving element of all – editing. This is invariably the first thing I hear when discussing the glamour of ProTools. Even the most talented tape cutters and splicers are no where near fast enough to compete.

3. Pros of Digital Options
There are an innumerable amount of options at our fingertips. Literally thousands of different dynamic, eq, and effects plug-ins. We are no longer limited to the physical space of our control rooms, nor are we limited to a specific amount of tracks that our tape machines and consoles once demanded. Our track counts on rock records can now rival those that used to only constitute things like film scores, and a number like 24 or even 48 can seem almost laughable in some applications. Almost anything there is to do can be done several different ways with a number of different virtual tools. We can accomplish anything. We are limitless.

4. Pros of Digital Visual Reference
Our ears are no longer our only means of understanding and referencing the sounds that we capture. Waveforms have taken on a totally new identity as they’re laid out neatly and colorfully on our computer screens. Now that sound can be seen, it’s far easier to spot common problems such as issues with phase, poor timing, and level inconsistencies. We have the ability to zoom closely into regions of recorded material, perform incredibly precise edits, cut and paste audio, and manipulate waveforms to cater to our specific needs in any way we see fit.

5. Pros of Digital Security
Or more accurately, the security that comes from freeing ourselves of commitment. Actions are no longer destructive, and takes are deleted just as easily as they can be saved. They are comp-ed, reconstructed, reworked and tuned. Faults are not much of a problem since they are forgotten just as fast as they can be erased with a simple key stroke, regardless of which side of the glass they may occur. Single notes are punched with time parameters set by a click and a drag, and anyone with a moderate understanding of the recording process can do it. This newfound freedom creates an unchallengeable sense of confidence even for the newest of recordmakers and the weakest of musicians.

Ok, so there’s a hint of sarcasm in there, but you get the general idea. These are more or less believable ‘truths.’ ProTools is a technological marvel and it should be appreciated. If I wasn’t a ProTools owner and user I wouldn’t be able to keep my doors open, and as much as I’m an analog purist at heart, I get that the brilliance of the software itself cannot be argued. So perhaps it’s not so much the product itself that I have an issue with, but how it’s being used, or, more specifically, how it’s changing us, indulging certain tendencies we humans have that analog (very much by accident) never allowed us to indulge. I’ve witnessed repeatedly how some of the benefits of ProTools can lead to unfortunate habits, and how a program that was designed to be used as a tool has become (for some) their entire toolbox. Is ProTools fundamentally beneficial to us as recordmakers? I’m not convinced. Let’s revisit these five benefits, and I’ll play the devil’s advocate.

1. Cons of Digital Cost
Is ProTools really cheaper than an analog console and tape machine? The truth is that over time, not exactly. Let’s take into consideration the monopoly that is AVID, and its beleaguered relationship with all the things that we use along with it’s hardware and software. Compatibility has become a concern that cannot be ignored, and this means upgrades, upgrades, and more upgrades. Example: You decide to upgrade to the newest version of ProTools, only to realize that you must upgrade your computer in order to run the new software. If you opt not to upgrade your computer and continue to run the software version you already have, you will inevitably fall into the realm of the obsolete (AVID’s best friend) while the industry as a whole has jumped on the latest and greatest bandwagon faster than seems feasible. (One could argue that this has been happening for years in the analog world, albeit at a much slower rate. Technological change does increase in pace as processing speeds up.) There’s also a pretty good chance that all the plug-ins you own and have already paid for are also no longer compatible, so you don’t have much of a choice but to fix that problem in exchange for another chunk out of your savings. Once you’ve invested in something like an HD system, AVID could demand almost anything it wants from you in order to continue to use their software. It’s worth stating that this dependance can partially be avoided by taking advantage of AVID’s recent decision to make its software nonproprietary to its hardware, yet now even this is being reconsidered which only adds to the frustration.

This continuing game of catch-up illuminates a financially depressing and yet strangely elusive issue that ProTools presents: impermanence. Unlike a physical console that is very much ‘what you see is what you get, and what you get is what you can use,’ the star child of the DAW world is much more ‘what you see is what you get, and what you get is what you can use…for now.’ In my studio’s lifetime, I have spent far more on purchasing and upgrading my AVID products and plug-ins than I have spent on my analog mixing console and both of my 24 track 2” tape machines. And this is not by a few hundred dollars here or there, but by thousands. It doesn’t seem as if there’s an end to this cycle, and as far as AVID’s concerned, there doesn’t really need to be.

2. Cons of Digital Speed
Here’s where things get interesting, and here’s where some of those bizarre, repetitive listening moments that I’m unable to ignore come into play. Technically, ProTools is faster than analog tape in every way. Transport controls are just one example. Previewing or listening back to something is immediate, so there’s no longer that measurable break of silence that existed while rewinding and cueing. This seems like an inconsequential thing, but I’m convinced that it is incredibly important. When you are no longer inconvenienced by such pauses, you can preview a part, note, word, or even a syllable, over and over again without respite. Much like a skipping CD, it can be be maddening and confusing for a listener without any context. (Example: me listening to you do this from outside the door, or the naive client sitting behind you hearing a single measure of phrase repeated endlessly.) But even with context, is immediate, repeatable playback beneficial? Just because it can be done, should it? If we listen to something 35 times in a row, are we really going to find something important in there that we missed the first few times it was played back? Are we going to find the right vocal take to add to our vocal comp? Doubtful.

And here’s why: Have you ever said a word a few too many times until it becomes nonsensical?  This is an actual psychological phenomenon called semantic satiation, and it occurs when  repetition causes a word or phrase to temporarily lose meaning for the listener, who then  perceives that word or phrase as repeated meaningless sounds. In other words, the listener loses perspective and the sensory processing systems begin to fail. Semantic satiation often causes the listener to repeat the process in a quest for clarity, and as you can imagine, things get a little loopy (pun noted) as one pushes further into confusion. The DAW’s ease of nonlinear playback as well as the host of tools designed to aid in meticulous micro-editing seem to promote exactly the kind of behavior that puts us in a state of mind where we probably shouldn’t be making decisions.  This ultra-fast non-linear access is also be a big reason that digital sessions tire people out.

Here’s another thing to consider: if everything can be broken down into tiny little pieces and then meticulously edited to perfection because it’s so fast and easy to do so, how long do you imagine you’ll be there? Days? Weeks? Months? The problem with this meticulousness is that for some it’s almost impossible to resist. Obsessive editing and an inability to make final decisions has reared it’s nasty head in a whole new way since ProTools has been around, and — based on my observations of people working in analog and digital — digital records take far longer to finish (if they even get completed at all). There’s just too many things that can be fussed with.

This obsessive, indecisive behavior isn’t limited just to playback; it seeps into almost every aspect of ProTools where speed and ease are supposed to be a benefit. If someone can play a guitar part 100 times without having to worry about things like rewind time or fidelity loss, why not do it? Why not just play it until there’s enough information recorded to comp together something that’s just right? Great, except that now you’ve spent 4 hours on that guitar part, and the day is over. Digital editing is a great gift, but digital editing is far more time efficient when used as a simple tool than as a paradigm unto itself.

Let’s also consider that we live in an era where we’re annoyed when our smartphones glitch for a few seconds or our downloads speeds are slow. I’ve witnessed that with lightning speed comes aggravated impatience and an unwillingness to work methodically. This impatience is a serious problem in a recording studio because fundamental skills go out the window. We’ve become too impatient to consider simple, elemental things like basic signal flow and gain structure, and are discouraged by anything that requires us to slow down and really do something that requires a methodical, measured approach. Instead, it’s go go go, now now now. If we can’t do it right now then we’re much less likely to do it at all, and we deprive ourselves of the patience and dedication that is unquestionably needed to create truly great records.

3. The Cons of Options
Here is where I start to cringe, and it’s not because of the ‘plug-ins don’t sound as good as the gear they’re modeled after’ argument, or the ‘no one really needs that many tracks’ perspective. There are some really great plug-ins, and there are some applications where a lot of tracks can be beneficial. For me, it’s about incentive. Let’s take a piece of outboard gear with a decent amount of pedigree as an example – say, a Manley Massive Passive EQ. New, this piece will run you around $5,000.00, and just like any well built and much appreciated piece of gear it has its own unique sound and function which takes a bit of time to get to know. Whether conscious or not, if you’ve spent $5000 on it, that’s an important decision and you’re already invested in it. Therefore, you should naturally be more inclined to break out the manual and read through it, test it on a familiar mix, or maybe research how it was designed and built. You’ll dedicate time to learn how to use it, and how to get the most out of it. It would be silly to invest $5000 in something that you’re going to use as a tool to improve your craft and then barely spend time with it, right?

This is precisely how I see so many audioworkers treating plug-ins. If you can buy the Massive Passive plug-in for around around $300.00, instantly receive, download, and use it in a session, how much incentive is there to really get to know it? Is the incentive to learn and explore less than it would be if you had purchased the actual piece for fifteen times as much? Again, it’s not necessarily the quality of the plug-ins themselves that are problematic, (there are those who swear by them) but there’s a nonchalant attitude that I find comes along with chronic plug-in users: ‘“Hey, it’s just a plug-in, if I don’t like it on this track I can just insert a different one, and if I don’t have the patience to fuss with it I can just use one of these presets.” The tendency to go deep into a single tool slips away when the toolbox has endless options, and it is by going deep into a single tool that we foster our own detailed craft.

Obviously not all audioworkers that use plug-ins have this kind of attitude, and the Massive Passive is perhaps an exaggerated example cost-wise. But I find that more often than not, many audioworkers have never used the actual piece of gear that the plug-in they’re using emulates, nor have they developed an appreciation for where that plug-in came from. They tend to be disinterested in gaining the kind of understanding that comes from a deep relationship with a piece of gear, and they often lack the patience to do so in the first place. It’s just too easy to jump to another option in a menu, especially when there’s no financial investment that forced a deeper decision about what tools to really explore. There’s no relationship there, just speed dating.

A similar dilemma arises when more tracks are used than are needed. Is there the same amount of incentive to achieve thoughtful and appropriate performances, tones, and takes that truly serve the song when you have unlimited tracks? Are we as audioworkers less likely to produce a cohesive quality product when we have the ability to add so much? Are we embracing too much of the unnecessary? When I see ultra cluttered mix and edit windows (another common habit among audioworkers solely using Pro Tools) the end result is almost always just as cluttered. It seems absurd that one could record upwards of 50, 60, 70 tracks in a song and not have any fall by the wayside. Sure, each one can be meticulously documented, but it’s almost guaranteed that there will be a feeling of disconnect when no one remembers why a track exists or where it came from. And what happens when these bloated sessions end up in another studio for mixing and/or overdub tracking? I’ve seen engineers spend more time on trying to figure out what they’re looking at than they do on the mix itself. And much of the mixing procedure is figuring out what to use and not use — essentially working through decisions that simply hadn’t been made yet.

With all the options that ProTools offers, one would assume that recordmaking would be easier, but the truth in many cases is that it’s not. When it’s so easy to get lost in a world of endless possibilities, it can easily become an overwhelming, uninspiring and discouraging undertaking.

4. The Cons of Visual Reference
It would make sense that the ability to see as well as hear our waveforms would significantly improve the quality of our craft, but this revolutionary addition to our toolkit can be a double edged sword. When we are given the option to see a representation of music, our brains automatically learn over time to rely upon this sense as a means of comprehension. It’s not that we cease to ‘hear’, but more accurately we cease to ‘hear entirely’. Our brains are forced to multitask our perception as we subconsciously correlate sound information with visual information. Results from studies on this phenomenon have been compared conversely to cross-modal plasticity, or the adaptive reorganization of neurons in the brain that combine two or more of the body’s sensory systems – i.e. when the brain strengthens it’s auditory sensitivity to compensate for temporary or permanent blindness. This adaptation has also been referred to (more pseudo scientifically, as this theory has not been sufficiently tested at limited intervals) by individuals who claim that they experience heightened hearing as a result of closing their eyes. Science aside, the more pertinent issue here is that there’s an increased propensity to depend more on a visual connection to audio, rather than an auditory one.

I feel it unnecessary to delve into the devastating consequences of not using our ears as the preferred sensory method of experiencing sound in a recording studio, because I can only assume that these consequences would be blatantly obvious. However, there is a more subtle repercussion of this propensity towards the visual that can affect our clients more than we may realize. When we are fiercely engaged in our computer monitors during a session, we automatically engage much less with the musicians in the studio. This isn’t necessarily a purposeful neglect, but it occurs simply because in the digital realm there is something to look at, where as in the analog realm, there’s not a lot of things to ‘view’ other than the space between our monitors and the meters on our gear. This can very easily translate to the musician as a kind of distance or absence, which is then only intensified if that client is unfamiliar with DAWs. Even if a musician has little experience being in a studio, it’s fairly obvious that when a recordmaker is engaged with a physical console or tape machine, that he or she is doing something that is directly related to the recordmaking process. A ProTools session however can look as if there’s not really much of anything happening, other than the movement of a cursor around a screen and the tapping of a keyboard. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a client say “What is it that you’re doing exactly?” during a ProTools mix…

5. The Cons of Security
Mistakes can be wonderful things. We learn from these experiences, but what happens when there is no longer any real consequence to making mistakes? There are I’m sure a myriad of answers to this question, but the one that bothers me the most is that without consequences there’s an increased likelihood for mediocrity. Unfortunately, ProTools provides a perfect environment for mediocrity to breed – a proverbial petri dish if you will, where the insecurity that exists in the destructive analog realm is no longer in play – thus less than excellent performances become acceptable. But is it not this insecurity that subconsciously drives us to be thorough, concentrated, and discerning in the studio? Relieve us of this burden, and expectations unconsciously plummet. Some have argued that without this caution, the professional studio can become like an open invitation to those who have no business making records, musicians and engineers alike.

Preparation is another important factor that has become more of a luxury than an expectation prior to a record being made in ProTools. This in itself also leads to mediocre results. It’s my experience that almost 100% of artists or bands that choose to record to tape in my studio take some amount of time (weather it be in the studio or not) to dedicate to pre-production, where as bands that choose to track to ProTools hardly ever do, or more actually only about 10%. And what about our preparation as recordmakers? This takes a hit as well when we’re not as concerned with making mistakes. I’ve also found that 1 out of every 5 guest engineers that book a ProTools session are either late to arrive at the session’s scheduled start time, fail to communicate specifics with session musicians, or forget the session hard drive entirely, having to waste an hour or more to drive home and retrieve it.This ‘security’ is perhaps the most catastrophic ‘benefit’ to the final product, because we are no longer expected to be qualified recordmakers or musicians. Rather we’re expected to be magicians in a world where our editing chops and our knowledge of quick keys are more coveted than our ability to relate to the people making music or to the music itself, and the time  spent ‘fixing’ can seriously outweigh time spent capturing. If this is the case, what kind of records are we making?

Although it may seem to be, this piece is not meant as a fuck-you to ProTools, plug-ins, or their users, nor it is a pro-analog manifesto. I’m a firm believer that whatever medium one feels is the most conducive to achieving whatever the artist is trying to express is always the best bet. It’s more of a call to pause and consider how ProTools and other DAWs are being used, and how this effects the overall recording process. The question of weather or not ProTools has fundamentally improved the quality of our work as recordmakers is a difficult one, and may not have a definitive answer, but if it’s so easy to get caught up in the fanciful and magical world that exists on our computer screens, have we lost sight of what it means to be audioworkers? Have we in fact become “the tools of our tools?”

Author: Catherine Vericolli
Publication Date: March 13th, 2015
First Publication: Pink Noise