Damning Digital? How the Switch to Computer Software Altered Music and Metaphysics

Graphic by Cody Foley and Liz Benjamin

Graphic by Cody Foley and Liz Benjamin

by Kate Mettetal

When the first digital recording process surfaced in 1979, musicians and industry engineers hastily canned their rolls of magnetic tape for a cheaper sound production technology. Many attribute the advanced digital process, which uses computer software to approximate inputted sound frequencies, to be the most critical paradigm shift in recording history due to the ease of mixing and mastering and immaculate quality. 

The conflict of analog versus digital recording largely boils down to “sound” and “method”. Analog advocates claim that digital recordings lack the “warmth” and emotion of tape. Tape is also far less opportune to manipulate which curates a more organic finished product, one that epitomizes the timeless relationship between musician and instrument. Sure, it is an objective statement to recognize that analog recording brings an unreplicable depth of field to music but the conflict goes far beyond aesthetic variation.   

Withdrawing from the boundless void of processors and plugins, the shift in recording technology signified a switch from the sonic personality of tape to the sterile sound of the digital age. It has not only changed the recording process but entirely altered society’s ways of hearing.  

Transcending the boundaries of music, digital recording technology reshaped metaphysics. Damon Krukowski, the drummer of Galaxie 500 and author of The New Analog, says that digital software employs a completely different concept of time compared to our non-digitized lives. Time, unbeknownst to most aside from the musician, is malleable. Even those who play music find themselves stuck in the mud that is conscious reality, so the flexibility of time is not easy to comprehend. Put it like this: there is a stark difference between a time when you cannot sleep and impatiently await sunrise versus time on vacation with your friends. Musical theories like the classical tiempo ruboto, jazz “swing”, and the “groove” of rock and funk merely stress the notion that time is experienced, not numerically measured, as in real life. 

Analog recording technology, according to Krukowski, reflects a time that is elastic. Listen to a song that was recorded before the 1980s, perhaps some Bob Dylan or The Velvet Underground, and focus on the elasticity of time in the transitions between verse and chorus. The musicians speed up or slow down at the chorus, which has always been the instance in the majority of analog recordings. I, and other analog advocates, find the “speeding up and slowing down” of analog charming, but musicians and producers saw this element of analog as flawed. And so began the era of the “click track”, a series of audio cues that synchronize sound recordings. 

This was not an industry phase blinded by novelty, however. The “click track” is still used today via the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) that was launched in 1983. The MIDI made the experience of musical time rigid, a mechanism that secured time to a measurable variable. It simply makes the recording more regulated and concise than real-time itself. And, while this appears to make logical sense, as confining time to a variable measurement would make it a unified experience for musicians and listeners alike, time is nearly impossible to synchronize. If you have ever recorded and produced your own music, you know the frustration of aligning all the different layers of the song. Compiling, for example, your guitar with your vocal recordings will ensure that the recordings will not align with how you performed it. Adding a drum track? The process just complicated tenfold. 

This difference between real-time and the time it takes for computer software used in digital recording to process the data being inputted via your mic, guitar, etc. is called latency, and it is an absolute inconvenience. Like in music, latency can very much be experienced in online life too. And online life has, arguably and unfortunately, morphed into real life. From news articles to standard timeline posts, social media platforms’ time is rooted in algorithms based on popularity or personal interest rather than chronological order. Texting also has its own time with the inability to fall into comfortable silence without the conversation abruptly ending like we can do face-to-face. 

Although these variations of change with digital time may seem minute, they have had major consequences. The lack of chronology on social media timelines, for example, says that time is insignificant in the digital world. Cashing in analog time for digital time, we are unable to share our unique and individual experiences of time with each other. Time, in the digital world, is something to be longed for or hoarded or battled against. There are far fewer moments savoring (or dreading) the hours waiting for dawn on a restless night and more scrolling to divert ourselves from whatever else could happen between sleeplessness and the rising sun. More significant consequences lie, of course, in the implications of digital time in music. Tiempo ruboto, groove, and swing bring substance and experience to music that falls short in the muddled experience of time in digital recording. These variations of time are what make each genre distinct and, without these variations, we lose the narratives and cultures conveyed through the music. The experience of time in an analog recording is elastic but unified, swinging and grooving us together.