Thursday, May 31, 2012

Bells and Whistles

I recently developed an aversion to bells and whistles (the non-essential but often engaging features added to a product to make it more attractive without doing a thing to enhance its main function). I think it all began with digital audio effects, the processes applied to sound to morph and "enhance" it, processes like echo, chorus, delay and pitch correction. As I think about it, the real instigator was reverb.

Let's say that you really like the sound of your voice while singing in the shower, but not so much while singing in the car or in your living room. That's where reverb comes in. Reverb can take a sound recorded in a quiet space that has few reflective surfaces and make it sound as though it were recorded in the shower or in a large auditorium or Grand Central station.

You're listening to a vocal track that you just recorded and think aloud, "Hmmm... I thought I sounded better than that."

The sound engineers says, "No worries, I'll just sweeten it up with a little reverb."

Voila, your voice sounds much better.

So you might be thinking, "What could be wrong with that?"

There's nothing wrong, really. Except...  except when you start to rely on the reverb rather than say, learning to sing better.  There's not even anything wrong with that, that is, unless your goal is to become a really good singer.

Reverb is kind of like vaseline on the lens of a camera. It softens the view and hides the tiny imperfections. However, reverb can become addictive, kind of like plastic surgery. In lieu of practicing and getting better, you just keep adding a little more reverb to the mix. You come not to notice it. However your recordings start to sound like someone who's had a bit too much plastic surgery looks.

Again, that's fine, if that's really what you want.

Anyway, my aversion started with reverb, but it branched out, first to other digital audio effects and then to other areas altogether. I started to notice all the "great" websites that were really nothing more than an attractive home page picture and color scheme. There's no design to speak of, no content and yet people think of them as great examples.  I started to notice the ingredients in and presentation of meals whenever we ate out. I'd taste to see if the cook cheated with things like MSG, sugar or butter. I'd make a mental note of times when a patron lauded mediocre food because he was dazzled by its presentation.

I began weaning myself of bells and whistles plugging my guitar straight into the amplifier sans effects pedals, cooking with just the right spice mix, playing solid accompaniments without a lot of flourish. It's been quite remarkable, kind of cleansing. I've got more in touch with what I do and I've got better at it, quickly.

Hmmm... as I look around my office, I'm amazed by all the bells and whistles that still surround me, that need to be dusted, cleaned and maintained. I'm thinking it might be time for a garage sale or perhaps just a trip to the dump.

Happy Thursday,
Teflon


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