Even Better Than the Real Thing – Reality & Audio Production

By Jim Sclavunos

What better way to kick off our Real issue than by featuring a first-person account from the inimitable Jim Sclavunos? Here’s a man who’s got roughly 87 irons in the fire at any given moment, and has one hell of a track record to show for it. Sclavunos plays drums for Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and Grinderman, and has produced artists as diverse as The Horrors and Gogol Bordello. As well as being one half of remix duo Silver Alert, he is the lead singer and songwriter for The Vanity Set. (That’s just scratching the surface, kids — go back a few years and you’ll find the Cramps, Sonic Youth, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and a little something called No Wave, among others, on his resume.) That said, it’s entirely possible that our favorite thing about Jim is his brain. And so we’re thrilled to have this piece to share with you.

Photo: Sarah Lowe

In high school, “What is reality?” was a topic serially abused by aspiring intellectuals and self-reflective stoners alike, as well as by those inclined to lampoon the presumed pretentiousness of such a core question. My own clique — the intellectual-wannabe stoner clown coterie — found the question lent itself readily to the sort of flippant bratty-ness we depended upon to raise our smarty-pants profiles. But though we were habitually attracted to abuse and provocation, the question of “What is reality?” troubled us deeply and set our adolescent minds reeling, spinning off into exhilarating ruminative trajectories that soared briefly, before flaming out, and inevitably crash-landing with a dull thud of “duh”.

It has been decades since I have honked the reality horn in order to more effectively navigate the traffic jam of self-enlightenment, but in that time, digital technology has at once expanded the scope of the question and extended the demographic of those who might likewise feel tempted to ponder the mind-boggling complexities of this conundrum. Unless the universe is indeed expanding, we may not actually have access to more reality quantitatively (which is fortunate, considering the burdens that the aforementioned reality surplus is placing upon the law of supply and demand); but new interpretations, adaptations and conflations of the question of what reality is – a question that has always been inherently indefinite and multi-faceted – nowadays abound.

Reality abides in confounding distinction from, and resistance to, any language that attempts to frame it, or any conceptual structure that one might hope to utilize in thinking about it. Words simply do not exist to sufficiently describe all that one does not yet know exists. Of course, there are nonetheless day-to-day realities one must grapple with and address, harsh realities one must face. There is simply no time in a busy schedule for a paralyzing existentialist episode when one is faced with overwhelming empirical odds.

Fortunately, the recording studio encompasses both reality and hyper-reality in all its dazzling manifestations. The cocoon-like environs of the recording studio is also a superb staging ground for paralyzing existentialist episodes. The recording studio is an electronic womb, a dream/sausage factory in which all reality can be questioned, over-analyzed, undermined and malformed to whatever philosophical end suits one’s purposes. Some examples:

Virtual Reality

The software equivalent of a recording studio and all its contents are nowadays usually found residing comfortably on any typical home computer. It is almost a universal consensus at this point that the virtual studio is vastly superior to a real studio. Algorithms are already being developed that totally eliminate any need for creative input or exercising of taste, which is a welcome development as it suits contemporary popular styles, and hopefully will eventually eliminate those pesky middle-men, otherwise known as musicians, as well.

Reality Checkmate

The virtual recording studio is within reach of anyone who can afford a computer.  Accessibility to affordable recording allows the vast majority of broke, exploited, desperate and disadvantaged musicians access to tools for self-sufficient creation of sellable commodities.  Because expensive recording studios are a lynchpin of the indentured servitude that is the reality of many a new artist contract, the elimination of this expense should have threatened the economic underpinning of the music industry.  However, there is such a surfeit of musical commodity now afloat in the world and so much enthusiastic support for de-valuing it, that the status quo has been safely re-instated, and equilibrium is being at least temporarily maintained.

Acoustic and Environmental Factors

Sit in front of a pair of speakers and the sound emanating from the speakers will change noticeably as you move your head from side to side or up and down. Move about the room and it changes even more. Room temperature also affects one’s perception of sound as heat, like sound, is a form of kinetic energy. Molecules at higher temperatures have more energy, and thus vibrate faster. As molecules vibrate faster, sound waves travel more quickly. The upshot of this is that unless you are hermetically sealed in a completely static temperature-stabilized environment, an environment that doesn’t even allow your body temperature to affect your surroundings, and furthermore unless you are bound stationary and immobilized “Clockwork Orange”-style in front of a pair of speakers, in reality, you will never ever hear the same mix twice.

Control and Objectivity Versus Reality

The veneer of scientific accuracy that a professional recording studio strives to maintain and the assured consistency it inspires is a wholly convincing charade. Mixes often take hours, sometimes days. In that time, equipment heats up, electricity flows inconsistently, and knobs and faders accidentally get minutely nudged. Slowly, imperceptibly, what one was hearing early in the day changes to something else. Likewise, one’s ears become fatigued and what you are convinced you are hearing at 4AM in the morning bears no semblance to what you were hearing earlier that afternoon – which makes 4AM the perfect time to make all major creative decisions and finalize a mix: because any way you look at it, as long as it’s different, it has to be an improvement.

Keeping It Real

Equipment in the modern day recording studio offers a wide range of synthetic possibilities to amuse the ears. What better place then to resolutely pursue the ideal of uncompromising mimesis? (Unrepentant Foley artists take heed!) The reproductive process colors, alters and distorts every aspect of what is recorded. It is therefore entirely appropriate to complain that things sound different when they are recorded.  The fact that this “difference” is a measurable improvement is entirely besides the point.

The modern day musician’s primary role in the studio is not to perform one’s part confidently and expediently, but to criticize the recording process. The musician must especially pursue and agonize over the tantalizing possibility of some other sound, not only because he can, but most importantly because there is no better way to establish one’s exacting standards and aesthetic credentials. It is in fact, more than anything else, a moral battle that the musician must bravely wage  – because at all costs, he must always be right.

The Swinging Doors of Perception

“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.”  — Aldous Huxley

As human creatures we all may from time to time come to share the same space and we arguably even share some attributes; but in the recording studio each human being inhabits their own unique bubble, a private world different from that experienced by all other mortals, (especially ones with opinions). As reality irrefutably differs from person to person, we clearly cannot affirm the existence of a single reality; we must attest to the existence and relevance only of multiple realities. These “plur-realities” co-exist, if not peacefully, then at least virulently in the incubator of the studio.

Needless to say, some realities are much realer than others, such as the reality inhabited by, say, a singer or lead guitarist. One must never claim that oneself is in touch with reality, whereas the other is not; it is pointless, and could possibly even be dangerous.

One, however, can at least rest assured that there is a theory of the universe that accommodates all these seemingly incongruous and irreconcilable conflicts. Professor Max Tegmark, a cosmologist at MIT, posits that all self-aware structures (including us human beings) perceive themselves to exist in a physical reality; but in actuality all self-aware entities exist only as mathematical structures inhabiting at least four parallel universes.

So there it is finally, scientific proof: nobody is realer than anybody else, therefore everyone must be right – which after all, in a recording session, is the only thing anyone ultimately really wants to hear.

Jim Sclavunos
London, June 2012


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