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Music, Moving Backwards?

Music, Moving Backwards?

Vaughn Skow Roots Guitar Player

Okay friends, I’ve gotta let y’all in on a closely kept secret … even though I still look 19 ;-) … I’m a bit of an old-timer in the music biz.  I began performing at age 13 in the late 1970s, playing through a brown Fender Deluxe and singing through a Shure Vocal-Master PA with two big, tall, skinny speakers out front, and no monitors what so ever.  For the youngins reading this with astonishment, what follows is sure to be on the verge of simply un-believable … but I promise, every word is TRUE!  Our drummer played a 100% acoustic and un-miced drum set; our keyboard player played a Fender Rhodes and a Roland SH-1 synth through his Fender Twin-Reverb, and our bass player actually played through … get this, a bass amp!

And my God, it was awesome.  Fun!  Yea.  Nothing in the world is quite as great as playing with other like-minded musicians.  The true awesome beauty of all of you together compressing & refracting air molecules through time & space to create one coordinated amazing localized atmospheric disturbance … man, it just doesn’t get any better than that.

So, why this particular trip down memory lane?  Let’s talk about that.  It all started when I CUT CABLE TV and started watching everything either “over the air” or via Roku & Apple TV boxes or directly on iPads & iPhones.  Not following me, are you?  How could a switch to MODERN technology bring out nostalgia for vintage technology?  Simple answer: Heartland TV.  For the long answer, keep reading! (Warning: this is looking like an epic-length blog … but man, it’s INSPIRED … so it will be worth your investment in time.)

Merle Haggard with Telecaster

This morning I turned on the television and did what we all used to do in the good-old days, started scanning through channels.  I hit the Heartland TV network and a classic 1970’s performance by Merle Haggard (Playing his Tele through a silver-face Deluxe Reverb) and that’s when the channel surfing abruptly stopped.  Holy Crap.  He was good. REALLY good.  Then came a pre-facial hair Waylon Jennings (complete with leather-clad Tele through a black-face Twin Reverb), and then a 1980’s performance by the Charlie Daniels Band exploded my musical world for the first time in years.  

Vintage Charlie Daniels Band Live

That’s when it hit me:  I’d been horrifically musically “dumbed-down” by the decades of technology I’ve survived.  My God, first we were taught that digital is superior to analogue technology, then we were taught that many tracks of highly effected digital sound was preferable to a few actual instruments played by inspired musicians.  And where are we today?  Yea, seriously, let’s talk about THAT.

Today one person (who probably isn’t even a decent musician) sitting at a computer often produces entire hit songs, without so much as a single musician or a single musical instrument actually disturbing so much as a single air molecule.  Bad as it can get?  Nope, then the worst of all possible musical atrocities begins: the vocals.  Usher in the super-cute little boy or girl to caterwaul their way through a poorly written piece of electro-dance pop poop.  And we all know, it doesn’t matter how they actually SING, cuz that all gets cut-n-spliced, tuned and quantized, and effected even to the point of “throat modeling” to make little junior sound like they’ve actually got some pipes.  Wow, so is the carnage finally over?  Is it safe for me to look now?   Nope, better shade those eyes (& ears) a little longer, cuz we’re about to hit mixing & mastering … also known as the hunt to identify and eliminate any hint of musicality that may be found clinging to life.

Ever since the release of the first look-ahead digital limiter capable of “brick” waveform limiting, mastering has kind of resembled mountain-top removal mining.  It goes like this: find the dynamics and remove them, then make every single split-second of “music” as loud as possible … in other words, find all the zeroes and turn them into ones.  Now, the carnage is complete.  The only thing left is to have a small posse of beautiful boys & girls in their underwear pretend to “perform” the “song” on video while having sex.

Now, let’s turn our attention to LIVE music.

Today, we, as guitar players are blessed with the greatest sounding and most diverse collection of guitar amps ever available.  Not only have nearly all the wonderful tweed, brown, black, & silver amps of the 50s, 60s & 70s survived to continue beautifully singing, but a new crop of true tone craftsmen are producing the finest sounding amps ever to put air in motion.   It SHOULD be the best time EVER for guitar players, but that’s often not the case.  Why?  IN-EAR MONITORING, and “playing direct”.  Why on earth has this draconian practice of the 1990’s survived?  Why on earth, in the day and age of low-watt boutique tube amps that can sound rich, juicy, and downright HUGE … even at whisper-soft volumes … are there supposed “audio engineers” out there insisting that guitar players play “direct”?  Here is my theory, and since I’m as much an audio engineer as I am a guitar player, I think it’s a fair assessment.  It’s because too many engineers either 1. Don’t know the first thing about playing guitar (or maybe ANY instrument) and/or 2. They’ve been burned by some idiot guitar thug who legitimately played too darn loud.  What are we guitarists to do?  First, gently educate the misinformed wherever and whenever possible, and second, don’t be “that idiot” who when given the chance to play through a good-old amp chooses to play TOO DARN LOUD!

Now, if we could just free those poor drummers from the Plexiglass cages imposed upon them by equally miss-informed or inept soundmen!  Next would come the return of the floor-monitor.  I mean seriously, singers, have you ever HEARD yourself sing through the best-in-class wedges made by companies like Meyer Sound?  It will make you pull out your $800 custom-molded in-ears, douse them in gasoline and light those puppies up!

Of course, none of this matters until we start to fire the computers from their currently held positions as Drummers, bassists, singers, keyboardists, and of course guitarists. 

For over a decade now the MTV networks(which for those of you who don’t know, includes Country Music TV) have attempted to musically lobotomize the human inhabitants of planet earth.  In the late 90’s and into the beginning of the current millennium it appeared as though their evil agenda would be utterly and completely implemented.  However, a few real hard-core musicians and music fans survived to completely resist the re-programing.  So there IS hope, and WE must join the ranks of those who choose to be part of the cure, not just those who perpetuate the cancerous plague.

Join with folks like T-Bone Burnettand Jack White in the HUGE Roots Music Revival.  In so doing, you will be in VERY good company, and, I believe, you will be at the forefront of the musical revolution that is just gaining critical mass.  Guitar players (& bass players), start moving air molecules again through exceptional sounding amplifiers … darn it, think TONE.  Singers: take those damn pieces of crap out of your ears, turn the computer off, and learn how to sing … better yet, learn how to ENTERTAIN!  Drummers, blow the dust off of that real live kit, educate yourself in how to tune it properly, and learn how to control your own volume … and when they come at you with that plexiglass cage, send ‘em packing!  And engineers, stop acting like it’s still 1999 and MTV still owns the minds of everyone in the western world.

T-Bone Burnett ROCKS!

T-Bone Rocks The Grammy's with Alison Krauss & Robert Plant

email Vaughn     About Vaughn Skow

jdw
06/06/2014 2:17pm

Well, I agree with most of what ya' say there, my dear friend. However, I believe there's room for all of it. It is an art form after all, and art should always be evolving, even as it retains the reverence for its past. Like you, I've made a lot of music over the years, some of it really good and some of it not so good. And, as of the last 20 or so years, some of the good and the not so good has been done both old school and as new school as I, or one of my cronies can muster. You know that I'm with you on preferences for live performance. Gimme' a great sounding amp and guitar and/or keyboard, no cage for the drummer boy (or girl) and push a bunch of air around in stimulating fashion. And, yes, gimme' floor monitors instead of in-ears. There are pluses and minuses on both sides of the ledger, but I'm not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater... and I'm sure you're not either. I can certainly appreciate the civlized "rant", however. You are a gentleman and a scholar, as well as a darn fine musician and technician. Keep teachin' and learnin'... I know I certainly intend to do the same!

 

dean
06/06/2014 3:22pm

Nice rant Vaughn, keep doin what you're doin!!

 

david.hannah
06/07/2014 2:10pm

Vaughn!

Jdw's claim that it's all good likely comes from his ability to make anything sound good.  We love you anyway JD!  Although I'm really not a musician, I've played the bass since the mid-70s.  I loved the music of the time and wanted to do more than just listen.  For years my Fender bass was nearest my heart, but I'd play through any amp that could almost keep up with whatever the guitar player was destroying at the time.  When my Sunn amp finally caught fire, I bought a Mesa Bass-400, and for the first time in my life I could hear what I was doing - I mean "really hear what I was doing".   When I picked up the bass again in the early 2000s, I acquired a Mesa M-pluse 600 for the same reason.  Guitar players turn it up to 11 all the time, but I've never played a bass amp that truely sounds great much past "five".  So I use a bass amp with enough power to never have to push it beyond five!

Anyway, I guess your "rant" reminded me that now-a-days my amp is nearest my heart and the selection of a bass becomes secondary.  I hate when someone says to me, "just bring a bass, as we'll provide an amp".  Unlike jdw, I can't make just any piece of crap sound good.

toddt
06/09/2014 3:57pm

Amen! I have never heard a DI that sounds like an SVT. Even 5 driver ear monitors can't feel or sound like an 8x10 bass cab at any volume.

senor.tthomas
07/27/2014 4:30pm

Vaughn, You make very good points about the state of music these days. It is sad that organic music made by real humans on real instruments have virtually disappeared from modern radio and video. I am glad to hear that roots music is being promoted again. Sadly,  this should not be the exception.  As a professional drummer for over 20 years,  I know all too well how the dependence on technology has impacted music in ways that I feel are not good. Many young people do not appreciate the value of real music that has not effected, corrected, quantized, and manipulated to an Un recognizable state of homogeneous pop. I have opted to check out of the music scene as a career musician. Perhaps one day I will return but until then I have joined the ranks of those who go to work 8 to 5 and draw a decent paycheck. Wake me up when real organic music returns. T2