Sunday, May 07, 2017

Damon Krukowski – ‘The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World’

Analog refers to a continuous stream of information, whereas digital is discontinuous. (p. 9)
One of the lectures on the computing course I did in 2003/4 opened with a statement to the effect that everything digital is also analogue, and everything analogue is also digital. The first part is true because a signal containing digital information will itself be physical, and therefore bound to have variations, but within thresholds which allow it to be recognised as a series of discrete values (i.e. as 0 or 1). I can’t remember exactly why the second part was said to be true, but I suppose that any parsing of information involves categorising it, ending up with a discrete value. Speech is broken down into syllables as it is spoken and built back up into sentences as it is heard. Music is built back up into notes, chords, rhythms, words – and noise. Damon Krukowski’s book is an argument in favour of leaving the building-back-up to the brain, rather than outsourcing it to the microprocessor and the corporations in charge of the algorithms which determine what we see and hear. He thinks we need the noise, even if we choose to discard most of it.

It’s not just about the argument, though, and the book is often best at its most tangential. Looking for a passage on the difference between analogue and digital recording just now, I found relevant sections in two or three chapters, in amongst discussions of pianolas, copyright, listening to sports radio along to TV coverage, mistakes and even studio directions you can hear if you listen closely enough to Pet Sounds, quadrophonic sound, the loudness wars, Can getting their analogue studio to play itself, and the accumulation of so much music in iTunes that it becomes impossible to listen carefully enough (‘thick listening’ (p. 119)). This is the closest I found:
In the digital audio workstation, where you are at any moment in the recording is precisely determined by the timescale, but when any given sound occurs is not. All times are equally available to it. Compare this to an analog recording on tape: the tape itself has no absolute time value, but any moment on that length of tape is fixed in relation to all the moments it is not. (p. 188)
That is, unless you splice the tape, which is discussed in relation to John Cage’s dense ‘Williams Mix’, which is in turn compared to The Beatles’ ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’:
rather than compressing […] time by cutting it up as Cage had, the Beatles layered over and over the same length of tape, until it was so thick with time that listening to it reminded people of an acid trip. (p. 116)
There is much discussion of plus and minus points of stereo – minus, because it takes music away from shared space and into headphones, effectively de-socialising it. This incident crops up repeatedly:
I saw a woman fall from her bicycle in the middle of the street. ‘What happened?’ I asked as I helped her up – the one car nearby had hardly come close. She took her headphones off and said, ‘I was totally self-absorbed. Suddenly I realised there was a car in the road. I braked and fell.’ (p. 19)
The conclusion drawn is:
She surrendered her shifting analog sense of what is signal and what is noise, replacing it with the digital stream of information on her headphones – a stream that is signal only. (p. 51)
Here, Krukowski pushes his thesis too far. It is fair enough to blame the headphones for the woman’s disorientation, but it is ridiculous to claim that it was anything to do with the music being digital. An analogue Walkman could have produced exactly the same effect. There are a few moments of imprecision like this. He mis-defines crosstalk as ‘feeding a part of one channel’s sound into the other in order to re-create the kinds of binaural clues we use to locate sounds in space’ (p. 51) (this is panning – crosstalk refers to unwanted noise leaking between channels), and proceeds to defend something which was never under attack. He says that mp3s are designed to sound worse than CDs, which would be a lousy design aspiration. And while I am nit-picking, the separation of everything into signal and noise can seem arbitrary. Social media is one of the digital innovations which works by eliminating noise, he argues, leaving just signal, and no way to orient yourself. In a certain sense this is true (you can’t hear the tone of voice in a Tweet, and its brevity maximises the potential for a binary interpretation), but on the other hand, it often seems that social media is nothing but noise.

All of which is slightly beside the point. ‘Signal’ and ‘noise’ can mean a lot of different things, but something has definitely been going on with music this millennium, and most of it has been lapped up without question, because it has involved spending less money. The New Analog puts it in all sorts of contexts, and makes a brave attempt to define what we risk losing if we don’t take off our headphones and look around.

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