I’ve been thinking about starting a new set of posts for awhile about various kinds of music software – plug-ins, virtual instruments, etc. Digital doesn’t tend to get a lot of love in the indie world, historically speaking. Even the word “soft” carries negative connotations in a genre that followed in the wake of hardcore.
The fetish of the analog doesn’t sit well with all post-punk figures, however. David Thomas of Pere Ubu once said “I spit on your vinyl” to all analog hard-liners during a concert somewhere in Scandanavia.
I understand that many or even most digital productions have sounded sterile, but am perplexed by the lack of interest in technology that makes music production more accessible to those on a budget. After all, I thought the point of the underground was to demystify and make accessible the tools of production. (Or to own them, as Marx would say.) If you don’t need a gold-top Jimmy Page style Les Paul, do you really need to shell out thousands for a vintage hardware 1176 compressor when a cheaper alternative might be at hand?
Some software developers are basically totally cheesy. But one who is not is Kush Audio. You can get a hold of their UBK-1”motion generating compressor plug in” here for just $149, a fraction of the price of a high quality hardware box of similar quality. It’s one of many plug-ins that solve the main thing that sucks about digital: the distortion. Basically, analogue distortion sounds good, and digital distortion sounds bad. One of the first things I learned about recording in the old cassette four track days was to push the recording levels until they began to sneak into the red levels, without going so far into them as to obliterate the track you were distorting. If you do that in the digital world, the results are decidedly different. If you want distortion, but don’t have access to analog for financial reasons, it’s best to get it from software plug-ins and instruments that are designed to bring those pleasant gritty characteristics into the digital world. The UBK-1 is one example of such a tool, though there are others.
Plus, it’s a cool company that’s run by an analog snob who has high standards for these things. It’s also an interesting tool because it is not an emulation an existing piece of hardware (as most virtual instruments and plug – ins are) – it’s a creative invention that takes advantage of what’s good about the old and the new. My favorite thing about it is that it has a “headroom” dial that helps you avoid running the levels too hot and frying everything beyond musical recognition. It has a green and red light on each side of the dial. If you see the red light up, it means you are running out of headroom. If you see the green light, it means you’re in a sweet spot where you can get some distortion, but not too much. This is not the same as a simple volume knob, though I’m not sure exactly how it does work. All I know is that it keeps things from sounding either sludgy and muddy on the one hand or antiseptic and sterile on the other.
And they have a good sense of humor. Kush Audio just came out with a new plug-in called the Claiphonic, which is an EQ unit they developed in hardware form, now available in software form. I haven’t tried it out in detail yet, but check out the following terms and conditions agreement and tell me if it doesn’t make you smile:
CLARIPHONIC DSP END USER LICENSE AGREEMENT
1. I agree that good music is essential to a good life.
2. I agree that the Clariphonic DSP is pure awesomeness in pixellated form.
3. I agree that Kush Audio is a small company whose owners are not rich fat cats, they just love good sound
and drive around in Toyotas.
4. I agree to use this plugin not just to make music, but to *finish* it and put it out there, no matter how difficult
that can be.
5. I agree to spread the good word about the Clariphonic DSP to anyone and everyone who will listen.
6. I agree that Minority Report is cool, but Loopers is cooler.
7. But seriously, I won’t pirate this plugin.
You can find more detailed technical information about adjustments to make to keep digital from sounding dull on this forum, which got me interested in this topic.
It’s pretty exciting to think that folks are figuring out how to combine the old and the new home recording can have post-punk bite at a post-punk price. David Thomas makes fun of those who revere analog “warmth” by saying Pere Ubu’s current engineer told him what that really means is just distortion. Back in 1985, Ian of Minor Threat lamented that “the core is getting soft” on the band’s classic single Salad Days. In 2013, the core is getting soft once more, but this time, in a good way. Stay tuned for more.