Happy Super Bowl Sunday everyone!
Let me say at the outset of this post that I think the Chiefs are going to win. Pat Mahomes came to me in a dream last night and the man was looking real confident. I’m not saying this because I put any actual faith in my football dream predictions, but rather because in order for that prediction to carry any weight, it means I need to get this posted before the Super Bowl starts. I’m just putting a little time-pressure on myself to go ahead and get this done and then go about my day.
I will remind you readers, however, that back in November of 2018 I successfully predicted that the Raptors would win the 2019 NBA finals. So if you are looking to trust someone’s sports betting hunch, I think you can go ahead and trust mine. I’m probably a sports-psychic after all. If this whole producer/blogger/musician racket doesn’t work out, look for me to setup an outpost on Fremont Street offering my services.
And now that I’ve hooked you, America, with my insightful and necessary sport-psychic chatter, I’d like to talk to you about Instagram filters. We’ve all seen em; we all use them. Just took a picture of that cool brownstone across the street? Want to make it look like you took that picture in the 1970s? Slap a Gingham on it. Looking for a classy, timeless black and white approach? Look no further than Inkwell. Just want it to look more better? Try Hudson! You’ve got instant, professional-grade photography at your fingertips.
Now I’m sure that any actual professional photographers or graphic designers would scoff at the previous sentence, and they would be right to. There is most certainly a world of difference between the work of a true craftsperson who takes time to dial in the exact saturation, contrast, and brightness appropriate for a particular picture, and a rube like me who just picked a good filter. By the way, I don’t even know what saturation is—I just saw it on instagram. However, when I choose a particular instagram filter that makes my picture “pop” in that perfect way, even I am seduced into momentarily thinking that I’ve done something special.
The truth is that I couldn’t be less special in this moment. I’ve done something that literally millions of people are doing every hour. But the results don’t lie, most of these filtered pictures do look pretty good. The frightening prospect to me is that in art, music, and culture we may be headed towards a ubiquitous “pretty good” rather than a wildly varying array of things awful to great.
Before you write that last sentence off as esoteric aesthetic paranoia, let me try to flesh out my dystopian worries. The fact is that we are outsourcing more and more artistic decisions to technology. Whether it is instagram or photoshop for pictures, final cut pro for video, or Logic for music, any software meant for the creation or editing of audio/visual media contains presets, layout choices, and biases that lead you towards certain creative decisions.
Sure, it might be me, a human, who is operating the software, and in theory I can be as creative as I want to be with the choices I make. But truthfully I’m often more apt to go ahead and pick a preset than take the time to dial in a sound using my ears, training, and instincts. Say I just recorded a bass line for instance, and I know that I want this bass to sound nice and punchy. Oh wow, look at that, there’s a compression+EQ preset called “nice punchy bass.” The temptation is too strong; I’m going to use that preset. Oooh, that’s nice. And punchy.
But herein lies the same problem that I experienced when I posted that picture on instagram. It feels like I’ve done something special, but I’ve simply chosen the same pretty good preset that millions of other people have access to. The same phenomenon occurs with digital instruments and sample packs. From Alchemy, to Reason, to Kontakt, to Spitfire, to Splice—we music creators have more access to more good sounds than ever before. The problem is, this is potentially leading us all towards a pretty-good homogeneity, rather than an inspiring and varied originality.
Indeed these are the mad, professorial ravings of an aesthetically paranoid man. So what is the point? What is there to do?
Well, what I did to ease my troubled mind this week was to record some cups.
If everyone is using the same presets, the same digital instruments, and the same instagram filters, I needed to do something at least a little different. I recorded a simple track with real guitar, real bass, real Wurlitzer, programmed drums, and a “pretty good” digital vibraphone instrument. Despite all the realness, it still was feeling somewhat uninspired. So I poured some water in some glasses, tuned them to some notes, and replaced that “pretty good” vibraphone sound with some pretty great cup sounds if I do say so myself.
I’m not saying I did anything artistically ground-breaking. I’m certain that someone has recorded cups before. But I may have done something personally ground-breaking. I proved to myself once again that it is more satisfying to create something real and original, than to rely on the presets and paths already taken.
Here’s a short video of the cups in question:
And here’s the final track. Enjoy!