Today, one of my friends is soundproofing his studio and another is endorsing a noise removal programme, giving hints and tips on how to get rid of noise through the judicious use of ingenious software. Audio engineers go to great lengths to remove noise from studios, equipment and instruments. For record producers, unwanted noise is the bane of their existence. For decades, recording engineers have been on a perpetual quest to find lower and lower noise floors in their consoles, outboard equipment, recorders and microphones.
When the guitarists of the sixties turned up in the recording studios of the day, armed with their fuzz boxes and distorted amplifiers, the men in white coats strove to eliminate this distortion. To their ears, it was objectionable, hideous noise. To the guitarists, it was art. Noise became a battle ground.
In the digital age, where noise is supposed to be theoretical, everybody found out that it wasn’t theoretical at all. It was an artefact of quantisation depth, sample rates and mathematical processes. It was inevitable. All you could do, in reality, was attempt to minimise it.
Then came the backlash. People with perfectly noise-free recording set ups began adding the noise back in. Sometimes, it was added artificially and synthetically. Sometimes, it was reintroduced by resort to relatively noisier analogue equipment in the chain. People started calling the noise that had previously been so objectionable “warmth” and “depth”. Recordings that were a little noisy had a sheen and patina about them.
Artists like Nine Inch Nails made their recordings a full frontal noise assault. The idea was to use the noise to register powerfully on the eardrums of the listener. If your ears aren’t trickling blood, it isn’t loud and noisy enough, apparently.
Who is right? The pristine purists, that strive for silence and cleanliness, or the renegade barbarians, saturating every gain stage and relying on exciting and moving performances, captured by any means available, however technically flawed, rather than discarding these for cleaner takes?
I think of noise like I think of weeds. Weeds are just the wildflowers that grow where you don’t want them to grow. Everybody knows that you can get lovely effects by letting the weeds grow wild in the meadow, especially when they flower, but you can get equally lovely effects in trained, manicured, straight-rowed, cultivated gardens. There is no doubt that a Capability Brown estate is impressive, not the least for its order and impressive scale, but so is a rain forest. The complexity and fractal beauty of wild plants can be balanced against the delicate, well-behaved, civilised appearance of a specially bred, hybrid cultivar.
As a sound gardener, I like to choose which noise I discard and which I keep. The effect I want is neither controlled and clinical the whole time, nor is it shabby and unkempt. I want to appreciate the beauty of the order in my work, as well as the strange beauty of the chaotic elements. It’s my belief that this balance is what makes music exciting to listen to, or at least one of the things that fascinates and captivates our ears. Who can deny that the human singing voice is laced with noise? The voice box croaks sometimes, there are imperfections in the resonances of the vocal tract and the vocal chords are excited by a rush of air – pure white noise, to a purist. Yet, it is this combination of highly correlated tones and the subtle noisiness and imperfections of the voice that make us compelled to listen. I think the same applies to musical instruments. It’s the quirks that make them noticeable and memorable.
When I use synthesisers, I am always looking for ways to introduce a measure of chaos. Otherwise, they sound too perfect and too controlled. Everybody knows that something that is too buttoned down and constrained is ultimately banal, boring and featureless. A little chaos and surprise, on the other hand, is the stuff of freedom. It’s the sonic liberty we all crave. That might be the mistake of too many recording engineers that went for sound quality over musical performance. They refined the sonic food until it achieved the consistency of white flour. Nutrition-less, pasty and uninteresting.
So remove your noises judiciously. What to one context might be a noxious weed is, in another context, a beautiful wild flower. Keep the noises that serve your artistic purpose. Remove the ones that don’t. Add noises like planting wildflower seeds in your meadow. Permit yourself to be surprised.