Virtual Reality & The Role Of Tech In The Studio

A FB friend of mine who’s company makes high-end preamps posted a link the other day to a video showcasing a Virtual Reality recording studio control room. It shows the user reaching over a virtual large-format analog console, with a virtual tape machine spinning nearby. He was all gung-ho about this “latest technology” and “the future of recording” and proudly shared how he had predicted back in 2013 that Virtual Reality recording studios would be here by 2025. He is also a middle-aged white dude.

In the words of Charles Bukowski, “That ain’t it, baby.”

I do agree that it’s neat, and a cool proof of concept. Futuristic, Hollywood Sci-Fi magic. On the other hand, I think there’s a disconnect on a deeper level that is more profound and telling about the claims of value of such interfaces.

The music technology business is a tail wagging the dog model. Companies don’t innovate and then disseminate. (I’m not talking about the little one-man boutique shops that sell 12 $10k boxes a year to “only the most discriminating professionals”, who are also gone in 20 years once the guy dies due to solder lead poisoning. I’m talking about the major manufacturers that make the gear and set the trends for the rest of us mortals.) These companies are mostly reactive to consumer demand, and it’s become a more and more consumer-driven industry. The trend is toward smaller, more portable, cheaper methods of production, not fancier, more expensive, awkward interfaces with steep learning curves. Nobody cares about that. Many of the tracks that are on the Top 40 charts are made on laptops. The younger generation of producers are only interested in how so-and-so producer made a hit, which sample packs he used, which synths, etc. They already have all the virtualization they need. If you’ve never worked in analog, leaning over a bunch of warm, electrically inefficient and temperamental boxes, twiddling knobs, then having a “virtual” version of that experience is pointless. Nobody cares. It doesn’t help anybody make better music anyway.

So, one has to ask oneself, is this invention really answering a question? Is it filling a need? Is it improving the end product? The answer is no, no, and no. Therefore it will be relegated to the scrap heap of well-intended, but not well-thought-out inventions and innovations that nobody asked for. There’s a mountain of them, yet we fail to learn from our past. It is mostly driven by techno-addicts who get off on the “idea” of doing it, and completely fail to grasp the larger design mandate of filling a need. It’s for sci-fi fan boys, and for old rich studio people, who wish the future would bring them 1988 again.

Like anything else, a great song trumps all this BS. Do we really need fancier tools with which to more efficiently deliver more mediocrity? We’re drowning in milquetoast already. It’s the idea that matters, not the tools. There is already a glut of tools, a dozen ways to do just about anything in music production, yet hardly a good idea to be found. Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

Add to that the unfortunate addiction in many of my studio brethren to be obsessed with the latest shiny object, and it’s feeding an unhealthy behavior. A gear fetish. They fall down the rabbit hole of thinking one more box, one more technological innovation is all that separates them from success (which is exactly what the manufacturers (the drug dealers) want you to believe). I understand it, I’ve been guilty of it myself. But really what we’re dealing with here is those who do not have the tools to make hit songs (their ideas aren’t good enough), but are really good at twiddling knobs, and their insecurity makes them want to believe their role is more important than it really is. It’s an ego grab.

This malformed reasoning is a by-product of many different forms of biases – Ability Bias (I’m a hammer so all problems must be nails), In-Group Bias (all the other engineers are talking about how cool and important this box is, so it must be), Bandwagon Effect, Curse-Of-Knowledge Bias, Illusion Of Control Bias, Pro-Innovation Bias, Parkinson’s Law Of Triviality, Illusory Superiority, Ostrich Effect, Overconfidence, etc. etc. etc.

Every time I hear someone flapping about some latest technological advance, some new tool or plugin or box, I just think, there’s someone who has gotten their priorities out of whack. Besides, the studio business is a service industry, first and foremost. How you make your clients feel is 1000x more important that the equipment list. (That is another discussion.)

It’s a weird time we’re in. The end of an era. Engineering as a job description is going the way of elevator operator or spats manufacturer. Go to any of the top studios in LA, and what you’ll hear young engineers boast about is their Pro Tools template and how quickly they can comp vocals. That’s the current yardstick of being a “great engineer”. (That is also a different discussion.)

The music industry has become the lapdog of the tech industry. The last thing we need is to make it even more tech-dependent. It’s not about the toys.

Writing music is a scary prospect, full of inevitable failures and pitfalls. It lays your soul bare. You can’t fake it. It is not taught in school, or learned in a manual or a YouTube video. This is why we as a culture value a great song so much. Because it’s not common. Not everybody can do it (yet). But we don’t need technology to write a hit song. We can do it on a guitar, a piano, or just in your head. For studio peeps, I totally understand the desire to retreat into the comfortable climes of gear and computers and VR interfaces. It’s a warm, safe place for those who would fall down outside the blanket fort. But to what end?