Back when music used to come on large circular pieces of vinyl, I had a copy of one of Paul McCartney’s solo efforts entitled McCartney II. Now isn’t the time to get in to the debate of Paul vs. John as songwriters, or the relative merits of their solo/post-Beatles work. Suffice to say that I had (and still have) a huge soft spot for Wings Back to the Egg, a fetish that led me to the purchase of the above-described McCartney solo effort.
There are a lot of things I could say about that album, a fact that is probably itself suggestive that the recording has some merit. For instance, I could tell you that this was one of the first times I ever bought a record by an artist expecting something rather specific but found, after purchase, that the record differed substantially from my expectations (we didn’t have HMV back then, you whippersnappers – you didn’t get a chance to listen first and buy second; every purchase was a bit of a leap of faith). I remember being taken aback by the album’s sound, and initially a bit put off by the distance between my sonic expectations and the actual product. The entire record, you see, was recorded by McCartney at his home studio. He played all, or substantially all of the instruments himself and recorded the thing to a (in relative terms) small multitrack tape recorder. The result was – in many places – a spare and very reflective album that challenged my youthful and juvenile musical tastes, but one that that I came to love after spending time getting to know the songs.
I mention this album because it had this awesome photo on the inner sleeve. In it, McCartney (wearing a sleeveless t-shirt, I think) stood with his back to the camera in front of the cabinet-sized multi-track recorder, looking down at the front panel of the machine and twiddling a knob with one hand. The image is black and white, and there is a palpable sense of heat and humidity, of long days and hard work accomplished. In my mind’s eye, I remember the photograph showing a young child standing to McCartney’s left, next to his leg, reaching up and tugging at father’s shirt in a desperate bid for attention.
I loved that album and I loved that photograph; among other things, the photograph gave a glimpse into the home life of one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, and it showed – much to my excitement – the studio gear in his home. I’ve written before about the fact that my DNA is deeply and genetically imprinted with the tech bug. I got thinking about this again the other day when I listened to my brother Doug’s first attempt at putting together a podcast (Doug talked a bit about how my granddad’s fetish for audio and recording equipment was passed down through my father to my brothers and me, and some of our early recording escapades). I was thinking about how much I used to hold that inner sleeve and stare at the picture while I listened to Waterfalls, dreaming about having access to the kind of gear that was shown in that picture.
That album was released in 1980. We’ve come a long way in 29 years, and the truth of the matter is that I now have access to – in some ways, anyway – arguably much more powerful recording equipment than Paul used to put together that record. The computer I’m typing this entry on has software in it that allows me to make multi-track recordings, to treat the signals I capture with an astonishing array of digital effects, treatments and modifications, and to synthesize entire portions of an audio track – summoning drums or strings where there are none in the house. It’s difficult for me to imagine how the 14-year old me might have reacted, had someone told me back then that – in time – I would have the very technology depicted in that photograph at my disposal, and contained in a machine the size of a small suitcase rather than occupying the same amount of space as Grandma’s china cabinet. The pace of technological achievement has been, in relative terms, rapid and consistent but in terms of the human scale of time gradual enough to become almost imperceptible, a phenomenon occurring in one’s peripheral vision but requiring careful attention to otherwise perceive. Consider that the iPhone you might be carrying in your pocket contains a computer that is many times more capable and powerful than the computers that guided the lunar lander to it’s destination on the moon in 1969. Consider that the same device is capable of almost instantly accessing a very large portion of the collected wisdom of the human race, or at least that portion of it that has been digitized to date.
All of that advancement and innovation, collected in softly humming piles and wired together in the physical embodiment of an electrical engineer’s psychotic break with reality was put to some use earlier today. Doug and I hooked up via Skype to test a technical concept: we wanted to see if it would be possible for us to carry on a conversation over the ‘Net, to locally record our own half or end of the conversation, then sync up the two halves to produce a presentable recording suitable for use in one of Doug’s podcasts. It worked like a charm. We each used a microphone and Audacity to digitally record our side of the conversation; when we were finished talking, Doug zipped his audio file and transferred it to me via Skype’s file-sharing capacity. A few minutes of mucking about later, I was able to not only sync up Doug’s track with my own, but to also clean up my own file by gating the audio to prevent some of the talkback signal that had spilled into my microphone from cluttering the sound. I also added a quick musical intro and end tag and compressed the whole thing into .mp3 format and shot it back via teh Intarwebs to Doug for his inspection and perusal.
I think that – had he found out about all of this – that 14 year old kid holding the inner sleeve to McCartney II would have been so excited, he would’ve had some trouble sleeping for quite a while.
Update (November 23, 2009): My brother Doug has, courtesy of the all-knowing Intarwebs, found a copy of the photo in question and passed it along to me (see below). My memory of the photo gets a “B”, possibly “B+”, I would say. In my mind’s eye, the photo was taken from directly behind Sir Paul, and he was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt; the photo seems considerably less tropical in mood than I remember it, as well. In fact, it looks kind of cold and clinical, if you get right down to it. Odd how memory plays tricks like that.