Monday, March 15, 2010

In Defense of Noise

Back when I was working on my second album, I had a small problem I, in my naivety, asked the mastering engineer to fix for me.  There was an exposed synth line in the intro to one of the songs that had a little bit of noise in the recording.  I asked if the mastering engineer could run some sort of noise reduction to get rid of it.  He rightly advised me against this pointing out that the artifacts most noise reduction plug-ins  introduce is more distracting than the noise itself.  He was right.  I was being anal to the point of absurdity.  Even worse, I was trying to remove a thing of beauty from my song.

Noise is the sound of your old  synths breathing.  It's what tells your ear the sound is being produced by real circuitry and not ones and zeros.    Noise is character.  Noise is organic.  Noise is interesting.

More importantly, noise surrounds us every day of our lives.  The ambient hum of the city traffic... the eerie nightime calls of spring peepers (frogs) in the countryside... the whir of your computer's fans... noise is an inescapable part of our lives.  So why do we want to get rid of it so much?

I think there is a tendency for technology to take things a step too far, at least initially.  Those of us old enough to remember recording on tape can attest that noise reduction was a sort of holy grail in those days.  Every year or so a company (usually Dolby) would come out with some new improved recipe for their noise reduction process.  Of course, this was necessary as tape is an inherently noisy medium.  But once digital recording came around, it was possible to not just reduce the noise, but to eliminate it almost entirely.  That's the step too far I mentioned earlier.

Look, I'm not saying we should all start making our mixes sound like they were recorded on Thomas Edison's wax cylinder, just that maybe we should stop worrying so much about trying to cleanse our recordings of one of the things that can end up making them more interesting.In fact, everyone, at least once, should try to deliberately rough up their recordings and make them noisier.   Try recording an old toy keyboard through the noisy headphone jack.  Have a lush pad you want to warm up?  Lay it down to cassette tape and resample it, hiss and all.  Even consider sampling the sound of a blank tape's hiss and laying it behind your recordings or samples so it's barely audible.  Imperfections give a sound more life.  So embrace the noise!


Hannes Pasqualini said...

I couldn't agree more with what you said! We could also remember the old days of sampling, when every breakbeat track had to have a bit of vinyl noise on it, and people at one point started to fake it, because they were sampling from cds which didn't have those noises!
I love how my DSS-1 makes a bit of noise when producing a sound, and how that noise changes slightly depending on the setting of the filters... as you said, it's the machine breathing... it's the wonderful analogue world!

stretta said...

I'm way more anal about noise than I should be, and this is a direct result of my formative years struggling with cassette four track. In the minor cases where noise presents itself, it is usually pleasant to hear. Still, old habits die hard.