Digital Signatures: The Impact of Digitization on Popular Music Sound by Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen and Anne Danielsen
In this slim co-authored volume, Ragnhild Brøvig-Hanssen and Anne Danielsen serve up a pop smorgasbord in search of musical moments when digital technology is revealed to listeners. The six chapters are devoted to signature effects of digital pop: auto-tune, reverb, sampling, glitch, drum-machines, and silence. Each author contributes three chapters, framed by an introduction and a somewhat redundant conclusion. The authors consider the juxtaposition of humans and machines, where technology expands the compositional palette and recording liberates sound from a particular acoustic space. This is illustrated by examples from heavy reverb on Kate Bush's "Get Out of My House" (Dreaming, 1982) to judicious recuperation of glitches on "My Red Hot Car" by Squarepusher (Go Plastic, 2001), and from Prince's hit "Kiss" (Parade, 1986) to the retro effects of vinyl crackle and tape hiss on "Strangers" by Portishead (Dummy, 1994). Auto-tune is discussed not only in terms of controversies around Cher or Kanye West, but also in close readings of "Starstruck" by Lady Gaga (The Fame, 2008) and "Woods" by Bon Iver (Blood Bank, 2009).
But signal processing, drum machines, and pitch correction do not yet amount to a coherent account. What do Kate Bush or Prince have in common with Portishead or Snoop Dogg? Is it enough to see Lady Gaga and Bon Iver in the context of the same business as Squarepusher and Uwe Schmidt? If the point was to illustrate a new compositional palette, the examples should have been more eclectic and diverse; but the focus remains on pop. If the point was to illuminate spatial illusions, a wider spectrum of studio setups, microphones, and mixing boards should have been discussed. And a number of other pop genres could have been included to discuss digital innovations. But such a broader frame of reference would have required the two musicologists to grapple not only with digital recording, but also with historical and political forces that are largely mute in this book. [End Page 1110]
While each chapter is infused with healthy doses of formal analysis (as well as some homeopathic helpings of historical recording technology), the absence of an overall interpretive thesis is clearly felt. What is the aesthetic program that brings such varied artists together, and what about productions as varied as these amounts to a common denominator? Is it not insufficient to simply bracket all this as pop? Notably absent from the discussion is digital distribution, which has upended the music business; this reviewer was instantly able to find all tracks mentioned in the book online (via TIDAL) to play while reading. But could I vouchsafe that I indeed heard exactly what the authors describe? Certainly not if listening in a car or on a kitchen radio, let alone on cheap earbuds over a mobile phone with a streaming app. The granularity of what happens to rhythm on Snoop's album Rhythm & Gangsta: The Masterpiece (2004) and on Los Sampler's Cuban son track "La vida es llena de cables" (Descargas, 2000) is probably discernible only on good headphones or over a big-rig home stereo, which may well not be the typical environment for a majority of pop listeners. The deft deployment of digital melisma by Bon Iver contrasts interestingly with the confounding use of sonic space in the editing of Kate Bush's song, as discussed in this book—but how much of the "phone filter" effect in the Portishead song is likely to remain distinct in an MP3 played on someone's phone?
Among all the detailed analysis, it is a pity that the authors virtually omitted the pop listener from their project. However, it is a pleasure to see the spectrograms that illustrate each chapter. While perhaps not every intended reader of a book like this is familiar with Logic Pro waveforms, the graphs' use here is neither heavy-handed nor oversimplifying. To musicologists and pop scholars, then, this book is a welcome tour of some of the more readily identifiable artifacts of digital music recording and reproduction, but perhaps for a wider audience, the close readings should have been held together by a starker overall thesis.
Peter Krapp is professor and chair of Film & Media Studies at UC Irvine, where he is also a member of the Department of Informatics.