Fake It Until You Make It? Musical Authenticity and the Metal Musician

When in the studio, musicians always use some “tricks” to get a sound that isn’t necessarily as achievable in a live setting. This is a pretty commonly known fact. It’s not even a new thing. Since the 60s, bands have made music in the studio that doesn’t reflect the process of how they actually play in person. As technology develops, more methods become available to the artists to achieve a more “perfect” sound, if they choose to use them. In the 50s and before, bands recorded performances together, in a single run through. Then they started recording each instrument separately, then split up songs into parts, then replaced some instruments with digital substitutes, used corrective techniques (both for pitch and timing) and recently, started performing at a slower tempo then speeding it up. These are the realities of recording. Whether they’re acceptable or not is a hotly debated topic, and a recent event in the metal spheres brought the question to the forefront yet again. The 2016 Guitar Solo Contest, where guitarists were asked to perform over a track by John Browne of Monuments and submit a video of their recording, recently announced their winners. The prizes ranged from a Mayones guitar, Mesa amps, Bare Knuckle pickups and more. Here’s where it gets complicated: one of the winners submitted a performance that was clearly heavily edited.

Let’s first establish some ground rules. This issue first came to the forefront of the metal scene when Al Mu’min of The HAARP Machine was accused of being unable to perform the songs he had written, as it was rather apparent that the tracks were recorded at a reduced speed then ramped up. Then, Lucas Mann of Rings of Saturn was accused of recording note by note and/or quantizing his guitar tracks (which means editing notes to change their properties and set them on a time grid). Both of these bands being technically focused, their performances being “faked” was quite controversial. Some found this to be unacceptable, others didn’t mind. This partially hearkens back to the controversy about “triggered drums” in the mid-2000s, where death metal bands who play very fast and replace their lower-volume drum hits with computer-generated or pre-recorded hits in the studio were faced with a lot of criticism. Nowadays, triggered drums are generally accepted, especially as long as the drummer can perform competently in a live setting. Another similar controversy is pitch correction on clean vocals, and the jury is still out on whether that one is acceptable (but the answer is generally “Do you like the band? If so it’s ok, if not it’s trash”).

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While edited guitars are generally frowned upon, many also don’t mind their usage. In the past few years they’ve become exceedingly common, since bands like Within the Ruins, Lorna Shore, The Zenith Passage and many more have gone for a hyper-tight sound that isn’t achievable by regular human playing. Some of these bands get a pass from their fans, because they can perform the material live to an extent where it’s not displeasingly sloppy. Others, especially bands with single guitarists, rely on augmenting their live sound with backing tracks to cover up the human errors in playing. While this might be considered dishonest, if it’s enjoyable in a live setting, does it really matter? If one is looking up to the player for their technical prowess, it is surely disappointing, but as a casual listener these aren’t massive issues. Some metal circles have come to not mind these studio tricks, while others still shun them. However, given the realities of metal bands in 2016, where album sales are low, studio prices are high and touring is very important, spending as little time in the studio as possible is a priority for many artists. As a result, some artists use this as a cost cutting measure to record albums the best they can, then worry about mastering the technical aspects of playing later. Other bands prefer having an inhuman, extremely crisp digital sound, and this is the only way to achieve that. Some bands even lean into it, like Rings of Saturn, and turn it into an aspect of their sound. Wherever the listener draws the line is up to them, be it triggered drums, riffs recorded individually, or guitar parts recorded slowly or note-by-note. For a professional engineer’s perspective on the issue, you can listen to our podcast conversation with Eyal Levi’s take on it.

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What pushed a lot of people’s limits on this issue is the solo competition. The second place winner, Amin Saffar, had a solo that was very clearly edited, which you can watch here. The video is clearly recorded at a slower speed, the notes sound like MIDI (though they are clearly recorded very slowly, as one can tell from the finger attack), at some points the visual playing doesn’t even match the sound. Not only is it clearly using “studio tricks,” it’s also doing a poor job of hiding it and isn’t even using those tricks well. As a  result, a lot of people are rather upset about this entry winning second place. Artists in the scene who have a platform have spoken up against it, while others have said it’s not a big deal. No one is disputing the fact that it’s edited, but there are multiple levels of reactions to it. While the rules of the contest don’t explicitly forbid entries that are “faked”, the fact that the competition is partly based on performance makes the dishonesty of the entry rather egregious. This draws into question whether the competition judges the writing, the performance or both. It also bears the question of whether the judges recognized this or not, and if they didn’t, how could they not have, as – at the risk of repeating – it’s quite obvious. Considering the contest was supposedly judged by notable artists like John Browne, Devin Townsend, Acle Kahney (Tesseract) and many other big names, the confusion is understandable. While no official explanation has been given, this is definitely a black mark on the contest, and will surely be discussed for quite a while, especially when the next contest happens.

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While with the cases discussed in the first few paragraphs the reaction was mixed, here it seems almost unanimously negative. This is clearly a case where the judges should have caught this entry and disqualified it, or made a statement about their recognition of the edited nature of the track and clarified such entries are acceptable. It circles back to the dishonesty argument, where fans can choose whether they accept “trickery” or not. However, given this is a competition, entries that are obviously forged in some fashion go against the spirit of the competition and make it unfair for other entrants who either don’t want to use such tricks, or weren’t even aware that they were possible, let alone acceptable. In the end, the audience is always the ultimate judge of whether studio shenanigans are acceptable, and for the most part the metal scene has shown that they are. As mentioned earlier, triggered drums, riff-by-riff recording and even slowed-down/quantized recordings are acceptable, and many popular bands nowadays employ them. However, listening to music and enjoying the composition as a casual fan is one thing, and judging a performance is another, and the solo contest have failed both their audience and entrants with either their unclear requirements or ineptitude in recognizing the dishonesty of Amin Saffar.

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13 thoughts on “Fake It Until You Make It? Musical Authenticity and the Metal Musician

  1. Dave Tremblay Reply

    I feel the solo was well written. If it was a “solo writing” competition, fine, but if it was a “solo performance” one, I’m with those who wouldn’t accept his entry. But, as with most things, it surely is a grey area and both sides probably count. In that case, the judges clearly have their right to accept it or not.

    • 6810 Reply

      Totally agree with this. People get performance and composition mixed up all the time. Although only a hobbyist as a musician, I often write parts that are above my ability to play. My compositional skills (if I am to be generous) are not matched by my dexterity.

      I often use comps, layering and record in small segments and later resequence. I’m not trying to fool anyone and probably most could easily spot my “fakery”. But it’s not really the point is it? In my case, the compositions are authentic creative expressions of the individual, the recordings are a representation in a specific time and place of MY OWN ability to transition from composition to performance.

      Metal heads need to get the bug out of their ass about performance auto-equals authenticity. It can. But it doesn’t always, especially when we consider the influence being disabled etc has on a potential metal composer.

  2. guitar_shredda* Reply

    everyone is crying about this but it was voted 2nd best by some big names in the industry.

    • Nayon Reply

      Thanks for the insightful feedback my friend.

      • guitar_shredda* Reply

        if its such an issue, did anyone address this with the organizers? did the organizers and judges even give a damn about what people had to say??

        • Nayon Reply

          Not officially. Also the larger point of the article stands regardless of this instance.

        • Levi Clay Reply

          No, they didn’t care – why would they? As judges, their job was to judge the final 10. Not question the authenticity of them. They would have absolutely assumed that either it had been looked into and was proved to be ok, or it was allowed. It’s not down to the judges to run the competition – this entry shouldn’t have got this far.

          Alternatively, they’re just clueless – that’s ok. They’re all relatively big touring names, not necessarily experts in production or critiquing art. That’s known as the argument from authority fallacy and is not an argument.

          • guitar_shredda*

            So would you say you are an authority on this matter then?

          • Levi Clay

            Authority is a relative term that should be assigned by others – but as one of the organizers of (I believe) the biggest and original online guitar competition (Guitar Idol) I would say I have considerable experience in this feild, yes. Both as an organizer, a judge, and someone who has to deal with all the behind the scenes cheating a fair portion of the entrants try to employ.

            Authority? Maybe not, but definitely someone will a well informed viewpoint.

          • guitar_shredda*

            Fair enough

  3. Paul Antonio Ortiz Reply

    Regarding the solo competition, I think it’s a bit lame. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the competition is about writing *and* playing, and as you say anyone who was unaware that edits or trickery were allowed was at a disadvantage. But ya know, these things happen.

    On the issue of studio trickery in a wider context, ya know, the technology is still kinda young. Truly affordable hardware and software didn’t hit the scene until the last decade or so, and so I think there’s a maturation process that the tech and its users still have to go through. It’s that transition from “holy shit I can do THIS” to “I could, but should I?”. It’s a tastefulness and restraint that can really only be learned over time. Of course as you point out, some people are gonna embrace the craziness and digital precision to good effect. And that’s cool to.

    But yeah I think things will level out. Past a certain point technology really becomes a barrier. My productions are getting smaller/simpler, just for my own sanity. And mobile/tablet recording is really teaching me a lot about streamlining the process and doing more with less. My hope for the future is that technology is gonna allow the process to be a lot more immediate and natural, and people will be too busy creating to edit.

    Either that or some kind of crazy AI will basically fix it all for you without you knowing and then music will be doomed.

    • Jim Bronaugh Reply

      Your saying ‘these things happen’ is about the same as his paying $10,000 each to the judges for the winning vote and everyone saying ‘it doesn’t matter cause these things happen’. It isn’t as if he stubbed his toe walking to the mic and spilled coffee in the amp. It is a competition of solo guitar abilities, both from writing and playing. He could have hired a better guitarist to play the solo part and used digital techniques to place their hands over the image of his body and that would have been acceptable because ‘these things happen and anyway, he has already won so there isn’t any thing any body should do about it’. Loyalty is one thing, but mindless worship is a sad and pathetic demonstration of mediocrity giving birth to still born hero’s and little plastic Gods whose head bobbles.

  4. Levi Clay Reply

    Good read Noyan – I covered this a couple of days ago – I actually called this guy out almost a week ago – but I never saw him actually winning anything. Never underestimate the incompetence of others though.

    I’ve also written about faking it on record before in blogs – that I have less of an issue with. It only becomes an issue when they present it as what they can do, rather than what they can imagine. Beethoven didn’t play the bassoon, but he would write for it along with numerous other instruments he couldn’t play – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that until he’s cock measuring by saying how great a bassoon player he is/was.

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