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”).
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.
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.
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.