I’m still on my first smartphone, which I bought seven years ago. I was late to the (supposed) party, partly for resource-ethic reasons (getting as much use out of an existing tool as practically possible) but also because I was reluctant to be joined at the hip to a mini computer. I spent plenty of time on computers already, and when out and about I wanted to navigate the world with freedom, creativity and my own agency, open to interaction and solidarity with the world and its inhabitants. I felt these important human qualities might be undermined by being tethered to a computer and the internet all the time.

I’m not anti-technology, in fact I’m a serious nerd in specific areas such as digital audio. However, I think it is dangerous to believe every new technology is good for us, and to uncritically jump aboard the latest hype train.

A recent example is the con that is cryptocurrencies and NFTs. These were touted as “the future”, but they turned out to be “worthless, fraudulent magic beans, with massive CO2 generation per transaction” (David Gerard) and “an enormous grift that’s pouring lighter fluid on our already smoldering planet” (Molly White). The primary achievements of these technologies were super-charging crime and gambling, and doing an obscene amount of unnecessary maths calculations. Many people were sucked in by the anti-government rhetoric of the crypto-evangalists, and put trust in shadowy figures on the internet using opaque technologies. At least democratically-elected governments have a modicum of accountability.

Lately, the hype is around AI, and a client asked if I was worried about artists using automated online mastering services, instead of hiring a human like me. These services are good at quickly transforming audio to “average” balances (based on databases of existing commercial songs) for various sonic parameters (volumes, frequencies, width, dynamics etc.). For some folk, such as hobbyists or young bands doing their first demo, the results may often be acceptable.

However, I think most artists don’t want their released music to just be an “average”. They want the sonics to suit each specific song. It is difficult to write algorithms to judge the emotional intent of a song, the beautiful idiosyncrasies of different human voices, and what adjustments are best in line with helping bring out those emotions. For example, AI mastering may over-brighten a song that is meant to sound dark/broody/retro/distant, or even if brightening is appropriate for overall frequency balance, it may, in the process, be bringing out a distracting quality in a particular vocalist or instrument.

I certainly use advanced software for information and to work faster, but I try and feel what is required first, and then pick up only the specific tools needed to achieve that. I try not to let tools run the show! I’m not against automatic mastering per se, but I hope people understand its limitations. Ultimately music is a complex human experience and the best results are usually when humans are at the helm in all stages of the production, including mastering.

All this has been a round-about route to recommending a read: Here Be Monsters – Is Technology Reducing Our Humanity?, a book by local academic Richard King. It’s great.

Anyway, I have to dash. My second smartphone is waiting at the Apple Store – the new iPhone Pro – it’s going to be so cool!

PS Other commentary I recommend on crypto/NFTs:

A creepy drawing of a human hand.