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Technical fouls
Led Zeppelin, recording, and the question of what music is all about
BY MATT ASHARE

Technology has always been something of a silent partner in the evolution of Western popular music in general ó and rock and roll in particular ó into one of the worldís most lucrative art forms. It was the invention of the phonograph that led to the spread of heretofore localized sounds around the globe. And once a business had grown up around the production and distribution of recorded music, technology began to play a larger role in the recording studio, where guitars were electrified, finely calibrated microphones were deployed to separate the sound of each instrument, and multi-tracking tape machines made it possible to mix and remix an individual recording dozens of different ways. Once just an acoustically favorable location in which to record, the studio became an instrument played by the engineer, the producer, and anyone else who wanted to weigh in on the arrangement and presentation of the music.

The guitarist, with his access to different amplifiers and a range of electronic gadgets designed to enhance the sound of the instrument, was the first member of the rock band to benefit directly. But it was the advent of the synthesizer that not only opened new doors for the keyboard player but gave artists in general access to a previously unimagined range of organic and otherworldly sounds, from string quartet to sonic boom. And as analog gave way to digital processes, both the quality and the quantity of synth sound progressed in leaps and bounds, until individual artists found themselves with easy access to what had once been a refined studio art ó the cutting and splicing of one piece of tape to another. By the end of the 20th century, with computers offering anyone with an idea and a couple of grand a virtual recording space or home studio that might rival the sounds coming out of a pro session, artists had an unlimited number of sonic possibilities at their disposal. And the technology has grown easier and easier to use as recording technologies like the Pro-Tools computer studio system have been introduced.

With each step up the technology ladder, thereís come a corresponding change in the sounds and styles of the day. The electric guitar coupled with larger and larger amplifiers paved the way for overdriven acid blues and heavy metal. The unwavering beat of the drum machine helped give disco its relentless pulse; the brave new world of synth sounds opened the door to the new-wave í80s and yet another British Invasion. Meanwhile, the cut-and-splice possibilities of digital recording offered the emerging genre of hip-hop a big shot in the arm: backing tracks were pieced together from source material as disparate as a Beethoven concerto, an old French-language lesson album, and the sound of gunfire echoing through a Los Angeles neighborhood.

Behind the scenes, in those increasingly mysterious factories where hit singles are churned out, the digital revolution has enabled producers, engineers, and mastering technicians to correct even the most flagrant musical errors; thereís everything from electronic boxes that automatically reduce the harshness of the " s " in a singerís delivery to machines that can correct his or her pitch. In the hands of a professional using Pro-Tools and the range of other options now available, anyone can sound like a star. Itís only a matter of time before most if not all of this equipment is available in a form thatís easy and affordable enough for the artist to use in a home recording studio.

Over the course of the past decade or so, however, the focus of the digital revolution has shifted away from the technology available to musicians and studio engineers as controversies over how that music gets from the artist to the consumer have heated up. The major labels made a mint as consumers replaced their vinyl-record collections with CDs, then replaced those first-generation CDs, which were poorly mastered, with remastered, repackaged, and reissued versions of major works, like the Rolling Stonesí entire úuvre. Catalogue sales have boomed as successive breakthroughs in digital mastering have continued to upgrade sound quality, to the point where now even an audiophile like Lou Reed acknowledges that digital sounds as good as if not better than analog ó though when I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago, he felt certain that DVD Audio would be replacing CDs within the next decade.

DVD Audio may in fact be part of the solution to a looming problem that now faces artists and labels alike. CDs have backed the pop-music industry into a technological corner because the preferred means of consuming music is reasonably easy to encode on MP3 files, which can then be traded among music fans who hook up on line and download their favorite tunes without paying a dime. The record companies call it illegal bootlegging; the bootleggers call it free trade. The artists arenít sure who to side with.

In the meantime, even as major labels search for better ways to encode their products and continue the court battle to stop MP3 trading, part of the solution seems to be staring us all in the face. The real challenge is to offer consumers something more than just a dozen or so tunes in a flimsy jewel case ó to concede the MP3 war and focus instead on other aspects of the product. Itís a rare new release that doesnít come with some kind of video extra; for the forthcoming Dropkick Murphys album Blackout (on the indie label Hellcat), a separate DVD disc of live footage and a music video accompanies the CD. And it seems certain that whatever the next-generation delivery devices look like (and one advantage of DVD Audio is that the players can be designed to accept CDs), itíll be a format in which integrating audio and video will be even easier.

One of the more ambitious projects of this sort to come along this year comprises a pair of simultaneous releases from the Atlantic vaults that hit stores this past Tuesday: the two-disc Led Zeppelin DVD, which lists for $29.99, and the three-CD set How the West Was Won, which lists for $26.98. If Napster taught the major labels anything, itís that thereís a large consumer demand for archival rarities. And though most labels have done a good job of raiding their vaults for specially packaged reissues and box sets, theyíve done very little with film and video footage. As impressive as the five-hour Zeppelin DVD set is on its own ó itís culled from the handful of Zeppelin performances that were filmed, including a 1970 show at Royal Albert Hall, a five-night run at Londonís Earls Court in 1975, and the bandís Knebworth Festival performances in 1979 ó it stops short of being a true packaging breakthrough because Atlantic failed to integrate it with How the West Was Won, which is culled from two shows the band played in June of 1972 at the Los Angeles Forum and Long Beach Arena.

Nevertheless, this project is a step in the right direction. Both in quantity of material and in quality of sound, How the West Was Won blows away The Song Remains the Same, the live soundtrack to the uninspired film of the same name and the primary source of live Zeppelin material since the bandís break-up. And Led Zeppelin DVD goes way beyond that by offering what amounts to a chronicle of the bandís evolution during their decade together.

What emerges from the DVD performances is a band who were very much a product of their time (for starters, contrast the hippie-style stage wear of the early sets with the later rock-star garb). When you go to an arena-rock show in 2003, itís almost a foregone conclusion that millions have gone into creating everything you see and hear ó from computer-controlled laser lights and giant video screens to DAT backing tapes, a click track for the drummer, and maybe a utility keyboardist off to the side to flesh out the sound and keep the band in synch with the lights and the video projections. And that doesnít take into account the advances in acoustics that have created specialized PA systems for arena-rock shows. Itís all designed to make the artists seem larger than life.

Compared with what Led Zeppelin were dealing with back in the í70s, contemporary artists donít have to work terribly hard to achieve that larger-than-life status on stage. And perhaps thatís the key to why Led Zeppelin DVD seems so singular and inimitable. Even when the camera is angled to look up at Jimmy Page or Robert Plant, itís remarkable how small and frail the two of them seem compared with the giant video images weíve grown used to in the 21st century. When you realize that Page, John Paul Jones, and John Bonham are the sole musical pillars upon which massive songs like " Black Dog, " " Stairway to Heaven, " and " The Ocean " rest ó that thereís no DAT tape to fill out Pageís sinewy guitar lines, no click track to guide Bonham through the tricky time signatures, no bass when John Paul Jones sits down to play keyboards ó you realize that technology has taken some crucial human elements out of the live performance. There are notes that Page almost doesnít hit, transitions that require Jones and Bonham to look at each other, entire segments of songs where you can hear all four engaging in conversation thatís the product of having played this or that song night after night for weeks or months on the road.

Itís an element of performance that hasnít quite been lost to rock musicians but is virtually extinct at the arena level. And it may be one reason why people claim that the artists of today will never match up to the greats of the past. There are bands ó Pearl Jam and the Black Crowes come to mind ó who have tried to rely on human interaction rather than technology to generate excitement on an arena stage. If nothing else, Led Zeppelin DVD is a powerful reminder of the potential musical rewards.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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