Tag Archives: creativity

Artist Agnes Martin on Inspiration, Interruptions, Cultivating a Creative Atmosphere, and the Only Type of Person You Should Allow Into Your Studio – Brain Pickings

“The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children…. Adults are very busy, taught to run all the time. You…

Source: Artist Agnes Martin on Inspiration, Interruptions, Cultivating a Creative Atmosphere, and the Only Type of Person You Should Allow Into Your Studio – Brain Pickings

Although studies of the psychology of the optimal creative environment indicate that some artists and writers thrive when surrounded by stimulation, most creative work requires unburdened space and uninterrupted time for what Mary Oliver calls “that wild, silky part of ourselves” — also known by its commonplace name, inspiration — to reveal itself.

[…]

“An inspiration is a happy moment that takes us by surprise.

Many people are so startled by an inspiration or a condition of inspiration, which is so different from daily care, that they think that they are unique in having had it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Inspiration is there all the time for anyone whose mind is not covered over with thoughts and concerns, and [it is] used by everyone whether they realize it or not.

[…]

“It is an untroubled state of mind. Of course, we know that an untroubled state of mind cannot last, so we say that inspiration comes and goes, but it is there all the time waiting for us to be untroubled again. We can therefore say that it is pervasive.”

In a sentiment that echoes and adds dimension to Picasso’s famous proclamation that every child is an artist, Martin considers how our relationship with inspiration evolves over the course of a lifetime:

“Young children have more time in which they are untroubled than adults. They have therefore more inspirations than adults. The moments of inspiration added together make what we refer to as sensibility — defined in the dictionary as “response to higher feelings.” The development of sensibility is the most important thing for children and adults alike, but is much more possible for children.”

But inspiration, Martin argues, cannot be controlled or willed — it can only be surrendered to. She illustrates this by way of the child:

“What is the experience of the small child in the dirt? He suddenly feels happy, rolls in the dirt probably, feels free, laughs and runs and falls. His face is shining… “The light was extraordinary, the feeling was extraordinary” is the way in which many adults describe moments of inspiration. Although they have had them all their lives they never really recall them and are always taken by surprise. Adults are very busy, taught to run all the time. You cannot run and be very aware of your inspirations.”

It’s a sentiment that pierces our modern condition and calls Kierkegaard to mind — as he contemplated our greatest source of unhappiness more than a century earlier, the Danish philosopher lamented: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy — to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work.” To counter this ridiculousness, Martin urges artists to create a sanctuary for inspiration — a space devoid of busyness and dedicated to unburdened clarity of mind, with “no telephone,” where one is “to be disturbed only if the house is burning.” A century and a half after Delacroix admonished against social distractions in creative work, she counsels aspiring artists:

“A studio is not a place in which to talk to friends. You will hate your friends if they destroy the atmosphere of your studio. As an artist you will have to try and live with inspiration. You are not like the little boy in the dirt free and open. The whole world which you now know intrudes. It is almost hopeless to expect clarity of mind. It is hopeless if your studio atmosphere cannot be preserved.”

But there is one kind of person who should be allowed, even invited, into the artist’s studio — the kind that calls to mind Patti Smith’s notion of those who magnify your spirit. Martin writes:

“There are some people to be allowed into the studio, however, who will not destroy the atmosphere but will bring encouragement and who are an absolute necessity in the field of art. They are not personal friends. Personal friends are a different thing entirely and should be met in cafés. They are Friends of Art.

Friends of art are people with very highly developed sensibilities whose inspiration leads them to devote their lives to the promotion of art work and to bringing it before the public.”

Such “friends of art,” Martin argues, bring with them a highly attuned intuition — intuition being, of course, merely the accretion of experience-encoded discernment — which can help guide the artist closer to his or her own truth:

“When they come to see the work it is not to judge it but to enjoy it… When these friends of art come to your studio they should be treated as honored guests, otherwise you will destroy the atmosphere of your studio yourself. If you are not ready to do this, be sure to wait till you are ready. The premature showing of work when you are perhaps struggling and even fighting is an unnecessary suffering. You will know when you are really ready.”

Because the studio should be a sacred space for the untroubled mind, Martin recommends avoiding physical clutter in order to prevent mental clutter:

“You must clean and arrange your studio in a way that will forward a quiet state of mind. This cautious care of atmosphere is really needed to show respect for the work. Respect for art work and everything connected with it, one’s own and that of everyone else, must be maintained and forwarded. No disrespect, carelessness or ego [and] selfishness must be allowed to interfere if it can be prevented. Indifference and antagonism are easily detected — you should take such people out immediately. Just turning the paintings to the wall is not enough. You yourself should not go to your studio in an indifferent or fighting mood.”

ILM VFX Supervisor Roger Guyett on Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Studio Daily

Source: ILM VFX Supervisor Roger Guyett on Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Studio Daily

In the first Star Wars, when people watched the X-wing flying down the trench, did audiences think that was really happening? Did they believe it was a real X-wing flying? A model of an X-wing flying? What was their understanding of how real that was? Was it more real because the model was part of our world? Is that what people mean by real, a tactile thing? These are philosophical questions that you have to consider when you’re doing a visual effects movie.

[…]

I wasn’t interested in making a retro movie. That was not what I thought we should be doing and it would have had a limited shelf life. When you think of those movies, people were excited to see them, to go along for a great ride with amazing characters. Part of that world achieved a certain charm and authenticity because the filmmakers built sets and went to real locations. That part is fantastic. We wanted to hold onto the charm the original stories had but use the technology available now in a way that would make a more contemporary film.

How do you get the audience invested in the characters and willing to go along for the ride? Part of their brain says this is not a familiar world and what they’re seeing is slightly odd. How do you get past that? You want to convince the audience everything is happening for real by hopefully creating a world that’s a natural extension of the real physical world. My theory is that this is a bizarre extension of primitive storytelling. Think of how invested children become in simple puppetry. This is a crazy extension of that. The whole thing is a trick of some kind.

Clearly you were successful in making the digital effects believable. How did you achieve that?

Part of it was trying to photograph as much in camera as possible to help the actors understand the world they’re immersed in and as a better foundation for our work. We went to places and tried to photograph as much as we could. We tried to make each moment as real as possible and blend the line between real and imaginary as much as we could.

[…]

f you’re tasked to do something that by its nature undermines the concept, it’s hard to pull off. There’s a certain point, if you overexpose your hand … a film like this is so ambitious, so fantastical that no one could imagine it could have happened. The nature of filmmaking in a real space is that you see the place. You react to it. You design shots around that place. If you remove the idea that you’re really there, it becomes a different thing. We tried to show a real level of restraint to keep it in the charming category without losing a level of excitement, without ever being ludicrous.

[…]

In old-fashioned filmmaking, you didn’t go to Tunisia and then change it. You’d go there and that was in the movie. Sometimes, on other films, we might go to a location and then the director would want another version — taller buildings, a different sidewalk. They want their desert a different color. They don’t embrace what they have. This is the VFX era. Every blockbuster has big visual effects. People shoot and figure it out later. Maybe that’s why so many people shoot on green screen. We didn’t want to do that. We had a director who clearly wanted to go to the desert, and he was happy with the desert he went to.

[…]

When you have a ship that travels 600 to 700 miles per hour, it’s difficult to shoot plates, especially with the shot choreography we wanted, unless maybe you hire a jet fighter. So, in the Falcon chase, pretty much everything is digital. We could have just based it on the location and made up the rest, but we would have been in a place of guesswork. So we shot a lot of reference footage from a helicopter. It wasn’t directly usable, but it was incredible reference. You’d notice things about the way the desert behaved — dust coming off surfaces as we travelled. More importantly, the quality of the light on the sand, the geography of the environment. We ended up with 18 hours of aerial footage alone from one camera, and terabytes of photographs. We could see the nuances of colors of the sand dunes from photography based on the time of day and conditions.

The other thing we did was to survey the crap out of everything and everywhere we went. We researched and recorded environments as accurately as we could. We had a whole team on this. We had size and scale. We had stereographic views. This isn’t outside the bounds of what people do for visual effects movies, but we really wanted to be accurate.

When you see the little speeder moving across the landscape, it’s a completely digital shot. But because we’d been there, when we recreated that moment, we did it from a physically-based approach. I don’t know if J.J. [Abrams] knows how we constructed the images, but he was at the location and he knew how it looked.

The other thing is that we photographed these events in a way that I think did not cross the line of the impossible with complicated camera moves. We made sure if you had a Millennium Falcon, this is how you’d shoot it. We tried to photograph some kind of version of all these events to give us a point of reference even if we threw it away. One advantage I had in putting shots together in the final movie is that I shot second unit. If a shot involved visual effects, I knew what we’d need to achieve.

[…]

And our modelers had so much affection for these ships. Dave Fogler [asset build supervisor], who came to ILM from the model shop, was interested in rebuilding the Falcon in the way it should be built, with integrity and a referential quality. He had an inherent knowledge of the processes the model shop guys used. It was a very loving process in many respects.

[…]

Probably about a third of the time BB8 is digital. This is a perfect example of riffing off something that exists. It’s another version of my desert analogy. If you don’t build BB8, where does the personality come from? The personality came from being there with the actors and J.J. directing BB8 just like another actor. When we created the CG character, we had absolute reference. Each animator had a template. People could comment about the droid’s performance just like they would with an actor because his personality was defined.

[…]

We did motion capture tests at Andy Serkis’s [Imaginarium in London], and then did motion capture on set. Ben Morris, who set up the ILM studio in London, was on set for the shoot, and Mike Mulholland supervised the London work. I’ve always believed that if you cast the right person, the rest takes care of itself. You have to believe in the actor; motion capture won’t save a bad performance. Maybe it might, but chances are it won’t. Casting is what it’s all about.

Andy’s character didn’t move around very much, but we needed a great face performance. We shot Andy and then re-mocapped his scenes once we got the edit. We went back and refined the shots in his studio. He can play anything — small, large, in-between. Lupita is way more restrained. She does a softer, nuanced kind of performance. For her, we used image-based capture and some keyframe work. Andy’s studio helped us out with that, but it was really about the face, and we used systems from Disney research. The face of the character she plays is very different, so we had to make sure that translation was successful. But again, like with BB8, she defined the character, the nuanced performance.

[…]

I think I’ve learned that maybe showing restraint is something we should do more of in the future. Restraint sounds negative, and that’s not the connotation I mean. Just trying to make sure the shots are focused. More isn’t necessarily better.

It’s interesting how much the work has advanced, even in the last couple of years, and certainly from Episodes III to VII. It’s a completely different lay of the land, and the people are capable of so much more. You don’t want to do things you’ve done before. You want to do something more challenging and exciting in different ways. Sometimes, by defining what the box is, you can have a more interesting problem to solve.

 

Music Memos is a songwriter’s best friend | iMore

Music Memos offers so many ways of organizing my clips that I’m finding myself recording more just because I can.

Source: Music Memos is a songwriter’s best friend | iMore

For as long as I’ve had my iPhone, I’ve used Apple’s built-in Voice Memos app to record my song ideas, collecting iterations of a riff or melody I don’t want to forget. But Voice Memos is clunky, has no built-in organizational system, and the editing tools are borderline nonexistent.

For me, the songwriting process usually goes something like this: I sit down with an acoustic guitar and play around until I stumble upon something I like. Then I play it on a loop, letting myself get comfortable enough to twist it around and see how it works with other notes and different voicing. Once I can hear a song in the noise, I’ll start singing gibberish lyrics until I come up with a vocal melody that works.

Then I record it, over and over, in Voice Memos.

That’s kind of a problem; I see “New Recording 233” and I sigh. Sure, I could have given the clip a real name, but why bother? I have hundreds upon hundreds of clips, with no way to search or filter them. I occasionally go spelunking in the Voice Memos table view list to discover long-forgotten ideas that I really wish I’d taken the time to flesh out. My entire musical idea system is a ghetto.

[…]

If Voice Memos are Post-Its — a quick and dirty tool to make sure I didn’t forget an idea — then Music Memos is a sketchbook. This is where I start the songwriting process, and every part of the app is designed to help facilitate the process and, most shockingly of all, guide me to the next step in fleshing the song out.

This level of organization also makes me want to start recording practice sessions and charting progress. Having that much raw material available and easily searchable also means more clips we can share on Connect, more early listens we can share with our Patreon supporters, and more options for comparison and background content for our podcast. That’s a whole lot of upside for one feature.

Music Memos has so many other tricks up its sleeves that I almost feel like someone at Apple has been reading my dream journal. An app for recording song ideas that uses a robust tagging system is something I’ve personally wanted to build for a long time, but throw in a guitar tuner, chord and tempo detection, exporting to GarageBand, and magical automatic backing instruments, and the dream becomes borderline pornographic.

My experience with the chord detection feature has been mixed, with me watching the app struggle to average out the chords I play with the notes I’m singing. I had the idea to try using it for something else: I’ve been writing a new song, starting with just a vocal melody. Because I’m a self-taught musician with only an intuitive understanding of music theory, this gets a little tricky. Rather that spending time working out what the chords should be, I decided to just sing the melody into Music Memos and see what it suggested.

This is obviously a bit of a mess, but that’s perfectly okay for my purposes. Playing exactly the chords of the vocal melody would be really boring (and on guitar, hard to pull of), but this gives me a great view of the chord set I should be working from. From here, I can start singing over one or two of these chords and work my way out from there. Music Memos has taken one of the most annoying parts of songwriting and made it fun for me. I really can’t overstate how great that feels.

The other major songwriting tool in Music Memos is backing tracks. Record your song the way you normally would, and the app will put drums and/or bass behind it. As with everything else in this app, the controls are dead simple: turn drums on by tapping the drums icon, bass by tapping the bass icon.

[…]

My other favorite feature is a subtle one: “Auto”. With this option turned on (again, via a dead-simple button in the main UI), Music Notes does exactly what you’d expect: it sits and listens, and starts recording automatically when it detects that you’re playing a song.

The magic behind this feature is pretty easy to guess: the app listens passively, Siri-style, recording everything, and simply saves the recording starting at the beginning of the waveform. But it’s these little details that add up for me. Since many (if not most) of my clips and recordings are full of dead air at the beginning while I pull up a lyric sheet or get my capo set properly, this is a big win for me. Sure, I could edit by hand, but I don’t, and I never will.

[…]

Or, if I just want to show off a snippet of something I’m playing around with, I can send it off to Apple Music Connect, SoundCloud, or YouTube. I couldn’t get Connect sharing to work in my testing — unsurprising if you’ve ever tried to get Apple Music Connect to do anything — but given Connect’s place in the iTunes ecosystem, the day is definitely coming where an artist could write, record, produce, and distribute an entire album using nothing more than their telephone.

Music Memos is less a tool than a toolbox. Each tool works remarkably well for a 1.0 release, and most of them feel like they were designed with my exact needs in mind. The designers could have approached this like recording software, with a series of menus and sub-menus of options, and that would have been more or less fine. But instead Music Memos has the weight and simplicity of spirit of a guitar effect pedal. One button and a handful of dials. Beautiful. My iPhone is only further solidified as an indispensable part of my composing process.

Microphone technology may not be making the same quantum leaps as digital cameras, but putting them to better use is a good start. After all, the best recording studio is the one you have with you.

The Invisible Design Behind the Apple Watch’s Many Faces | WIRED

ON FEBRUARY 10TH, 1982, in a room full of designers and engineers drinking champagne and eating cake, Steve Jobs called out the names of Apple’s Macintosh team. And one by one, beginning with motherboard engineer Burrell Smith, they signed their names to a large sheet of paper.

These 47 signatures—some in perfect script, others loopy and illegible, a few just hastily printed—would soon be inscribed on the inside of every Macintosh, etched into the hard plastic case. According to former engineer Andy Hertzfeld, whose signature is on that paper and whose business card during his time at Apple read “Software Wizard,” this was a natural course of events. “Since the Macintosh team were artists,” he wrote on his blog Folklore.org, “it was only appropriate that we sign our work.”

[…]

Yet what Dye seems most fascinated by is one of the Apple Watch’s faces, called Motion, which you can set to show a flower blooming. Each time you raise your wrist, you’ll see a different color, a different flower. This is not CGI. It’s photography.

“We shot all this stuff,” Dye says, “the butterflies and the jellyfish and the flowers for the motion face, it’s all in-camera. And so the flowers were shot blooming over time. I think the longest one took us 285 hours, and over 24,000 shots.”

[…]

He flips a few pages further into the making-of book, onto the first of several full-page spreads with gorgeous photos of jellyfish. There’s no obvious reason to have a jellyfish watch face. Dye just loves the way they look. “We thought that there was something beautiful about jellyfish, in this sort of space-y, alien, abstract sort of way,” he says. But they didn’t just visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium with an underwater camera. They built a tank in their studio, and shot a variety of species at 300 frames-per-second on incredibly high-end slow-motion Phantom cameras. Then they shrunk the resulting 4096 x 2304 images to fit the Watch’s screen, which is less than a tenth the size. Now, “when you look at the Motion face of the jellyfish, no reasonable person can see that level of detail,” Dye says. “And yet to us it’s really important to get those details right.”

The Watch’s faces are littered with such details. The Mickey Mouse face, which is an explicit update on the 1933 Mickey Mouse Watch from Ingersoll, was particularly complex. Select this face, and watch Mickey’s toe tap once per second, in perfect time. Line up a bunch of watches, Dye says, and they’ll all tap at exactly the same time. There’s no reason to point out that almost no one will ever fact-check this claim—he doesn’t care. He did it for the same reason Jony Ive has taken to personally designing the internals of the Mac. Details matter.

The Astronomy watch face is another of Dye’s favorites: it gives you a view of the Earth as if you were floating peacefully above it. Spin the Digital Crown and you see moon phases, the Earth’s rotation, and even the solar system. It’s a riff on the oldest method of telling the time just with digital stars and planets instead of those far-away real ones.

Dye points out the subtlety of this face. “When you tap on the Earth and fly over the moon: We worked really hard with our engineering team to make sure the path you take from your actual position on the Earth to where the moon is and seeing its phase, is true to the actual position of the Earth relative to the moon.”

Apple employees often use the word “inevitable” to describe their work. When Dye uses it, it’s self-deprecating, as if to say: ‘this was always the right answer, but it took us a while to figure that out.’ It’s true of even seemingly simple things, he says, like the concentric circles the Watch uses to display your fitness goals.

“I couldn’t tell you from a design perspective the number of iterations we did on those three rings.” The human interface team wanted to make it easy to see progress and activity for the day, but also to make you want to hit your goals. “We spent a year, and did far more studies… enough studies to kind of fill this wall, probably,” he says, gesturing to the giant glass walls of Apple’s Caffe Macs cafeteria. “Different ways that, at a glance, someone could understand that information, and easily assess where they’re at in their day, and hopefully in a really simple and visceral way feel like they accomplished something when they fill them up.” They arrived at three circles because there’s just something about a not-quite-complete circle that drives you just crazy enough to take those last 400 steps.

 

Critical Globalism: Rem Koolhaas Interviewed by Brendan Cormier and Arjen Oosterman — Volume

Critical Globalism: Rem Koolhaas Interviewed by Brendan Cormier and Arjen Oosterman — Volume.

BC: In one of the pre-essays to the Biennale you wrote that architects don’t work for the state anymore. But you seem to be an example of the opposite.

RK: Yes, yes, I am a very untypical architect. And that is not for nothing. My sympathy is with that old-fashioned kind of architecture.

BC: Don’t you think other architects have these kinds of projects?

RK: Well, they do, I don’t think I’m an exception. But my discourse has been about the influence of the market economy on architecture, but on the other hand, I’ve kind of rigidly tried to adhere to the public project.

Diller and Scofidio create “mischievous” leak inside Nouvel gallery

Diller and Scofidio create “mischievous” leak inside Nouvel gallery.

They wanted to pay tribute to the original architecture of the galleries by using it as a raw material for their work.

“As the space is a provocation to artists and curators, so the installation is a provocation to the building,” Diller told Dezeen.

“One of the obvious attributes is this transparency and how it creates a provocation to everyone using it. So our first instinct was to create a problem for that transparency and to flirt with it in a different way.”

The glass walls of the larger gallery space to the left of the main entrance are coated with a liquid crystal film that fades in and out of transparency as an electric current passes through it.

“Liquid crystal film has been around probably for about twenty years or more. Generally it goes off and on. What makes this film unique is that you can control it,” explained Scofidio. “You can actually dial it down so it gradually changes to transparent, to translucent.”

“We tried to make it as invisible as possible,” added Diller.

A red plastic bucket on wheels appears to be the only occupant of the room. Inside the bucket is a camera and sensors that guide its movements around the space to collect drops of water that fall from the ceiling, as if there is a leak. As each drop falls, a loud noise sounds.

“We came up with this kind of mischievous thing, this leak. Just a leak, but it’s a very smart leak with a very smart bucket that captures it,” said Diller. “The [idea of this] empty space with just one very kind of banal object that is actually doing something very smart – it grew out of that. And then we thought: okay what do we do with the sound of that drop? How do we relate it to the next space?”

The smaller gallery to the right of the main entrance is occupied by a large screen that hangs parallel to the floor like a suspended ceiling, but just one metre above ground level.

To view the images being shown, visitors are invited to lie down on black loungers supported on wheels and propel themselves underneath the screen or use curved mirrors controlled using long black metal handles.

Once underneath, the moving image they see is a blown up version of the video footage captured by the camera in the bucket moving around in the space opposite. As each drop falls into the bucket, the surface of the water ripples, with the effect becoming amplified on the screen.

The sounds initially generated to accompany the drops of water also become distorted in the second room and choral voices are added to the acoustic arrangement, which was devised by American composer David Lang.

“The notion of, in one space – in the big space – doing something very tiny, almost invisible, almost nothing, and then taking that to the other space, makes it into the comic here and the sublime over there,” said Diller.

“It’s doing something that’s very ethereal in a way, but also grotesque, with that very large image and that drop becoming very forceful and the compression of watching with that very low floor-to-ceiling height.”

[…]

“We started by doing installations in galleries and it’s only now that we are the other side of the wall,” said Scofidio.

“We never said ‘one day we’ll be doing this’ or ‘one day we’ll have a big office’. It was never our intention. We were simply doing things that interested us and using the way that architects conceive the world to investigate conditions which we generally don’t pay a lot of attention to.”

The Technical Constraints That Made Abbey Road So Good – The Atlantic

The Technical Constraints That Made Abbey Road So Good – The Atlantic.

The sanctum sanctorum of Abbey Road is Studio Two, the room where the majority of The Beatles’ recordings were made.

Standing at the threshold of Studio Two, it doesn’t look all that different from a small school gymnasium: a big rectangular box with white walls, 24-foot-high ceilings, and a parquet floor. But as soon as we entered, any thoughts of dribbling basketballs fell away, as I began to remember images of John Lennon and Paul McCartney standing around a microphone at the far end of the room, working out their harmonies.

[…]

When each of the tools in that display was first introduced, many music experts were totally wrong about the impact they would have on creative culture. “Records will kill live music,” they said as the phonograph gained popularity. Tape recording was initially viewed with suspicion by recordists accustomed to using disc-cutting lathes.

As digital technology arrived, many people thought it would surely relegate analog recording equipment to the scrap heap. In what seems like a stunning example of shortsightedness, some of Abbey Road’s most noteworthy gear was sold off in a 1980 sale as “memorabilia” at bargain-basement prices. One example—A 4-track recorder used on “Sgt. Peppers’” went for just $800 (that’s $2,300 in today’s money).

For melodic pop music, Studio Two has physical, tonal qualities which transcend its humble appearance. “It emphasizes the midrange,” Kehew says, ”and has a warm, short reverb unusual for a room its size.” These reverberant qualities are so well known that Abbey Road’s rental contract actually prohibits any sampling of its distinctive acoustic signature. As I stood in the room, I could hear the echoes of the vocals and kick drums on some of my favorite recordings of all time.

[…]

Kehew agrees that every tool can have a place as part of an artistic palate. “Old is not good or bad,” he said. “Question it. Try it. Listen. Buy weird bad gear and great quality gear—see what it does for you. I love Jon Brion’s quote—‘I don’t want to be Lo-Fi or Hi-Fi, I want to be ALL-Fi!’”

Scott touched on this in the lecture too, recounting that this was the approach that caused Beatles producer George Martin to turn down Abbey Road’s first 8-track recorder for use on the White Album. The 4-track recorders used for years by The Beatles had been specially modified to help create some of their signature sounds. Because the new 8-track recorder lacked those modifications, Martin declined to bring it into the session. His thinking, Scott said, was that it would be better for the process to maintain continuity.

In an ironic twist, Scott mentioned that The Beatles themselves had a different idea. They decided to use the 8-track without Martin’s permission, which got Scott and another engineer into a fair amount of trouble. The fact that the device was used to track parts of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” probably helped accelerate the forgiveness. Even though new technologies can kill off old ways of working, it’s ultimately up to humans to decide the hour that they should.

“It was the 60s,” Scott said of the incident. “Rules were meant to be broken.”

At the beginning of the Beatles era, technicians had to complete what amounted to an extended apprenticeship program—and were even required to wear white lab coats (Winston Churchill once quipped that Abbey Road made him feel like he was visiting a hospital). Prospective engineers were brought up through the ranks slowly and instructed on the “rules of the process” at each stage.

But as the 60s went on, culture—specifically counter-culture—began seeping into the studio and changing that dynamic relationship between the engineers and their tools. Over time, the room became filled with incredibly skilled people who were willing to break any rule if it helped their artists create new and interesting sounds.

It was this combination of playfulness, openness to risk-taking, and deep professionalism which enabled Abbey Road’s technicians to respond to seemingly off-the-wall requests from The Beatles. Engineers began to record amps inside cupboards to get unique sounds. The studio’s tape recorders were rewired to automatically double-track performances. The tapes themselves were sped-up, slowed-down, sliced, and looped—to great effect. Even a joke, Scott says, was turned into an engineering puzzle that he had to solve when John Lennon took him up on his “suggestion” to fit the entire band in a small utility closet for the recording of “Yer Blues.”

A sort of positive feedback loop was happening: Culture was driving the development of technologies which, in turn, emboldened that creative culture to go even farther to create new tools and techniques. This embrace of the unorthodox didn’t mean that the Abbey Road staff abandoned everything they had been taught in the “white coat days,” though. In fact, Scott says it was that training which gave engineers the necessary skills to successfully and intelligently break the rules and develop all those new sounds and techniques.

[…]

When you listen to recordings from a generation or two ago, though, you often hear all sorts of rough edges: large dynamic transitions between loud and quiet, the sounds of oversaturated tape and tubes, instruments bleeding together. Chunked notes. Vocals that are out of pitch. Drums that drift in and out of time. Mistakes. Lots of mistakes.

Today’s creative paradox is that this human element, which often makes a song distinct or artistically interesting, is the thing which is almost always erased from modern productions.

“Do mistakes make music better?” I asked Kehew. Not really, he responded. It’s just that, when it comes to what people like about music, there was actually only one thing worse than these imperfections: perfection.

“I’ve done it and seen it many times,” he said. “Take something flawed, work on it ’til every part is ‘improved’ then listen. It’s worse. How could that be? Every piece is now better. But it’s a worse final product.”

This tendency towards incessant improvement has been encouraged by the power of modern tools. These days, sounds are almost always passed through a computer at some point in the recording process. These computers have their own working paradigms—things like cutting-and-pasting, the automated repetition of tasks, and “infinite undo”—which gives them incredible power to alter performances. It also adds more potential for overpolishing and something recording engineers refer to as “option paralysis,” a state where the sheer number of choices available prevents decisions from being made. Almost any element of a recording can be changed, right up until the moment that a song is released to the public.

The limitations of Beatles-era technology were substantial by comparison, and they forced a commitment to creative choices at earlier stages of the recording process. If, for example, an engineer wanted to exceed the number of recorded tracks that their tape machine allowed, two or more tracks had to be mixed together and “bounced” to an open track elsewhere. Cuts were physical, done with razor blades and tape. Mixes were performed by engineers in real time. Big mistakes at any point in the process could force an entire recording to be scrapped.

It was because artists were often stuck with the mistakes they made that they sometimes decided to embrace them. Once while recording a Beatles song called “Glass Onion” Scott accidentally erased a large number of drum parts that had been painstakingly overdubbed. Certain that he’d be fired, he played the tape to John Lennon. To Scott’s surprise, Lennon said that he liked the unexpected effect created by the glitch—and both the track and Scott stayed.

Scott was clear in his opinion: It isn’t so much the use of these new tools as it is their overuse that serves to undermine musicality.

“The trick,” Kehew says, “is a savvy or talented producer or engineer knows when to be bold and stop. To let character and roughness and lack of polish exist. I can bet most people spend more time polishing something than writing or creating the substance of it. The only cure is to work faster, more often, so you don’t treat every damn thing as being so precious that ‘It Must Be Perfect For All Time.’”

I asked Kevin Ryan if he was able to heed Scott’s warning in his own work. He laughed and acknowledged that knowing the risks of overusing digital tools didn’t make it any easier for him to resist that temptation. Kehew’s final word on the subject was, I thought, an especially Beatle-like principle for not overworking something: “Let it be what it was,” he says. “If it’s not that good, you shouldn’t be recording it.”

[…]

Today, Abbey Road straddles a line between modern culture and English Heritage. It has become Pop Music’s Westminster Abbey: partly a tourist attraction, partly a working cathedral where all the traditional rites and rituals are still observed.

Abbey Road is still producing hits though—even as tighter budgets and rising costs have caused many other recording facilities to close. An almost unbelievable number of influential artists and projects have worked (and continue to work) at the studio. Even if you eliminated the entire Beatles oeuvre the list is impressive. Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” was tracked there. Acts like Kate Bush, Elton John, Oasis, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Green Day, U2, Radiohead, and Kanye West have all recorded there. Countless film scores, too—Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lord of the Rings.