IASPM-US Interview Series: Steve Savage, Bytes and Backbeats

by justindburton on January 16, 2013

Marilou Polymeropoulou: Steve Savage wears many hats. He is a record producer and engineer, or recordist as he would prefer to call himself. He is teaching musicology and ethnomusicology at San Francisco State University, and production at Los Medanos College.

He has published two books, The Art of Digital Audio Recording (Oxford University Press, 2011) and Bytes & Backbeats: Repurposing Music in the Digital Age (The University of Michigan Press, 2012).

In his latter publication, Bytes & Backbeats, Steve writes about music construction and composition and the techniques, tools, and methods of technology used. The book is divided into three parts, and each part consists of a theoretical chapter, an applied case study—a studio ethnography—and an analysis chapter. Methodologically, one will find connections with sociology of music, philosophy, and cultural studies.

I found Bytes and Backbeats fascinating, not only for the quality of its content, but also for the fantastic structure that makes it easy to read. Although I have not met Steve “body-to-body,” in Internet studies terms, I managed to talk to him virtually. Our discussion shifted from the concepts of underground and mainstream to repurposing, the Internet, and…autotune aesthetics.

To start off the conversation, I asked Steve his opinion about the evolution of mainstream and underground, as at different points in his life he performed in dance and punk bands. “I don’t think mainstream music has changed much in terms of creative freedom,” he confessed. “The heady days of the ‘60s were already past, and formulaic music ruled the day.”

“Of course, the formulas are different now, but I think the constraints are pretty much the same. I don’t see this as all bad—there’s art to mainstream commercial music—but I think the industry continues to exert an essentially stifling influence on music creation (see http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/03/26/120326fa_fact_seabrook).”

“That said, brilliant music seems to always seep into the mainstream (and the artists generally either get co-opted, stale, or seep out).”

When asked about the underground, Steve reckons there has been much greater change there. “Punk was truly underground for a minute there – I caught the tail end in ‘79 and ‘80 and from there its influence was enormous (alternative rock etc).”

“Today, the notion of underground is so much more vast because of the Internet and ‘communities of interest.’ There are thousands of underground scenes—sub-genres, sub-sub genres etc… but I don’t see any of them transforming the musical landscape in the way that sixties rock did, or punk (or rap for that matter—now over 30 years old!).”

“Where is the potential for culturally explosive new genres? I don’t know. I wonder if/when it may happen again. I’m starting to think that the genre cycle from ragtime to rap has run its course. So, creative freedom continues to run rampant along the edges of the world of popular music but I don’t know if it can have the transformative effect that we’ve seen in previous generations.”


Marilou Polymeropoulou: In Bytes and Backbeats you are explaining how and why repurposing occurred. You’re highlighting the two ways of repurposing audio: a) by creating new music from elements that had been used previously and/or b) by transforming elements so as to adapt their use as desired (p.2) 

As you write, “the term repurpose places the emphasis on the audio’s new environment, its newly imagined purpose, and not so much on the lifting (or appropriation) of its previous significance, transference of which is not truly possible anyway” (190). Would you talk about this and, specifically, the origins of repurposing in recording culture—was it a recordist’s intention, the audience’s need for something ‘new’, musicians’ new aesthetic, or a natural shift/outcome due to the evolution of music technology?

Steve Savage: Interesting question – the origin of technological evolution is rarely transparent.  As your question implies there are many possible explanations for the advent of repurposing in music creation and I think all of the elements you mention are in play here.  If I had to try to create a hierarchy of influences, I’d place the musician’s aesthetic and creative impulses at the top. Generally I think innovation in music technology, as well as in music, is driven by creative desire.

The recordists have certainly played a role as well, especially as they have become more essential participants in the creative process, as I describe in the book. I also delve into the ways in which the audience/music consumer has become a more active participant in the creative process in the wake of Internet connectivity. I don’t think that there is much of a natural outcome in technological evolution, to the extent that such a thing might suggest a dislocation between technology and human influence. Which is to say, I favor the social construction of technology over technological determinism, though clearly technologies do have a deterministic quality as well.

Beyond the question of origin I am struck by the pervasiveness of repurposing, especially under part b) of your breakdown—the transformation of musical elements to new purpose.  This plays into the larger cultural evolution that has favored hybridization and pastiche in so many areas, including the shift toward interdisciplinary work in academics. Perhaps this is all driven by the multicultural evolution of societies and working in concert with structural changes created by the Information Age.”

It appears to me that hybridization is a result of constant exposure to a vast amount of information usually facilitated by technology. Music circulation has changed dramatically due to technological evolution—as Stokes suggests, “once we were locals; now we are cosmopolitans.” One of the many metaphorical localities in popular music is the underground. As you’ve told me in a previous e-mail, the notion of the underground is more vast because of the Internet and communities of interest. In your book, you write on the emergence of internet communities, “[t]his community experience may activate ways in which the music’s social construction influences larger cultural and interpersonal relationships—it is a contemporary expression of social interaction.” (page 146) How would you say the underground is affected by the social use of the Internet?

I am both impressed and concerned about the predominance of the Internet for the social construction of underground music communities. The Internet provides a forum that is both vast and easily reducible into musical communities of interest, but at the same time, it is generally dislocated from face-to-face community experience.

I have such vivid memories of sweaty little clubs in the early San Francisco punk scene (the Deaf Club in particular), and I think that’s an essential part of underground music—but the underground communities of the Internet don’t necessarily preclude that.  They can be information centers that feed live venue participation, but the reports from the field aren’t very encouraging—small venues are not flourishing.

The underground music communities on the Internet can also broaden the experience of the participants by providing portals to music that individuals wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. I think this drives a diversity of interests among music fans, and that seems positive—though at the same time that may be responsible for a less passionate involvement in specific underground communities. Whether social networks in general are diminishing or empowering is widely debated. As with most technologically mediated experiences, they are both—the relative balance probably depends on the individual.

When I was reading the studio studies there was one thing that triggered my anthropological background. I was struck by the use of “studio language” and its meaning in the studio. For example, “That was great, but can you do it one more time for me: it was pitchy”, “it felt a little awkward” (page 26), the Pro Tools joke (page 39), or even when an artist asks the recordist to make the sound more “aggressive, or dreamier, or more magical or even more purple” (page 45). I’d like you to tell me more about the communication in the studio, its construction, its understanding, and your observations.

Very interesting, though perhaps too big a topic to really get very far with here. I have written quite a bit on this subject in my other book, the textbook on applied recording technology—The Art of Digital Audio Recording, on Oxford UP.  I consider studio communication—from the kind of language issues I hint at in the Michigan book to the practical application of how to use the talkback button in the studio—to be critical areas of interest for the practicing recordist.

I will comment briefly on how certain terminology seems to pervade the studio world, and I’m always a bit surprised to encounter it when I get involved in projects outside my usual circle of artists and producers—definitely some anthropological strains at work here. I’ll mention a couple of studio linguistic conventions that are remarkably widespread.  The first is the word “clam,” which is used to refer to a small error in performance—usually a wrong note. The second is “train wreck,” which refers to a section where two or more musicians are significantly out of sync—either rhythmically or harmonically (or both).

One of the reasons these terms might be so widespread is that they are used outside of the studio as well, at rehearsals or gigs—but I’m pretty sure they originated in the studio environment where performances are so heavily scrutinized. In any event, as euphemisms they provide a convenient and relatively nonthreatening way to refer to performance issues that need attention. At the same time they are a reminder of how various communities develop unique linguistic protocols. These things tend to both create and reinforce community, but they also reinforce a certain exclusivity that can be intimidating to others.

Would you comment on this caricature?

I love this!! Nothing like the humorous power of exaggeration (but sometimes it does feel like that in the studio)…  Of course, one would need to try for a bit more tact… Though I guess the underlying question here is who is really at fault?  Maybe the producer is hyper-critical or maybe the band sucks!  In any event, it’s funny!

One of the topics you’re analyzing extensively in your book is the function of autotune. Last week I was watching the American version of X-Factor, and one of the contestants commented on the fact that one of the judges uses autotune but he doesn’t, so he implied that he’s better than her. In your book you explain the impact of autotune on contemporary music aesthetics. How do you see the future of the aesthetics of popular music?



I certainly see the continuation of technology interacting with popular music and creating new aesthetics in the process (like with Auto Tune). I think the new technologies provide opportunities for new modes of creativity and for renewal. There will be the inevitable backlash as well as abuse. Although the backlash is sometimes a product of the abuse, I think it’s more frequently just the forces of nostalgia and inertia.  I believe that there’s something very essential in this quote from Bacon:

There is no excellent beauty, that hath not some strangeness in the proportion. – Francis Bacon

The cultural conception of beauty is constantly shifting—every innovation has some strangeness to it, and that tends to scare people.  But ultimately it’s that beautiful strangeness that grabs us the most profoundly.

I do wonder about the aesthetics of hybridization and pastiche that dominate contemporary music. It’s a reflection of the larger culture, as well as a significant contributor to that culture, but I supposed I’m a bit impatient for it to pass.  I am reminded of a favorite t-shirt slogan:  Destroy popular culture, rebuild, repeat. I have no idea what direction the aesthetic will take, though I suppose that brings me back to the beginning—I certainly expect innovative technologies to continue to be a force in changing aesthetics.

Thank you very much, Steve. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Only a hearfelt thank you for your investigation of my book and for the opportunity to explore these interesting topics that you have raised. It’s been a real pleasure “meeting” you in this email discussion.

Steve Savage balances his work as an educator, author and recordist. Savage is an active producer and recording engineer and has been the primary engineer on 7 records that received Grammy nominations. Savage teaches musicology and ethnomusicology in the Humanities department at San Francisco State University and audio production in the BECA department as SFSU and in the Recording Arts Department at Los Medanos College.

Marilou Polymeropoulou is a D.Phil student at St. Peter’s College funded by the State Scholarships Foundation in Greece. She is working in the field of ethnomusicology and her research project is supervised by Professor Martin Stokes. The topic of Marilou’s thesis is on “Limitation and Creativity in Chip Music: an Ethnographic Perspective.”


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: