The Null Device

Snap, Crackle and Pop

In his latest Wired column, Momus writes about how, in the age of digital music, record crackle has changed from undesirable noise artefact to desirable sonic texture:
There must have been some tiny glitch on one of my tracks, because the engineer -- looking as pleased as a dentist who's discovered a cavity -- rolled his swivel chair over to his newest toy: a Cedar digital declicking unit. This device, he explained, would search my recordings for clicks, crackles and other errors and strip them out faster than you could say "Leadbelly."
Fifteen years later mastering studios -- and digital restoration devices made by companies like Cedar Audio -- still flourish. But something else has happened in the interim, something either contradictory or complementary, depending on how you look at it. There are now all sorts of devices that, rather than removing "imperfections" like crackle and click, actually add them.
When analog recordings on vinyl were our main way of representing music, there was no reason to think of a black 12-inch record as a fetish object, to be celebrated for its rare, soulful, unique properties. Back then, we didn't cherish surface noise, or find failure charming. A record was supposed to be an audible "window on the world" -- the less it crackled, the better we could hear what was going on through the window.
But when CDs replaced vinyl, some of us began collecting the black stuff religiously, and treasuring its unique properties. Those turned out, mostly, to be errors and limitations.
But maybe that halo -- that warm, holy glow -- is just the consolation prize we award to any medium that's been displaced from the coveted role of representing the world. Think of painting focusing on the brushstroke when photography comes along, TV turning self-referential when we get our information about the world through computers instead, or analog crackle becoming something you add with a digital patch.
I have wondered whether, at some future stage, low-bit-rate audio-compression artefacts will become fashionable in the same way that faux record crackle is these days; perhaps with bands making allusions to a mythical golden age of MySpace bedroom indie authenticity or somesuch?

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