IAN DOWLING: Remembering The Good Old Days

Grammy Award-winning engineer and producer Ian Dowling has written his first article for Audio Pro International as a regular columnist.

Having started out as an assistant engineer at the Strongroom studio in Shoreditch, London, where he worked with the likes of Orbital, Underworld and Groove Armada, Dowling then went on to team up with producer Jim Abbiss in 2008, collaborating on projects for the likes of Kasabian, Bombay Bicycle Club and KT Tunstall.

Undoubtedly one of Dowling’s greatest accomplishments so far came in 2012, when he received a Grammy for engineering and mixing two tracks on Adele’s 21.

Now an engineer and mixer at This Much Talent, Dowling starts by asking whether our industry’s obsession with the past has gone too far…


Do you remember what it was like in The Good Old Days? You know, The Good Old Days. You knew where you were and what was what in The Good Old Days. Not like it is now. No, you really had to be there in The Good Old Days. The ‘Cocaine Off The Desk’ Days. The ‘We Had Tape Loops Running All Round The Studio’ Days. The ‘Flip The Reel Over’ Days.

There must be a reason why we all secretly yearn for The Good Old Days. Even those of us who weren’t even alive during The Good Old Days. The days when ‘Music Ruled The World’, everyone got paid in gold bullion and went on holidays to Bali together. Fortnightly.

There is a kind of hive nostalgia that occurs when a group of engineers or producers get together. It’s all over internet forums. It spills out of every trade and industry magazine. It is embodied in every remake of a classic piece of outboard gear, every modelled plugin with beautifully rendered graphics. It whispers to us "Hey. Buy this. This was all over [insert classic album title here] by [insert classic band here]. You will be just like they were. It will sound just like they did. Back in The Good Old Days".

Well, do you know what? Fuck The Good Old Days. I’m bored of The Good Old Days and I’m bored of hearing about them. I couldn’t care less about reissues or remakes of old gear, and certainly not plugin models of them. I’m offended by plugin sets endorsed by over-the-hill mixers and producers just to line their own pockets, programmed with the settings they would use for vocals, or drums, or whatever. It’s patronising, creatively stifling, and it’s holding everyone back.

I want gear full of knobs that I have no idea what they do. Maybe they’re marked with confusing words, like ‘Fresh’, or ‘Wednesday’, or colours, or men’s names ("hmmm, snare needs a bit more Alan I reckon"). I want them to be shiny. Like, REALLY SHINY. And have cool futuristic graphics on them. I want them to smell different. Maybe slightly perfumey. Anything but that warm, brown, old smell.

I want plugins that don’t have presets. That have innovative user interfaces, not just copies of their real-world counterparts. Software engineers could do ANYTHING. THEY. WANTED. They are not bound by the rubbish physics of the real world. They invent the physics. All that time and money, wasted, on making an exciting new technology as limiting and dull as the old one.

Oh, and while we’re at it, I want all this to be affordable. I don’t want to have to max out a credit card to buy one bit of gear. I want gear to be disposable. Recyclable. Then maybe we won’t feel obliged to plug a piece of gear in because it happens to be the most expensive thing in the rack, utterly convinced it sounds brilliant. Because the alternative reality – THE REAL REALITY THAT WE ARE BORN, LIVE AND THEN DIE IN, where your £2,000 metal box makes some things sound slightly better and where the kids have crap clothes, don’t go on school trips and live off of Cheese Strings – is too depressing to accept.

Studio-heads of a certain age will recall a time when bands and artists were actually IMPRESSED when they walked into a studio. When they daren’t touch anything because they were nervous of it, and that brilliant feeling of inviting them to fiddle with things, letting them muck about, just to see what bonkers things would happen that you never would have dreamed of doing. When being in a studio was properly INSPIRING, for band, producer and engineer alike. When you walked in with no idea of what might happen or what something was going to sound like at the end of the day.

As an industry we’ve been coasting. We’ve been trading on past glories for too long. Is it any wonder that "everything sounds like everything else" or the only language we can use to describe what we want to hear references bands and music from days gone by? How can we expect artists to be breaking new ground if we aren’t? How can we expect labels or publishers to create new business models and reinvigorate our doddery, piss-stained old auntie of an industry if we aren’t willing to do our bit?

And then maybe music fans will get excited about recorded music again. Maybe they’ll value it, treasure it, like they did before. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll love it and want to own it SO MUCH that they’ll decide it’s worth paying for.

Those are big maybes. But exciting ones, no?

Websites: iandowling.co.uk , thismuchtalent.co.uk
Twitter: @iamdowling

Do you think you have what it takes to be an Audio Pro International contributor/columnist? If so, send some information on your background in the pro audio industry, as well as some article ideas to API editor Adam Savage via adam.savage@intentmedia.co.uk.

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