6 October 2010

Good Grammar Is About Freedom, Not Restriction

One of Britain's biggest building societies is so worried about the standard of grammar amongst its staff that it has hired an English teacher to give them lessons. This has stoked the old debate about the merits of good grammar and as ever, when I watch proponents of either side argue, I can't help but be disappointed by the narrowness and polarity of the discussion.

The debate is always framed in terms of correctness and clarity. On the BBC this morning we heard the argument that being understood is more important than being correct, to which it was retorted that simple mistakes can cause a complete change of meaning: "bad diet effects pregnancy" would appear to mean that eating the wrong thing can make you pregnant.

All of this is true, up to a point, but it is depressingly reductionist. When even the staunchest advocates of good grammar can only point to prevention of misunderstanding as a benefit, it becomes all the easier to claim that, as long as basic meaning has been understood, language's sole function has been fulfilled. This defensive posture leaves the aspirational ground to be filled by those who remind us that language thrives on change, and that today's grammatical grit is tomorrow's linguistic pearl.

On one level, it's hard to disagree: it's all too easy to replace respect for good language with pedantry. But it's also easy to celebrate simple carelessness as if it is throwing off the shackles of convention. I certainly would not consider myself a pedant (does anyone?) - I am more than happy to brazenly split an infinitive if I think it will more elegantly make my point, and I think it is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction. But there is a difference between personalising grammar and ignoring it, between individuality of style and lack of it.

For this is what good grammar embodies to me: it is not just about understanding words, but understanding people. It is about style, character and expression. It is not a rigid set of laws but a more-or-less flexible framework of rules which most people are happy to see bent or broken, within reason, as long as it adds to the richness of what is being expressed. I love good grammar for what it allows, not what it inhibits. One of the things it allows, of course, is demonstration of ignorance or laziness - there are a thousand ways of getting grammar wrong. But there are still more ways of getting it right.

12 September 2010

Why The Digital Hub Is Still Going Strong

In a world where, every day, hundreds of millions of people use their personal computers to synchronise their iPods, organise their photo collections and upload their home movies, it might seem strange to claim that the 'digital hub' is a dead concept, but that is exactly what Ross Rubin claims in this piece for Engadget:

A decade ago at Macworld Expo, Steve Jobs provided a rare look into the vision guiding Apple. Breaking with naysayers foretelling the demise of the PC, Jobs said that the PC was now entering a third golden age of "Digital Lifestyle," following those of productivity and the Internet. In this era, the PC would serve as a digital hub. The presentation was rife with references that are amusing with a decade of hindsight ... The four reasons Jobs gave for the strength of the PC as 2001's digital hub demonstrate why it is no longer relevant in that role a decade later.

I think Ross may be blinded by the amusingly anachronistic details (clunky old phones and CD players illustrate the hi-tech "digital lifestyle") as he misses the bigger picture, which was far more prescient than he gives credit for.  

In the 2001 presentation, Jobs argued that the Mac and iMovie software made the camcorder 10 times more valuable. But a decade later, it's clear that YouTube has done far more to promote the value of personal video than iMovie, which Apple has now also brought from the desktop to the smartphone. The cloud has increased the value of portable devices by another order of magnitude beyond the PC.

The fact that YouTube became the big driver of home movie making rather than iMovie doesn't change the fundamental fact that for most of the last decade the personal computer has, just as Jobs predicted, been the hub for this type of activity. In fact, online services like YouTube, far from killing the digital hub, turned it into something much bigger and more important than we could ever have imagined. The computer isn't just a place to connect our gadgets, manage our song library and edit our movies. It has also, with the expansion of the Internet, become the place where many of us buy our music, choose our DVDs, organise our recipes, meet our friends, make new discoveries and even, with the likes of YouTube, showcase our own creativity.

The digital hub hasn't died: it has thrived, moving beyond technology enthusiasts and becoming part of everyday life for millions of people. And in the hub's first mainstream decade, the personal computer has been at the centre of it, linking users not only to our devices, but to online services that were scarcely dreamed of back in 2001. Even though smartphones have made the leash longer, they are still mostly extensions of our home computers, rather than hubs in their own right. I suspect that 2010 will come to be known as the year that the Digital Hub finally started to evolve into something far wider, something which lives beyond just the personal computer, as devices like the iPad lead a new generation of technology which simplifies the experience and makes it more portable and casual than it has ever been before. Far from being something which fizzled out, the Digital Hub will come to be seen as the vital stepping stone to an always-on, always-connected world.

9 September 2010

AutoTune Doesn't Ruin Music - People Do.

For many music fans, nothing provokes knee-jerk anger quite like "AutoTune", the brand name now used as a catch-all for any software that can manipulate a singer's performance to iron out dodgy notes. Most fans consider it simple cheating, a way of making a quick buck from the pretty-but-talentless before shoving them out of the music industry's revolving door. With the furore over doctored vocals in X Factor, Jay-Z taking a stand with Death Of AutoTune, and AutoTune The News becoming a pop-culture phenomenon on YouTube, the idea that singers are regularly getting artificial help is at the forefront of the public's consciousness.

But is vocal tuning really the route of all musical evil? There's no doubt that it has a natural home in the world of manufactured pop, where it can help grease the production line and get a useable result from a mediocre singer far faster than the old days of wading through molasses, repeating each line over and over in the hope of getting something useable. Without question, there are successful artists now who might never have had a career twenty years ago. Poor vocals are often massaged into tune not to make them sound good - a bad singer is a bad singer, whether or not they are in key - but to make them seamlessly melt into the swamp of backing vocals, gospel choirs and effects that so often provide the illusion of quality.

Then there are the singers who don't need to be tuned, but get the treatment anyway. It's the easy, safe thing for a producer to do: tuning a vocal means never later realising that you've missed a bum note; it means getting out of some of the big decisions you might otherwise have to make, because you know it can always be fixed later; it means finishing earlier and getting to the pub, while the assistant engineer sorts out the problems. Oh, it's the easiest thing in the world to lambast producers for short-changing artists in this way - but the really sad thing is that these days it is more often the artist than the producer who demands the tuning treatment.

A decade ago, when tuning was in its relative infancy, it was a production decision - even, sometimes, a label decision. Singers then were as wary of it as fans are now, and I remember as a young engineer witnessing blazing rows between perfectionist producers and artists who did not want their performance touched. Some unscrupulous producers would do it anyway, as soon as the artist's back was turned (at least the threat of discovery would make them do it judiciously).

But experienced producers and engineers have been able to tune vocals now for so many years that it's no longer exotic and impressive; it's just another tool. They know where it can help, and they know the pitfalls. They've been through the temptation, and learned when it's really needed, and when they've later regretted it. Things have changed. Now it's just as often the singers themselves who are demanding that their vocals be tuned, and the producers who are trying to warn them of the dangers. When you get singers and producers working together who are all too happy to throw vocals through a tuner - especially in the dreaded 'automatic' mode, instead of taking the time to use their own human judgement - you've got a recipe for the bland homogenisation that has infected far too much of our music.

So, would music really be better without AutoTune? Well, maybe, but just as with the Internet, or nuclear power, or any game-changing technology, it's easy to focus on the negative, and the truth is just a little more complicated. Imagine a promising young singer, perhaps not the best in the world, but singing her own words with passion and delicacy, has just finished a mesmerising take. The emotion, the intimacy is all there but on just a few lines, in her eyes-closed reverie, her tuning has wandered enough to induce a wince. Once, the only way to fix it was to replace the line with a new one, perhaps from another take where the tuning was better but the magic was lost. Nowadays, with experienced hands and a delicate touch, it's possible to transparently rescue those few wandering moments and present the performance as the singer intended.

Then, of course, there is tuning as an obvious special effect, whether the crazy robotisation made famous by Cher and employed by a thousand rappers, or the smooth, silky 'over-perfection' that's a big part of the modern R&B sound. These uses might annoy you, but it is a deliberate choice of sound, and quite different from the stale efforts to make poor singers presentable.

As fans of great music, it's easy to get angry at the mere suggestion of tuning, and to think that its use is never justified. But it's always worth stepping back before we give the order to fire. Vocal tuning is one of those things that we don't notice when it's done tastefully. We only hear it when it's been done badly or inappropriately, or when it never needed to be used. AutoTune doesn't ruin music - people do.