Friday, February 29, 2008

I have concluded that reality is no longer relevant, at least in the arts. The reason is that software makes it unnecessary.

Most people have heard of Photoshop, the photo-manipulation software from Adobe. It is the industry standard, and deserves to be. A lot of people think of it as touch-up software for fixing red-eye.

It goes far beyond. Today, you cannot believe that any photo is a depiction of reality. In the hands of a pro, it can be used to construct any picture you can imagine. And the manipulation isn”t detectable by eye. You want a thoroughly convincing picture of President Bush dining with Osama bin Laden in his cave? Can do, easy.

Mr. Bush and bin Laden of course would be obvious nonsense, but those who want to manipulate news photos can do so. Seeing isn”t believing any longer.

Consider music. It, too, can be manipulated, though with less nefarious aims. There is a program called Pro Tools, a high-end editing program. With it, if the members of a band are off the beat, they can be put back on it. If an instrument (or the singer) is flat or sharp, this can be corrected. Someone hit a wrong note? Just cut and paste.

Recently, some friends of mine were recording a CD. In one cut, one of them forgot to play a short segment.

Instead of re-recording, they used Pro Tools to clip a similar piece from another part of the recording and paste it in the blank spot.

One of the musicians told me, “It”s really pretty neat. The thing is if you do too much of it, it becomes obvious that that”s what you are dong.” To musicians maybe. I doubt whether the general public would notice. At any rate, it allows bad bands to sound much better than they are.

The sound-editing works as well as it does because you can record different instruments on different tracks and manipulate them individually. The drums alone might be recorded on eight or 10 tracks. A singer of my acquaintance records herself with her band, and then has the band play the instrumental part without her.

If she doesn”t like the way the song sounds, later on she can listen to the instrumental part with headphones, and record the song again to be added in.

And, of course, an electronic keyboard of the sort commonly used by bands can, by pushing a button, be made to sound like a honky-tonk piano, a grand piano, a harpsichord or a pipe organ.

In film, computer-generated imagery has gotten good enough that at its best it is indistinguishable from reality. I have seen Humphrey Bogart”s face and voice superimposed on another actor so well that I wouldn”t have known it wasn”t really Bogey. It has been suggested seriously that one day movies will be made entirely without actors — that actors will copyright their persona (voice, mannerisms, attitude) and rent them to movies studios.

Is all of this right or wrong? It produces a better result, if done well anyway, sure. I was discussing the question with a musician friend, and told him, “It somehow sounds like cheating.” He responded, “Yeah, it is.”

But why? You are paying for music that sounds good or, in the case of a portrait, a photo that looks good. Why should you care whether the musicians actually played it that way? Or that they even exist? What you see is what you get, but it may not be what actually was. Somehow, it makes me uncomfortable.

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