Stevie Wonder wakes up one morning in Los Angeles with a great new idea for the song he recorded last week. He'd like to overdub the sound of a particular boys choir onto the recording, but the choir is in New York.
Normally, the composer-musician would have to arrange for the choir to fly in from New York. Not very practical. Or the choir would have to record its part in New York and send him the tape, to be overdubbed in Los Angeles--losing time and the spirit of interaction.
Starting today, there's a new solution.
At noon (PST), Wonder will prove he can be in two places at once--or pretty close--as he helps usher in a new method of high-tech recording.
Along with producer-musicians Quincy Jones and Nile Rodgers, Wonder will participate in a demonstration of a satellite/digital-audio/fiber-optics linkup, one that will let him work with musicians in New York as easily as if they were in his Wonderland studio on Western Avenue in Los Angeles. Participants say the experiment is the beginning of a system that will "enable artists to collaborate musically on a global basis, achieving projects never before possible."
The linkup was tested last week at Wonderland and at Master Sound Astoria Studios in New York. In Los Angeles, Wonder was scheduled to run through a two-song demonstration. But he was a bit exhausted from the Grammys the night before, a publicist said. So he only tried out the first part of the test (with Rodgers on the other end in New York) and then left the studio.
Wonder has long championed technological breakthroughs, collaborating with New York-based technical wizard Harry Mendell, who helped bring together the artists and technicians for this experiment. The simultaneous bi-coastal recording session is a joint venture between Sony Professional Audio, Kaufman Astoria Studios (where Master Sound is located) and Teleport Communications.
The technology making this linkup possible has been around for a few years. Why hadn't anyone done it before, one of the engineers was asked.
"No one had the imagination before," he answered.
Quincy Jones knows something about imagination--and quite a few other things pertinent to today's demonstration.
After the test session, Jones sat beside a bank of Wonderland synthesizers and explained his enthusiasm about the linkup.
"The possibilities are so many that they're hard to grasp," he said. "This is something that'll probably turn out to be 20 times more important than it seems now. For example, if I wanted Michael Jackson to change something in his recording after it was done, it wouldn't put a dent in his schedule.
"And this will open up tremendous new possibilities for musicians to work together. There are artists who might never record together otherwise, because it would be too expensive to travel. Think of it: Eventually you could have someone in Rio and people in the equatorial forests of Africa making a recording together, if the facilities can be brought there."
In a 30-year jazz/pop/R&B career, Jones has produced everything from Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" to Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Along the way he's seen a parade of technological advances, and he strongly believes their benefits far outweigh their disadvantages.
"I saw the first 45s and LPs come in, replacing 78s," Jones said. "Four-track recording, then eight-track, and now 24-track and more. I was in Holland once, and the founder of Mercury records showed me a funny-looking little tape. It was one of the first cassettes.
"I've learned to trust the changes--CDs, whatever, you name it. It's all been better for communicating the music. This is one more step--and a very important one. It will pull people together and push the sound to another level--just like synthesizers did."
Some, however, might wonder whether there's a trade-off in such linkups. Would there be a synergy missing that takes place when people work creatively in the same room?
"People don't work together in the same room that much anymore anyway , do they?" Jones said with some amusement.
"Of course, in certain situations, like with Sinatra, everything was done at once But otherwise a lot of musicians are used to coming in and adding their parts after someone else has done theirs--or else bands may be in the same room together but widely separated (to keep the multiple tracks distinct).
"I think that there might be even more contact with a (satellite) setup like this. You can still talk to each other--and you have to pay attention. When we did our test today, it was exciting to watch Stevie call out the chord changes to Nile. They both had to be on their toes."
At today's experiment, as members of the media--some of them in Los Angeles and others in New York--watch, Wonder will add a fresh track to a "Moonlighting" theme tape in the N.Y. studios. Then he will instantaneously "send" his new anti-crack song, "Stop, Don't Pass Go" (co-produced by Jones), to New York.