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Evolution of the Art: Gus Van Go

Longtime Canadian Musician contributor Kevin Young had plenty of leftover material from his extensive interviews for "The Evolution of the Art," his feature story on the past, present, and future of music and production technologies and workflows for our March/April 2019 40th Anniversary issue.

Here's more from his conversation with in-demand producer, engineer, and musician Gus Van Go, slightly edited for length and clarity.

CM: Early on, as a musician or as a producer, was there some piece of gear that made you think, "The possibilities of this are endless. I must have it, use it, or play it?"

GVG: My business partner in my current studio, Werner F., back in 1999 or 2000, he had a recording studio with ProTools and said, "C’mon, check it out." It blew my mind. I’d known about ProTools, but he really showed me the possibilities. I imagine every other producer would say the same thing, but the advent of digital recording technology really changed my life and made it seem more possible that I could affordably do the things that I wanted to do, that the things that I imagined in my head could become a reality, without having to be in a big corporate studio paying $300 for a clean reel of tape.

CM: And watching the clock.

GVG: Watching the clock every second.

CM: What about newer technology that’s come out?

GVG: Production-wise, not so much. It hasn’t really been a massive tectonic shift, in my mind. The massive tectonic shift is in the way that music is distributed, obviously, and so, to me, that’s been the challenging new take; digital streaming and the disappearance of the album as a concept, and trying to figure out where the producer fits in with so many awesome musicians that are able to do amazing albums at home, more artists becoming producers/artists, so that’s been the challenge.

CM: Does that impact how you end up doing your job and the mechanics of it as a musician and as a producer? You’ve got to think about, "Wow are we going to release this, as an album? A single? Feed our base, our audience, consistently, or give them a bunch to chew on at once?"

GVG: That is what’s going on now. I think everyone still trying to figure it out, including myself. I think we haven’t landed somewhere comfortable yet, but for sure, we are doing fewer albums. Even four years ago I was booked 6, 7, 8 months ahead as a producer/mixer. People were making records and labels were calling to well ahead of time because they knew where in the album and touring cycle the band would be. Now everyone’s doing three songs here, at most I’m getting booked for an EP. But I work with a lot of French Canadian artists and the album still exists there. One of the French-Canadian bands I work with actually sold CDs of the last record. So that still happens, but a lot more people are doing albums with multiple producers and mixers. There’s no reason to do a whole record with one producer. Artists used to feel weird saying, "Hey Gus, we’re going to work with a couple of different producers." They’d feel they had to explain it to me. And now it’s like, "Of course we’re working with tons of different producers on this record."

CM: Back in time it was one producer, one studio, for a unified sound.

GVG: It depends on the type of music, obviously. The last bastion of that was indie and alt music. It was like you were trying to create a sonic universe; album bands and culture – a journey that the band is taking you on - that went away in the pop and the mainstream world. It still existed in the indie and alt world, but that’s even disappearing.

CM: Are there any specific innovations that you’d like to see down the line in terms of MI or recording technology?

GVG: I know I’ve probably said 40 times in the past five years, ‘I want this to exist.’ But I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.

CM: I’m betting when you’ve thought about that, it wasn’t way crazy, just something that would make your job simpler at the time. Is that fair?

GVG: Yeah. Again, it’s pertaining to the distribution of music. The technology part of it, I really don’t think about it too much. I’m not gear nerd or a technology whore. I like modern recording technology. I like old recording technology. But I think a lot about the business and distribution side. I’m looking forward to the day when music has value again. I feel like people expect free content. Even the subscription services, they are paying a fee, but there’s still a disparity to the amount of money that actually gets into the artist’s hands. When I was a kid and you’d give me twenty-five bucks as a gift, the first thing I’d do is ride my bike to the record store and buy an album. It was the most important thing, culturally, to me. And all my friends were the same. Most kids were identified by what they listened to, and now it seems like music itself has lost value. It’s still there. It’s important. But it’s like, ‘I’m not gonna pay 10 bucks for an entire record. Are you crazy?’ I look forward to the time when, maybe, we figure out a way that, yes, music takes time and effort from the artist to write and produce. Labels and venues like Spotify, they need to exist to distribute music, but it has to be a fairer to the music makers because I think the art is going to suffer. If the only way this form of expression can exist is if people can do it easily and quickly then we’re going to lose the artistry.

CM: Some of the tools are going to make the creation of music, theoretically, far easier to for everyone to make…

GVG: Yeah. Okay, here’s something I wish for: to not have to use a mouse. I wish I could just talk to ProTools and tell it what to do. (Laughs)

CM: What about getting to the point where we can say, "Hey, insert name of intelligent/virtual assistant here… I’m avoiding using the name of the one I have because she’s right in front of me. But if you could say, ‘Give me music like side one of The Wall, mix in music like side two of Zeppelin IV. Process." Sounds like science fiction, but it’s possible. At what point do you lose the art, or do you? Are the things that made those records we went to the record store and spent our 25 bucks on so great in danger? Does the value become literally zero if anyone can do it?

GVG: I don’t know if it’ll ever get to that, but I do like the idea of being able to talk to a computer, saying, "Give me more room, make it a little less bright, bring down the 2K. Give me a warp marker on all the transients of the kick drum. Okay, now grid it to the grid at 80 per cent." I feel like that’s not that far away. I think it will always depend on someone’s ears and whether the producer, music maker, or engineer is using the tools wisely, or as a crutch, but the greats will always rise to the top, I assume, and I hope.

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Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician. He is also a co-host of Canadian Musician Radio and NWC Webinars’ series of free music and entertainment industry webinars.