Springsteen’s Nebraska

The Value of a Jarring Experience

Sometimes a new perspective is the result of a jarring experience. This was the case for me when I first heard Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. I had not been much of a Springsteen fan before that album, but I was certainly one after hearing it. So why is this important?

Back in the 1980s I was an Audio Recording Producer/Engineer. The sonic aspects of a recording were as important to me as the expression of the music. Many times, the sound was more important to me than the expression of the music. It was not a “real” recording unless the sound was up to my standards.

Then I heard Nebraska. No doubt a lo-fi recording as it was done on a 4-track Tascam cassette recorder. Springsteen had intended these to be demo recordings, and the E Street Band did go into the studio to record “proper” recordings. Ultimately, the decision was made to release the cassette version. Awesome.

I remember being transfixed listening to the record. I could not shake the honesty and authenticity of the performance. The quality of the recording did not matter to me. From this point on, I was a Springsteen fan, and I was able to hear the beauty in other recording artists who did not have good recordings. This jarring experience changed my perspective.

What Lesson Was Learned?

My revelation was not anything new. Rather, I learned why the general public behaved as it did. My hearing, or my hearing preferences, are not like the rest of the public. I hear complexities in sound that others do not. This is not a case of me being better than others. This is a case of me being different.

My mistake was in thinking the rest of the general public cared about sound the way I do. The reality is they do not. I am not suggesting they want bad sound. I am suggesting they want good enough sound, and their definition of “good enough” is far different from mine. Nebraska taught me to hear as the general public does. Springsteen's music was so visceral, the sound of the 4-track cassette master recording was good enough. The connection I had to Springsteen's performance made me appreciate the connection other people have to whatever music they like.

Please understand when I talk about the 4-track cassette master, I mean what Springsteen recorded his songs on. I do not mean the final copy that people would buy in cassette form even though they are physically the same thing.

Back in the analog recording days, each copy of an analog version was worse than the version it was copied from. This is called a “generation loss.” We tried to record on high end, expensive 24-track, 2 inch wide tape machines like the Studer A80 series. Then we would mix to a 1/2 master tape. This would get turned into master discs that would be used in pressing the final album or cassette. Each step was a generation loss in audio quality which is why we started with the best we could.

In addition to this, the general public preferred cassette tapes over albums. Sonically, cassettes were much worse than albums. The process of making the master tape loop is worse in audio quality than the master disc for album pressing. Then the cassettes are duplicated at high speed which is worse than recording them in real-time. What I am trying to say is anyone who bought a cassette instead of an album was getting about as poor final audio quality as we could manufacture. Yet buy cassettes they did.

Springsteen started with the worst medium (cassette) we could at the time, and then this cassette went through the rest of the manufacturing process described above. In Springsteen's defense, he thought he was just making demos.

What Does This Have to Do With Higher Education Today?

Some said Compact Discs could not replace the sonic experience of an album, and the small size of the CD jewel box would be too big of a disappointment when looking at the “album” cover. The general public had a different view.

Some said reading newspapers online or reading eBooks would not take off because the experience did not match the “real” experience of holding the newspaper or book in hand. The general public had a different view.

Some say “real” postsecondary education can only happen at a traditional college. What view does the general public have?

Learning occurs in many places that are not a college classroom. The challenge for individuals who learn in some other environment is showing the public what was learned.

As the public looks for alternative ways to achieve the “signal” that comes with a degree, those who continue to insist that higher education does not need a substantial, fundamental examination of everything that is the status quo would do well to listen to Nebraska, and learn what Springsteen taught me so many years ago.

3 Comments

  1. Tom Bacig said:

    You are absolutely right Bruce. What we get instead of thinking about what we might do to reduce costs by being more efficient, we hire more and more administrators to ask a diminishing number of workers to do more with less.

    November 8, 2013
  2. Jennifer Imsande said:

    Your post fascinates me because I’m currently reading the newest Springsteen biography. And while I’m not an expert in the technology that produces sound quality, I am a devoted student of the choices that artists, who transform and lead a culture, make. Springsteen was such a leader, and did it by making choices that, at the time, few understood. His right-hand-man, guitarist and vocalist Steve Van Zandt, complained that Springsteen would give away his best stuff–songs like “Fire,” and “Because the Night,” for example, which became hits for other artists–if those songs didn’t contribute to the narrative vision he had of the album, or of his longer-term vision of narrative, artistic mastery. That album you mention, Nebraska, also shows another aspect of Springsteen’s learning-learner mindset: At each stage of his career, he was willing to self-renew, to let go of an identity or process that might have worked brilliantly yesterday, but needed revising in order to meet to new visions. The poet Tony Hoagland observes that “the resources required to reconfigure a talent are quite distinct from the ones required to discover a first way of [doing]…To revise artistic direction requires not the lunging, half-ignorant zeal of the beginner, but a knowledgeable unmaking, a cold self-assessment and slow reconception.” Why aren’t artists (and, by extension, leaders) more willing to practice such an unmaking? The critic Helen Vendler, in her book, “The Breaking of Style,” says that the person putting off an old style “perpetuates an act of violence…on the self. It is not too much to say that the old body must be dematerialized if the poet is to assume a new one…The fears and regrets attending the act of permanent stylistic change can be understood by analogy with divorce, expatriation, and other such painful spiritual or imaginative departures.”

    November 19, 2013

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