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Getting Better?

Paul White's Leader

As you'd expect, one of the main reasons why musicians and engineers read Sound On Sound is to help them get better at what they do in the studio. We are fortunate enough to have close links with a lot of key people in the industry, who we talk to and share knowledge with; so using Sound On Sound as a source of high-quality information makes perfect sense. But for the musician engineer, what can they do to improve the music itself?

I recall having a friendly argument with a colleague in the early '80s when MIDI was just catching on in the recording world, my position being that if you could sequence and edit everything, your playing skills could easily suffer as a result. In my own case this prediction was pretty near the mark. In fact, I only managed to regain some semblance of my earlier playing abilities when I started once again to do live gigs on a regular basis, as this made me practice both on my own and with other musicians. There's a huge difference between playing a song all the way through in front of a live audience and building it up a few bars at a time on a computer.

Though some forms of music clearly can be masterfully created on a computer without ever touching a 'real' instrument, a lot of the material that has stood the test of time is centered around performance. So, if you make most of your music in your home studio, get together with your mates and arrange to play. Even if it's only the open-mic night at the local pub, it will improve your feel for playing and sense of timing, whatever your instrument. It will also remind you what audiences respond to; knowledge that's valuable in the world of commercial composition.

On the same tack, there's a common misconception that hi-tech recording gear is bought mainly by keyboard players. I dispute this, because although I know dozens of home studio owners in my local area, only one or two of them could play keyboards live and get away with it. The rest, like me, take the 'praying mantis' approach to keyboard playing, and tidy up the mess on the computer after a run-through. Most of the studio owners I know personally, and the majority of those I visit on our Studio SOS outings, have guitars hanging on the wall, and while you can bluff a MIDI keyboard part with two fingers, the same can't be said of the guitar.

The reality seems to be that the majority of musicians involved in recording are primarily guitarists, but because MIDI is a system best suited to keyboard control, those needing to record have had to learn some keyboard skills to make effective use of it. In the early days of sequencing, there was only MIDI, so you couldn't record guitar, drum and vocal tracks as you can today. If you disagree and think the recording world is in fact dominated by keyboard players, just try putting an ad in your local paper for a keyboard player and see how few respond! Even our own most recent reader survey shows that around 60 percent of the Sound On Sound readership consider the guitar to be their main instrument — but if you look in their studios you'll also find a MIDI-equipped keyboard of some kind, as that's still the most effective way to 'talk' MIDI.

Although we now have audio recording and processing on just about every sequencer available, a great many musicians have grown up with MIDI, and have become reliant on the safety net that the edit page and quantise button provide, which not only leads to musical laziness but also tends to dictate the type of music that can be composed on a computer, by offering a seductive path of least resistance. Again, the simple solution to breaking away from these constraints is to get out and play. After all, isn't that why you got into music in the first place? 

Paul White
Editor In Chief

Published November 2006