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A Return To Reality?

Paul White's Leader
Published January 2007
By Paul White

Music is a bit like ecology: make a change in one place and other things happen where you least expect them. It's a kind of musical 'butterfly effect'. The music we make affects the design of the instruments we use to create and record it, but the equipment we have at our disposal also influences the music we make. For example, when the first amplified guitars came on the scene, the amplifiers themselves were quite small, compared with what we use today, so it wasn't long before somebody ran one into distortion by playing too loudly, and forged the rock/blues guitar sound that became part of our musical heritage.

In the early 1980s we were introduced to MIDI, a technology that was to have a huge effect on contemporary music; but it was not all for the better. While it allowed us tuning and timing precision in all our compositions, the way sequencing was structured around a metronomic click-track and the all-too-convenient quantise button paved the way for a new type of music, where much human feel was excluded, and where drummers were denied work if they couldn't play to a click-track! A strange state of affairs when a good drummer's stock in trade is the ability to provide the groove and feel for a track, making small tempo changes where necessary. Asking a drummer to become subservient to a metronome is almost as odd as asking Nigel Kennedy to use Auto-Tune on his violin!

But that's the way it went and music entered a period dominated by heavily quantised dance music, with pasteurised spin-offs from this new genre finding their way into chart music. While composers at the leading edge were doing some truly innovative things with synths, processing and sampling, the influences on mainstream music meant that, in many cases, we unfortunately got the machine-like monotony without much in the way of artistic creativity.

However, in recent years it's undeniable that 'live' bands have increasingly returned to centre stage, and what a refreshing change it is. Guitar sales are at an all-time high and here at Sound On Sound we're starting to see more interest in how real instruments are recorded using microphones. Of course, you can't un-invent technology, and it's nice to see modern technologies working beside more traditional ones as part of our creative palette, rather than trying to be the whole palette, the paintbrush and the easel.

We're also seeing a number of software companies trying to bridge the gap between the traditional guitarist and their music software, which can only be a good thing, as there are more guitar players out there than there are keyboard players. Personally I'd like to see the mainstream Digital Audio Workstations do more for guitar players, not least in designing a realistic software-based guitar synth, and providing specific tools for editing MIDI guitar tracks.

Nevertheless, I do feel that our flirtation with MIDI and sequencing has finally got past the honeymoon period, and the generation of musicians and engineers who hardly ever plugged a microphone into a preamp are finally starting to realise what recording is all about. What interests me is how manufacturers will respond in designing new equipment and working paradigms to support this musical return to reality. 

Paul White Editor In Chief

Published January 2007