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ROGER DERRY: MIDI's Impact On Quality Of Music

Sounding Off
Published March 2001

ROGER DERRY: MIDI's Impact On Quality Of Music

There are still those who lament the fact that MIDI and music technology have made it possible for anyone to produce music, with a potential impact on overall quality — but Roger Derry isn't one of them...

For the last four years, I have been teaching Music Technology and Sound Recording evening classes at the City of Bristol College, and have been fascinated by the range of people who come to these classes and how they've changed over time. Each year I teach more information than the year before — perhaps because, as each year passes, the average student has been born later into the technological era.

Technology is wonderful, but its downside is that it devalues the traditional craftsman's skills. Machines turn what was once difficult and expensive to create into something that can be mass‑produced cheaply. We're used to the idea that this affects crafts such as woodworking. Now we're having to come to terms with it happening to music. Some are saddened by their feeling that technology is taking the soul and musicianship out of music — but there is a positive side to innovation.

My background is that of a broadcast technician. I had been razor‑blade editing, a skill that takes a long time to develop, for 25 years, when things changed and computers became the way to edit. Suddenly I found that my hard‑earned hand‑eye‑ear co‑ordination abilities were redundant. As it happens, I took to editing visually on a computer like the proverbial duck to water, but first I had to overcome my emotional resentment at what seemed to be a 'de‑skilling' of the task. (I so overcame the resentment that I wrote a book on the subject!) The compensation is that I can now produce more sophisticated results than used to be possible in a large studio with three sound operators. The technology gives me powers I would have killed for in the '70s and '80s.

In the '60s, even trainee BBC Radio technicians had to have such basics as the concept of spooling on a tape recorder explained to them. Of course, this was before the era of the ubiquitous compact cassette machine, when the possession of a tape machine, at home, that would record audio (let alone video) was rare. Today such things are taken for granted. Each year, evening class students can absorb and comprehend even more information. Some are competent musicians, yet even those who can't play a tune on a keyboard create workmanlike compositions within a few lessons — because music is just another form of literacy.

Literacy itself was once the preserve of scribes, as publishing was the preserve of typesetters and printers. When word‑processing became available for the masses there was much hand‑wringing about the resulting decline in the standard of layout, with the lack of the little felicities that printers had built up over centuries. Yet that same technology has democratised publishing. We are all able to promote our points of view, which are taken much more seriously when spell‑checked and printed properly than when scrawled in Biro on lined paper.

So it is with MIDI and its associated technologies. Music has been the major form of artistic communication of the last 50 years and, thanks to the development of music technology, even if we can't all be musicians with a capital 'M', we can all make music.

You may ask whether there is any point in being a 'real' musician these days. Of course there is. In my previous 'life' as a sound operator, it was common knowledge that less technical operators were able to do anything that someone had done before, but if you were good you could innovate. So it is with music. I tell my students the four stages of learning:

1. You know nothing; you are learning.

2. You are competent; you know the rules. You can do what you have been shown how to do.

3. You are good; you know when to break the rules.

4. You are great; you change the rules. (This comes to only a few!)

MIDI allows people on to the training slopes of music. Many will be happy to stay there, but technology now makes a progression through to greatness available to anyone.

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge, CB3 8SQ. Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address.


About The Author

Roger Derry began his career, nearly 25 years ago, with the BBC, working as a Technical Operator in their London central control room. He moved on to become a specialist quarter‑inch tape editor and then a studio manager. Training others has been a constant theme in his career. Now a freelance audio and broadcast consultant, he has recently published a book on PC audio technology (PC Audio Editing, Focal Press).