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Sounding Off: Who's In Charge, The Studio Gear Or The Musician?

Mike Senior By Mike Senior
Published February 2000

Mike Senior wonders to what extent our creative decisions are really free — and how much they're dictated by the studio gear we know and trust.

You're in your studio swivel‑chair. You're in control. Your massed ranks of music‑making machines blink their LEDs meekly at you, awaiting your command, waiting for you to impart your new music to the world, passively and impartially defending the purity of your vision so that your music can remain yours and yours only.

MIKE SENIOR: Who's In Charge, The Studio Gear Or The Musician?Cosy, isn't it? A neat little process: from you, through them, to us. But is your gear really as transparent to your process of creation as you might like to think? Naturally, you've carefully specified your studio to reflect your creative needs — it has all the sounds you want, all the facilities and processing power you need — but just because the possibilities are almost limitless, it doesn't mean that your equipment has no limiting influence on your creativity. However feature‑packed any gear is, it always has its own way of viewing the world, subtly undermining the freedom of the way you work and leaving its own signature on your music. In short, your mixer, processors, computer and DAT machine all want to do things their way, but they're just downright sneaky about it.

It's not that you can't, for example, use the editing on your digital multitrack to create incredibly subtle rhythm tracks and collages, or to painstakingly correct a few duff bars to retain the majority of a drummer's performance. But it would prefer you just to repeat a limited number of patterns — easier to implement, easier to store, easier to play back — and therefore you have a convenient and instantly accessible copy function, tempting you to fall for the easy mediocrity of the ad nauseam loop. It's not that everyone does, but that's not the point: the software invites you to look at things its way and, one way or another, most people succumb. "Just press that loop button... think how easy it will all become... finished tracks in seconds... you are feeling drowsy... falling completely under my control..."

Moreover, this lazy use of technology has become a stylistic feature of many current musical genres. The listening public has got so used to the static 'groove' of the repeating loop that it now expects not to be disturbed by the dynamics of real rhythm performance. It is strangely ironic that many people initially relied on loops because they couldn't afford the equipment to record real drums, whereas now even real drums on the most expensive productions are looped because the besuited have become so used to static repetition. Wouldn't want to disturb their beauty sleep, would we?

Likewise, gone are the times when sequencing music in irregular and changing meters was a labour of love, but the legacy of knee‑jerk 4/4 is still disproportionately strong today. It's not enough to say that this reflects something inherent to humanity, because a quick glance at music in other centuries (waltzes and minuets, for example) and in other cultures (Indonesian polymetres, anyone?) refutes this.

And if you think that this issue is only restricted to the realm of rhythm, then wake up and smell the instant decaff! How about the host of new automatic pitch‑correction devices now on the market? Once again, I have no problem with people using tools such as Auto‑Tune, but the sound of its indiscriminate use has become almost a necessary stylistic feature of the modern pop and R&B sound. The people with the money are beginning to equate the 'professional sound' with the unnaturally rigid vocal pitching of universally applied pitch‑correction. The voice, which used to be one of the few elements of a song to escape the complete tyranny of MIDI's computer‑friendly discrete pitch and equal‑temperament, has also fallen foul of the digital outlook.

It's not a case of whether I like the results of these trends or not — I like a lot of the music that uses the above techniques — but rather that they seem to have been the result of laziness in the face of biased or limited technology, and that modern composers are now becoming brainwashed to create within the bounds of this laziness. Any original musical intent increasingly gets filtered through what our technology can most easily achieve: the square peg gets shoved through the round hole just because it's closest, and splinters fly, never to be retrieved.

And this trend seems only to be gaining momentum as we go on being moulded into what our hardware and software designers would prefer us to be, for the sake of their convenience. So perhaps it's time more of us at our MIDI keyboards started asking ourselves: just who's playing who?