Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Changing Sound of Now

My recently published podcast, Electronic Oddities 38, was different to my usual podcasts in that it set out to demonstrate something. It set out to show how the sound of music changes over time, how new things become possible or in vogue musically which replace the old ones. Of course, in such a relatively short podcast of around two hours maximum it is not possible to give multiple examples or work out a fully comprehensive theory full of explained examples. One can only give a flavour of the idea. However, judging by the responses so far it seems that my basic point, in the rudimentary form I gave it, has been accepted.

The podcast journeys from The Who's 1971 track "Baba O'Riley", which features Pete Townshend's use of the Arp 2600, through various 1970s uses of electric organs and synthesizers from Pink Floyd's "On The Run" to the full 22 minute version of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn", Jean-Michel Jarre's airy analog in Oxygene 4 and David Bowie's krautrock homage, "Warszawa", into the 1980s where synthpop, formerly a sound never yet heard in popular music, took over in a hundred groups here represented by The Human League, Duran Duran, Scritti Politti and The Pet Shop Boys. Towards the end of the decade the influence of Hip Hop culture is hinted at in the tracks "I Need Love" by LL Cool J and "Buffalo Stance" by Neneh Cherry.

But its not just musical styles that are referred to here. Instrumentation here also plays a vital part of the story. This goes right from the first track with Townshend's use of the Arp, into the EMS Synthi used to perform the vital repeating arpeggio from "On The Run", through the specific sets ups of Kraftwerk and Jarre at the time and into the 1980s. The Human League track "Do Or Die" from their smash hit album "Dare" is notable for being the first record from the UK made with the new (at the time) Linndrum from Roger Linn and the producer of that record, the now sadly deceased British producer, Martin Rushent, had only a few days in which to learn how to program and make use of the machine before recording. The record wouldn't sound remotely the same without it. The same can be said of other 80s tracks I used. Duran Duran's "Save A Prayer" uses a Jupiter 8 sound for its opening riff, LL Cool J's whole song is a TR-808 and a Yamaha DX7. Enya's "Orinoco Flow" is the sound of a Roland D50 preset. Put simply, some songs here couldn't have sounded as they did before the things used to make them were invented.

Unfortunately, space precluded my podcast going beyond 1989 at the current time but some have already asked me about continuing the musical story into the 1990s and beyond. The story I had already told was one of a rock instrumentation, the set up of the first few songs I played from The Who, Deep Purple and Pink Floyd, becoming infected with electronics until, in fits and starts, a more purely electronic one becomes possible. It would be inauthentic and wooden to describe this as true across the board but acts like Kraftwerk or Jarre, which were pure electronic setups, led the way for others to follow suit and to consider electronics as their new band. Such people made acts like The Pet Shop Boys possible. The technology of the 1980s, paradigmatically represented by the DX7 and TR-808 of LL Cool J's "I Need Love", made music like his and that of a thousand empty synthpop songs possible. A new way to sound gave birth to a rebirth of the pop song of the 1960s. Back then it had been the sound of three minutes of guitars as songs were based in rock n roll. But in the 1980s this was re-invented with synths as synthpop, a totally different sonic palette. 

So if I am saying it was instruments that gave birth and rebirth to new sounding music what happened after the end of my story, after 1989? Well it seems to me that were I to continue telling the story we would move into the digital 90s when numerous new forms of dance music were tried and invented from Rave to Drum N Bass and Jungle. And let's not forget Trip Hop either. Already on the cusp of the 90s there had been a surge in Acid House based on a 1982 invention of Roland's called the TB-303. The sound of this synth, still heard today and either loved or loathed in equal measure, was the new toy to play with and it took a few years for urban beat makers to decide what to do with it. They decided to use it as the centerpiece of a track rather than as its understated bass support. Instruments such as these, which were relatively cheap and accessible not just to professional musicians but also kids in the street, started what would become a democratizing movement in music creation which led directly to the free for all that we see today.

But back to the 90s which I remember as a bit of a digital wasteground. Synthesizer purists today often disdain the 90s as the fashion in synths became for so-called digital romplers, synths with the heart and soul and heft of a warm analog sound removed from them. Often the music of this time can sound fake and cheesy whether that be the wave of New Jack Swing that rolled over us from America or, to my British ears, the urban forms of music which were using digital tools such as the mega-selling Korg M1. Its piano sound would become ubiquitous and annoying throughout the 90s. But there was also a backlash in popular music and a resurgence in guitar bands through the mid 90s as acts like Oasis and Blur rose to fame, the supposed antidote to tracks like the very digital sounding "Rhythm of The Night" by Corona. The problem with digital synths, and this is not just true of the 90s but they are a good example, is that they are too perfect, too accurate, too mathematical. Analog synths contain variation right down at the basic level of the waveform. Digital synths don't. Its a subtle difference but its there. And that changes what you hear.

There is an actor missing from our story so far and this is partly because it was not a feature of music or music-making that I was familiar with. This is the computer. While some had been using rudimentary computers since the 1980s (such as the Commodore 64 or the program Sound Designer, issued in 1984 and which would, in the end, become Pro Tools) many had not. I was one of the ones who had not but as we went into the 21st century everything would change. By the year 2000 Ableton Live and Propellerheads Reason software had been invented and issued for the first time. Software synthesizer plugins  and DAWs had been developed throughout the 90s and by 2000 we had Reaktor from Native Instruments, first issued in 1996 as Generator, which was an environment for creating your own software instruments and sound processing devices. 

Such tools (as well as earlier versions of what would become the Cubase and Logic Pro of today, invented in the late 80s and early 90s respectively) would fundamentally change how music sounded because they moved the focus of writing to a computer sequencer. Whereas before even musicians using synthesizers had still been players making a song according to sound and feel now they began increasingly to make it according to the computer timeline or, a new phenomenon, to simply be computer users who wanted to make music. I can play you a thousand songs from between 2000-2010 that are locked to the grid, as people call it. The influence of softwares like Live, and DAWs in general, not only allowed musical expression but also shaped it as well. They came not as neutral, uninterested parties but with their own inherent philosophies which were inscribed in what they would and would not let you do as well as in how they let you do it. When you have a grid to work to you work to it. You begin to count samples when what you are making your music with is basically just a fancy counting machine. And that's exactly what a computer is.

You might dispute my last claim but I would argue that people, even musicians, are often easily led and so people, even musicians, are much more likely to do the things that are easy to do rather than taking the effort of doing something that takes more imagination or effort or works against the grain of their tools. People are trainable and habitual and they can be molded by their environments. Plus we have to remember that with each new technology it does take some time for these things to mature and so the first uses of these things are unlikely to be the most innovative or the most striking. The first decade of the 21st century, the first proper, fully-fledged software decade, is full of very neat, precise, in the box music that feels somewhat inert, neutered, coiffured and its because now producers work to that grid on the screen. They worry about drawing neat curves in their softwares and how it looks on the screen. This is a fundamental change. Everything lines up and becomes symmetrical. Take a listen to the numerous popular tracks by Timbaland from this period for a perfect definition of this "in the box" electronic sound.

There is another podcast I did in the Electronic Oddities series and it was back in Episode 9. I called it "The Invention of Electronic Dance Music" and it was meant to be similarly educational as my most recent edition of the show was. It aimed to take dance music from the 1980s, the first genuinely made purely with modern electronic devices, but still with an old time player's sensibility and with no computers in sight, and to contrast its SOUND with the dance music we know from today. I challenge anyone to argue that that old stuff is not fuller, fresher, rawer, more alive and with more depth and soul than its modern, computerized counterparts. You can hear it in the beat AND in the sounds. The overall sonic effect is something much more engaging and effective in my ears. The trouble is it gets lost over time. People's ears get used to the new normal. They think things were always like this (or maybe they never knew anything else?). But it wasn't. As these two podcasts of mine show, when you compare and contrast you hear sonic change. To know where you are sonically, you need to know where we've been and where we came from. It puts where you are now in a necessary sonic perspective.

The Roland Jupiter 8, first issued in 1981.

And now we are in 2017. Since about 2010 or 2011 the tools have begun to change again and now electronic music makers have gone in several directions. Software still retains its fans (and DAWs retain their place as the go to recording device). Electronic avant-gardists Autechre, to the chagrin of some, have eschewed all hardware devices in favour of a software environment (Max/MSP) in which they can design unique and individual setups for themselves. They make a music with it that sounds like no other so maybe we can praise their determination and singularity of purpose. They have not been lazy users of software, content to go where it leads by default, but they have used it to further their own unique ideas. On the other hand, we have seen a resurgence of hardware and even of analog devices. Many manufacturers have jumped on this train and a new generation of kids have a multitude of relatively cheap devices to fiddle with. There is also a more expensive version of this based around modular synthesis, a thing which in many ways started the modern period of electronics itself in the mid to late sixties in the pioneering work of Moog and Buchla. Re-imagined in the mid 90s by Dieter Doepfer to a different standard as Eurorack, this form of doing synthesis has come from left field to emerge as a definitive scene within electronic music as a whole. It has led to many modern devices having CV and Gate ports added to their spec. This would never have happened in the 90s!

But there is a further thing to note about today and I leave you with this thought. This is that music is now ubiquitous itself. It is no longer confined to physical products one had to buy, borrow or steal that was made by professional musicians in expensive recording studios. More music is put online in one day than you could probably listen to in your whole life. We are literally drowning in the stuff and much of it is terrible. Much of it is sonic doodling, the effluvia of bored people. Music, aided by the technology which made it possible for anyone to make it by moving their finger across the glass screen of their mobile device on some app, is now everywhere. In many respects it has become worthless. Is it now also pointless too, now that anyone can do it and the most carefully produced piece of music is side by side with thumb jams and sonic afterthought, my latest noodle? Technology made it so anyone could make sounds, join them together and call it creative. But what happened to the ideas? Is music more than sounds?

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