Friday, June 12, 2009

Modern Music Making Tools = Increased Suckage Factor?

I was just listening to the latest Electronic Musician podcast which contained an interview with Joe Chiccarelli - Producer / Engineer who's worked with The Shins, U2, My Morning Jacket, Tori Amos, Beck...

Mike Levine asked what his opinion was of the impact of recording technologies available out there now for everyone have on recordings these days. He had some interesting comments that got me thinking one in particular was him lamenting that although there is a larger volume of artists out there getting attention, he felt that the quality of music coming out these days has gone down - both from the songwriting/structure and the overall sound standpoints.

Got me wondering if I agree or disagree.

In the end, I think I have to be on both sides of the fence.

One the one hand, I absolutely love the tools that are out there now. There's a ton of flexibility, and ease to which you can work on music projects and produce things in a bedroom at relatively low cost.
There are a lot of great artists getting heard with the low barriers now. There are also a lot of folks who are not necessarily musicians being able to create music now.

A lot of barriers are getting broken down and there is a TON of diversity out there - which I find great!

On the flip-side, the low barriers also does produce its share of ... kr@p too. Joe lamented that now-a-days there is a lot of mixes coming out that try to emulate what FM Radio sounds like - getting back to the loudness wars debate - where everything seems to have no dynamic range whatsoever. Charles Dye and company have been outspoken proponents of bringing dynamics back to music.

I also thought - well, what about the actual music itself? What's going on there to facilitate the "suckage factor" these days.

With all these tools out available to pros, semi-pros and amateurs alike, a lot of variations on representing music - whether it be performance information in the form of MIDI or recorded information in the form of digital audio waveforms - conforms to a grid-like paradigm.

You start a new project in Logic, Sonar, Garageband, CuBase etc. and you're presented with grids - time, measures, beats etc. along the top and your tracks along the left-hand side. Usually, you're not proficient in all the instruments you'd like to add to your creation, so you have synthesizers and samplers, but if you're not a keyboardist either, then you have LOOPS!

Loops have become a staple in a LOT of music you hear these days and they're usually found increments of one, two, four, eight... bars. You drop these into your creation and bada-bing, you're ready to move on to the next part.

All this grid / pattern stuff, at least to me, seems to promote a "laziness" on the part of the artist sitting behind the screen. There's a system ... a formula if you will ... that home recordists, semi-pro and even pros succumb to in constructing their creations.

Listen to a top-40 station and try and find something that contains something that deviates from a formulaic 4 or 8 bar phrase. It's pretty hard.

I guess, what I took away from this personal brain fart was that I need to try and step away from the tools and create music with ears - come up with things that don't easily fit into the formulas - shake it up a bit. Folks worked like this 10-20 years ago and there was some GREAT stuff.

Don't get me wrong, next to Catherine and the kids, music technology rocks. I just think the next project I create, maybe I'll start away from the things that require power and have those shiny, flashing lights...

6 comments:

Big Al Wagner said...

Hey there ChickDude!

Big Al Wagner from PSN here. I'm one of the "company" in "Charles Dye and company" behind http://TurnMeUp.org. :)

I must say that I totally agree with your musings here.

The proliferation of easy-access music tech makes it possible for thousands of new people to create music that never had the option before.

That means we'll hear *some* really good new stuff, and LOT of really kr@ppy stuff. :) The ratio is always weighted to the the kr@p side. Just the law of averages I suppose.

So, these days (and in the foreseeable future) we have to do a LOT more sifting it seems. Honestly, I'm just not feeling up to the task. Although, services like Internet Radio and Pandora really help me a lot.

Derek said...

Two other things:

1. Computer-based music recording lets people construct tunes without composing, i.e. without figuring out anything in advance. I know I'm guilty of that. It means that it becomes a process of construction rather than of composition. Some great and interesting music can come about that way, but it also prompts further laziness -- just sit down and build a song, rather than trying to write one.

2. How often now do we get a bunch of musicians in a room and into a groove? No matter how much "swing" you add to MIDI quantization, it's not going to sound like that, and music with bands even laying down a rhythm track live in the studio is pretty rare these days, at least in pop, R&B, hip-hop, and rock. Those jazz cats still do it, as do others, but you don't hear much of it.

Big Al Wagner said...

"It means that it becomes a process of construction rather than of composition."

Man, I think that is dead on Derek. Best I've heard it phrased I think.

chckn8r said...

Very, VERY true Derek.

This also got snagged on my profile on Facebook and there's been some good discussion there.

I think when I come full circle on this, it comes down to, yes, the tools we have simplify things and also give those who may not be proficient at instruments a chance to hear the muse that's playing in their head.

The caveat is that some people choose to grow and expand from the simplicity - drawing upon other more complex tools in the package to help them create (or take on creating without the tools) more complex and less formulaic projects. However, there are also some others who are "lazy" or complacent and don't seem to venture out beyond what they're comfortable with - doing the same thing, over and over...

Cool discussions...

chckn8r said...

So, these days (and in the foreseeable future) we have to do a LOT more sifting it seems. Honestly, I'm just not feeling up to the task. Although, services like Internet Radio and Pandora really help me a lot.

Sigh - yup, I agree, the signal to noise ratio is really getting bad, those services definitely help out - I've pretty well abandoned terrestrial radio these days unless there's some STOOPID reason I haven't brought my iPod to the car...

David Criddle said...

Great comments Dave and Co! I had several experiences in the past two weeks which mesh with these comments.

Radio - We have a local station WNKU that still plays some great stuff along the Wilco/Neko Case vein. I turned that station on the other day and it was really refreshing. They played some Nick Lowe, some blues, all very organic stuff. Real music played by real players. Radio has really gone down a bad path. I wish there were more stations like WNKU these days. That was a magical drive in my car I had the other day listening to those tunes. Reminded me of how good radio could be 20 years ago.

Jazz - My jazz band did a little live recording a few years ago and I just played it last week. Just four guys playing down tunes in a room. The simplicity and musicality of people reacting to each other was also very refreshing.

Solo - However, I have written a LOT of music lately because I can do it all solo at home in the wee hours of the night. Being able to piece things together myself has been huge for me. I am writing a lot more music these days because of loops and cutting and pasting saves me a lot of valuable time. That is one bonus of this situation. Ideally, once I have fleshed out a tune in my DAW it would be very nice to go back and record it again more organically with real musicians.

Very thought provoking comments guys!

Dave