This month, I'm going for a slightly different feel in Amiga Notes. Instead of talking about the computers we use and the software we run on them, let's take a step back and reflect on what we really do with all the stuff I talk about each month...
Modern music has been revolutionised by the computer and sequencer combination, but as ever, there's a price to pay for the added convenience. All too often, roles are reversed between man and machine, as the human element mutates into the automaton. As the sequencing carrot of cut and paste dangles ever more invitingly before the eyes of the beginner, the creative spirit slowly ebbs away.
By default, machines — no matter how complex — always lean towards uniformity. However, this adhesion to rules and formal structure isn't only restricted to computers, it can also happen to humans all too easily, a prime example being many classically trained musicians; although technically spectacular in their implementation, the creative flame is often extinguished by the musical structure ingrained during the learning process.
After many years as part of the Transit van set, playing in dives and rehearsing in countless scout huts, church halls and assorted back bedrooms amongst a mixture of the classically trained and the self taught, this insistence on structure soon becomes blindingly obvious during the end-of-session jam. Invariably in the starring role during rehearsed material, the classical elements usually sink into the background during the free form of a jam. The question is, why should the best musicians in the room pale so badly in such circumstances? The answer is simple: rigid musical thought always looks for the correct way to progress rather than the often inspired route chosen by the blissfully ignorant members of the 'suck it and see' fraternity.
Whilst emotion and guesswork drives the self-taught from one chord progression to the next, the classically trained are busy looking for the right notes, rather than the inspired — the end result being that the classical types are usually happier playing the works of a composer rather than writing their own material. A quick glance at the popular — and not so popular — charts testifies to that.
A similar problem afflicts a lot of computer-generated music, as uniformity and adhesion to a format means that the inspired and accidental is often absorbed by the constriction of the cut and paste. As a result, the battle against blandness has to be fought every time you turn on the machine. In my humble opinion music, is, and always should be, an art form, an area in which the challenge is to convey the emotions of the moment and the inspiration arising from them. This is where the real battle between man and machine takes place. No matter how clever software becomes, machines will never feel the emotions that make good music great. It's true that hours and sometimes days can be saved by sequencing, but in order to create something other than lift music you must remain the master and not simply the slave.
OK, after insulting almost everyone who's ever played an instrument, it's time for Austin's patented guide to popular music.
The first job is to throw away any preconceptions that the machine will in some way write the music for you. As a result, before even touching the record button, it's wise to have a firm — or at least firmish — idea of how the piece will appear in its final form. At this point, yet another technological fantasy can hit the bricks, namely the paperless environment. A decent biro is just as important as the rest of your setup, and during the planning stage it's vital. Assuming you're now armed with pen and paper, it's time to turn on your synth, select your favourite voice and start work on the hook or key melody. Now, before an increasingly itchy finger reaches for the record button, write down the key notes or chords and start looking for a link to the next section, whether it be a verse, chorus, middle eight, intro, outro or anything else which tickles your ivories.
It's very important that the various elements flow together prior to recording individual sections. If you simply charge headlong into a piece, creating finished individual sections before contemplating what will follow, the end results will suffer, as compromise slowly creeps in when you attempt to join two basically incompatible elements together.
Once all the basics are in place, you can finally begin the recording process — although, if you're wrestling with the eternal question "is this a classic or just a load of cobblers", a top tip is to have an early night and return refreshed in the morning. If, in the cold light of day, you can't remember a single note, I'm afraid your worst suspicions are probably correct and your would-be masterpiece is indeed complete dross!
Assuming that you've remembered every note, the construction process can begin. There are basically two routes available. You can first select the required instruments and work on the piece section by section and then assemble the finished product. This is probably the fastest way to work, but again it doesn't lend itself to accidental inspiration very easily. The second option is to build the entire piece using the basic key notes as a guide, with perhaps a metronome as an additional guide. If possible, avoid designing the drum track until the major chords, bass lines and accompaniment are in place. This isn't because drums are any less important than the rest of the production, in fact quite the reverse. If there's one element of sequencer-generated music that suffers from 'cut and paste' more than any other, it's the drum track. Due to the uniform nature of drums and percussion, they're the first to fall foul of blanditis. As a result, if they're left until later in the production, the accompanying music isn't forced to pander to an invariably monotonous cut and paste drum special. Equally important is that adding the drums and percussion later means that you're forced to think more along the lines of a real drummer and attempt to tailor the drums to the track, rather than the reverse.
Well, alas, that's all that space will allow, so I'm afraid I'll have to curtail this particular rant for the time being. Until next month, bye for now...
Feature by Paul Austin
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