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Is there a Bob in your studio?

Stiletto Sound's very own Greg Truckell contemplates the changes brought about by music computers, and asks: ‘Is there a Bob in your studio?’

Is there a computer in your studio? If not, then I can only suppose that you must be on a very tight budget. Computers, and the Atari ST range in particular, have significantly changed almost everything that is expected of the modern recording studio, professional or otherwise. Many working musicians now spend their day in front of a QWERTY keyboard and monitor. Why?

The reason any machine finds its way into your studio is because it either lets you do something you couldn't do before, or it lets you do things better and more easily than before. The multitrack tape recorder entered the studio because it gave you more pairs of hands; the MIDI sequencer does the same - and it does a good few other things besides. Once you input some music into a computer-based MIDI sequencer, you open up a whole new world of possibilities...

Studios have grown full of people who don't do things. The things they don't do are the things other people used to do; now the computer does these things for them. A few examples include scorewriting, playing in time and in tune, and you know what a sequencer can do with a handful of drum samples. It makes sense to wonder whether a range of skills, and possibly even a few groups of professionals, have become redundant.

Give Bob a computer, some software, a few synths and samplers (and a reasonable bank manager), and let's see what he does...

Bob has a fair level of keyboard technique - he played piano for years. He never bothered with lessons though, and he can't really read music, although he can play pretty well by ear. Bob always fancied himself as a bit of a Jean-Michel, and now's his chance.

He usually starts with the basslines (there used to be more than one bass riff in a song before Acid House came along - but that's another story). So Bob bungs a disk in the sampler, and boots up his algorithmic sequencer: Ludwig, M, PVG, whatever. In go a few notes, and then the fun starts. With a can of beer in one hand and a mouse in the other, Bob takes some time to perfect the dynamics, the rhythm, and the articulation of his bass riffs. Sometimes he even changes the notes a bit - but his hands stay on the mouse and the beer can, and off the MIDI keyboard. Think about it for a while; supposing Bob is actually trying to emulate the performance of a contemporary bass guitarist, it is hardly surprising that he doesn't use the old black and whites. In the context of bass guitar style riffs, keyboard technique is irrelevant.

The same thing goes for the drums. It is very common practice to pull the kick drum ahead of the beat by a fraction, or to lay the hi-hats a little after the beat. These are the sorts of things a good drummer might do. With his computer, Bob can mix and match these tricks to his heart's content. Bob can flam his toms, push the kick and pull the hi-hats, and swap these tricks about from verse to chorus as he likes. In short, Bob can pull his drums into the sort of shapes that might pull your skin-basher completely apart.

When the argument gets to this stage, someone usually reminds Bob that it's more fun to work with other musicians. That's if they can get him out of his studio long enough, and if they can get a word in edgeways. Then Bob takes them round to his studio, and they get their hand on the mouse (and have a beer?). That's when they soon find themselves agreeing with Bob - the one-man MIDI studio really can be enormous fun.

"Bob always fancied himself as a bit of a Jean-Michel."

One day Bob heard a story about Frank Zappa writing chamber music on his Synclavier. Before you could say 'original instruments', Bob was rattling the parts out on his trusty dot matrix. Off he went to his old school music teacher, who was very impressed indeed with the quality of the manuscript. A lot better than a handwritten score or photocopy. But wait a minute Bob... when did you learn to read sheet music? You still can't? Remarkable. Give Bob a computer and he can communicate with 'real' musicians in their own language. There is no need to learn to read standard music notation.

A couple of months pass, and Bob goes along to hear the school chamber ensemble giving a recital of Opus Number 1, BWV 1040 (Bob's Well Versatile 1040). It was an interesting interpretation, but not quite how Bob had envisaged it. The cello was too clinical, and the second violin was supposed to run along just behind the first, and so on. So Bob takes a cassette along to let his old music teacher hear how it really should have been played. A heated debate ensues: Bob thinks that, since he can duplicate the performance exactly as he intended it, then 'real' musicians ought to be able to do just as well. Things turn nasty when Bob suggests that standard music notation is not the universal language it is cracked up to be, but his old teacher scores a point when he asks Bob how many musicians he knows of that can hum a tune from a list of MIDI data. Bob's only reply is to point out that, as far as keeping a precise record of a composition is concerned, a floppy disk full of sequencer data is infallible. Other musicians might not be able to play the parts, but other MIDI instruments certainly can. Compared with sequencer data, as a language for the storage of musical compositions, standard music notation is inadequate.

So what has happened to all the people and the skills that were made redundant the day Bob bought his computer? The way Bob looks at it, they're still there - in one way or another. Bob still has a fair bit of keyboard technique, and sometimes he even finds a use for it - the odd Rhodes part, the fake Minimoog soaring leadline, etc. Bob keeps all his keyboard hero parts on disk. The bassist, the drummer, the rhythm guitarist, and all Bob's mates who haven't been retrofitted with the five-pin DIN still make regular contributions to Bob's music (and Bob keeps the good ones in his sample library). Bob can still play by ear, and he still can't read sheet music - and he still likes it that way. The way Bob looks at things, if he's already broken the rules and exceeded the limits of the vocabulary of standard music notation, then why should he bother to learn the theory behind it? MIDI data and a modem, or a stamp and a floppy disk bag, already enable composers to collaborate at least as effectively as sheet music [see the 'Transcontinental MIDI Songwriting Shuffle' article in this issue - Ed.]. In the unlikely event that his old music teacher should send Bob a few pages of tadpoles, he can always type them into his scorewriter, then dump the data into his sequencer.

There's just one thing that still bothers Bob. Computers haven't made music worse, they've made it better and easier. So how come the charts are so dreadful? Computers and MIDI instruments have made the recording of music possible without having to win the pools. Computers can be fun, fascinating, fast, faultless, even fashionable. They can be a genuine source of inspiration, and anyone can use them. And if the groove works, and a pretty face can be found to fit the groove, chart success ensues. Don't blame the computer though; a computer really hasn't got any ideas of its own. A computer doesn't compose masterpieces any more than it produces the stuff that blocks the charts. It still takes something else to make the difference between music and magic - and that's where Bob comes in. Is there a Bob in your studio?

Greg Truckell is owner of Dumfries-based Stiletto Sound Systems, a musician, and synth programmer. He also quite likes computers.

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Sound On Sound - Copyright: SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


Sound On Sound - May 1989

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


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Opinion by Greg Truckell

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