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Sounding Off

Transparent Technology and the Composician

Transparent technology and the Composician: SOS reader Rowland Jones gets his chance to sound off.

So you write music?" asks your friend. "Yes, I've got a little studio upstairs," you reply, understating the fact that you have had to pawn everything to fulfill your technolust. After giving the glittering prizes a cursory glance your friend nods knowingly, as if discovering a fraud, adding: "So you don't actually write the music — the computer does it for you!" "No," you state patiently, "the computer stores the information and helps me to arrange it in certain..." "Yes, but..." the friend interrupts, rudely, well on the way to becoming an ex-friend.

Heard it before? For those of you who find these words all too familiar, I'd like to announce a new word - composician (noun): a writer of music who uses the technology available to convert musical ideas directly into performed pieces of music. That's what we do, isn't it? So why do we keep receiving these snide comments? I mean, nobody criticises a writer for using a word processor and nobody would question a classical composer who couldn't play the bassoon! So where does this leave software and other musical technology?

Surely one of the aims of technology is to make the performance of a given task easier? In the case of musical technology, compositional software has enabled the writer to move directly from embryonic ideas to performance of the completed work without the need for intermediate stages, such as transcription, or the involvement of other musicians. This has created a new role for the person who is both the writer and performer; the composician.

However, the software is merely an enabling mechanism, there as a means to an end. If at any time it becomes more important than that end, it has failed. This means that if the technology is to be most effective then it has to be musician friendly and help the creative process without hindering it; in other words, it should be transparent technology. With modern equipment, it is incredibly easy to take a nice bass line or chord sequence and turn it into a mega arrangement before you actually start to consider the piece/song as a whole. So is this necessarily the best way to go about writing music, since the process can become dependent upon the equipment?

Nearly a year ago I sounded off about technolust, the constant desire to acquire more new equipment and the constant feeling that everything will be wonderful - ie. that we will achieve fame and fortune once this new piece of kit arrives. Remember? Good. The alternative (and better) approach I proposed was to work with other musicians. Now if what I say in these columns is to be anything more than ego massaging, I really should put my money where my mouth is. So I have recently started writing/working with other people again - and it's great! I'd forgotten the buzz you can get from generating new ideas with another musician.

My co-writer is not a musician of the Eighties steeped in sequencers, synths, software, and samplers; however, Barry does have a good musical ear and writes a mean lyric. So the first stage was to establish what we wanted to do (easy, write songs), then work out how we would do it (not so easy!). It seemed logical that Barry should have a look at the technology at our disposal. At first bewildered by the hi-tech nature of the musical instruments, his next reaction was hysteria at the sort of things that you and I take for granted - piano sounds from a guitar synth, drums from a keyboard, etc.

After the laughter died down we came to a decision: knowing what was available, we decided to ignore it (well, most of it) and write well away from the temptations of instant arrangements. Working with a couple of guitars forced us to think about the music (which is, of course, the object of the exercise). The one hi-tech item we did use was my Casio PG380 guitar synth, which proved wonderful in this situation because we could try out a string pad or a sax line incredibly easily. But none of this was committed to sequencer or multitrack, the only other piece of technology being a cassette recorder with a built-in mic so that we could record and listen to the song structures. (We actually used a Dictaphone for a few sessions, but I don't recommend this route!)

So what is the point I'm trying to make? First of all, working with other musicians is fun. OK, but what about the technology? Well I'm not advocating a low-tech approach (I couldn't in the same breath as eulogising about a guitar synth, could I?), merely trying to demonstrate the benefit of transparent technology, the use of equipment that gives scope without getting in the way of making music. It may be your favourite keyboard (piano?) or a guitar, but whatever it is, try using that to write on and only when the piece has some shape and form, sequence or record it.

The other aspect to transparent technology is to do with the instruments themselves. Why do people often bemoan the lack of control on certain instruments? What's wrong with presets? We've all heard the story about 85% of Prophet 5 synths being returned to the factory with their presets untouched. Is that a genuine indictment of people's imagination, or is it more a testament to the fact that the Sequential designers had done their job properly? And why should this 'criticism' be aimed at musicians anyway? Designing a sound and writing/arranging music are two quite different skills. I would suggest that it should be horses for courses. For example, I have a Casio FZ1 - a great sampler with loads of facilities - but I have to admit that the way I tend to use it I would probably be better off with a Roland U20 sample playback keyboard - a unit that has received some criticism for the lack of sound manipulation control available. Let the sound designers design and the musicians make music!

The other aspect of our songwriting has absolutely nothing to do with technology; it's about an approach. Imagine you're sat playing your favourite instrument and you come up with a sequence of chords you quite like. What's the next stage? Do you develop it into a song/instrumental, or do you (like me!) switch on the hardware and convert it into a semi-complete masterpiece which is unlikely ever to be completed!? Guilty, eh?

To try and get over this problem, we've tried using some discipline. Barry and I both work in advertising, where we are regularly given 'briefs' to work to: "This film is aimed at so and so, and is intended to explain such and such." So we've tried approaching our songwriting the same way, by setting down and defining our aim: "Let's write a ballad that Mick Hucknall could sing."

"Hang on!" I hear you say, "that's a bit clinical and mercenary, isn't it?" Well it's a fair cop... it is - but I have to admit that taking this approach has produced some of the most satisfying material that I've been involved in. That's only my opinion, of course, but if Barry and I enjoy it then who else matters?

So as far as your approach is concerned, just think about what you are trying to achieve. Fame and fortune, or plain fun? Then try applying some discipline to your music. Hopefully you'll find, like us, that in fact you get a lot more out of it.

Another friend of mine has a sign on his desk, which reads: 'If it's not fun, career enhancing, or making money for you, why do it?' Well, in mine and Barry's case it is one out of three - and that's not a bad start!

Rowland Jones is joint owner of Pictures Words Music, a production company based in Manchester. He produces, directs, and writes scripts, music, and the occasional article for this magazine.

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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 - Mar 1990

Opinion by Rowland Jones

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