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Sounding Off

Out Of The Closet

Manufacturers, retailers and end users are locked into a culture that produces limited, unimaginative products, writes Pete Shelton.

Let's get one thing clear from the start. I am odd. A misfit. Weird too. There — I knew it would be easier if I told you.

I first realised there was a problem when, after many happy years with a trusty old synth, I paid a visit to a local music retailer to find out 'what was going on' in the music instrument market.

After a 'manager's special' tour of the latest hot gear, the crowning glory was to be a 16-part multi-timbral "knock 'em flat on their back" sampler and sequencer demo. The problem was that nothing happened.

The gear functioned perfectly: the sequencer took the sampler through a rip-roaring display of rock pyrotechnics. But nothing happened to me.

This was not supposed to happen, and manager and customer were equally dumbfounded. What do you do with a stone cold customer on a demonstration that was meant to leave them quivering at the knees and reaching for their plastic? And what kind of weirdo musician is this guy anyhow?

I knew immediately I must be odd. If this happened again I could kiss goodbye any chance getting my paws on all the glistening goodies on display. And so, in time, I have learned to feign amazement on cue, to utter inane superlatives in chorus. I have learned to behave the way the shops, the instruments, and the whole high-tech music band-wagon expects.

But deep inside a little nagging voice whispers "it shouldn't be like this". It's a nagging that isn't going to go away, so I may as well come clean. Neither my personal nor my professional work fits the rock stereotype. Yet both require access to musical technology. To put it bluntly, I find that little of the current technology is imaginative, and even less encourages any real innovation. Every time I come across yet another instrument with acres of RAM devoted to drum samples (just how many drum kits does anyone need?), or endless patch lists of popping, throbbing and bonking basses, my spirits dip.

Music software likewise travels well-trodden ruts, only rarely hinting at the incredible potential power of computer and synthesizer/sampler linked together.

Don't I realise that if there wasn't a mass market for these products the likes of me wouldn't be able to afford them? Yes I do, and I am grateful that the technology is within reach, but I'm still left with bass drum samples whose only use is to add a bit of discrete formant into an otherwise lyrical voice. Instead of four of these wouldn't my, and wouldn't your, voices sound better with sampled non-instrumental texture loops which could add real colour and individuality? Or could you cope with synthesis parameters that could put endless interpolation of any waveform under your direct control? Or definable templates that permit randomised filtering of selected bandwidths? It would need only the tiniest speck of imagination to include these on commercial synthesizers. Short of a true desktop composition system, the closest many people can get is good ol' digital.

Am I griping at the manufacturers? No. After all, look who they're selling to. The truth is a shade more sinister... (Timpani roll announces The Great Self-Congratulation Club)

Brothers and sisters, do not think of manufacturer and buyer at opposite ends of a long chain, with a multitude of intermediaries in between; think instead of a very tight, inward-leaning circle with ourselves, the manufacturers, retailers, advertisers and dealers making the circumference, each one sharing a precarious dependence on the others.

How do the retailers know what to sell us? Silly, they'll sell us what they've got, and what they've got does very nicely, thank you very much, for the bands they and their mates play in. The dealers will happily supply what the retailers can shift, and the advertiser will be only too happy to play the same drum pattern. In turn the music press will reflect the target audience of the advertisers (and even those journalists with credentials outside of 'the mainstream' tread with caution).

We and the manufacturers are both victims and participants in the same vicious circle. We have to want what they have to produce, otherwise the whole circle falls flat on its face.

Ah, but the market research shows that these are the products that people want. Sure, but have you ever tried to define, without preconceptions, what you need to do, and the instrument or software with which you need to do it. ("No, what you really need is...") or dared to declare an interest in anything other than the straight and narrow of rock ("have you thought of a Clavinova?")? Chances are that you will tell from the barely muted guffaws of them on t'other side of counter that you needn't bother wasting their time anyway.

We are entering the realms of self-fulfilling prophecy. Other than prostitution, music retail is the only profession that can tell you what you need before bothering to find out what you even want to do. It is done with such tremendous honesty and sincerity, too. The reason you can be told what you want is because there is only one thing you could possibly want. By seeking to buy some gear you are automatically enmeshed in a culture that envelops manufacturer, distributor, retailer and purchaser alike.

So you either put up, or shut up. Strangely enough, those that shut up can't be heard, and you don't have to listen to those that put up. And so, with perfect justification everyone can carry on believing that everyone else is happy. Disturb this cosy little arrangement at your peril.

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Software Support

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 - Sep 1991

Opinion by Pete Shelton

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