Whilst driving along in my clapped-out Cortina the other day, merrily listening to the chart rundown on BBC Radio 1 and wondering why Peter Gabriel hadn't yet made the top spot, I began to play the 'guess the drum machine/synth/sampler' game to keep the old grey-matter active.
Now I admit that my ears are fairly well atuned to the sounds of such things, but I was nevertheless struck by how easy it was to recognise the instrument technology being used on current records. Yamaha's DX7 was the main contender for the 'most easily recognisable keyboard' award - due primarily to the drastic lack of deviation from the factory preset sounds used by (presumably) session players.
The number two place was occupied by the equally ubiquitous Fairlight MkII, the cliched use of whose preset 'aaagh' vocal samples I found instantly recognisable. And that's ironic because I seem to recall reading a quote taken from Fairlight's early advertising blurb in Ray Hammond's excellent book 'The Musician & The Micro', which stated words to the effect that the Fairlight was a totally 'transparent' instrument with no characteristic 'sound' of its own. It became apparent that it wasn't purely the lazy and uninspired way that artists stuck rigidly to the supplied instrument sounds that made recognition an easy task, it had more to do with the limitations of the sound generating technology instruments employed that created their audio 'characteristics'. Take low-cost samplers as an example.
The fact that most samplers have constricted bandwidths and are limited to taking a (relatively) short duration sample, makes them less well-suited to legato styles of music. That, coupled with their obvious widespread appeal, goes some way to explaining why the backbone of most modern day songs are short, highly impactive, staccato melodies and rhythms created from sampled drums and sampled brass stabs etc.
It's the same reason why so-called 'electronic music' was considered very robotic in its infancy - early synthesizers could only generate acoustically simple sounds and synthesizer keyboards allowed no means for the player to add expression; they were merely convenient triggering devices switching notes on or off, so naturally they added a robotic element to the music.
But as the technology improved to provide the means, expression has been re-introduced to synthesizer players and the results are to be heard in the music they now produce - it's overwhelmingly more 'fluid' in nature than early Tangerine Dream, Faust et al.
The musical consequence of synthesizer development is analogous to the advances made from the harpsichord to the piano: new styles of music were composed specifically to incorporate and showcase the characteristic harpsichord sound (cf. early electronic music), whilst the piano's sound was less constricting and thus it found applications within many varied musical forms. The present generation of synthesizers are the same - they can be heard on such diverse genres as country music and gospel as well as hi-tech rock.
Samplers are following an identical trend: as sample memory expands on machines now hitting the market, the sampler moves away conceptually from being a gimmicky effects generator and into the realm of a 'recorder' of sounds. And that again has an effect on the music we find being produced on these machines.
Listening to the new Fairlight III at Syco recently, it was exactly the 'transparency' to the samples originally claimed by Fairlight for their first-generation machines that was so overwhelming. Soon there will be no attributable characteristic to any of these machines once the sample reproduction quality surpasses the resolution/bandwidth limitations of the human hearing system. Then it'll really be interesting to see how that affects the future music that's produced!
Finally, here's an open invitation to all those attending the forthcoming APRS 86 exhibition (Wednesday June 25th - Friday 27th) at Olympia 2, London. Sound On Sound have a stand at the show and staff will be there en masse, so please stop by and tell us what you think of the magazine and how it can be improved. If you're not attending, then you could always write...
Editorial by Ian Gilby
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