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Sing Out

If Led Zeppelin were active today, they'd be forgiven for recording 'The Songs All Remain The Same'. Tim Goodyer looks at technology and the singer.

HEARD ANY GOOD songs lately? It's hardly a new complaint but - quite apart from music that doesn't actually conform to the "song" format - good songs are pretty thin on the ground. As I say, it's not a new complaint, and songwriting hasn't got any easier since someone last made it, but I'd like to look at the issue from a slightly different perspective.

Let's take a look at the accepted case of the technology "victim" - that of the lone musician who has either embraced technology to make the sort of music you make with technology, or traded in all the logistical and personal problems of running a band for a room full of equipment. Technology allows this kind of musician to play at being many other kinds of musician (drummer, guitarist, even an orchestra), but there's one kind it's having a lot of trouble with: the singer. Maybe that lone musician can sing and technology simply offers the very best in being able to do everything without assistance or interference. Then again, maybe he, she or you can't.

In this case, your options are few. You might like simply to sing badly, you might seek a solution through the same technology that solved many of your other problems, or you might even tailor your music to evade the problem altogether. Taking these options in turn, bad singing is likely to achieve many things (from pissing off your family to pissing off the A&R man); none of them are particularly positive. Technology, meanwhile, offers us such possibilities as the vocoder (an instrument in its own right rather than a "replacement" for a singer) and Digitech's new voice processor, the Vocalist (which requires a reasonable singing ability to work well). Neither really represent a solution to the problem. The only remaining option is to avoid the issue by making instrumental music.

That's not such a bad thing, is it? Instrumental music encompasses achievements as diverse as Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Philip Glass' Koyaanisqatsi and The Orb's Adventures Beyond the Ultraworld. It's not so bad...

What you've actually lost along with your vocal, though, is the prospect of writing what is traditionally regarded as a "song", the sort of thing which has a catchy melody and a few good words - the sort of thing people sing in the shower. This, I'm afraid, is the bottom line. Technology has failed you; without a voice you're never going to be Al Jolson, Sting or anybody in between.

But that's not the end of the story. Talking about his instrumental jazz outfit Earthworks, Bill Bruford once told me that the most expressive instrument after the human voice was the saxophone. Ian Ballamy, therefore, was charged with "singing with his sax". On another occasion David Sylvian explained how he regarded his voice to be the weakest aspect of his musical ability. The "songs" on his solo album Brilliant Trees, he told me, served to entice his audience to listen to his instrumental work.

OK, you can't sing - neither can I. Without help from someone who can, our music is always going to lack the instant appeal of a lyric and the friendliness of a human voice. But we can still endow our music with "song appeal" if our melodies are particularly emotive and we choose our instrumental voices with ruthless humanity. If we could do this, nobody would notice when there weren't any good songs around, would they?

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Music Technology - Copyright: Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.


Music Technology - Nov 1991

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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