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The Final Frontier?

Article from Music Technology, April 1989

Once threatened by widdly widdly guitarists and over-enthusiastic drummers, space in music is again under threat - but this time the aggressor is high technology.

IF I WERE to tell you that the spaces in a piece of music are every bit as important as the notes, you'd almost certainly tell me you'd heard it all before. I don't blame you, I'd say the same thing if you'd picked on me.

It's easy to identify the guitarist playing a thousand notes per minute, or the drummer who plays a fill at the end of every bar as being guilty of overplaying, but some of today's worst offenders are being aided and abetted by high technology. Once it was the pursuit of excellence in playing an instrument that led musicians down the path of technical self-indulgence; now it is technology itself.

At the heart of the problem is the venerable sequencer. As the hardware sequencer has evolved into the computer-based software sequencer, and as the software sequencer has become a more powerful tool, so its potential to misguide the unsuspecting musician has grown. From being a useful writing and performing tool the sequencer has conspired with multitimbral synthesisers to become an irresistible invitation to work more and more parts into a song.

The story probably begins with the popularisation of the humble drum machine. Accused of sounding "too mechanical" and presenting an unnatural alternative to the playing technique of a real, live, human drummer, the drum machine's real crime was to allow the programmer to keep both hands free while it did all the work. Liberated from the physical distractions of playing, too many programmers busied themselves inventing extra percussion parts to sit on top of an already overcrowded drum pattern.

What the drum machine had begun, the sequencer continued. With an appetite already whetted by a drum box overflowing with triplet paradiddles and flams, the programmer eagerly applied the same philosophy to the pitched elements of his or her music. No sooner was the basic melody line safely recorded than doubled melodies, harmony lines and melodic counterpoints freely followed. The fine old art of including rests and breaks in a piece of music was becoming lost.

Did you realise that with its 1/768 bar resolution and 64 tracks, C-Lab's Creator offers you 49,152 discrete positions to place an event within a single bar? Or that Steinberg's Cubit will offer you just over one-and-a-half million positions per bar to work with? Admittedly, completely unquantised playing of a large number of instruments literally gives you infinite possibilities, but for some reason composers and arrangers have learned to deal with people better than they have with technology.

And so to the moral of the story. Music technology has brought about many new methods of working and broadened musical horizons. But adopting technology as an alternative to "conventional" methods of working with music does not exempt you from making the considerations that have been made by composers for centuries. Space is not the final musical frontier, but it's giving some musicians a damned hard time at the moment.

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

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Music Technology - Apr 1989

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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