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The Wonder Stuff

Given that an open mind is the key to getting the best from hi-tech musical gear, too many of us could be guilty of limiting our music and our enjoyment. Tim Goodyer asks "how narrow is your mind"?

MY FIRST SYNTH gave me a considerable amount of pleasure. Quite apart from the musical barriers that fell away as a direct consequence of having that amount of control over sound for the first time, there was the matter of other peoples' attitudes towards it. There were the sceptics, of course, but most enjoyably there were those who were obviously in awe of a synthesiser. To these people the idea of building a sound from a couple of oscillators, filtering it and having it develop over a period of time was simply incredible. They were impressed but quite happy to leave it to me to worry about. Shallow stuff this, except that an alarming number of the people I'm referring to were musicians.

It would be fair to say that they had a problem with synthesisers. It wasn't a problem that concerned the principle of having an instrument that derived its sound from electronic components, it was the conceptual problem of working with such an instrument. Essentially there were no rules - there was nothing to restrict you in the applications of the instrument, but equally, there was nothing to guide you in its use.

For me it was simple: I could do anything the instrument allowed me to do because I didn't have any preconceptions about any aspect of the instrument or the working methods I should adopt. But in 1990 I find that I am having to re-invent my perception of hi-tech instruments on a regular basis. Every significant new development requires a reassessment of everything from my own working methods and the gear I currently use to anything I might buy because of this new innovation. And I know I'm not alone in having to deal with progress in this way.

Let's touch on a couple of examples. MIDI: suddenly all the equipment can communicate and be controlled by a central sequencer - except that all your past experience of recording has to be reassessed (the relationship between tempo and pitch, for example). Sampling: no more dodgy synth flute patches, now you can have the "real" sound - could sampling other pieces of music really have any significance?

What I'm getting at is the relationship between our attitudes and our use of hi-tech equipment. Your attitude to gear will be at least as great an influence on your music as your attitude to various musical styles and your playing ability. In the most damaging cases, your attitude can limit your use of the gear you own or prevent you from turning some new development to your own advantage.

It's an accepted fact that children deal with progress a lot more pragmatically than adults. Give a child a computer and it will milk it dry. But don't expect it to be impressed by the level of technological achievement. Give a computer to a member of the slide-rule generation, however, and its technological significance will be well appreciated. But it's very likely to end up being used as an expensive electronic slide-rule.

Consider this: the next time you're tempted to buy a piece of gear because you think it's awe-inspiring, you're almost certainly not going to get the best out of it. You can afford to be impressed by a piece of equipment, but not amazed by it. Because the time you spend wondering at the possibilities opened up by technology, is time you should be spending using it. I believe the secret is in being able to adapt your attitudes and your practices to the ever-changing hi-tech environment.

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


Music Technology - Sep 1990

Editorial by Tim Goodyer

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