A news segment from 1986 explaining the possibilities of computer music
July 1, 2011 8:48 AM   Subscribe

A news segment from 1986 explaining the possibilities of computer music: P1, P2, P3.
posted by rageagainsttherobots (26 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
The World Famous: “Cool video. I was just in the studio this week with a friend who is producing a new electronic music album and we were talking about the huge rift that has developed between consumer electronic music technology and what is actually used in professional (i.e. major pop production) settings. The techniques, tech, and methods for producing electronic music are, at this point, pretty far beyond what can be easily explained to a lay person. And the specialized skills necessary to produce, mix, and master electronic music at the highest levels are literally on par with what goes into making a Pixar movie. The fallout of that is that, in many cases, the software and gear sold to consumers and hobbyists as "pro" is actually far more expensive and far less capable than what is actually used by pros. I don't know whether that's analogous to the world of digital animation. But it's pretty disheartening in the music world to see so much expensive stuff being sold to hobbyists for no good reason.”

This is a really weird comment. I'm trying to find something in it that is true, but I can't. Everything you said here is wrong.
posted by koeselitz at 9:33 AM on July 1, 2011 [9 favorites]

How so, koeselitz?
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 9:35 AM on July 1, 2011

And the specialized skills necessary to produce, mix, and master electronic music at the highest levels are literally on par with what goes into making a Pixar movie.

Even tho I am a total layman to both of these disciplines, Im gonna go out on a limb here and suggest that there is no way on Earth that this is true. At all.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 9:51 AM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Okay. Sorry, TWF; I sort of thought you were being sarcastic. I'll explain what I was saying.

First of all, "professionals" who make electronic music in a studio – a dying breed which hardly exists anymore, frankly, so it's interesting that you found one – are not responsible for anything but the tiniest sliver of the electronic music scene today.

Everything is different now, and it doesn't involve buying fancy equipment, either. There are hobbyists who don't know what they're doing who drop money on gear they don't need to, but that's always been true; what has changed is that, today, an electronic musician finds herself or himself surrounded by a vast community (on the internet and off it) of people devoted to the music and, what's more, the capability to produce whatever she or he wants at minimal cost.

For instance:

Without even looking up a bunch of examples, I can pretty much guarantee you that at least 75% of the most popular and successful electronic tracks of the past five years were produced on laptops with Ableton Live. That's Ableton Live and nothing else, maybe a sampled instrument or song here and there but those things are cheap to come by. What I'm telling you is that you don't need a studio, and hardly any electronic musicians I know of actually use on anymore for producing music. For a little over three hundred dollars, you have an entire software production suite; and tutorials exist all over the internet helpfully and happily explaining all the details for anyone who'll listen.

If you think three hundred dollars is too much to pay, that's okay. You can do this for free. The Field's 2007 album From Here We Go Sublime, one of the most highly regarded electronic albums of the past decade, was produced on a cheap desktop computer running XP and a free program called Jeskola Buzz. It's not terribly difficult to use, either, I should say. And there are numerous other programs a person could use to get into electronic music.

I produced this on my iPad using a program called NanoStudio, which cost me all of fifteen dollars. Fifteen dollars! I don't have a huge amount of training; I haven't been studying this for years. I just did it. And almost anybody can.

And does. One notices that there are more and more DJs now, more and more independent music producers. The world is wide open at the moment. This is an exciting time to be involved in music.
posted by koeselitz at 9:51 AM on July 1, 2011 [8 favorites]

... in fact, on a side-note: this state of affairs has seriously rattled a lot of old-guard professionals in the music establishment. Even people who were successful ten years ago look at the scene now – rapidly expanding, filled with amateurs who can produce more than ever, built on electronic downloads that are often free, etc – and throw up their hands in despair. "There's no money to be made here!" they say. A year doesn't go by without an old-school talent claiming the scene is ruined. But that's simply not true. There is more good music than ever before. It's just that the music scene is not monolithic in the way that it was. Money is no longer a barrier to entry, and that's changed everything.
posted by koeselitz at 9:56 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

But the specialized skills are exactly on par.

OK. A claim. A bold one. Now explain it. Because it just doesnt seem remotely possible to me. Not that they dont have incredibly impressive skillsets and arent brilliant engineers or anything, but come on.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:04 AM on July 1, 2011

The biggest difference is that a high profile dance pop record may have 3-4 extremely highly skilled and specialized individuals working on its production while a Pixar movie will have something like 150 people with that level of experience and specialization. They both involve lots of highly arcane knowledge but with music there are only a few things to know about, while with animation there are many. So everyone is wrong I guess!
Whoo hoo!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:12 AM on July 1, 2011

TWS can you make me into a pop superstar? I think the world is ready for the bald thirtysomething Gaga.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:13 AM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

You misunderstand I mean there are a few areas of expertise in music production, not that the areas of expertise are incredibly deep and arcane. Can you name 5 jobs in a music studio?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:15 AM on July 1, 2011

Music 2000, 2, 3
posted by unsupervised at 10:16 AM on July 1, 2011

argh I keep mis-typing. Here's what I meant:

There are a 5 times FEWER specialized areas of expertise in music production as compared to animation.

Those areas of expertise are however equally difficult to understand or explain to laypeople.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:17 AM on July 1, 2011

I'm going to sample the hell out of this. Thanks!
posted by Ratio at 10:22 AM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

All I want is a new boc album. PLEASE BOYS! Bring it!
posted by symbioid at 10:26 AM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also: Herbie Hancock shows off the fairlight CMI (I love how even Quincy seems mildly unknowing of some of the tech (IIRC))...
posted by symbioid at 10:34 AM on July 1, 2011

Damnit that was the wrong link: HERE is the herbie/quincy fairlight thingy...
posted by symbioid at 10:36 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

(But let's see, on the album my friend is working on, there's him, who writes, plays various instruments, runs the Pro Tools rig, mixes, and masters, programs synths, programs plug-ins, arranges, edits, etc., there's the guy who's doing the orchestration for the full orchestra playing on it, including scoring, conducting the orchestra, and electronic production of that recording once it's made, the guy doing the secondary masters and mixes, the other guy doing looping and sequencing work and synth programming, a couple of guys playing guitar, and at this point I think seven or eight different vocalists.)

You realize that a Pixar film contains a score as well right? Including an entire sound department. So theres overlap right there.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 10:36 AM on July 1, 2011

1. I thought MIDI guitars were the slickest damn thing when I played with them at Sam Ash in the 90s. What was wrong with me? Why would I need to make an organ noise with a guitar?

2. And a lot of the plug-ins that the high-level pros use are even cheaper than the pro-sumer stuff that hobbyists seem to think they need.

There is an endless supply of yahoos who think that gear makes up for lack of talent. The guy who thinks his productions would sound like Dr. Luke if he just had the right "plugz" is the same guy who has a pedalboard the size of a pool raft in his quest to sound like SRV or EVH or fucking David Gilmour. Same game, different gear.

3. At times, hundreds of hours go into just the editing and sonic micro-management of a single vocal track

Maybe this is an exaggeration, I don't know, but that's just ridiculous. An entire 10-hour day? Sure, maybe spend a day comping and editing and tuning and automating. But "hundreds of hours" is why we should pretend we don't have "99 levels" of undo (and why we should realize that nobody cares; if they will gladly pay to listen to Glee records, nobody will notice that the second syllable of "baby" in measure 43 is 24 ticks early).
posted by uncleozzy at 10:44 AM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

In serious electro-acoustic composition you often create new sounds from scratch, and manipulate timings on the hundreths of a second scale. I have no idea if that's as complex as computer animation, but it can certainly be painstakingly slow in a way that feels as slow as old style animation- i.e. spending a day making a few seconds of music.
posted by leibniz at 12:20 PM on July 1, 2011

I wouldn't say that producing an EDM track takes the amount of skill that it takes to make a Pixar movie. But I would say that producing a top quality EDM track probably takes the same amount of specialized skill that an animator in a pixar film needs.

When you listen to a big tech-house record and every single tom, kick, bass and synth line just fits perfectly and it sounds like a well oiled machine, that's not an accident, and they aren't just using presets. Someone slaved over every second of that mix. I know guys who spend weeks just working on building the perfect kick drum. They don't just sample a kick from another record, they layer multiple samples over top of sine basses (or more likely multiple different oscillators), and you have to carefully filter and adjust the envelopes just so to make it feel like one cohesive thump that covers exactly the right frequency range. And changing one little thing in the mix causes repercussions throughout. It's so, so easy to make a record that's as dynamically rich as your typical EDM record turn into a muddy mess.

And that's not even getting into the difficulty of engineering synths to make a unique sound that no one has heard before, or coming up with the melody that's going to tug at the heart strings or get the crowd amped up.
posted by empath at 1:46 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Here's Chris Lake, a moderately successful house producer, talking about how he makes his basslines. Keep in mind that while it's easy for him now, he's been making music for 10 years, so he's got a process developed. I basically know how to use these synths but I couldn't make the sounds he's making there if you gave me 6 months to learn.

Or if you want to talk about something that's been on the radio, get out some good headphones and compare these two songs:

MGMT - Kids (Demo Version)

MGMT - Kids (Final)

That's the difference between a musician who doesn't know how to use the software (the demo version), and the version after a professional producer gets his hands on it (the final version). It just sounds 100 times better and richer and complete, even though the parts are all basically the same.

The ability to do that takes a lot of practice and time to develop.
posted by empath at 2:18 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

The World Famous: "So, just to clarify my previous comments (I'm not trying to flood the thread, promise), my observation came primarily from a place of me trying for the last year and a half to train myself to be a bona fide electronic music producer and repeatedly having experiences where I realize that there's are several levels above me that I can barely even comprehend even when I'm right there in the room with them. It's really amazing, and I really do dig the video posted above. Sorry if I came across in a way that annoyed you, koeselitz. I'm particularly concerned about that because I really love the music you've posted on MeFi and I have a ton of respect for you as a musician."

Yeah, that makes sense. And, to be clear, I take absolutely no offense whatsoever to anything you've said. Whether I agree or disagree, I value the stuff you say (and the music you post.)

To sort of try to sharpen the point a little: the issue I had with what you said, I think, wasn't the part about expertise. I agree with the clarifications you've made there. No, my issue is with the implication you made - I guess in my mind I read this implication as being more prominent in your comment than it was - that the complexity and expertise needed is something that has increased over time. To the contrary, the difficulty and careful, learned artfulness needed to produce music has almost certainly gone down in the past fifteen years.

I mean, that list you made of five or six people involved in production - twenty years ago that would have been at least a dozen people doing what your friend does alone, not to mention the other steps, and that's if you can find people who actually know how to do all that stuff and if you can find all the equipment in a studio that is well outfitted enough. Actually making a quality acoustic recording is by no means a small feat, and it was especially so in the days when great effects and certain sounds could only be coaxed from the machines by certain well trained groups of people. This is why studios used to be so much more monolithic.

What has gotten more complex, I think, is the range of possibility. And that brings with it difficulties. It takes expertise now just to know how to draw down from the abstract clouds just the right sounds to come together as music, since pretty much any tone is available to anyone immediately - since we can synthesize so many sounds so easily now, it's difficulty to master a controlled approach that has the vision to know what to do with that. In a way, we've almost got the opposite problem now. Whereas in the mid seventies, only a crazy genius like Lee Perry could make magical sounds like that emerge from a shoddy backyard rig, now any fool can run a song through this plugin and make it happen automatically. Our problems is fundamentally different from the problems Scratch was so adept at solving.

To harness the full potential of absolute plasticity of sound - that's the real challenge now. And you're right, it is not easy. I just object somewhat to the notion that musical production has become more and more arcane and difficult for the lay person - or at least I want to add this to it: it's become more difficult at the highest levels because more is possible at the highest levels; anyone can now manage top-flight professional pop production by 1975 standards in his basement with a few hundred dollars. What is beyond so many of us is the vast amount of possibilities.

And, personally, I suspect that this has little to do with technical knowledge of the machines. That is a difficult part of it, yes; but learning a synthesizer and gaining mastery of Pro Tools is not that incredibly difficult. I believe the void is caused more by the difficulty of developing enough musical vision to fill in the vast space created by our potential to synthesize any sound with music. It's very, very hard, I think, to confront our huge potential and do it justice now.
posted by koeselitz at 8:57 PM on July 1, 2011

As the music production stuff gets more advanced, it does become easier to mimic what was popular 5 years ago. It gets programmed as presets, etc. But it never gets easier to come up with that new sound, and that's what you really need to succeed making electronic music.

I mean, I could knock out a decent clone of I Feel Love in about 30 minutes with any random Moroder preset and a decent sampler for the drums. I can program a passable symphony using an orchestral VST.

But that's not state of the art -- state of the art right now in production is people likeSkrillex and Flux Pavillion.

There's no 'easy button' to make synthesizers create sounds like that now, and by the time someone programs all these as presets, the producers at the top of their game will be on to the next thing.

If you are just using the presets that came with your VST to knock out some clone of what was popular 4 years ago, you aren't even going to get listened to.

It takes expertise now just to know how to draw down from the abstract clouds just the right sounds to come together as music, since pretty much any tone is available to anyone immediately - since we can synthesize so many sounds so easily now, it's difficulty to master a controlled approach that has the vision to know what to do with that.

This is exactly what people say about CGI in movies. Opening up new possibilities only makes things easier if you lack imagination.
posted by empath at 9:21 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

I guess what I mean is that production gets easier, people's standards increase. DJ's can't even play records that came out 10 years ago, unless they're doing an 'old-school' set.

Just compare 1999 trance with 2011 trance (this also applies to hip-hop and techno and pop music just as much):

Gouryella - Gouryella (This is Tiesto and Ferry Corsten in 1999 -- this record was absolutely MASSIVE at raves in 1999)

But listen to how muddy the bass is, how simple the hi hat pattern is, how dry the percussion is, how cheap the strings sound, etc. You can knock out trance like this with Reason or Ableton really easily. You don't even need to buy any fancy VSTs, you can just use the synths that come with it.

Here's Tiesto in 2010.

Tiesto - Kaleidoscope -- the quality of the vocal, the difference in the way the strings sound, how crystal clear the percussion is, the oomph of the bass, how thick the main synth lead is.

If you followed this up with Gouryella, it would be so much less powerful sounding that it would clear the dance floor.

It's would be easy to keep making music that sounds like it's 10 years old, it's always going to be hard to make music that sounds like today.
posted by empath at 9:33 PM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]

Surprised no one has mentioned Kraftwerk. The Robots, 1977
posted by troll at 3:36 AM on July 2, 2011

ugh it's arguments like this that make me embarrassed to tell people I make electronic music. It doesn't take 100s of hours to make a good song. It takes 100s of hours to make something average sound like a good song.
posted by mhjb at 5:15 PM on July 2, 2011

What's the difference between a good song and something that sounds like a good song?
posted by empath at 11:22 AM on July 5, 2011

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