Music in the Computer Age
Richard Mansfield Senior Editor
Computers are altering every aspect of our lives, but no one likes to be rendered obsolete by a machine—especially artists. Yet, over the past year, a new generation of computerized synthesizers has started to replace some traditional instruments and musicians. You haven't noticed? That's why they're worried.
Is live music dead? Maybe not quite, but it might be dying. You'll probably hear lots of music this week, but it's doubtful that you'll hear any that isn't, in some way, electronically assisted.
If you've ever been in a room while someone was playing a violin, there was nothing between you and the catgut except vibrating air. But such experiences are quite rare these days. If you go to a rock concert, you'll be hearing the music through microphones, amplifiers, and various sound processing devices. Even "live" classical concerts are now miked and amplified.
Also, some apparently live rock music is probably coming from a tape recorder or a sequencer. That means the sounds were played, perfected, and stored weeks ago. The musician onstage presses a playback button and just finger-syncs while his keyboard plays itself.
Breath controllers, drum machines, sequencers, gates, synthesizers, click tracks, samplers, compressors, delays—more and more, music is being made by machines. Some of the sweetest sounds you'll ever hear now come from deep within gray, unfeeling little digital chips.
Are there dangers in the digitization of music? If you're a professional musician, if you've spent your life perfecting your technique on the guitar or violin, the new synthetic music may pose a real threat to your livelihood. The sounds you make can be generated on a keyboard. And a synthesizer can go beyond human abilities: It can play at impossible speeds using impossible fingerings. It never makes mistakes.
Robert Moog, pioneering creator of the Moog Synthesizer, says, "More and more, we see keyboard instruments replacing guitars. We see the creative juice of electronic drum machines, and we see musicians working with computers on stage, synchronizing whole bunches of instruments."
Music is moving, virtually en masse, into the computer age. Some musicians have stopped practicing scales and are now learning how to program their instruments, how to extract beauty from this new technology.
In some ways this shift from people to machines is clearly good for music. It's similar to what happened when Gutenberg invented the printing press. Before his great discovery, every book had to be copied by hand, so few people could read, and fewer still could write. Monks took months making just one copy of the Bible. This obviously had a dampening effect on literature and made many ideas accessible only to the privileged few. After all, the essential value of a book is in its words and ideas, not in the physical nature of the book itself.
Likewise, for most of us, the value of music is in its notes, its beauty, not in the way those notes are reproduced. It can take an instrumentalist months of practice to master a Bach fugue. And when we go to a concert and watch the pianist flying through a torturous piece, isn't it possible that we're responding as much to the player's coordination, his or her physical skills, as to the music itself? Live musical performances have something in common with athletic events. In addition to the qualities of the music, the audience is also paying to witness such things as dexterity and endurance.
The new synthetic music is democratizing this important art form. Until now, the requirements of technique, coordination, and years of practice have prevented most of us from actively making music. We could always hear it, but we certainly couldn't play it.
Moog sees some important developments in coming years. "I think more and more now, people are going to be learning to play musical instruments. I'll predict one very specific thing: Within a year or two, there will be electronic pianos that sound every bit as good as professional acoustic pianos, and will play like acoustic pianos, but will be interfaceable with home computers so that you can learn to play the piano with computer-aided instruction programs."
As musical skills become easier to acquire, there is a parallel development in the instruments themselves. Moog and others are now perfecting digital synthesizers that may eventually replace all traditional acoustic instruments, those lovely but costly violins and grand pianos. This kind of synthesizer works by actually recording the acoustic sounds of traditional instruments in digital memory so you can play back the sounds on a keyboard. Sonic accuracy is limited mainly by the quality of the sound system through which these synthesizers are played.
"Technology is such that—and I know this firsthand, this is not a blue-sky prediction—a piano that sounds like a fine grand piano and has a conventional piano keyboard and will be computer-interfaceable, will cost about as much as an inexpensive home spinnet piano," says Moog. "So anyone who can afford to take lessons at home will be interested in this."
Moog is now chief scientist at Kurzweil Music Systems, a company which stunned the music world last year with the introduction of the Kurzweil synthesizer. It looks like a large electric piano, but inside there are no strings, no hammers, probably no wood. Instead, there are rows of computer memory chips holding the digitally recorded sounds of real instruments.
To record these sounds, a musician plays a grand piano, a digital recorder samples the complex sound thousands of times a second, a sophisticated pattern-recognition program makes some adjustments, and the resulting series of numbers is burned permanently into Read Only Memory (ROM) chips. Then, when you hit a key on the Kurzweil, the numbers are recalled and it's impossible to tell that you're not listening to a real grand piano. In fact, that's what you are listening to: The sound emerges from within a digital chip instead of from a hammer hitting a string, but it is the same sound.
The Kurzweil digital synthesizer: impressive sonic accuracy
A flick of a switch and the Kurzeil becomes a Stratocaster, a timpani, what have you. Any sound can be digitally recorded and played on these synthesizers. For the average person, the only drawback to this amazing device is its current price, $10,795.
The price of computer technology, however, tends to decline quickly. Ensoniq, a Pennsylvania company recently formed by some of the engineers who designed the Commodore 64, has just announced its new Mirage synthesizer. At $1,700, this instrument appears to rival some of the capabilities of the Kurzweil. In some ways, according to engineer Bob Yannes (who designed the SID sound chip inside the Commodore 64), the Mirage exceeds the specifications of the Kurzweil.
The Mirage has a five-octave, velocity (finger pressure) sensitive keyboard. Different tone colors (instruments) can be assigned to different parts of the keyboard. Plus it has all the features of a typical synthesizer: eight-voice polyphony (eight keys can be pressed simultaneously), pitch bend, vibrato, a MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) jack, an optional foot switch, and more. Any sound can be modified. One hundred different parameters can be manipulated.
Ensoniq's new Mirage has digital sampling and synthesis at a consumer-level price.
But the Mirage goes beyond most inexpensive synthesizers by offering digitally stored sounds, an onboard 330-event sequencer (which allows you to record and infinitely overdub sounds in digital memory before recording them on tape), an optional sequencer expansion to 990 events, and a user-sampling capability (for recording and synthesizing your own acoustic instrument sounds). There is also a built-in 3.5-inch microfloppy disk drive which can store either sounds or sequences of sounds.
Perhaps the most interesting of the Mirage's features is the user-sampling. You can record up to two seconds of high-quality, 15 kHz sound per sample (up to four seconds with less resolution). You can digitally record a violin, a bassoon, your own voice, barking dogs, or anything else and then play it on the Mirage keyboard. A rear input jack accepts sounds either from a microphone or from a high-level source like a tape recorder.
The value of sampling is in the versatility it brings to your instrument. You can control whatever sounds you wish. Marco Alpert, marketing director for E-Mu Systems, another manufacturer of sampling synthesizers, explains that sampling makes any sound into a pitched instrument. From one tone, a sampling synthesizer can extrapolate all the other tones in the scale over several octaves.
For example, if you sample the sound of a wine glass and feed it into the synthesizer, you'll quickly have octaves of perfectly tuned wine glasses. "Wipe your finger around the top of it and suddenly you've got a glass harmonica under your fingers, perfectly in tune, and much easier to play than any original glass harmonica," says Alpert.
The Ensoniq Mirage, and several other sampling synthesizers, can also be interfaced with personal computers for even more flexibility. You can plug the Mirage into an Apple and shape the sounds visually on the monitor screen. This gives you access to each sound's wave table and the ability to modify it directly.
Mirage designer Yannes claims that Ensoniq was able to keep the Mirage's costs down while including all these sophisticated features by designing a new large-scale integrated microchip to handle much of the work. There's also a 16K operating system which loads from disk (to permit easy future modifications to the program). The synthesizer contains 124K of sampling storage RAM. Yannes says the Mirage and the Kurzweil both achieve their sounds the same way: The digital sounds repeat themselves if you sustain the note beyond the length of the stored recording. The envelope of each sound is synthesized.
It's clear that this technology is having an impact on musicians everywhere. You hear about musicians' unions threatening boycotts if synthesizers are allowed onstage, drummers being excused from recording sessions because they are less reliable than drum machines, entire orchestral movie scores being created by a single musician on a single machine.
The rock band Utopia: (from left) Todd Rundgren, Kasim Sulton, Roger Powell, Willie Wilcox
Rocker Todd Rundgren agrees philosophically that it's the musical ends, not the means, that matter. "When someone uses a synthesizer, for instance, to create the sound of an orchestra," Rundgren told COMPUTE!, "we're making some presumption that only because previously it required a large number of people and a lot of catgut and wood instruments and various things like that to create the sound, that is the only way to create the sound. Sound is sound. From a listener's standpoint, the only thing that's important is the sound. It's not how the sound is created."
On the other hand, while aware of the Luddite rumblings from some musicians, Rundgren senses no fear of synthesizers among his musician friends. "Everybody wants to get their hands on one. Everyone wants to have a Fairlight or something similar—a digital sampling instrument."
Rundgren feels that today's synthesizers are primarily used as tools to assist in composition, not to replace musicians or to offer easy answers to the musical aspirations of the general population. "Nobody who plays a synthesizer claims that they can replace real musicians. A synthesizer puts certain sounds within the grasp of the average musician. Nine times out of ten, it's someone intensely into playing or intensely into composing."
Nevertheless, he foresees a continuing musical revolution based on synthesized sound. "There's no limit to how sophisticated they can get. Things become obsolete every couple of months."
At the center of the controversy, synthesizer manufacturers, too, are wary about predicting that their machines will replace live session musicians. E-Mu Systems' Alpert says it will happen—but only to a degree. "For certain sorts of things, particularly things like string background, I think the day is approaching. It can replace it, but it can replace it, quite honestly, at some reduction in quality. Not so much sound quality, but there is something about a string section full of real players playing the music in realtime that has about it a quality that so far no keyboard instrument can completely emulate."
He feels that synthesized, sampled sounds, while they cannot entirely replace human musicians, do offer an alternative. "It's still not the string section of the London Symphony, even if that's what you've recorded. There's a lot of talk about, well, it's going to put string players out of business. I tend to think it isn't. I tend to think what it does is make high-quality string parts available to people whose choice is not between hiring a string section and buying an emulator; it's between buying an emulator or not having strings at all. If I were a producer and could afford a string section, I'm almost always going to have a string section instead of an emulator. I might work out my parts on an emulator. That's going to give you a pretty fair representation of what it's going to sound like."
Jim Aikin, associate editor of Keyboard magazine, finds the new technology both pervasive and powerful. "Synthesizers are having an enormous impact on the music business. They're changing the way people play and think about music. It's not just the synthesizers you're talking about here. You're talking about digital technology in general, which takes the form of a computer code that's dumped onto one channel of the multitrack tape during the recording process, and then everything in the studio is synchronized to that code."
E-Mu Systems offered one of the first sampling synthesizers. This is the more recent Emulator II.
These click tracks to which Aikin refers can be relentless in their accuracy. They're like a metronome which triggers every musical instrument in the room except the singer.
Even if synthesizers and computers do start replacing some musicians, many experts draw a distinction between the composition process and the instrumental process. While some concede that it might be possible to replace drummers or pianists, few believe that a machine will soon replace composers. It's easy enough to see that the Gutenberg printing press could replace monks copying manuscripts, but it is more difficult to imagine a machine that could write a book or a symphony.
"I think we're ten or fifteen years away from that, minimum," says Aikin, "because the algorithms that are involved in compositional approaches are not simple."
The music press has reported experiments in which melodies were generated randomly via computer, but the order of the notes is deliberately weighted in certain ways so there will be smaller intervals between notes. These and other built-in rules contribute to more aesthetically pleasant melodic lines. Whether or not a computer could achieve sufficient musical sophistication to create tunes that would please humans is open to debate.
But there are exciting prospects in several areas where computerized music can take us beyond what we currently experience at concerts or at the dance.
"We're going to be seeing languages that generate sounds in response to the physical movements of a dancer by directly sensing what the dancer is doing," Aikin says. A synthesizer could create music which reflects the dancer's improvisations. It's this multipurpose nature of computers which Aikin and others see as the greatest contribution of the new technology.
Although the debate continues, most experts do agree that the repercussions of the computerization of music are as yet imperfectly understood, but of enormous import. We haven't heard anything yet.