Music By Machine
"I don't think we should take this technology stuff too seriously. It's just a tool. The only thing that really matters is the emotional impact coming out of the speakers, whether you achieve that on a 4-track cassette or a 48-track pro deck." Craig Anderton, acclaimed journalist, electronic musician, high-tech wizard.In swiftly rising numbers, independence-oriented musicians are exercising an ever-greater degree of control over the production and handling of their creative output. This latest manifestation of the indomitable "do-it-yourself" (DIY) philosophy is in no small way connected to an explosion upon the marketplace of high-quality, low-cost musical instruments and recording equipment. As a result of this technological/commercial phenomenon, it's now possible for songwriters to record compositions at home which are often sonically indistinguishable from comparable music created at the full-blown professional studios.In the 1950s, jazz/pop guitarist Les Paul -- a devoted gadget junkie and the undisputed duke of DIY -- determined the technical future of the music business by conceiving of various "multi-track" recording methods and devices. (Multi-track taping capabilities allow an artist to record a song and later add new parts to the initial performance. For instance, the only singer in a band can add harmonies to the original lead vocals by singing on other "tracks" of the tape, thus creating the impression that there are several vocalists in the group.) At first the recording industry was sluggish to embrace Paul's innovations. But inevitably, multi-tracking techniques became a vital part of any serious studio's operations. With the release of the Beatles' now-legendary Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (recorded in 1967 using what was then vanguard multi-track machinery) word of the new technology began circulating amongst performers, media types, and others not necessarily well-versed in tech-speak. Soon, formerly-obscure concepts and terms associated with the new methods and mechanisms became an integral part of the language spoken by any musician with at least a casual interest in staying hip. Thus, a general awareness of these developments took root in the minds of players everywhere. But access to the coveted hardware was almost universally limited to commercial enterprises such as professional recording facilities or T.V. and radio stations. In those early days, a tape deck sporting eight tracks could cost anywhere from $30,000 to $40,000. If a band wanted to record some reasonably slick versions of their original material, a trip (or many trips) to a pro studio was inevitable. Even top-selling artists balked at the notion of investing in a personal studio.Fast-forward to the present: Astonishing strides in high-tech research and development, savvy entrepreneurship, and burgeoning consumer awareness have brought us to a point at which the differences between amateur and professional musical tools are wonderfully blurred. Today's bang-per-buck ratio puts the ordinary player in a position of expressive power and control which would have seemed utterly unattainable not so very long ago. In 1996, the music-making masses can wield sonic might for which the pros-of-old would have paid dearly. Amazing 8-track digital tape decks can now be had for around $3,000. (The new breed of digital tape recorders from Alesis, Tascam, and Fostex are about to retire the "prosumer" reel-to-reel analog tape recorder market -- those who maintain allegiance to the older format can soon expect excellent sale prices as retailers rush to purge their inventory of the venerable machines.) "Dedicated" harddisk 4- or 8-track products are available from $1,700 to $3,000 -- watch for these to eventually supersede all tape formats, analog and digital. Consumer-friendlier still is the cost ($300 and up) for one of the new and improved porta-style 4- or 8-track analog cassette decks flooding the stores.And then consider the miraculous array of sequencers, drum machines, samplers, and "multi-timbral" keyboards which can play almost any sound you can imagine: Check out the MIDI gear.A primitive method of "sequencing" music involved the calculated perforation of a paper roll which was subsequently run through the mechanisms of a player piano, thereby rendering the instrument capable of automatic performance. These days, a greatly advanced technology allows composers to manipulate electronic musical equipment in a similar quest for automation. "MIDI"(Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a specialized computer language which enables a single musician to electronically sequence various instrumental parts (electronic percussion, choirs, mandolins, whatever.) in such a way as to simulate a full ensemble, thereby transforming the lone player into a virtual one-person band -- before the music gets to a multi-track recorder.MIDI lets synthesizers, drum machines, and other sound modules "talk" to one another, and what those units say depends upon what the composer instructed them to say -- or play, to be more precise. Combine any of the recording units described earlier with a MIDI workstation and you've got a formidable music-making apparatus, controllable by one person in a basement cubby-hole.If a recorder is the heart of a home studio, a MIDI workstation is the brain. As with other products integral to the home recordist's process, $1,000 buys much more MIDI-power today than it did 10 years ago. In fact, the quality of almost all manner of noise makers has gone up, while prices have come way, way down; manufacturers compete for the consumer dollar like predators on the African savannah fight over a downed wildebeest.Northern Californian Craig Anderton is a world-renowned popularizer, the Carl Sagan of electronic music making. He's the sort of user-friendly intellectual who can successfully explain abstract technical concepts to a rowdy gathering of sixth-graders on a Friday afternoon, 15 minutes before the final bell. Few have a broader perspective on the technology of musical electronics, its historical impact, and its ramifications for the future."Music has always been the poor step-sister of technology," states Anderton. "No country ever said, 'We are going to develop the ultimate music sound-reproduction system!' Music has always had to scrounge from other fields that enjoy a higher priority in terms of financing."To illustrate his point, Anderton notes that developments in tape recording (which were preceded by more primitive methods of wire recording) accelerated greatly during Hitler's rise to power. It seems the ill-tempered Fuhrer was hell-bent to get his speeches out to a greater number of people in a more reliable fashion. "You know," quips Anderton, "it wasn't like, 'How can we get Bach to the masses?'"Actually, most of the gizmos and whiz-bangs that power today's electronic musical equipment came into existence as a result of corporate, military, or space-program pursuits. "A lot of research into sound and acoustics was done by Bell Labs when they were a monopoly," says Anderton. "But since the break-up, they have to be more bottom-line conscious. The idea of them spending a few million dollars to investigate the characteristics of the human voice--I mean, those days are past."Anderton also cites NASA researchers as figuring prominently in the evolution of musical electronics. "I think very few people have a clue as to how much the space program has contributed. The push for miniaturization, squeezing more transistors onto a piece of silicon, that's what led to micro-computers. So now the music industry has basically appropriated the micro-computer and made it do interesting musical things. But again, no one in the music industry developed the micro-computer."Military research, too, engendered technological advances which eventually found their way into the musician's realm. "It is the military industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about that spins the wheels of this particular machinery," laughs Anderton, amused by the irony. "Critical times in defense-related industries bring the pot to boil a little faster, perhaps. But if all that stuff went away tomorrow, there would still be an innate human competitiveness that creates developments and makes people change things."That the invention of artists' tools might somehow be even marginally dependent upon the innovations of those who strive to enhance humankind's capacity for annihilation rankles, perhaps. But the fact that certain regions of society are nonetheless inclined to "beat swords into plowshares" is consolation of sorts.Local home-recordist Andy Tanas knows the drill. Upon graduating from Frayser High School in the '70s, he spent a great deal of time on the road as a member of a sound-crew, servicing various high-profile bands and learning the proverbial ropes. In 1977, he stepped out from behind the scenes and onto the stage as bassist for Black Oak Arkansas' sunset roster (a line-up which included 15-year old guitar prodigy Shawn Lane), after which he served a brief stint with Swiss hard-rockers Krokus.In the wake of these experiences, Tanas opted to bolster his repertoire of original songs, a decision which brought him to investigate the world of home recording. Determined to take matters into his own hands after a frustrating encounter with an unsympathetic producer, Tanas configured his first home studio in 1978 (which was later destroyed in a fire). These days he records his rocking "alternative country" demos on a Yamaha 8-track cassette deck in the office of his home in Bartlett.Presently shopping a tape of his tunes to indie labels and various industry personnel, he continues to exhibit a pronounced wariness regarding big-time producers, spooked by the idea of permitting major-label "suits" to arbitrarily dictate his artistic direction. "That's one of the reasons I want to go with an independent label," he says. "I just wouldn't feel comfortable handing over years of work to someone who doesn't know me, doesn't really understand my songs -- someone who just sort of comes in blind to the thing."For songwriters like Tanas, access to a personal studio -- even one without a dizzying spec-list of bells and whistles -- really jump-starts the creative process. "It just opens up a whole new realm, having all these options at your disposal," he enthuses. "Trying new parts, re-recording parts. You pay so much money for pro studio time, and when you get in there, you're constantly watching the clock and wondering, 'Am I gonna go over budget?'"Gilbert Garcia sings and plays guitar with Memphis up-and-comers Mea Culpa, whose Squeeze-influenced demo (recorded in town at Rockingchair Studios) is circulating locally. Years ago, the South Texas native actively pursued the muse as a lone recordist, but eventually grew dissatisfied with that method of expression, preferring to seek out band mates with whom to court inspiration. Now, after a lengthy break from his Fostex reel-to-reel deck, Garcia is once again gearing up to work the homebrewed magic, finding the prospect of cutting tracks with his group "in the garage" newly attractive.A seasoned player and a former music critic, Garcia maintains a respect for both collaborative and loner modes of music making. "The processes are just different -- I don't think one is necessarily better than the other," he offers. "There are some artists who work alone very well. People like Todd Rundgren, Prince. The funny thing about Prince, in my opinion, is that when he works and records by himself, his sound is very distinctive. But when he works with bands, even if they're really good musicians, his sound tends to be kind of generic. It's not his vision anymore.""Of course," says Garcia, "not many people can play a lot of different instruments. So getting with other performers becomes a practical thing at that point. But if someone can put it together by themselves, and if they have a vision, it makes sense for that person to do it. I mean, if you were writing a novel, you probably wouldn't get to the middle and then ask someone to come in and take over for you. But when one person puts a piece of music together by themselves, we often hear it described as 'self-indulgent.' It's kind of a knee-jerk reaction. Most great songwriting tends to be done by one or two people alone in a room. It's a fairly solitary thing. And I think that recording by yourself can just sort of carry the process on to its end."Charges of egotism aside, some observers insist that recordings made by a single player tend to yield a stiff, inorganic music. In fact, Andy Tanas feels that his demo reflects a certain degree of that particular shortcoming. "Yeah, in my case, I think that criticism applies," he offers. "The problem is, you don't always have musicians at your beck and call." On the other hand, he proposes that the "scheduled session" itself can rob tracks of a certain spontaneity. After all, a loner can jump out of bed in the wee hours to record a MIDI brass section in obedience to fresh inspiration.Try calling in the Memphis Horns at 3:45 A.M. on a whim.Okay, you've equipped your home with a dandy array of recording gear, examined your history for life-experience which might be translated into poignant songwriting, and through months of blood, sweat, and clenched teeth managed to commit your special stuff to a demo cassette or independently manufactured vinyl or CD. What now? How will you get your music distributed to those who might be interested in hearing it?Distribution, of course, is the key concept here. Major labels, larger indie labels, and, to some extent, smaller indies enjoy established means of distribution (and promotion); you don't. Thus, you might decide that your only hope is to "get signed," at which time you will gain entreto a label's system of distribution -- in theory, at least. But how does one wrangle a recording contract?Traversing traditional avenues, you might send copies of your music to various record label A&R (Artist & Repertoire) personnel -- the people generally responsible for discovering and signing new acts. (A good, inexpensive source of information regarding addresses, phone numbers, and contacts is The Musician's Guide to Touring and Promotion, available from Musician Magazine for a highly reasonable $8.95.) However, a disturbingly large number of A&R folks admit that they don't listen to unsolicited tapes. (In A&R-speak, a "solicited" tape might come from a trusted source such as another A&R person, an established artist, an entertainment lawyer, a band which the A&R person has heard perform live and from whom has requested a demo, etc.) In this fashion you could conceivably throw away a large percentage of your precious cassettes or CDs -- not that you shouldn't send them anyway. In order to generate a buzz and achieve some degree of profile, you might also mail your demo to radio stations and music review-oriented publications great and small (check the Musician's Guide), keeping the sad thought that programmers and music editors at the bigger rags receive almost as many DIY tapes and CDs as do A&R people, and are therefore swamped (though again, you can't let that stop you).To supplement these measures (or vice versa), most subscribe to the tried and true method of busting butt on the club circuit -- life in the band van. According to Sherman Willmott, owner of Shangri-la Records (the local retail record store and the label of the same name), intense roadwork is essential to budding artists' development."You can't sell records out of town unless there's a demand," he states, "and that demand comes from the bands getting off their asses and touring. Even if you have no money for promotion, just get out there and play gigs."As a small independent label, Shangri-la Records (perhaps best known as a launching site for the Grifters) embodies classic DIY spirit. Willmott, who regards the coveted major-label "deal" with a healthy skepticism, puts much faith in a seat-of-the-pants approach, and so works diligently to build and maintain a network of contacts."If I go out of town with a band and I come into Norman, Oklahoma, I find out where the independent store is and drop off a catalog. And I check to see if they're carrying, for instance, any Grifters stuff. I find out if the Grifters are popular there, and if not, why not. I mean, if a band has hit a town twice and the local independent stores aren't carrying your stuff, then there's a fault in the system."Rockingchair Studios owner Mark Yoshida echoes Willmott's philosophy concerning the need for bands to develop a solid work ethic. Yoshida has recently inaugurated the new Rockingchair Records label with a release from Six Million (previously well known locally as Six Million Dollar Band).As boss of a fledgling indie, he must nurture an acute sense of what works and what doesn't. "Six Million's willingness to tour hard was one of the main reasons I went with them," he confirms. "I felt like, at this time, they're the best band we could work with as far as having the whole package. You know, they've got a product now -- the CD. And they're signed with the largest booking agency in the country, so they've got a vehicle to the venues. They've been traveling up and down the east coast for about a year, and they're developing a really good fan base. Now they're starting to spread out to the midwest. And locally, they're doing very well."Another strategy for hopefuls involves participation in the growing lift of national and regional contests and showcases, such as Memphis' annual Crossroads event. The hope here is that a band might somehow skip the grueling process of slowly building a ground-swell of interest and instead run straight into the waiting arms of a label rep who simply can't deny the artists' brilliance. In conjunction with these sweat-of-the-brow/luck-of-the-draw methods, many unsigned artists are now wising up to a new self-promotion technique: making one's music available on the Internet.The Net is undeniably the biggest thing to happen in the global village since the Gutenberg press and television, and lots of musicians are learning to take advantage of this potentially golden resource. Internet "sites" are already teeming with information about musicians of varying fame and obscurity. Artists can now upload not only their bios and related graphics, but samples of their music as well. Check into Craig Anderton's America On Line music forum [keyword "Anderton"].) As cyberentrepreneurs, politicians, and other shapers of the on-line realm move to define and redefine the Net and corresponding public interaction (for better or worse), DIYers will endeavor to negotiate the curves on what will eventually become a true "information superhighway."Some believe that the power, quality, and affordability of the new and ever-improving home recording gear will ultimately deliver a death blow to the professional facilities, but Ardent Studios' dial-twister deluxe John Hampton is doubtful. "There are just too many musicians at the platinum record level out there who don't want to deal with learning studio techniques," contends the much sought --after engineer/producer (StevieRay Vaughan, The Replacements, Spot, Gin Blossoms.). "They can afford to have someone else worry about that. Many of the people I work with, the bona fide artists, the cream of the crop, they don't even want to know that the studio exists. When they walk in, they want everyone and everything to be kicking ass. They want an environment that caters to them. And in my opinion, those are the artists who will keep the high-dollar professional studio business alive."To a certain extent, Craig Anderton concurs. "I think every studio will be a pro studio someday," he postulates, wryly. "But there will always be a few of the larger studios, because there are only so many places that can hold a nine-foot grand piano, there are only so many places that are going to have 20 different microphones to choose from, there are only so many places that have engineers with proven track records who can actually make your music sound better. You know, a lot of these people who are doing music in their homes, if they were working with a real engineer, their stuff would sound twice as good!"Will the wide availability of these high-tech means for making music result in a "new exclusivity?" Through the ages, part of the attraction of things special has been just that -- the fact of the scarcity of those things. (How valuable would diamonds be if everyone could dig them up in their own backyards?) By definition, most people have to be located on the outside of a social phenomenon of uniqueness so as to distinguish them from the few in possession of the prized rarity. The insiders are the wizards, the medicine men, the scientists, the politicians. The rock stars.So what happens when almost anyone can purchase the well-made mass-produced magic wand? Perhaps at that point the focus of critical observation will become more sharply trained on the effectiveness and substance of the spell itself, with less scrutiny being directed toward the device or devices used for mere implementation. In other words, maybe art will become much more the point, craft and many associated industry-oriented concern shaving by that time been rendered a matter of course -- taken for granted, like the specially crafted glass through which many of you now view the words on this page.