Computers and Music: Spontaneity, Randomness and Creativity in Art From the Digital Age

If you are familiar with the Soul of Rock 'n' Roll, or some of the other websites I work with, you may know that I am by trade, a graphic/web designer. I use computers everyday for work, including maintaining, developing and writing for these websites and I'm even starting a site dedicated to computer related issues. Knowing that, it may seem odd that I am actually firmly against the overuse of computers in music (and actually other art as well).

In this modern age, more and more computers are being fused into music from all sorts of genres whether in the form of software based recording, click tracks, digital synthesizers, backing tracks or concert light shows. Some of this new technology has it's purpose, but in some situations I think it is being overused, used as a crutch and abused, taking too much of the soul out of music.

Randomness and Computers:

I know how computers work, I've programmed them, administrated them and even built them, and from all of that, I have come to understand that computers lack one major thing (well...at least until they become so powerful that they are sentient and probably kill us all for being inferior) and that is the ability to be truly random. For a computer, data is nothing but little ones and zeros and nothing else. There is no one half, sorta, maybe, or could be... Everything is yes, or no. This makes them fantastic ways to store data and make complex computations, but bad at generating the random nuances that a human bring can without even trying.

When you play a musical instrument, thousands of different variables effect and work together to make the performance. Everything from your mood to your playing style, to your physical stance, not to mention the type of instrument and its construction methods, reaction to the environment and reaction to your technique. If it's an amplified instrument there are even more factors to consider from the amp model to the tubes used (yes, tubes), to the speakers and even the fluctuations in the power source and the air temperature. All of these variables add up and ,without even trying, and add randomness to the performance. Infinite variables lead to infinitely random results, meaning that even the same musician playing the same set up on the same day with the same temperatures will never sound 100% exactly the same.

I think this is a good thing as it adds character and soul to the performace. Randomness is what makes music feel alive, real, and natural

To have a computer produce the same things while factoring in all the variables would probably take a thousand super computers. Even then it would probably take another thousand computers to calculate millions of algorithms to then randomly change all those variables and start to hint at some of the randomness that human beings add to their music naturally. This is one of the reasons I will always prefer actual strings and actual horns or even analog synthesizers to digital synths. The physical instruments have all the nuances that comes with real performances, while their digital counterparts sounds too perfect

Obviously, this randomness and character is probably why people are still the ones making most music for the most part and not computers, but what about using the computer as a tool for creating music, like another instrument?

Digital Recording:
There are certain situations where computers are very convenient tools when dealing with music, if you can accept what they introduce into the system, namely static, unchanging, perfection. This is one of the reasons that many musicians have gone away from digital recording techniques recently, and back to analog. When recording on tape, a thousand subtle nuances are introduced to the recording because of the variables that influence the tape itself, the recording level and the machine used. Magnetic tape uses a similar principle to computer hard drives, but the difference is that the tape reacts, where hard drives are specifically designed not to. When you record digitally, the ones and zeros produces are perfectly reproduced, while with tape those ones and zeros have the added randomness of the tape itself and how it reacts to the sound. Often times audiophiles use the term tape compression to describe a specific way that the tape reacts and actually enhances the sound of the recording.

Analog recording, to some people, sounds better, because it is more random and hence more natural sounding that digital recording. I actually think that digital recording has some great applications when perfection is required and that digital remastering can really clean up and enhance music. For rock and roll though, depending on the skill of the producer at reproducing a great sound, analog will always sound just a little bit better, even if it is then remastered digitally from the tape. Don't get me wrong, there have been some great albums recorded entirely digitally, but probably 90% of the best music of all time were originally recorded with analog techniques.

Other digital techniques, like Pro Tools, allow the artist an incredible amount of flexibility in the studio where they can even cut out and redo specific notes in a song. That seems worse than using computers to create the music itself because now you're stripping away all the nuances that occurred naturally when changing from one note to the next. Two notes that are actually played one after another will always sound different than two notes spliced together that were actually played at two different times, plus it can strip out all the spontaneity and fluidity of the piece, making it increasingly sterile and unnaturally perfect.

Talented recording engineers can make use to all sorts of technology to create great mixes that sound rich and natural, but sometimes using too many digital techniques just don't sound as good as those done with analog equipment.

Computerized Performances:
Click and backing tracks used with computerized light shows for performances can are another form of digital media in music that I think is at times overused. I've seen some amazing light shows with rock and roll acts, but they do limit the band in their creativity. They must keep the time (often using a click track) to precisely match the timing of the lights. I'm not a lighting specialist, so it is possible that there is some flexibility in these light shows that can be adjusted on the fly by an operator, but even so, the band cannot spontaneously extend a song, do a medley or even just add a song to the set if it hasn't already been prepared with a corresponding light setup. Could a group like Cream, Led Zeppelin or the Grateful Dead put on the epic shows that they did during their heyday, to a computerized light show where they had to keep time perfectly? I don't think so... (actually I believe all three of these groups used light shows during their time, but they were done live with gel lights, manual spot lights, projections and manually triggered pyrotechnics, but I can't confirm this fact at this time).

These programmed backing tracks limit the band's creativity on stage so much that more than once I have gone to see a band and been quite disappointed because I could have stayed home and just as easily and listened to the album. There was spontaneity, improvisation or soul. Why even have the band play at the show? They could just put the album on the stereo and play the lights to it and call that the show.

Still, I have also seen some amazing production shows, that involve a lot of theatrics, times events and perfectly crafted set lists. These shows are great too, but I prefer as much as possible to be dynamic within a rock and roll show because that is part of what rock music is all about.

Conclusion:

I don't think computers need to completely stripped out of the music industry and we should go entirely back to 4 track recording and manual lights. Instead I just think we need to realize that computers are not the be all and end all in art. What might take a computer forever to produce the randomness and complexity that human beings can create in a second. Computers are just another tool to be used when applicable for a designed effect, to be used in moderation with subtlety when applicable.

A good example of this, is the work of Radiohead. One of my favorite bands since their very beginning, their recent work makes great use of computers, digital samplers, digital techniques and advanced recording (and I hear they put on one heck of a live show too) but their music never seems dependent upon computers or overly sterile. They use digital and a variety of other techniques as well to create something very organic and natural while still occasionally using digitally perfected elements for effect when desired. They seem to understand the computers place in making music and have used it to great effect. Other groups/artists I think have done this quite successfully include Moby, Beck, the Chemical Brothers, Gorillaz, Gnarls Barkley and a few others as well.

In the end, I think it is important to always be open to new techniques in music, but not become overly dependent on any of them. Computers are one of those tools we have available when we want that effect, but first we have to understand what they are capable of, what they excel at and what they cannot do because of their nature.

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