Saturday, September 11, 2010

Electronic Music Technology – Deep Dive 1

Disclaimer: This is a high level introduction to Electronic Music Technology and is by no means authoritative. There are several books and other resources available that can give you a better and deeper understanding of EMT. This introduction in 6 parts is provided so that readers can appreciate some techniques from the world of EMT that Raja uses in his music that can be appreciated better.

Music and electronics are so close that music cannot exist without electronics. Without a microphone or an amplifier, there is no music possible that can be widely distributed, not to mention recording technologies. Every violinist has to use the electronic pickup for his/her notes to be heard by a large group of audience. Even the most conventional of classical musicians use an electronic sruthi box. So, what’s the fuss of electronic music technology that you hear loud voices about how much we miss live music today?

While electronic music is as old as the early 80s, attempts have been made even earlier to reproduce musical notes electronically. Surprisingly, most of techno music has its origin with the early Atari computing world in the early 80s. Room sized pianos were the initial target. Though pianos produced great sound, they were bulky and required annual tune up and a lot of TLC. Like wine, the older pianos have a charm. Electronic keyboards tried to mimic the piano is a crude way in the late 80s. They lacked depth and at this time and a critical invention of the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) standard came to the rescue of the digital instrument. While expert musicians play great tunes from sheet music, most others get it right only sometimes. The MIDI allowed a well played song to be transferred as digital signals to a computer or stored in the electronic instrument. Playing the stored MIDI file will reproduce that perfect play of notes that you achieved in one of your many trials. That’s how the world started getting hooked to electronic digital music. After all, you do not have to call piano movers every time, you wanted to go to the next studio! Soon, every electronic instrument had a MIDI interface making it easy to coordinate different instruments.

Raja used to play the combo organ before he became a composer, an early electronic keyboard that produced some sounds that were hard to produce otherwise. These organs gave way to synthesizers which soon became an important part of any film musician’s arsenal. More than the film song, they were a great attraction for background music creation as they gave a wider choice to the composer.  The synthesizers of the 80s were bulky and got more powerful with each successive release. They started off with the ability to play piano tunes – slowly, they morphed to producing sounds of violins, flutes, trumpets, sax and other instruments, though they sounded quite artificial. All keyboards/synthesizers of the 80s had percussion capability, though no one took it seriously. They sounded with almost no bass and musicians quickly dismissed it. Korg, Yamaha and Rolland became the main professional vendors with Casio like companies serving the low end.

Towards the end of the 80s, the synthesizers started taking advantage of the microprocessor technology and soon ASIC became affordable that electronic music instrument companies started researching digital signal processing algorithms and creating their own proprietary version of sounds. The synthesizers not only came with a huge tone bank, they also enabled clever programmability. If you recall ‘Punnagai Mannan’ title track, it is a good example of early programmable digital music. You will notice that the sounds are pretty standard and sounded a bit mechanical compared to what you hear today. 

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