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. 

Electronic Music Technology – Deep Dive 2

The 1990s was the defining decade of the EMT. The musical instruments started taking advantage of not just advances in electronic hardware but also with computer software. It is in this decade that the last bastion of manual music was broken – replacement of the drum kit. The rhythm pad was a great advancement that did the job similar to what the synthesizer did to the piano – replace the bulky drum kit. Multi-track recording technology advanced significantly from the 80s and the standard studio format was 24-track recording. Recording technology advanced further with digital mixers and ability to handle multiple MIDI inputs. 

Both Apple and Microsoft allowed computers to interface digitally with instruments using the MIDI interface (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). However, the software available at this time was early versions, full of bugs. With several MIDI inputs, it became important to understand how to balance them and also sequence them. 

Another major advance was the creation of rack modules taking advantage of improvements in both hardware and software technologies. The synthesizer not only became smaller, it started becoming smarter and more configurable. You can start with a base module and keep adding additional modules. The synthesizers could generate great flute, trumpet, sax, guitar, sitar, trambone and other instrument sounds. In short, a few synthesizers and a rhythm pad could replace an entire orchestra. The string sections did not sound like before, but no one cared. This was fine to create low shelf life music, which most movies demanded. 

From a film music composition perspective, the melody now got played on an electronic keyboard instead of the harmonium which was portable and required no electric power. It was in a way better than the harmonium – once the tune is approved, it can be retrieved from the keyboard’s memory instead of relying on a knowledgeable assistant who took down the notes.

For music composers, it became economical to hire an expert keyboardist, who could play a huge variety of instruments. Studios also started getting smaller and many conventional instrument players lost their lustre. With multi-track digital recording techniques, the keyboardist could record all tracks including the main melody with ‘an’ instrument and have it all sequenced for the main singer to sing over. 

The rhythm pad took care of replacing most percussion instruments, though they could not reproduce the tabla’s intricate patterns. Composers started shying away from tabla too, as a result. It soon became apparent that ability to assemble electronic sound was equally important as knowledge of music compositional techniques. 

We need to also consider the position of a director who approves the tune eventually. While the number of musicians who contributed to the final cut went down drastically, the complexity of assembling ‘sounds’ did not. It became impossible for directors to get a sense of the final output as the electronic embellishment can even change the mood of the song.  There were so many layers of sound effects that got added to the approved melody, that it got extremely hard to figure out the way the song got constructed. As more and more ‘technicans’ started doing music work who were not expert musicians, the situation got worse. They were more driven by the limitations of their electronic gear and very few could rise above the electronic din. Most of the 90s and early 21st century composers rose and fell due to their electronic gear. Most listeners were disturbed by the inappropriate rhythm, dischordant interludes and the general lack of soul in the music that was being produced.

Electronic music technology created new teams and destroyed old ones. The ‘tech savvy’ music teams survived more than the old world team sport of creating manual orchestral music. Even today, we do hear about the lack of team spirit as a result of EMT. 

In the 90s, due to advances in the software world, most synthesizers, sequencers, rhythm pads and other digital instruments became more and more programmable. Vendors started offering a number of ‘sound fonts’ and other facilities such as ‘loops’ and ‘patches’ that could be integrated easily into most digital equipment, thanks to MIDI.  Vendors and third parties also started shipping equipment which had a huge variety of standard sounds, loops and other facilities built in. It became apparaent that ‘integrating sound’ was the key activity around film music studios.

It also became clear that EMT will dominate music production, whether you like it or not. It was time for composers with very strong musical sense to work towards a balance of electronic and manual instruments. Some of EMTs capabilities such as ‘samples’, ‘loops’, ‘patches’ provided by vendors was a good beginning (though some composers used them as is) and the only way you could survive is to embrace them in some form. 

Unlike most composers, Raja seems to have spent quite a bit of time figuring out the mindset behind some of the EMT gear and extension providers. While the culture that is hidden behind the extensions (patches, loops, samples) may not be compatible to Indian music making, he has the mind that allows him to cherry pick the right sounds that go with his style of compositions. Some of his experiments in the 90s were quite early and sounded not compatible with his style. However, in the last 10 years, he seems to have figured out a method better than his competition on making peace with EMT.

Towards the end of this section, I will elaborate some of the standard EMT ideas he has started incorporating into his still ‘soulful’ music. It is one thing to flash these EMT gadgetry when you are a new kid composer versus assimilating the technology and ‘internalizing’ the EMT function/features that augument your style and huge reputation.