You’re a heavy-duty programming dude or computer grrl, but you also love music. Is there any way to reconcile these two interests? Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that computers and technology play a major role in the 21st century music scene. Audio sequencers, MIDI and associated laptops are standard operating equipment for performers like Prince, Kraftwerk, OK Go, international deejay Paul Van Dyk or electronic music pioneer Thomas Dolby. Indeed, popular music today – from indie rock to hip-hop to house – would not be the same without innovations in computer science and technology. The following article is an exploration of the pioneering inventions and innovations in music technology that, through the use of computers, continue to define the musical experience of today.
Making Music in the 20th Century
1930 marks the year that the technological roots of modern popular music were formed. In that fateful year the world welcomed its first drum machine while the revolutionary electric guitar took the music scene by storm. Although the drum machine wouldn’t find its way into popular music for another 40 years, the electric guitar was seen as a brilliant invention and one immediately adopted by the jazz community and early blues artists. Perhaps more importantly, however, was that these two innovations inspired and challenged others to experiment with electric instruments and to test how technology could continue to enhance the musical experience. In the years following, the legendary Les Paul would lay down the first multi-track recording in 1947 and in ‘58 Link Wray, unsatisfied with the sound his amplifier was producing, would think to jam pencils into it to distort the sound of the guitar in the track “Rumble” – a technique The Kinks pushed into the mainstream with “You Really Got Me” in 1964.
Then, in 1966, producer George Martin was faced with a dilemma. The Beatles had recorded multiple takes of a John Lennon penned song called “Strawberry Fields Forever.” John had finally settled on not one, but two takes of the song that he liked best. The problem: the two takes, numbers 7 and 26, were recorded in different keys and played at different tempos. Without the technological innovations available today, Martin ingeniously solved the problem by mechanically slowing one take while speeding up the other, then spliced the two takes together to produce one of the most celebrated popular music recordings in history.
Enter Computer Technology
Computer technology has since incorporated innovations such as Martin’s and made them a routine part of music recording. Without major advancements in computer technology, however, such would not be the case. Once monolithic, the late 1970s and early 80s saw the size of computers greatly diminish while major improvements were being made in processing power. Personal computers were made accessible for the first time in history and, watching closely, the music industry quickly responded. As the Beatles were walking Abbey Road and the Rolling Stones were licking their way to chart toping heights, brilliant innovations on old technologies would surface simultaneously that – from sampling to the drum machine to the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) – gave rise to whole new genres like hip-hop and electronic music while altering the trajectory of popular music itself. The following is a brief run-through of some of those major developments in computer technology.
Sampling allows musicians to borrow snippets of past tracks and even entire recordings and incorporate them into original creations. Using synthesizer technology, artists can also alter the tone of the sample by speeding up or slowing down the track; later iterations of samplers would actually come in the form of synthesizers as synths became more sophisticated and were able to adopt sampling technology.
The first sampler – the Mellatron – appeared in the late 60s and early 70s and was a tape replay keyboard that stored recordings on analog tape. Although its genius was widely recognized, it was soon improved upon with the emergence of the memory-based digital sampler. Developed by a trio of computer scientists and software engineers, the first digital sampler – the EMS Musys system – ran on two mini computers (PDP-8s), giving birth to the first digital music studio. As musicians began realizing the need and benefit of sound synthesis for sampling purposes, sampling synthesizers soon emerged. Surfacing in the late 70s, these sampling synthesizers would enable the use of percussion samples and techniques such as the crossfade and “time stretching” and are credited with advancing hip-hop away from the drum machine sound of its youth.
Today, sampling technology is either software-based or appears as part of the music workstation.
Digital Drum Machine
Beginning with the Rythmicon – the father of all drum machines, first produced in 1930 – the drum machine has had a strong impact on music through the years. The first “modern” drum machine – in the form of a programmable drum machine — emerged in the 70s with the Roland CR-78 machine and a few year later, the legendary Roland TR-808 (1980) and Roland TR-909 (1984). Both machines are icons of the early hip-hop, underground dance and techno genres. Indeed, Marvin Gaye’s classic “Sexual Healing” wouldn’t be the same without use of the Roland TR-909.
Digital drum machines, otherwise known as drum computers, also figure heavily in the development of pop music in the 80s. Starting with the Linn LM-1, digital samples of drum sounds and drum sound synthesis were both used with increasing frequency, appearing in works from the soundtrack of Scarface to Prince.
In music today the physical drum machine is a rare sight, whose use was rendered obsolete by MIDI and digital music workstations.
The digital synthesizer produces a stream of numbers at a certain rate that is then converted to analog form, allowing speakers to produce sound. Synthesizer aided music is some of the most identifiable of the 70s and 80s. No only did the Beatles and Rolling Stones utilize its capacity to produce unique and spacy sounds, but a whole new genre arose from its use: synthpop. Today, the synthesizer is a major element of the music workstation.
- Forms of Sound Synthesis
- Additive Synthesis
- Subtractive Synthesis
- FM Synthesis
- Phase Distortion Synthesis
- Granular Synthesis
- Physical Modelling Synthesis
- Sample-Based Synthesis
Of all music technology, the sequencer has arguably benefited the most from computer science, giving birth to the very genre termed “computer music.” In modern days, a sequencer is a piece of music software that can record, edit, and play back music. The first digital sequencer emerged in 1971 from Electronic Music Studios while the first microcomputer based digital sequencer, the MC-8 Microcomposer or “computer music composer”, appeared in 1977 using a keypad to enter notes in numeric codes.
As the personal computer’s capabilities progressed, software sequencers soon emerged. The New England Digital ABLE (1973) computer and its brother the Synclavier 1 (1977) are two of the most notable with the latter being used by such artists as Michael Jackson. These two advancements were also two of the first iterations of the modern music workstations. In the current day and age, however, most sequencing is done via software through the use of MIDI.
Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI)
The development of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) was a remarkable innovation in the history of music. The MIDI made it possible for anyone with a computer, a modicum of talent and a measure of determination to become his or her own performer and producer. MIDI originated as a means to link keyboards with synthesizers, but has since evolved to become a computer software application used to edit all aspects of music recordings. MIDI allows for the interaction of many different instruments at once through a central transceiver that the instruments are plugged into. With their memory, processing power and interactivity, computers became the central brain that all electronic instruments were connected to. From this point on, the computer became irreplaceable in music production. Sequencing software was developed to piece together the disparate musical elements received on the computer through MIDI connections in addition to the development of software synthesizers, drum machines and samplers (often coalesced into one program).
Prior to MIDI, the recording process required a sound booth, session musicians, mixers and other expensive features. Since the development of MIDI, a single musician can sing, play accompaniment and mix multiple tracks together to produce a polished, sophisticated recording using only a computer, a mike and digital recording software.
For Further Reading
- Design West: Thomas Dolby
- CMS Notes: Let Me Take It Down – the Mathematics Behind the Most Famous Edit in Rock ‘N Roll
- Kraftwerk: Frequently Asked Questions and Answers
- Music Score Alignment and Computer Accompaniment
- Seek: Strawberry Fields Unearthed
- University of California at Berkeley Center for New Music and Audio Technologies
- Wired: This Day in Tech – December 16, 1770 – Beethoven’s Birth in Bonn Leads to Longer CDs