Things we lost in the fire: Notes on Musicianship, technology and the road ahead.

(I apologize in advance for any dyslexic typos, as my editor is vacationing in France)

I grew up in an interesting area, when technology was exploding into the consciousness of 20th century music.

Coming from Oakland/Berkeley, growing up in the 1970s, I was absolutely surrounded by musicians, who embraced a totally organic style of musicianship, one rarely seen now, completely without the use of technology, other than some fundamental music gear, and incredibly good study habits.
Take one of my mentors, Larry McDonald, for example, this percussionist, who is something of an institution, and a man who taught me how to speak perfect English, has been well-known in the reggae community for over four decades. As a kid, I watched him, as for hours, he lovingly took the time to learn Chekere (The bead covered Gourd also referred to as Agbe), Rainstick, bells, Brazilian percussion, African drums, east Indian percussion, and a number of other instruments, which he would master, and then record in the studio with people like Taj Majal and Toots and the Maytals.
Precision was everything, and his study habits were awesome. I learned a lot, from seeing his active listening technique, playing, stopping, remembering, playing again, remembering more.
The quality of his recordings with some of these people bear witness to a mind of great taste, spartan arrangement, and an understated simplicity that is his style.

This kind of backdrop would set the stage, for my clash with technology, that began around 1978, and continues to this day.
My first exposure to serious music technology, would come in the form of a Roland RS-505,  fresh out-of-the-box, a mini synthesizer, with oscillators, fine tuning, and spent hours playing with the presets, and learning how to use the pitch wheel, then referred to as the “bender”.

Synthesizers, sequencers, and drum machines, had been in a popular music lexicon for years, with notable examples being the Thermin, creating ethereal spooky sounds, (Actually the product of Soviet government-sponsored research into proximity sensors), the English-made EMS VCS3 (used on more science fiction and horror movies than I can name) and the incredibly popular Moog MiniMoog used by everyone from Sun Ra to Kraftwerk.
Early synthesizers, were embraced by an entire generation of experimental jazz musicians, and jazz funk musicians like Bob James, this ( like the synthesizer solo, on his arrangement of Kool and the Gang’s Summer Madness)

By the time 1980 had rolled around, I had begun using Roland synthesizers and drum machines, notably the Roland Drumatix, and Roland TR-303, both of which were based on the simple subtractive 16 note keyboard, to which you could insert or delete notes, change sounds, and sequence patterns.
The rise in drum machines, and some of their accompanying synthesizers, led to entire schools, and styles of music, with Prince leaning heavily on the Oberheim DMX, and Oberheim OB-Xa, both of which had a thick, dark, unmistakable sound, especially with the claps and snares, while others used drum machines, by Roland, and Linn,  both of which had a crisper, and easier to manipulate sound. Still others, detested drum machines altogether, but would use the synthesizers liberally, such as the big orchestral rock bands like Emerson Lake and Palmer, and the Electric Light Orchestra, and quite a few of the pre-technological age, R&B pop bands and musicians, and crossover acts, like Patrice Rushen, and Cameo.

With the American market, at that time, having a tendency to follow European radio and music industry success more than it does now, American music was profoundly affected, by the music of Giorgio Moroder, and a number of other European producers and acts who embraced synthesizers and drum machines wholeheartedly. some notable examples, are Nina Hagan, tangerine dream, (known mostly for their soundtrack work), and most importantly, Giorgio Moroder, whose use of drum machines and sequencers, would go on to influence people like producer Nile Rodgers, (From the band Chic), which in turn would go on to have a ripple effect in American music, resulting in nothing less than an all-out drum machine craze by 1982.

In Dayton Ohio, Roger Troutman, and Zapp, created a sharp, thick, highly polished techno funk sound, combining old-school rhythm and blues lyrics and vocals, with cutting-edge synthesizer technology, like The Yamaha DX100 FM synthesizer, the Roland vocoder, and  “Talkbox” a custom-made Electro Harmonix “Golden Throat”, with a tube inserted into the mouth, to capture the resonant dynamics of a vocalists pronunciation and combine them with the sounds of a synthesizer, a technique that was first made popular by Stevie wonder.

In different regions, artists were using different synthesizers and drum machines, creating some regional sounds that are recognizable up to this day, including Detroit, the birthplace of house music, and therefore techno, and therefore EDM, and places like Bristol, England, where bands like Portishead, Massive Attack, and others, used a sample heavy, hip-hop based sound, often with a single female vocalist, and an ambient sound bed, often with an old big band, or orchestral sample.

This at once, created both unifications, and divisions within the music community. Some were artistic. “No drum machine can replace a real drummer”, some were economic, (Many could not afford the heavy price tags on many of the synthesizers, and this opened the door for kids of the upper-class, largely white college kids from Europe and United States to dominate a form of music that required cutting-edge technology, A situation which now exists again in EDM), and some were merely techno-phobic, from people who just refused to learn anything. Musicians can be incredibly stubborn, once they have decided how they want to work.

I grew up in some lightweight Afro-Cuban bands as a teen, following closely the model I have seen my friend Larry, abide by.  Study, practice, remember, study, practice, remember. Repeat. But like everyone else in my neighborhood, and I come from an incredibly mixed community from both Oakland and Berkeley, we spent an enormous amount of our free time at nightclubs, drinking and dancing, and were therefore affected by all of the music and DJs would play. We became entranced with synthesizers, special effects, drum machines, and also, the “I don’t give a f**k attitude, shown by many of the British artists in particular.

Right around this time, the technique of analog recording had pretty much reached its peak, with the height of it, usually involving something like Studer 24 track analog recording machines, and Neve consoles, using things like a Lexicon 224X Digital Reverb, with a Marantz 3300 preamp, and  Neumann U 87 microphone, if you were very lucky, and could get into a recording a studio, which back then (1978-1985) could cost up to $100 an hour depending on where and when you recorded.
My friends and I, having had some success in the nightclubs at an early age,  managed to get into deals and record in these kinds of studios, at exactly the time the technology was changing. The Mirage, was one of the first commercially available sampler keyboards we saw, with stacks of discs, each of them having a different set of samples, and drum machines, and samplers exploded onto the market, and we followed each new innovation and product lustfully.

Sometimes this resulted in some fairly interesting music, and at other times it created noise is so bad you wish you could forget it today.
As analog, slowly gave way to digital in the late 80s early 90s, with dozens of recording formats coming out, one of the first commercially available ones made by  Digidesign was the first hard disk audio recording system called “Sound Tools”
Primitive by today’s standards, and with a lot left to be desired sonically, it caught on with sound nerds, and people who had already embraced technology, while a big part of the music industry and community, found it’s sound, thin, and lacking warmth and clarity.
Changes would come, and each new generation of recording software would become more and more powerful, with dozens of proprietary platforms, some of them, basically digital audio workstations, with drag-and-drop sample formats, like Sony’s platform, Acid, which I created libraries for, and later, two of them  in particular emerging as leaders, those being Apple logic, and Digidesign Pro tools, (now owned by Avid)

For a lot of people, this opened up recording, that to a previous generation would have been out of the question. This led to a lot of rule breaking in music forms, people kind of pushing the limits of sampling, like the artists Squarepusher, and Aphex Twin, creating entirely new forms of danceable pop music, that were all sample-based, while others, use the sonic power of new technologies, to construct simple pop dance music, like the band Roni Size,  a Drum n’ Bass outfit from England, and even Radiohead, who are known to experiment with electronic technology.

I got into this wholeheartedly, recording, producing, writing, and making a living for the better part of 25 years using these technologies. The rise of the MP3 and the iPod, as well as the recent advent of global piracy, and streaming, put a dent in everyone’s lifestyle as your content became easy to duplicate, steal, reproduce, and sell, by people you had never met before. Filesharing sites like Napster, Limewire and Audiogalaxy, made it easy for entire communities around the world to share music that was not theirs.
There was both good and bad in this, since on one hand you could share a recording that was not available for commercial sale, say an old Afro-Cuban recording, with someone on the East Coast, without having ever met them. This was a great thing for DJs, but left a lot of people in the music community who made their money playing and selling the music, feeling cheated, and once again left out in the cold by technology.

I am primarily a writer, and don’t consider myself a virtuoso on any instrument, so the digital platform, has been important to my career.
I leave the actual playing of instruments, with the exception of keyboards occasionally, to people around me who are far more qualified played instruments, each one of them usually specializing in a particular instrument, with a level of skill, and nuance, that I could never copy, nor would I want to.
The entire rise of technology in the music world has been a great fire.  It brought innovation, and independence, but also invited plagiarism, and generic expression.It empowered one generation, while making another feel obsolete.

Now, ironically, the division between the haves and have-nots is more present than ever, with EDM, and modern so-called “Hip-hop” (don’t get me started) having more to do with the gear you can buy, than the talent you actually have, and is the product of an entire generation of music listeners raised on fairly generic music, thanks to music and media conglomerates like Clear Channel and the Bertelsmann group, who don’t really care what the song is saying so long as the beat is thumping and the synthesizers are loud, and the video has somebody that is fairly attractive.

There has always been an element of this in the business, and just as in every other business, the people who enjoyed fame, and attention yesterday, often now turned into complaining, bitter old people today, complaining about the next generation of musicians, and how it is “not real music”, as they struggle for relevance, in a world that is changing too fast for them to catch up.

The popularity cycle of musicians, a cycle that used to last up to 10 years or more, has now turned into a flash of momentary global popularity, followed by an abyss of total obscurity, as witnessed by hundreds of artists who rise and fall on the charts every couple of years, never to be heard from again.

On the other hand, there are still people like Larry, who tolerated, but never really bought into the whole technological rage, and he has maintained a steady global playing, recording, and touring schedule for the past 40 years.  there are thousands like him, who are now elder statesmen and women in the music, now being appreciated and celebrated by new generations of young listeners, who greatly appreciate, reggae, funk, classic hip-hop, jazz, R&B, classic rock, and pop music.
some things you cannot sample, copy, or file share your way around, and a real virtuoso talent on instrument is one of those things.
Still, the game has changed to the point, where virtuosos have to be more shrewd than ever before, to make anything close to the same money they made, and must now also multitask, becoming their own publicists, managers, and executive producers.

Economics, has also had an incredibly devastating impact.
Even into the 90s, $40 could get you and your date to a club, in the door, with some drinks in your hand.
These days, you’re lucky if $40 even gets you into a club, and you can forget about the drink and the taxi.
This, along with streaming, and services like Netflix, and HBO, created an entire generation of people, who prefer to stay in, watch Netflix, by a bottle of beer from the corner store, order a pizza, and still have five dollars left over.
This math has closed down over 100 nightclubs in the Bay Area in the past 15-20 years.

After 2008 and the financial collapse, the ripples of the economic situation made it out here to the West Coast, and suddenly people that had been working large venues, and time honored clubs, were let go, fired, or simply quit, realizing they could not make money here. Many of them moved to larger cities like Los Angeles, or New York, and even more of them found new jobs, some as teachers and instructors, and others simply leaving the music industry altogether. This has created something of a ghost town, of venues that we all used play 20 years ago, the names of many places, people don’t even remember today.

Others, like me, were lucky. I already had experience being a club manager, security director, a producer, a writer, a publicist, a bartender, and the doorman.
Any time the industry changed to the extent where it didn’t make sense for me to play with a band, I simply took up another gig close to the industry, just not onstage.
This created some incredibly interesting run-ins with people, people I had played onstage and toured with, who suddenly saw me backstage working security at places like the knitting factory in Los Angeles, or running the exotic erotic Ball in San Francisco. The flip side of this, was on occasion, people who only knew me from working at these clubs, or on different projects, from time to time would see me in the news, or onstage in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and be a little surprised too. My fortunes vary a lot, and my job is to stay flexible, and catch the next ship coming in. I never had any delusions about the business when I got into this, and I was trained by people who came up in environments so rough, that it actually killed a lot of them, so I was prepared for a lot of the stuff that happened, and no matter where the path took me, either high or low, I never took either of them as a permanent destination. I’m glad people like Larry, broke it down for me, because it has enabled me to stay in this business for such a long time. And this business, is truly a distance game and not a sprint. Especially during this great fire, of technology, media, and artistry, as they clash.

Some of the things we lost in the fire, were our innocence. The business is very rough and tumble now. one could say it is more cutthroat than ever.
Many also lost their livelihoods due to this technology. And still others, simply lost their way, exploring technology in a way that did not help their career, despite their fascination with synthesizers, sampling, and drum machines.

The fact that you can do 1000 takes using digital technology, has led to an incredible lowering of professionalism and talent among vocalists in particular, many who use autotune, and multi-tracking the cover for the fact that they cannot actually sing, and bed after bed of rich sonic texture, the cover for the fact they cannot write, and have nothing to say. This is not to say that there are not some great pop artists and great young artists, they’re just harder to find, because the industry, likes to sign people who are easy to manipulate, rather than fully developed artists. It is for this reason, propped up pop stars will always be easier to find, then truly great artists.  But some things stay the same.

Through all of this, through all of the changes, the things that last, are a great song, a great instrumental skill, a great poem, and a great voice. These still stand out, although in the era of celluloid beauty, it is harder and harder for people who do not look like models, to get any attention from those running the industry. So, those running the industry, simply hire models, and people that look like models, to pretend that they are musicians, and use the technology to fill the obvious gaps.  Realism. That is another thing we lost a lot of in the fire.
I stopped playing with bands a couple of years ago, and now produce and write, am finishing two books, I consult for scripts in Hollywood, and create music for soundtracks and commercials, and do pretty well at it. I have had to adapt.

As have we all. An ability to adapt, is fireproof.

Piero amadeo Infante 2015, for the Tao of Gigging™

 

 

One thought on “Things we lost in the fire: Notes on Musicianship, technology and the road ahead.

  • Great read..You broke it down in detail..a minor point of contention..The talk-box is not inserted into the mouth; but rather is affected by the nearby opening and closing of the mouth which directly effects the sound. I found pretty tricky to manipulate and get precisely what you wanted from it. The proximity of your opening and closing mouth was the main factor in what it did..It also needed to be used in conjunction with a microphone, which further complicated things..I would love to get together sometime and consult about moves I could make. You were the first to suggest that I have a show. I thank you for planting that idea..Also, I still have a track of you singing on one of my tunes. It was never really finished, but it was a pleasure working with you..

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