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Affects of Advancement in Composition

Will the advancements of DAW technology make creativity and musicianship skills dispensable in composition?

Affects of Advancement in Composition

This article will look into the requirements of music producers in terms of music theory and musicianship skills, particularly in pop music, and how those skills coincide with actual music production. Then, by looking at modern day DAWs, conclude how important these skills are in present day production. There will also be an insight of pop culture in the present day, and how modern music production and technology has influenced how the 21st century audience receives music. Firstly, this article will look at the work of a music producer during early DAW and less-advanced technology.

We will see by comparison how dispensable (if at all) musicianship and musical theory skills say 20 years ago for example, to the present day. By the end of this article, I will have concluded, using the sources and material listed in the bibliography, whether musicianship skills and creativity are as required by producers in the present day and why. Some of this article will refer to how much more available DAW technology is in the present day. DAW software such as Logic and Pro Tools can be ‘cracked’ and downloaded for free illegally by users. This means that almost anyone, in the music industry or not, can record and create music from their bedrooms. This article will look into how this has affected the industry, and also how popular music has evolved with this evolution of technology.

As opposed to the present day, using analogue synthesisers required the producers/composers to note down the parameters used in order to create a particular sound. Analogue synthesisers such as the ARP 2500 (shown to the right), built between 1970 and 1981 are an example of this. Using this type of synthesizer required the user to be able to imagine the type of sound that they wanted, and then the knowledge and skills in order to use the parameters effectively to create it.

The 1970s and the 80s was also the period when MIDI was introduced. This was a period of time where the evolution of music technology as a whole was rapidly changing. MIDI made composing so much easier for producers, meaning that they could play/record using a preset instrument and it would sound exactly the same when played back. Parameters did not have to be changed and turned to an exact position to replay something. The 80s were particularly important in the history of music technology. This was the time when the conversion from analog to digital was made. In this period of time, for a composer to use an analog synthesizer, not only would they have to have the musical knowledge and playing ability, but also be able to set parameters to create the desired sound. Far few people had the ability to use analog synths; this meant that less people were able to create their own original sounds. Unlike the present day, degree and other educational courses in music technology or music production were almost non-existent.

But it is not only in synthesis that made these times much more difficult for producers, songwriters and composers. If you had a compositional idea in your head, it would take an extremely long time in comparison to today to create the idea and make it a reality. Not only would you have to set the parameters on the synth to the sound you want, but also you would be required to have the performance skills in order to play it. If not, you would have to find someone with those skills to perform. Additionally, you would be required to physically write down the idea to remember it or record it using a piece of recording hardware. In terms of a full ensemble piece, it would have been extremely difficult for a single person to be able to write the music for each piece, and have the performance skills, and either write it down in score, chords, or record it. This entire process would require a lot of time, money, skill, knowledge and dedication.

Nowadays, popular DAWS such as Logic and Pro Tools do not only allow you to program your own sound using softsynths (software synthesisers), but also have seemingly endless pre-sets. The question is; are present day producers too used to using these presets?
The simple answer is yes, more specifically relevant to bedroom producers/DJs.
Here are two examples of producers being “unauthentic” by using samples or being “unoriginal” by following a “formula”:

1. Dubstep producer Skream was interviewed by DJ Mags concerning Skream producing disco music. There was even talk of him releasing a mini disco album. Skream talks about how the musical element is important to him, but was later caught to have been using a sample construction kit. One track in particular was his ‘Duke Dumont’ remix that was entirely from a disco sample pack. Only difference is that it was sped up, with the vocal over the top.

2. Martin Garrix, a well-known Dutch DJ/producer. A video on YouTube shows someone who has imported four of Martin Garrix’s songs onto a Logic file, played all four songs simultaneously and found that it sounds like listening to one single song because of the almost identical structure, identical tempo, identical keys and rhythms. The video can be seen here:

The ‘formula’ in the case of Martin Garrix, an article on YourEDM.com written by Scott Greene, states that people who call Martin Garrix ‘uncreative’ as an EDM producer are bias. He says that even classical music follows a particular formula, because the human ear finds some particular sounds stimulating while others are not. “Even though we have the ability to make a theoretically infinite number of sonic and tonal combinations, most widely accessible music usually sounds like another piece of music”. This article generally backs up the usage of samples in new, “original” tracks. Even though the samples have been used in previous work, the human ear finds these particular sounds stimulating and much more appealing, as opposed to hearing new, unique sounds.

Another interesting example, involving Swedish House Mafia concerning their track ‘Knas’, that has caused an uproar within their fan base concerning their use of royalty-free samples that are free for any artist to use in any song/track. The use of these royalty free sample and loops “discredits the producers creativity and ability”. Understandably so, from the fans point of view. A producer or an artist can be widely discredited by using such samples and loops, in the same way that a singer/songwriter can be discredited by using chord progressions, or lyrics, or riffs that have been previously used in another artists tracks.

Affects of Advancement in Composition

Are we so used to focusing on our formulas and pre-existing formats that it is preventing authenticity and originality? “We unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit pre-existing formats” – Creation in reverse, How Music Works – David Byrne. Byrne goes on to say how when we create a form of art, we make it fit its surroundings. Such as paintings that would look good on white walls, and music that would sound good in a night club or a symphony hall. In our case, we engineer our music to fit the way in which it is perceived. In the same way that pop music tracks are mixed and mastered to be listened to using a streaming service or cheap in-ear earphones, our music is now designed to be presented in a way which is familiar to us. As the saying goes “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it”.

The aura of a piece of work, such as a painting or a piece of music, is determined by the works that surround it or works that are being perceived/viewed/listened to either simultaneously or in the same period of time. For example, imagine seeing the Mona Lisa at The Louvre museum in Paris. Now, imagine seeing a print out of it on a bedroom wall surrounded by posters of modern pop artists. The aura of the painting has completely changed, all because of its surroundings and the way in which it is presented. Keeping in mind this idea of music having an aura; the way that the 21st century audience perceives pop music is often influenced by other music that is also pop but may be of a different genre. For example, 5 Seconds of Summer and Taylor Swift are both contrasting genres, but both come under the “pop” category.

5SOS are labeled as pop punk or pop rock, and Taylor Swift is labeled as country and folk. If an audience were to listen to these two artists individually without the knowledge of them being labeled as pop, the artists’ aura would be perceived differently. As opposed to if the audience were to experience both artists on BBC Radio 1 or MTV. By perceiving both of these artists in the same medium, blurs the lines between two contrasting genres. Not to say that these two artists specifically are totally different genres.

Affects of Advancement in Composition

This can mean that the musical compositional skills required by one genre may not be required in another. For example, EDM music is known to follow a particular ‘formula’, and by following a formula, makes the genre simpler to compose in. With an understanding of music theory, technology can be used to create EDM tracks to a release standard in todays’ industry.

As opposed to acoustic genres that would require an artist or songwriter to be able to play the acoustic guitar for example, that simply cannot be replaced with an electronic instrument or softsynth using presets to replicate the sound. Not only that, but for an acoustic track or song to be release standard, would require a professional standard recording. This means the use of microphones and hardware above the average consumer price range.

It would be untrue to say that exactly the same knowledge and compositional skills are required by modern producers, as opposed to a few decades ago, in particular bedroom producers/DJs. Because of the fact that composition is made so much easier using modern DAWs such as Logic Pro and because of what I mentioned earlier about certain sounds appealing to our ears more than others.
I, personally have never taken specified musical composition classes or studied music theory in depth, however using this technology I am able to create and compose music that I would not have been able to do otherwise.

For example, the arpeggiator, chord trigger and note repeater are three examples of plug ins that has made composition significantly simpler to those without the adequate skills. Chord trigger is especially useful for those without the performance skills of pianists and keyboard players. This plug in has made is extremely simple for absolutely anyone to use an instrument preset and play it using a MIDI keyboard or even their laptop keyboard. The user simply selects the chord they would like to be played, and selects a key for the user to press when they would like to trigger the chord, no matter how big.

Nowadays, users do not need to be able to set parameters of a synthesizer, or understand how to create a particular sound using the synthesisers by using the controls. Many producers, songwriters and composers use presets or samples that are available to almost anyone in order to create the initial demo of their tracks. Most then alter the sounds to make them more unique or original, while many still use the samples provided. In an article written by Adam Stewart on the MTV news website, he states “It’s no secret that in this day and age, much of the music we know and love is more likely to have been produced on a laptop than in a multimillion-dollar recording studio”. This statement backs up my point of how songwriters and producers have the ability to write tracks that become so popular in todays society, through the use of the internet, with software that is available to almost anyone such as Logic Pro and Pro Tools.

Affects of Advancement in Composition

Some people may say that creativity has been made redundant in recent years, with the development of technology and what has become to be the ‘definition’ of ‘good music’, and that artists stick to the same rules and same sounds as a safety net to ensure that their work pleases the present day audience. At the same time, however, some may say that creativity and uniqueness is more prominent than ever, in the 21st century where everyone is given a chance to create, compose and express individuality using music with a fighting chance of being exposed to the industry thanks to the internet. As I’m sure that everyone would hope for the latter to be true, this has caused the industry to be completely saturated. With composers and producers from around the world, where physical distance is never an issue in the present day.

In summary, looking at my sources, the creativity and musicianship skills required by modern day producers is not as essential as it was before the evolution of todays technology such as sequencing software, softsynths etc. However, even though the title of this article implies a certain amount of subjectivity, there is no doubt that a level of talent is required to excel in musical production. Regardless of how much technology advances; knowledge, skill, dedication and talent is what makes a music producer.