Man or Machine: the Future of Music

We tend to think of acoustic musical instruments as somehow being natural and organic: like a piano, acoustic guitar, violin, and a drum kit – but in reality, are they really? Why are the steel pieces of a drum kit natural? How about the wood of an acoustic guitar? What’s organic about the cast iron that’s used in a piano?

Over the last centuries, we’ve seen an evolution involving materials that are used in the making of music: whether it is the hammers and ivory of a piano to the heavy duty strings of an upright bass, or even the enormous machinery of a massive pipe organ. Could there have been purists even back then who thought it was anti-human to produce music using anything other than the only true natural instruments that exist on earth: the human voice and the sounds of nature?

Then, after electricity came along, we saw the whole game change in the 20th century: microphones could amplify the voice and alter its quality; performances could be recorded and reproduced. Was it natural to amplify the human voice? Couldn’t a purist have thought it hypocritical for some machine to make a person sound artificially louder than they were actually singing?

Imagine how some may have felt when multi-track recorders were introduced. For the first time ever, one could record music, and then overdub (“add-on”) more music to what had already been recorded within the same song. Then, when multi-track recording become even more sophisticated, entire albums started being recorded part-by-part: meaning the drummer played alone, then the guitarist could do his part separately by himself, etc. Even though it ended up sounding like everyone was all performing together at the same time, they weren’t. What about purists who thought that everyone should be forced to play at the same time when recording, just like it would have to be really done in a “live” performance? Could this all have been seen as some type of fraud and technological trickery!?

I remember in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s when drum machines were infiltrating the music- making market. Even though rhythm machines had existed before on such instruments as the Hammond Organ, people in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s were starting to make records using drums and rhythm from a non-human artificial machine. Did it cause controversy? Of course it did, as many people thought it was a fake and bogus way to produce rhythm on a record.

In addition to drum machines that produced mechanically perfect rhythm, sequencers also emerged, which allowed musical notes and parts to be entirely programmed and executed by a machine. Therefore, artists no longer had to play their instruments. I remember hearing Depeche Mode defend their work by saying that music is about “ideas,” and not necessarily being able to play an instrument. There were people who vehemently criticized groups like them and Human League. These were artists for all intents and purposes who did not have conventional musical ability to be able to play an instrument, or certainly, not to any technical level worth noting.

Yet, now, rhythm machines and sequenced music are commonplace and just accepted as a part of our musical culture. You would hardly hear anyone today complain about a drum machine, or a sequenced (machine played) musical part. Why is that?

The reason is that people are like sheep – and whenever something becomes culturally engrained in our collective psyche, it becomes accepted. Even though people think of themselves as being individuals with unique viewpoints because of their loudness, rudeness, and over-opinionated jabs, the collective culture is easily manipulated. If something is done long enough and becomes popular, it gets established as part of the conventional aesthetics of the time.

It all starts with the kids who are more open at the time because they’re young. When they first heard groups like Human League and Depeche Mode, they didn’t say: “Oh my God, they’re not playing those tick-tocky precise parts. It’s done by a fucking machine!!” It sounded good to them – it was new, seemed fresh and became popular. Plus, many other artists kept doing the same thing. Therefore, it is now as acceptable as electric guitars have been for several decades.

In the 1980’s, Metallica and REM were also quite successful, but do we ever think of them as decade-defining artists? Of course not, because they weren’t “pop,” which is what defines musical history in the overall sense in any given time period. That history involves artists who have multiple hit singles, the general sound of music that a lot of artists are doing, and the music that the masses can accept which is always watered-down.   

The 1980’s is thought of as a combination of synth-music and heterosexual drag queen pussy-lovin’ “I’ll kick your ass, faggot, even though I’m wearing lipstick” hair metal, lol. The 1980’s was the first decade that openly celebrated and flaunted pop music that not only wasn’t played by a person, but also sounded artificial to the ear: synthesizers had repetitive, robotically fast mechanical notes, we heard programmed, fast hand claps that humans wouldn’t have done, there were some robotic voice effects, and drum machines that sounded like loud firecrackers popped out of a cannon, too.

I’m actually quite thankful for drum machines, as it gave me the ability to record my album, Best Kept Secrets that I released independently in May, 1992. Without a drummer, I was able to bypass a problem that could have wiped out the project. Because of my musicianship, I was able to program a drum machine to be anything I wanted it to be: from the feel of a real drummer to something deliberately electronic sounding.

I also have no problem with sequencers, even though I don’t need them. Anything that could be sequenced, I can play just as well and actually more quickly than it takes to be programmed on a machine. Every once in a while, I used a sequenced part on some songs to Best Kept Secrets, because I only had 4 tracks to work with as the record was done on a 4-track cassette recorder. By having something already sequenced, that mechanical part could be playing at the same time that I was performing a musical part, which allowed both the sequenced part and my part to be recorded onto a single track. Nothing like two for the price of one, lol! Is this clear to someone who doesn’t understand the muti-track recording process?

In the 21st century, the role of technology and machines in music has a far more expanded place than ever before in the creation of music – and some people embrace it, while others hate it with a passion. In reality, most of the music the consumer gets now is highly processed whether it sounds so or not: from rhythm machines and sequencing, to auto-tune pitch correction on the vocals, all the way now to the newest fad which are robotic vocoder voice treatments. Sure, auto-tune robot voice effects will fade, just as huge snare drums of the 1980’s became passé, but a new electronic machine-made gimmick will come along to replace them.

As I was browsing You Tube yesterday, I noticed a brand-new song that really represents what I’m saying here to a “T.” To anyone who knows music at all, it is presumable that none of the musical parts in this track were actually performed by anyone in the way someone sits down and plays a piano keyboard, and that at least the auto-tune robotic vocals were done electronically as well. Since it was machine programmed and executed, it would be hard to actually perform live. Check out Boom Boom Pop by Blacked Eyed Peas:


Another example is the biggest selling downloaded single ever for one week since Soundscan started tracking those figures. It just sold over 600,000 copies in one week, and is TiK ToK by Ke$ha.

In addition to vocoder voice treatments, the music on this track certainly wasn’t actually performed by anyone in the way you would see someone play a drum set or a musical keyboard live. A machine was programmed to do it. Because of the robotic, mechanical nature of the musical parts, it would be quite problematic to duplicate this song in a live show. It would seem that the choices would be to do what Britney Spears does, which is to have the band mime the musical parts like on a video shoot, or just run the track without anyone pretending to be playing anything and add some dancers.

Kids and young adults are used to this kind of thing as we now have more than a generation of music listeners who have grown up on perfect rhythm and machine-made music – not just well-played drums by a person with human feel, but mathematically perfect rhythm and musical parts executed by a machine. It’s now an aesthetic and a sensibility, and expected by listeners. Even if they don’t know so consciously, they need that “feel” to get into a record.

Of course, purists and older people are going to consider this type of music utter crap, but is it any different than a great drummer who saw drum machines as a cheap cop out back in the late 1970’s/early 1980’s, or competent arena-rock musicians who hated The Ramones?

However, with technology and machines being so prevalent in today’s music, it creates a weird sort of a dilemma for live performance as this type of music is not able to be authentically duplicated by actual people who would play or sing it. First, the sounds are so diverse and integral to the music and constantly changing, that you couldn’t get a “live” band to recreate that. In addition, the parts are mechanically perfect as programmed into a machine, so people playing them wouldn’t create a feel that sounded right. If there are electronic robotic treatments on the voice, how could someone just duplicate that singing straight into a microphone?

So what does an artist do? Perhaps Britney Spears knew it all along as she’s just lip-synched her way through her performances. Here’s a question: Would the audience who would pay to see these artists really care if anyone was playing, or even singing anything live? They may not want it rubbed in their face that the show is largely or totally canned, but it’s the product that needs to be perfect, not the reality or integrity of the aesthetic. Meaning, which would a kid rather hear: Britney singing horribly, a band who can’t match the sound and feel of the record, or hear pristine vocals and a backing track that was bang on? They want product-perfect, of course, and the experience of the concert to be right. That entails the music and singing being the same as the record and the visuals matching or being similar to whatever the videos are.

For kids today, music is thought of as a backdrop for the experience: of celebrity, the bigger-than-life persona of the artist, and the vibe – and that needs to match the record. Therefore, it might be better for these artists to just fake it live, where the “concert” becomes like a video shoot. For hip-hop, the backing musical tracks have almost always never been “live,” with at least the rapping being live. However, I’ve heard rappers double-tracked; meaning that there is a pre-recorded track of their rap mixed in with the actual “live” rhymes. To me, it’s ludicrous to imagine why that would need to be done, but I’ve heard it.

As this generation of kids grows into being adults, it will become accepted for music to be completely artificially made, and even performed that way. Again, it’s back to the sheep theory, which is that the collective culture will accept anything done long enough that becomes popular. Musicianship doesn’t matter to them, as the person who is the Producer or behind the machines becomes the magician, not the collective performing of a band of musical performers. It’s a different ball-game now.

On the other hand, many of today’s so-called “rock” bands who I’ve heard live have sounded dreadfully horrible. For me, I can really hear how auto-tune and rhythm corrected their records are. It’s as if the actual artist “live” sounds like a flabby, middle-aged second-rate wedding band performing a lame cover version.

Musicianship takes hard work and a lifetime of dedication, because besides the emotional and spiritual commitment needed, there is a tremendous amount of physicality that is involved in singing and playing correctly, and in today’s culture, people are lazier than ever. Could you imagine some kid playing simple scales at the piano hours a day, instead of learning how to operate a software music program that gives them instant results? I think we know the answer to that question in most instances. Even most of the rock bands of today can hardly even play a banal, basic guitar solo….

So as we move further into the 21st century, purists will complain about the current state of affairs. Who knows, there may even be movements of musicians who vehemently take a stand against technology to the degree it’s integrated into music today, but will we ever go back to a mid 20th century sensibility, where people played their instruments (whether acoustic or electric), and actually sang?

What’s next? I think we’ll see programs that you can tell what you want to have and it will create it for you: “I want a classical feel with a hip-hop beat and jazz chords,” and it will spit it out to you – all under the guise of being an original song. How about a program that could rip-off someone else’s song and change it just enough to avoid a copyright infringement lawsuit? It’s all possible—and probably in the works.

Back in the 1950’s, the question was actually asked if rock n roll was just some silly, adolescent passing fad. That seems comical to even speculate on now, but the same question can be asked about the role technology and machines will play in the creation, production and “performance” of music today and in the future. The answer is simple just as it was with rock n roll back in the 1950’s: technology and machines are definitely here to stay.

2 Replies to “Man or Machine: the Future of Music”

  1. It reminds me of when frank Zappa called those live CDs “You Cant Do That Onstage Anymore”.

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