Computers and Music
Over centuries past, music has seen leaps and bounds in the enhancement of theory, instruments, and recording arts. The first major leap was the invention of the piano in 1709 by Bartolomeo Cristofori. From that first major step came the introduction of electronic instruments short after the harnessing of electricity which came in the early 19th century. Soon after that came recording and then on to synthesizers and eventually digital recording. As computers were introduced to society, computer music was also brought into our vision. What we are seeing today in the music industry is the use of computers and the Internet to distribute music, whereas in the past, distribution was only available via record, eight track, tape and compact disc. There are a few problems that come with the distribution of music via the Internet, mostly legal, having to do with record companies. With computers becoming a bigger and more important part of our society everyday, it is inevitable that they will affect our music more than what they have already. Computers will become even more depended upon for producing and distributing music in the future.
Thaddeus Cahill took the first step in computer music in 1897 with his Dynamophone. The first fully developed model was presented to the public in 1906. Weighing in at 200 tons and measuring 60 feet in length, it is easy to see how this invention passed into obscurity fairly quickly. Not only was it very large, but it was only capable of performing a “a continuous range of pitches by alternating the frequency of an electronic alternator.” It wasn’t much, but it did provide a stepping stone for scientists and music enthusiasts alike. In the following twenty years, the Dynamophone developed into much smaller, yet still primitive instruments that did basically the same thing.
It wasn’t until around 1945 that computer music finally began to take shape. This marked the beginning of “The Electronic Era”, as called by many people around the world. In 1948, a man named Peter Schaeffer began recording natural sounds such as wind and thunder. He was the first to transform prerecorded sounds editing out portions of them, varying the playback speed, playing the sounds backwards and combining them with other sounds. In October 1948 Peter performed his music in Paris. This was the first public performance of music not played by humans.
After Peter Schaeffer’s work, composers became more interested in creating sounds instead of simply recording and manipulating them. This lead to the first recorded simple sine tone free of overtones. With this simple tone, methods were developed to filter, modulate and reverberate it into other sounds that mimicked instruments. This was the true beginning of computer music. Soon after this innovation came the worlds first synthesizer in 1959.
During the 1960’s there was a lot of experimentation with synthesizers. With the development of the digital system in the computer science flied, synthesizers went from only being able to play single melodies at a time (which had to be recorded and played with another melody to create music) to being able to play more than one by 1970. At this point in time, many pop music stars incorporated synthesizers into their songs.
In the 1970’s computer programs were finally being made that were capable of sonic manipulation. Computers were becoming smaller, faster and affordable. Computer music was finally making its way into the private household. As the 1970’s came to a close, more emphasis was directed “toward the development of instruments that utilized this improved technology.” In 1983, Yamaha introduced the first stand alone digital synthesizer. It was called the DX-7 and was priced at just under $2000 American. It sold over 200 000 units and remains the highest selling synthesizer ever made.
Just prior to the release of the DX-7, a group of musicians and music merchants met to standardize an interface by which all of these new electronic instruments could relate. Thus the musical instrumental digital interface was born, more commonly known as MIDI. Since then, computers have come far in means of speed, size and cost. Almost every home has a computer of sorts in it and almost every one of them is able to play music using MIDI components. With the recent computer craze and availability of the Internet many new music formats have been made available. Tracking programs, wav files, mp3’s and real audio are a few of these.
As mentioned previously, MIDI stands for musical instrumental digital interface and is the common language of computer music. Over the years, MIDI has been developed to the point of sounding almost exactly like the instruments it is attempting to imitate. The actual sound of MIDI is easy to recognize in the Yamaha keyboards that are found in many homes around the world. Although there are now much better ways to get certain sounds out of your computer, (like using digitally recorded samples) there are many computer music composers who continue to live and work in the world of MIDI.
One of the formats of computer music that has taken the place of MIDI in the minds of many computer music composers is the MOD. A MOD is a file format that is made in much the same way that a multi-track recording is. The programs that MOD’s are made in are called “trackers”. What these allow you to do is arrange one track at a time into an individual melody of a single sample. Once you have one track finished, you can start another track and arrange another melody or possibly a beat that is played at the same time as the first track you made. With most trackers you can arrange up to 64 tracks. This enables you to create a fairly complex and detailed piece of music. MOD’s are one of the only ways you can incorporate both MIDI and samples into the same piece. With the wide variety of samples available and the ability to make your own samples, MOD’s allow for a wide range of musical genre’s to be arranged using trackers.
When listening to music today it is always easy to tell if it is “electronic”. Almost every band today uses some form of synthesizer or a computer to generate sounds. Over the past 15-20 years there has been a huge popularity growth for electronic music. There are many bands that have been put together to play strictly computer generated music. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s the name “Techno” was given to this genre. Since then, it has been changed back to simply, “electronic music”. This is because Techno became a certain style of the genre as more styles of electronic music emerged.
Some other types of electronic music are House, Jungle, Trance, Hardcore, Happy Hardcore, Ambient, Breakbeat, Dance, Drum N’ Bass and Electronica. All of these types of electronic music are made and played by synthesizers and drum machines, but are all fairly different in style. For instance, House and Dance are the types of music usually played at dances with a constant bass beat. Jungle and Drum N’ Bass are usually associated with the ever-growing rave scene. These types are very fast with extremely heavy bass and very intricate snare drum loops. Trance and Ambient are slower songs with odd time signatures and are sometimes very difficult to listen to without falling asleep or into a trance. Hardcore and Happy Hardcore are very similar to House and Dance, however they are exponentially faster and also associated with the rave scene. Techno has always been the most popular type of electronic music and remains at the top with more bands such as Prodigy and Chemical Brothers leading the way.
Computer music is also used often in popular music. Many drummers today use electronic pads as part of their drum kit to get certain sounds they are unable to with acoustic drums. Some drummers use entirely electronic drum kits when they play. Examples of this are Van Halen in the early years and today, a band called Orgy.
Not only are computers used in the production of music, but they are also used in recording music today. Digital recording is relatively new to the music industry and is only beginning to be taught in schools for the recording arts. In older methods of recording, “waveforms of sound are inevitably distorted to some degree, and they also pick up noises from the recording process itself” . In computer based or digital recording, these problems are eliminated, the end product being very clear and distortion free.
Along with digital recording came a method of saving and replaying this new, high quality data. The compact disk is a small, aluminized disk capable of holding about 650 MB of data or roughly 90 minutes of music. Recordable Compacts Disks (CDR) have been available to the public for about 5 years now, but only recently have they been offered at a reasonable price. For this reason, CDR’s have grown in popularity and are now seen as the best and most cost effective way of storing data. The bad thing about CDR’s is that they make the reproduction of copyrighted material very easy. Any music that you can save in any format on your computer can be recorded onto a CDR and then played in any CD player. This creates many legal problems for artists and record companies. Pirate copies of their music are being made and sold with no profit going to them. This is almost impossible to monitor and control. Fortunately, some record companies have developed ways to protect their investments by making CD’s that scramble the music on them when they are being copied onto a computer.
With the coming of the Internet, attention was finally drawn to computer music. The word was so easy to spread on the Information Highway. The popularity of MIDI composing and tracking grew immensely and the quality of the music being produced improved tenfold.
With the Internet came even more progression in computers and music. However, this development is in the way music is distributed, not produced. For a couple years after the Internet became available, there were only a few file formats that were able to hold music. These were MOD’s, MIDI and wav’s. A wav’s is a format that allows you to record and listen to anything you can put near a microphone or play into your computer. Wav’s are okay for small short sounds like movie clips or jokes, but an entire song would take up a very large amount of memory. Although they were gaining in popularity, not many people were into MIDI and MOD’s. They would rather hear their favourite band on their computer.
This lead to the development of a better quality and more compact version of the wav file, called an MP3 (short for Moving Picture Experts Group – 1, Audio Layer 3). The MP3 allows any computer owner to record songs from any CD and save it on their computer using minimal space. The file can then be sent around the Internet and with the use CDR and put back onto CD with virtually no loss in sound quality.
This presents a large problem to the modern music business. Piracy is growing everyday and record companies and artists are losing potential profits. Many record companies have started a movement called the Secure Digital Music Initiative to maintain their security. Many experts say that it is too late to attempt to control the development of MP3’s.
Other file formats such as real audio have been set as the standards for audio distribution on the Internet. The record companies have been able to gain control over this format by decreasing the quality of the audio files and shortening the length. The files are also only available from the server they are placed on. This means that you can view or listen to them, but you cannot save the actual file for re-distribution.
Unfortunately for record companies, it does seem that MP3’s are going to be a big part of the future music industry. There are already portable MP3 players available in stores. They are fairly expensive now, but the price will fall soon enough.
The good thing about MP3’s is for the underground music scene. Many artists that want to get noticed are using MP3’s to get their music listened to. Smaller bands can now gain a larger fan base by the wide distribution of MP3’s over the Internet. Even trackers are getting into the MP3 scene. Most people don’t have a program on their computer that allows them to listen to MOD’s, so the artists are converting their songs to MP3’s and posting them for people to listen to. “Seems to me the only way tracking will move on is to embrace MP3 or RA.” Steve Gilmore made this statement on a MOD newsgroup expressing his views on the future of tracking and MOD’s.
It seems that computers have done a lot to change the way music is produced in the past and continues to do so now. Only recently have computers made a significant impact on the way music is distributed. With the development of the Internet and the many music formats that have been produced along with it, problems in the music industry have arisen. There is nothing the music business can do about inevitable changes that will be made in the near future. The future of the music industry will be shaped around MP3’s, Real Audio and other future developments in computers and music, just as it has been in the past. Progression will continue in technology and with new technology comes a change in the way we do things. It has always been this way and always will be this way.