There’s no doubt that music has gone through many phases and transformations in the last 40 years. Styles come and go but there has been one particular driving force that has changed forever the way music is created – the rise of technology. Music technology has come down hugely in price over the years, a fact which has launched a new generation of bedroom recording artists who can produce professional sounding material on little more than a laptop. In the latest 5 minute guide we take you through some of the biggest leaps forward in music technology that have not only changed the way music sounds, but intrinsically shaped the way musicians write, record and perform.
In the early 1960′s Robert Moog pioneered the concept of the analogue synthesiser – a series of keyboard controlled interconnected hardware modules covered in dials and switches that looked as if they should be operated by Dr. Who.
Although they were fiendishly complicated to operate, expensive and hugely impractical: early Moog synths opened up a new world of sounds to the few artists who could afford them. Groups like Emerson, Lake & Palmer embraced the new technology by incorporating it into their existing sound with tracks like ‘Lucky Man’. Pink Floyd were enthusiastic users of early synthesisers on the classic ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ while groups like Kraftwerk opted for entirely electronic compositions as on the seminal ‘Autobahn’. As smaller, cheaper, new versions such as the Minimoog and Polymoog became available more and more acts saw the benefits and entirely new genres of music were developed. Georgio Moroder gave disco a kick-start with the throbbing Moog bass-line of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’, and later Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army stormed the charts with help from his Polymoog on ‘Are Friends Electric’ and ‘Cars’
As much as synthesisers had revolutionised music in the 60’s 70′s, the decreasing price of samplers in the 80’s spurned on a whole new wave of creativity. Instead of creating brand new sounds, sampling was about taking a pre-existing segment of audio and using it in a new way. Musicians had been using tape snippets to do this for many years but with the advent of samplers in the late 80′s it became a massively influential tool and changed the face of music for good. Sampling drum machines such as the Emu SP-1200 allowed artists to load banks of sounds and trigger them at will, creating a band-in -a box scenario. The machine set the hip-hop world on fire with users from KRS-One to Q-Tip and De La Soul embracing the new technology. A little later Akai launched their ‘S’ range of samplers which quickly became an omnipresent sight in studios the world over. The ability to record and retrigger sounds led to a huge expansion of dance music and particularly the manipulation of drum loops and effects used in house and drum & bass. The M.A.R.R.S. epic ‘Pump Up The Volume’ became the first track to really set the bar in terms of sampling, reaching the top ten in the USA and UK, but by the mid-nineties everyone who was anyone used a sampler. Once derided by ‘real’ artists, acts such as DJ Shadow and J Dilla have since proved that making tracks from old records can be an art-form in its self.
Roland TB303 & TR-808
In the early ‘80′s the Japanese company Roland Corporation released two small boxes that would go onto become stone-cold classics. The TR-808 was an attempt at a realistic drum emulator – a box designed to double up as a drummer for those who didn’t have their own. Unfortunately it didn’t sound too much like a real drum kit, but therein lay its hidden appeal. The ability of the TR-808 to produce an earth rumbling kick drum was soon picked up on by producers and its characteristic low ‘boom’ quickly became an industry standard, particularly in hip-hop and dance music, with tracks as disparate as Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ and Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Planet Rock’ featuring its unique charms.
After creating an automated drum machine, Roland set their sights on creating an automated bass machine so that buskers could have a full robotic band backing them up. Again, the 303 was lousy at the job it was designed for. No matter though, as young club kids in Chicago found out in the late 80’s, if you messed around with the 303’s controls you could coax both screeching caterwauls and otherworldly squelches out of the machine – noises that sounded particularly good in sweaty clubs at 4am. It’s very rare for one instrument to have been so influential but along with dance classics such as Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’ and A Guy Called Gerald’s ‘Voodoo Ray’ the TB-303 became almost omnipresent in electronic music, as well as forming the entire basis for bands such as Hardfloor and ‘acid’ subgenres acid house and acid techno.
Digital Audio Workstations
As computer processing power grew exponentially through the 90′s, so the dependence of musicians on large studios lessened. Digidesign lead the way with their hardware/software based Pro Tools system, but soon anyone with access to a laptop could effectively manage what 10 years ago was unthinkable without a fridge sized 2″ tape machine and a 60 channel console. The rise of computer technology became the most important step in the democratisation of music. What was once only available to a select wealthy few, now was within the grasp of everyone. Classic instruments such as the early Moogs were now modelled in software and a plethora of sequencers and plug-ins meant that everything, from recording, composing and mixing to CD burning could be done on a single machine. The move from analogue to digital studios has been one of the defining themes of recorded music in recent years. Regardless of genre, the vast majority of modern music will include some sequencing or adaptation on a Digital Audio Workstation. Recently DAW’s such as Ableton have further broken down the distinction between writing records and recording them allowing musicians to write and manipulate a practically unlimited number of synthesisers and effects all in real time. This technology has allowed acts such as Daft Punk and Deadmau5 to develop era defining live shows that blur the line between DJ’ing, production and live performance.