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How the software
revolutionized music

How the software revolutionized music 01

From the invention of the pipe organ through the electric guitar to the synthesiser and sampler, technology has always shaped the sound and direction of contemporary music. No engineering-driven advance, however, has had as profound a sociological impact on the sonic arts as the advent, consolidation and ultimate rise to ubiquity of the home computer.

The revolution as we now know it began in the late 1990s, when computer processors achieved fast enough speeds to be able to record, process and play back multiple audio tracks at once – multi-tracking, in other words, the cornerstone of music production since the 1950s. 

While pro and amateur recording studios the world over were making the upgrade from tape or dedicated hard disk recorders to Apple Macs, a nascent breed of earthier producers – including the likes of Skream, Big K.R.I.T. and Hudson Mohawke – were learning the beat-making ropes with seminal 1999 PlayStation ‘game’ MTV Music Generator. Summarised in a review by online media company IGN at the time as “a powerful, legitimate music program that rivals far more difficult $1,500-$3,000 products of the same ilk”, this brilliant, ambitious semi-toy enabled the construction of complete songs from prefab libraries of samples. Naturally, the aforementioned musos moved on to those more versatile rival products prior to hitting the big time, but all of them would credit Sony’s console and its rudimentary virtual studio with kick-starting their careers.

In the purist dance-music arena, Propellerhead Software’s Rebirth RB-338, released in 1996, had already begun changing the game, while Roland’s classic TR-808 and TR-909 drum machines and TB-303 synth were at the heart of a nifty faux house/techno production suite for Mac and, eventually, PC.

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Fast forward to 2018 and there’s so much immensely empowering software available to the recording musician at all price points, from free upwards, that it can be hard to know where to start… or stop. The vast majority of veteran artists have ditched or heavily downsized their bulky, expensive racks of studio hardware and moved fully or mostly ‘in the box’, as 100-per-cent-software production has come to be known. Meanwhile the music-technology newbie will likely never know what a real mixer fader or pan pot even looks like. From digital audio workstations (basically, self-contained studio apps) to an ever-expanding array of MIDI-controlled virtual synthesisers, samplers, guitars, pianos, reverbs, EQs and emulations of pretty much everything else you might find in a bricks-and-mortar recording facility, software dominates the landscape. Hardware simply can’t compete on price or convenience, and with the sonic differences between, say, a real synth and its soft equivalent being all but indistinguishable in the mix… well, you get the picture. 

Crucially, this seismic technological shift has democratised music production to the point where anyone can now make complete tracks in the comfort of their own home, using the exact same tools as the professionals. The ability to play an instrument (and/or gain access to others who can) certainly remains a plus, but with an increasing number of utterly convincing, highly adaptable virtual drummers, guitarists and other ‘musicians’ coming to market, even that’s not a necessity in the modern music industry. There’s no sound that can’t be faithfully recreated in software, no matter how ‘human’ it might be – just ask Oscar-winning movie-score maestro Hans Zimmer (The Lion King, Gladiator, Dark Knight trilogy, Inception, Interstellar), who’s been using meticulously sampled orchestral sections in lieu of the real thing for years. You can do the same with his recently released Hans Zimmer Strings virtual instrument.

The cultural upshot of this great creative levelling is that the record label A&R is as likely to find a new signing browsing YouTube or SoundCloud as it is scouring an established live circuit. And while the unsigned demo tape used to be an ugly, shabby, noisy thing, today’s aspiring singer-songwriter or electronic producer could conceivably be touting for a deal with a collection of fully home mixed and mastered tracks that end up serving as their debut album.

There are many poster children for the music software revolution, but down-tempo Brit piano-popster James Blake is a true exemplar. Blake cut his teeth producing and DJ-ing dubstep – the first entirely computer-based mainstream music genre, give or take – eventually settling on a quirky bass-influenced style that simply couldn’t be made without software technology. “There used to be a musical elite, and it included the people that ran the studios and had the means to make music when nobody else could,” he told the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 2011. “But there’s no kid growing up in Brixton now thinking, 'I wish I could get into a studio’. They just get Logic [Apple’s €180 professional digital audio workstation] and they can start making music.”

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More recently, New York City rapper Prince Harvey famously worked up an entire album using the free GarageBand app on a MacBook Air in his local Apple Store, even recording vocals into the built-in mic to the bemusement of watching shoppers. Fortunately, what started out as a covert operation went legit when the staff saw the PR value in Harvey’s project and gave him free rein to get it done.

It’s not only new and upcoming artists who benefit from this lowering of financial and practical barriers, either. Synth-pop legend Gary Numan, for example, produced his last album, Savage (Songs from a Broken World), almost entirely on his Mac, as much out of necessity as expediency. “That move from traditional studio to [computer-based studio] was a complete godsend for me,” he revealed to MusicRadar.com. “There was no way that I could have survived making albums in a ‘studio’, because it simply became too expensive. With Pro Tools and a computer, I can make an album anywhere.”

Speaking of making albums anywhere, the dream of the genuinely pocket-sized virtual studio is well on the way to being realised, too, despite the less fully-featured operating systems of iOS and Android devices. Damon Albarn made the 2010 Gorillaz album The Fall on an iPad while on tour in the States; and scaling down the creative environment further still, hip-hop millennial and Grammy nominee Steve Lacy is well known for making beats – including those of Kendrick Lamar’s Pride, from last year’s Damn album – on his iPhone, wherever and whenever the muse strikes.

Make no mistake, software technology plays an instrumental role (pun very much intended) in every pop hit, club anthem, underground roller, metal grinder, jazz musing, orchestral masterpiece and epic soundtrack you hear today. It’s proven, as it has in so many areas of life, to be a truly transformative, liberating, equalizing force. But are we losing anything in all this? Back in the day, newbie dance producers, hip-hop beat makers and wide-eyed young bands had to find imaginative ways to work around low track counts, poor recording quality and the inherent limitations of early sampling and synthesis tech. Getting better gear and learning how to use it was a fundamental part of the process. Now, with even some free software instruments leaving their physical ancestors spluttering in the dust in terms of performance, that ingenuity and commitment, and the creative rewards and trajectory that they bring, are becoming requisites of the past.

Then there’s “the sound, man”. Just as vinyl has been proven time and time again to be a more aurally satisfying medium than its digital alternatives, so the warm, gently saturated vibes of tape are generally more pleasing to the ear than the clean, cold perfection of hard disk recording and playback. Stick any classic LP from the 20th century on and, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not, a significant player in its overall texture and tone will be the magnetic tape on to which it was recorded, mixed and mastered, and the specialist analogue equipment through which it passed on the way there. It’s both ironic and perfectly logical, then, that software tape-simulation effects are now a thing, complete with the once-maligned phenomena of wow, flutter and hiss; and that developers go to great lengths to reproduce analogue-style electrical fluctuations and signal distortion in their virtual recreations of vintage equipment. The present and future of music production, it would seem, centres on cheap, accessible software with the rich, classy and inherently ‘flawed’ sound of expensive, aged analogue hardware. Strange days.

Beyond any nostalgic yearning for corporeality and colour, there’s a more pressing consequence of the software shakedown to consider: just because anyone can make music, it doesn’t mean that everyone should, as the depressing volume of eminently forgettable home-cooked choons cluttering up SoundCloud, YouTube and other networks proves. The seeker of new listening experiences looking to turn away from established acts invariably has to wade through hundreds of stinkers to find that single gem.

Clearly, though, as with all things digital (take photography as an obvious parallel), there’s no going back. Hardware synths and studio gear are more affordable than ever and still very much in demand, but these days they’re adjuncts to the computers into which they feed rather than the essentials they once were. Undoubtedly, the future of music is made of 1s and 0s, and belongs to anyone who wants a piece of it. We’ll give the last word to Richie Hawtin, techno doyen and witness to the revolution, who explained his abandonment of the physical Computer Music magazine in 2014: “At first, I didn't feel comfortable working 'in the box'. I thought that I couldn't be creative unless I was locked in a room full of hardware for a couple of months. But I've finally found out how to make it work. The best electronic music always happens when man and machine are collaborating. It's all about that struggle between human and computer."

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