Technology has changed music in unfathomable ways in last 20 years. The digital age has made equipment cheaper, affording higher quality recording capability for younger musicians and amateurs, and digital audio workstation software has radically revolutionized how songs are conceived, constructed, and arranged. The debate on whether technological advances are net positive for all forms of craftsmanship is something that will never end. The luddites always cling to the good old days when you had to work harder and more meticulously to achieve high caliber work, and technophiles dogmatically fetishize all advancement.
Like most things, I fall somewhere in the middle in that I see technological advancement and science as the best recourse to solve most of humanities biggest problems. I believe the best technology gives you more free time from monotonous labor, and creates tools that allow the ideas in your head to come to fruition with greater ease. There is also the realization that when you delegate a task you used to do yourself to a machine or computer, atrophy sets in and you will eventually lose that skill. For example, many of us probably don’t memorize phone numbers anymore or remember driving directions because of GPS navigation. One of my favorite examples is people saying that have to wash their clothes, when in truth a machine washes them and dries them. I don’t think any of us are pining for the days of using a rock on a washing board in a river to clean clothes. But, I also appreciate that some well-worn practices and tools just work.
In regards to the music world, a modus operandi that needs to re-emphasized and re-utilized is bands playing and writing together in a room. I’m not saying this for nostalgia’s sake; it’s an assessment I’ve made seeing how songwriting has changed and concurrently affected live performances in a negative way.
Songwriting & Arrangement
Being able to see a visual representation of a song on digital recording software was a massive paradigm shift for me. It encapsulated and presented the structure and arrangement of your song in a simple and objective manner. The first time I used Pro Tools was on God Forbid’s 2004 album, Gone Forever. The 2 previous albums were recorded to 2 inch tape. We had a song that would eventually be called “Soul Engraved” that we were getting our buddy, Tommy Vext, to do guest vocals on. He wasn’t happy with the arrangement, and we ended up cutting the track in Pro Tools, removing a couple sections, and really created an entirely new song: in the studio. This was unheard of in years past. This is the upside of this technology: being able to take a bird’s eye view of the song, and maybe turn the bridge into the chorus or the chorus into the verse, etc.
The downside is that when you can cut & paste, you tend to cut & paste. When you work with a song in a visual medium, that in and of itself makes songs become more formulaic. Songs become a collection of parts rather than songs. When you are in that room, sweating, and you have to physically play and sing that 2nd verse or 3rd chorus, the physical act of the repetition tells your body to mix it up, keep it interesting. Sure, it’s the 3rd chorus, but why not give it some variety? Let the emotion of the music carry you to a different place. These choices become much more clinical when you can get to the 3rd chorus in the click of a mouse.
I can’t imagine that Dave Mustaine would have written “Holy Wars…The Punishment Due” on a computer. It’s too freewheeling and out-of-the-box. I’m headbanging just thinking about it. Why follow the rules when you can make your own?
From a creative standpoint, digital recording is invaluable to getting ideas down quickly, and has become the default methodology for composition. I’m not saying anyone should stop doing that, but incorporating live playing with a full band in tandem with digital composition reaps huge rewards, because things just…happen. Unplanned moments of musical magic sprout virtually out of thin air. Slash will be playing around with some guitar exercise and the next thing you know, Guns N Roses writes their biggest hit, “Sweet Child Of Mine”.
There’s another point I have to implore: Bands, musicians, please learn how to jam. You don’t have to be in Phish to jam. It’s just about being able to vibe on an idea, and see where it goes. This is a skill many players who can shred me under the table do not have. There is no ability to let go, allow the emotion of the music guide you, put the analytical part of the process to aside, and just explore. Amazing things can happen. Often they don’t, but it’s a wonderfully meditative musical practice.
One of the main things I’m seeing with live bands these days are groups of players who may be proficient as individuals, but have not yet developed a cohesive and harmonious interplay between each other. During live shows, this rears it’s head when you notice band’s tones don’t match, or they have uneven on-stage volumes or bass tone does not blend to fit with the guitars. The band members aren’t listening to one another. Sometimes, you run into serendipitous situations where the chemistry is immediate, but this is rare. Even when all of the musicians are high level, it still takes time.
If the only time you play together is to prepare for a show, and don’t take the time to play as a unit, writing, jamming, listening, then you are like a band who is covering their own songs. This takes years, not weeks. There is a reason people still want to see The Rolling Stones, and we yearn for the Appetite For Destruction era Guns N Roses. We know there was something exquisitely volcanic about these bands’ chemistry. It was a group of musicians who took the time to create a unified front of synergy.
One of the problems of only composing and developing material in the digital realm is that you are under the illusion that recording is what your “band” actually sounds like. You may have created music. You may have created a recording, but now you have to figure out how to turn that recording into real sound a band makes. Rappers and EDM artists have it easy. They can just play most of the original recording through the PA. As I wrote about in a previous article about backing tracks, many rock and pop bands have half the show in the bag as well.
When you are working on material in a jam room, it’s raw aesthetic gives you a much more accurate representation of what your band actually sounds like. In my experience when working on new song and a part really crushed in the rehearsal room, then I knew it would work live and on recording. You didn’t just hear it. The air moved. You felt it. There was nothing in the rehearsal room to elevate the core sounds beyond their organic nature. It’s like running with ankle weights on. The jam room was a litmus test for your material. When you got in the studio or great sounding live venue, the part was that much more powerful.
I’m not advocating we abandon modern techniques; I’m just saying certain skills are being lost and quality is suffering. I will certainly keep using digital software to compose. I was doing it the same day I wrote this piece. But I also know what it takes to make bands reach their organically highest potential. One more thing: getting in that room with loud amps, pounding drums, big riffs, and rocking out with your friends, it’s just fun. Nothing in the world gives me that feeling, and it’s the reason I still do this.