In Bernard Wilets’s discovering electronic music, Bernard states, “We live in an age of technology in which machines touch every part of our lives; it is not surprising that music has also been influenced by technology.” (Bernard). The sound of music has undergone massive changes since the dawn of the synthesizer. When once a band relied solely on the instruments its members could play in order to forge their thoughts into sound, they now can purchase a piece of hardware or software to add an array of instruments to their music. However, due to this technological advance many argue that talent is no longer required to be a musician and that synthesizer programmers are lazy hacks but I beg to differ.
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To understand exactly what it takes to be an electronic musician and or synth programmer you must first understand electronic music and its components. Wilets describes the production of sounds by means of conventional instruments, using a string bass as an example as “When a string on a string bass is made to vibrate or oscillate a sound is produced. By changing the length of the oscillating strings with the left hand, the instrument produces different pitches. (Wilets). If the sound created was displayed visually, it would look like what is called a wave pattern. The electronic sound synthesizer or synth for short is a device designed to create or manipulate sounds. A synthesizer is composed of many ways to create and manipulate sounds. Depending on the synth the options range from filtering out certain frequency’s and distorting sounds to pitching them higher than any know instrument can achieve. However, there is one component of design of which all the others build upon, the oscillators.
The oscillators or Oscs for short, produce sound electronically. Each oscillator produces a unique sound and waveform. Common waveforms found on most synthesizers are the square; saw tooth, sine, and triangle waveforms. These four waveforms serve as the basic building blocks for most conventional instruments. Often instruments are grouped together depending on their similarities in sound and technique. Instruments such as flutes, piccolos, and ocarinas’ fall under the category of wind instruments. Wind instruments are grouped together because they rely on air to create sound. Instruments that share the same means of sound production often share an audible similarity as well. This similarity extends to each instruments waveform. By modifying one of the four basic waveforms, a synthesizer could recreate virtually any known instrument, making it massively appealing.
Although the idea of electronic instruments and electronically produced music has been around since the 1800’s it was not until around the 1940s that the concept was fully realized. Although inventions such as the musical telegraph and theremin served as a testament to the future of electronically produced music, the idea still needed to be refined. It wasn’t until the invention of the Moog synthesizer, invented by Robert Moog and Don Buchla, did the synthesizer begin its musical takeover. The very first Moog synthesizers were massive and resembled machines seen in old science fiction movies before the computer age. They were extremely expensive, extremely hard to program and used mostly in film scoring and music houses. After refining his invention however, Moog compressed the massive instrument into a portable and affordable device thus making the synthesizer something anyone could afford. This innovation would eventually go on to change the face of music forever.
. While most still used the synthesizer as a means to replicate existing instruments others saw the deeper potential it held. Based on simplistic waveforms that required modification to attain certain sounds, the synthesizer held limitless sonic capabilities. Bands such as the Moody Blues and Emerson, Lake and Palmer were among the first to use the synthesizer to achieve more abstract sounds. Their sonic creativity would lead others to do the same and eventually synthesized sounds began to serenade all types of music. Due to the demand to create unique sounds and music, companies wishing to cash in on this new device made many types of synthesizers.
Due to copyright, other companies had to veer away from the subtractive analog synthesis used in Moog synthesizers. They had to create their own synthesizers thus creating new ways to approach sound synthesis. Over time, a slew of ways to approach sound synthesis came about. Synthesizers based on additive synthesis, frequency modulation, granular synthesis and phase distortion to name a few began to hit music stores. While the design became seemingly more small and simplistic, the ways to manipulate and create sound became vast. Programming each of these types of synth required knowledge in the specific form of synthesis it implored.
When once a synth programmer had to simultaneously play keys, pull and plug cords into various inputs and outputs he can now do the same thing by simplistic digital means, which often only require the flicking of a switch. This advance in technology is what people claim to be the reason why talent is no longer required. Of course holding down a single key and playing an entire riff or ensemble may seem lazy in practice. People forget that that entire riff started as dull waveforms. In order to produce something like that an electronic musician must have vast knowledge in not only music, in order to achieve a good sounding riff, he must also know how to program his synthesizer.
Take for example the arpeggiated synth lines heard in most trance songs. In order to create these sounds the synth programmer must first create the sound he wishes to arpeggiate. This process can be as simple as combining three saw tooth waveforms, pitching one in a high octave, another in a lower and the last one in an extremely almost un-audible low octave. Then filtering most of the high frequencies out, adding a low frequency osc after filtering and adjusting the way in which the sound is unleashed, sustained and how it decays, to linking the frequency’s cutoff to the low frequency osc, running it through another filter and programming the sound to continually morph it’s velocity to a prerecorded pattern. After that, the programmer must then use an arpeggiator, arpeggiator range from simplistic preset patterns to possessing the ability to adjust its velocity one hundred times during the course of the sounds procession. This process is known as “tweaking” the sound.
After programming his arpeggiated synth patch the electronic musician might go on to program a synth to stand in for bass sounds and then another for keyboard which all are as complicated as making an arpeggiated sound. After the electronic music has finished all the synth parts of his songs, he must then turn his focus to the percussion. Although a synthesizer is capable of producing drum sounds, the sounds created often had a synthetic sound to them that most electronic musicians did not find appealing. Most electronic musicians then would turn to another piece of equipment or software known as a drum machine.
A drum machine is a sound module that specializes in the production of percussive timbres. Drum machines followed a similar path to synthesizers, first being complicated large pieces of machinery to becoming hand held devices. Programming these are equally complicated. As drum machines involved they began to be capable to record sounds and edit them to programmer’s wishes thus making things like heartbeats the kick drum of many songs.
These two pieces of hardware or software became the instruments of choice to most electronic music producers, whether they are in the form of hardware or software. Now programming a riff or drum pattern was hard enough the programmer also has to humanize his track or else it would sound too robotic. By humanizing, I mean the process in which they make the drumbeat sound as if someone was actually playing a drum kit. This implies varying velocity, panning the sounds to encompass the space drums demand, and adding digital effects, the same thing implies to the synth.
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So in order to produce electronic music, the electronic musician must know all of the things I discussed as well as music theory and how instruments work. For example, you could not create an organ synth sound and play it like guitar it just would not work. So that being said I think the electronic musician if far from lazy and that, the simplification of electronic instruments only makes their capabilities greater as they do not have to worry about attaching cybernetic arms to their body in order to fiddle with more cords.
Alot of people however say that anyone could become an electronic musician. That the style can be taught and is not heartfelt. That electronic musicians lack the talent of other muscians. This is what an electronic musician credits his inspiration to “I’m a very curious person, and I tend to find new obsessions every few years. I love the energy that lives on the border of human ingenuity, the edge where scientific curiosity, spiritual wonder, and technological invention meet in explosions of beauty and truth. I love to celebrate those people whose spark ignites at that juncture. As I seek new musical inspiration, (sometimes I do run dry for periods) I look for energetic examples in other fields besides music. I often find them in the realms of physics, poetry, architecture, biology, history – anywhere actually.” I guess I’m a bit insatiable, and I want to explore the best that humanity has created, and echo it as well as I can in my own work. That statement, to me, is what music is all about.
Holmes, Thomas B. Electronic and Experimental Music: Pioneers in Technology and Composition. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
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Moog. Dir. Hans Fjellestad. Perf. Robert Moog. ZU33, 2004. DVD.
Shapiro, Peter, and Iara Lee. Modulations: a History of Electronic Music : Throbbing Words on Sound. New York: Caipirinha Productions, 2000. Print.
“YouTube – Discovering Electronic Music Part 1.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 10 Nov. 2010. Rich, Robert. “Robert Rich Interview -.” Synthesizer Music and Electronics | Join the Electronic Music Revolution NOW! Web. 28 Nov. 2010.
Rich, Robert. “Robert Rich Interview -.” Synthesizer Music and Electronics | Join the Electronic Music Revolution NOW! Web. 28 Nov. 2010.
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