The revolution in making music

We’re living through a revolution in the way music is created and distributed.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s never been easier to make music. Once, large record companies largely footed the bill for studio time, which was too expensive for most musicians. Studio time was necessary for recording because very few individual musicians could afford the large tape machines and mixing boards, packed with vacuum tubes and transformers, that were needed to make decent recordings.

But times have changed. Tape machines are no longer necessary, because most recording is done digitally. Digital multitrack recorders – either standalone units or software equivalents – have replaced the big console mixers as well as the tape machines. Virtual instruments – those that exist only in software – now can replace most acoustic instruments, offering musicians a much greater variety of sound at a much lower cost. Pre-recorded audio “loops” are available for download at the touch of a button, as are any number of “effects” used to manipulate the sounds.  And Chinese labor has resulted in much lower prices for the hardware that is still required to create most music – especially guitars, microphones and preamplifiers.

Now, almost anyone can produce a piece of music that’s listenable. The result: While CD sales are down, the amount of music being produced is actually up, as tens of thousands of bedroom producers crank out song after song, and distribute it themselves on MySpace or other online sites.

So true democracy has come to music making. But is the new product any good?

Obviously, that’s in the ear of the listener. One thing that’s not debatable: There’s quite a bit of insipid, unoriginal, derivative music out there.

The wide distribution of music-making tools has led many of us to believe that the shiny new toys can replace hard work and talent. So you can see how mediocre music can be cut, pasted, Auto-Tuned and automated — but it’s still mediocre, for all that.

Everyone who throws together some loops on their computer now considers themselves a producer, which completely underestimates the crucial roles the producer and the sound engineer can have.

Still, for those who refuse to put away their creativity, the revolution really helps. We can, at the click of a mouse, create a sound that once took musicians weeks of effort to get. Those who avoid settling on that first mouse click – for those who continue to push the boundaries of the art, who use the new tools to create art that’s really new – this era is truly a Renaissance.

Tonight as I sit at my desk in my home-based studio, I can play a virtual Steinway, utilize loops of drum tracks recorded with some $1,000 microphones in a pristine-sounding studio and played by a veteran session drummer, even “play” a full orchestra on my sub-$300 midi controller keyboard. So long as I avoid over-reliance on such tools, I won’t swear them off — that is, until I can afford those $1,000 microphones, pristine recording spaces and top-flight instruments myself.

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