Editorial: Technology changes music

When Louis Armstrong recorded with his Hot Five in the 1920s they would all gather together in the studio and play 'Potato Head Blues' or 'Alligator Crawl' straight through as loud as they could into the recording machine's horn.

To hear any sort of recording of yourself would have been a novelty back then but imagine what he'd have thought if you were able to go back and explain to him that one day someone would take his 78rpm records, record them onto a computer and then set about digitally remastering them. They'd remove all the hiss, clicks and fuzzy distortion to produce versions that were many times clearer than the one he'd just made - in stereo if you wished. And that you could fit all of his records, plus all of Mozart's work - and a massive amount more - on a little gadget that would slip easily into your pocket?

Technology has done a lot more for modern music than take it to the masses; this issue looks at how it has determined music's creative course and where it will go next.

Now there's a generation as used to MP3s and iPods as CDs and CD players - and yet the older technology is still having an influence; vinyl sales have been growing in recent years, and on p58 we look at why manufacturers are making amps with valves again. You can see how a vinyl record is made at the Abbey Road recording studio in our E&T video online at http://kn.theiet.org/magazine/ [new window].

Its followers argue that vinyl produces a 'warmer' sound than the CD. Is that preferable? I think it depends on the music. Classical music, generally meant to be played live, sounds best when it's closest to that live sound. But modern music has spread through records, radio play or the Internet. What sounded marvellous blaring out of a Roberts radio in 1970 can sometimes sound a little thin on a CD.

The format of recorded music is one thing that shapes modern music. In the days of 78rpm records, you had to change the needle as well as the record after just three minutes or so. But Duke Ellington used that brief time to make miniature masterpieces. Many people liked how Dire Straits sounded on the first CD players, or how Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells sounded on a 'hi-fi' music centre. Even Crazy Frog's rendition of 'Axel F' was a hit a couple of years back because it was sonically attuned to the mobile phone speaker.

But technology doesn't just shape the length or complexity of modern music. In a 1982 radio interview with Midge Ure, you hear first from a musicians union leader who was concerned that synthesisers need to be stopped before they put all the musicians out of work. "I don't think synths are doing any one out of a job. You can't stop progress," Ure chips in, "people playing violins or crumhorns or whatever are not being done out of a job, it's up to them to advance themselves."

Synthesisers were just one more development that changed music. As Midge Ure realised, it changes the instrumentation and by doing so moves music on. But musicians don't always ditch the old for the new. Some of today's bands want to recreate the early synth sound of the 1980s, for example, and now there's software that will simulate those primitive electronics sounds (p30). The old studio equipment is in demand again too. Abbey Road now offers an online mastering service - send in your music and have it processed by their vintage equipment to get that Beatles-like sound. Our music technology correspondent and Beatles fanatic Jonathan Wilson went to find out how it works, and you can see his video online now. He swears he didn't ask anyone to take a picture of him on that zebra crossing though.

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