Computers have become indispensible tools for making music today

Music and computers

Sampling is the latest technology to remake music. It's one more contribution from engineering to a 35,000-year-old art form.

Funk band The Winstons were only briefly a household name. The act picked up a Grammy for the single 'Color Him Father' in 1969, but it was a tiny segment of the B-side that would prove to be the legacy of The Winstons and the band's drummer, the late Greg Coleman. In the more laboratory-like environment, Peter Zinovieff and colleagues were working on a system, the successors of which would usher in a massive change in music and provide an otherwise little-known funk band with a pivotal slot in music history.

Zinovieff is better known as a member of the team behind the EMS VCS3 synth, nicknamed the Putney after the studio where they worked, which appears prominently in the soundtrack of 'Doctor Who' episodes in the 1970s. But another project, almost forgotten as it never made it to commercialisation, was a digital sound sampler based on two Digital Equipment PDP-8s running side-by-side. With memory at a premium - the EMS Musys could store just 12Kb of sound samples - it would take close to a decade for the idea of using digital memory to record and play back sounds to become a commercial reality.

Taking recordings of sounds and playing them back to create electronic instruments was not new, but their digital implementation was troublesome in the late 1960s. The Chamberlin and the Mellotron of the 1960s used loops of magnetic tape to store the notes played by cellos and the notes sung by choirs. These tape instruments were partly inspired by the vision of mid-20th century composers such as Edgard Varèse who devised the idea of musique concrète, music assembled from sounds recorded onto pieces of tape as a collage. Varèse saw this new type of music as one that could capture the sounds of the modern world and move beyond conventional notes (see 'Cognitive Dissonance', p20).

In the process of setting up an electronic music studio at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire in the early 1970s, composer Jon Appleton went to visit electronic music pioneer Max Mathews at Bell Labs to talk about what could be done digitally in place of tape.

"I said I wanted something that could take natural sounds and manipulate them," recalls Appleton. "He said digital technology is a long way from that. It was eight years before that was possible. And, in the beginning, the samples were tiny."

The Winstons' Greg Coleman was an adept drummer, and the middle of the song 'Amen, Brother' provided him with an opportunity to show off his rhythmic flourishes. For six seconds, the drums play solo. It was just long enough for Lenny Roberts, better known as Breakbeat Lenny, to think it would work as source material for hip-hop DJs, who had developed their own handmade approach to playing music.

Extended play

In order to extend the running time of certain tracks, DJs became adept at keeping two copies of the same record on the go at once, spinning each one back in turn to the beginning of a four- or eight-bar segment and letting it play again. With that backdrop, rappers could perform with a steady rhythmic base that, when culled from a longer tune, took on a different character.

Mark Katz of Johns Hopkins University cites it as an example of what he calls "the gramophone effect". It is, he says, "any change in musical behaviour that has arisen in response to any change in recording technology".

But some breakbeats were more popular than others and the vinyl for them ran into short supply in the secondhand stores that 'crate digging' DJs frequented. In the mid-1980s, Breakbeat Lenny had the idea of collecting the best breaks and compiling them on short-run bootleg pressings.

Coleman's soloing in 'Amen, Brother' became part of the first 'official' release in the series - Roberts had distributed some compilations informally before then - alongside breaks from 'Mary Mary' by The Monkees and Rufus Thomas's 'Do The Funky Penguin'. Any genre is a suitable candidate for the transformation into a breakbeat.

Two years later, Kurtis Mantronik transferred the break to tape to form the backbone of 'King of the Beats', bolstering the sound with one of the first affordable sampling drum machines, the SP-1200 (see 'Sines of Reality', p21).

Within two decades, the 'Amen' break was everywhere, even advertisements for cars and pharmaceuticals. Sped-up to breakneck pace in ever more capacious digital samplers, which could retune and stretch the loops on the fly, the 'Amen' formed the core rhythmic texture overlaying the heavy bass of jungle and drum-and-bass that erupted in the mid-1990s.

This application of sampling and digital resynthesis was a long way from what Appleton had in mind for the Dartmouth Digital Synthesiser and its successor, the New England Digital Synclavier. The Synclavier did not sell a large number of units. "If the Synclavier had cost $2,000 rather than $20,000, they would have swept through the music world. The Synclavier expanded music in a tremendous way. Some of the things it could do have not been replicated," says Appleton.

The Synclavier found popularity among a small cluster of musicians who wanted to explore its avant garde possibilities. Guitarist Frank Zappa, who discovered Varèse's music as a teenager, seized on the instrument as a way of realising music that he could not get living musicians to play, rather than having the machine repeat something sampled from a session. The result was 'Jazz From Hell' and a string of other albums put together almost entirely on the Synclavier, despite some of its early limitations (such as the ability to control the volume of individual notes from the keyboard), until Zappa's death in the mid-1990s.

Safe choices

"There were very few Frank Zappas. He was a perfectionist and had a lot of difficulty working with regular musicians, because he was such a perfectionist," recalls Appletion. "He was just an unusual person.

"There were other people who used it, such as Pat Metheny, who did some good work. Sting used it. Michael Jackson toured with it but really did nothing with it. And Oscar Peterson used it but never released his music. His market was his early jazz stuff and no one wanted to hear what he experimented with," Appleton adds.

Conventional classical composers, however, were put off by the rapid development of music technology. "I don't think the classical community has ever taken to computer music or electronic music. One of the reasons for that is because the technology changes so often.

"Composers are not interested in writing for technology that might disappear."

Although sampling is frequently criticised as mechanising music, its product has not stayed inside the machine. The ability to experiment with rhythms much more easily with a computer to produce different genres of music has seen instrumentalists ape the techniques. New York-based Tony Verderosa uses a specially modified kit to play live drum-and-bass rhythms and wrote a book for drummers on how to emulate the different beats of dance music, from house, through two-step garage to jungle.

As music technology now all but permeates pop and rock, Appleton sees a new phase emerging, of people who will meld engineering and music together. "Most musicians have a very limited capacity to learn a technology very deeply. The computer guys are very facile with the technology but they don't have the music. It is very rare that we find a practising musician who is computer literate but more are coming around."

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