‘Music technology’ is a dirty phrase with some musicians, but without it, music would never have developed…
There are some musicians (don’t worry- we won’t be naming names 😉 ) for whom ‘music technology’ seems like a dark art. You know the type- if it’s a guitarist, they might tell you that anything built after ’63 is a waste of money. Or, who tells you that anything digital is the work of the devil.
The piano playing equivalent might will you that nothing compares to a real acoustic piano. A producer might insist on a completely analogue signal path.
Whilst this stance might seem a bit ‘luddite’, there is clearly some strong reasoning behind it. Usually it’s a simple matter of sonic character.
However, what these technology resistant folk may not recognise is that the instruments and equipment that they love are just an older part of music technology ‘s evolutionary process – everything was cutting edge at some point. Without this drive to push things forward, music itself would become stagnant.
Here, we’ll take a look at 5 of music’s most important technological developments, and how they changed the musical landscape.
The Electric Guitar
Yes, the electric guitar was the cutting edge once. Like much of today’s music tech, many audiences heavily criticized it. For example, it wasn’t too long ago that Bob Dylan was deemed a ‘Judas’ when he decided to ‘go electric’.
Long before this, however, the first electric guitars, which appeared in the ‘30s, were met with a mixture of distrust and disapproval. For jazz bands, the sheer volume was enough to make many wary. Thomas Edison and Nikolai Tesla had made electricity seem ‘otherworldly’, too, making some wary of it.
However, musicians quickly realised that the extra volume they provided allowed the guitar to be a lead instrument. No longer were guitarists comping chords in the background, they were creating leads and solos, riffs and motifs; all of which define the modern use of the guitar in popular music.
The Electric Bass guitar
Leo Fender first developed the electric bass guitar in 1951, in the form of the Precision Bass. Like the electric guitar, it was very music designed to negate problems- namely that an upright bass was incredibly large and difficult to transport.
The electric bass meant that a band could feasibly travel together to a gig, with all of their gear. Though initially treated with some trepidation, jazz players and country players alike warmly embraced the electric bass.
The advantage of small size was partnered with ease of maintenance. However, the more ‘forward’ sound, and increase in volume made the bass a more prominent part of music.
Later, styles such as funk would make the bass, arguably, the most essential musical feature within the genre- the groove was built on bass’s foundation.
This in turn would make it possible for whole genres of music to evolve around the bass-line (Drum and Bass, Dubstep, Hip Hop and more, are all largely built on Bass).
The Overdrive Pedal/ Distortion Pedal
Overdrive effects were, like many things in music, a bit of a happy accident. Guitar amps were driven beyond their capabilities, which resulted in the tone breaking up and becoming slightly ‘fuzzy’.
Leo Fender tried to stop this from happening by over-engineering his amps, such that they would not overdrive, even at high gain 9resulting in a catalogue of classic amps that have incredible clean tones).
The first recorded example of this effect is held to be Ike Turner’s ‘Rocket 88’. According to legend, the guitarist’s amp was damaged on the way to the studio, leading to its unique, distorted sound.
However, it was not until Grady Martin, a Nashville Musician, was recording with Marty Robbins in 1960 that the distortion pedal as we know it was born. One of the amps used during the session developed a fault, and began distorting.
Rather than fix it, Robbins worked out what was happening in the circuit and recreated it. The fuzzbox was born.
It was perhaps the Rolling Stones use of the effect on their track ‘Satisfaction’ that brought it to the wider public however. Now, it is a staple of all modern forms of guitar-based music. In fact, there are genres that it could be argued would not exist without the humble distortion pedal (metal, I’m looking in your direction…) In addition, it encouraged the creation of a wider variety of guitar effects.
Remarkably, Elisha Gray created the earliest examples of the synthesizer in 1876. It was not until the early 1900s that the electronic revolution kick-started the development of true synthesis, however.
The Audion piano appeared in 1915, whilst Theremins appeared in the 1920s, and others followed. One of the most popular early synths (though it’s rarely seen that way) was the Hammond Organ, developed in 1938. This utilised additive synthesis to create its sounds. It was, perhaps, Bob Moog that brought synthesis to the a wider audience of musicians, with his MiniMoog synth.
The significance of the synthesizer cannot be underestimated. It was the first time a musical instrument produced a sound that was entirely synthetic. Not only that, it provided a set of tools that allowed the user to create a wide array of sounds or there own choosing.
Without the synthesizer, the musical landscape would be very different. The vast majority of popular music employs synthesis in one form or another.
The development of MIDI changed the music technology world in ways that neither Roland nor Dave Smith could have ever imagined when they came up with the protocol 30 years ago.
It was initially conceived to standardise the various technologies used to connect synthesizer equipment. At the time, each manufacturer had its own standard, meaning that you could only use one brand of equipment together.
With MIDI, all of this was done away with.
The protocol was so strong that it led to software developers writing sequencer software that enabled racks of gear to be controlled centrally, via an easy to use interface.
Whole, complex pieces, with multiple instruments could be scored and edited with ease, empowering the composer.
This eventually evolved into the DAW software packages that we know today. These combine powerful multi-track audio functionality with virtual synthesizer technology, meaning that a computer is a true virtual studio, without the need for any external equipment.
However, the technology that tells the virtual synths which notes to play, how hard, how the filter should be controlled, or just about any other ‘control’ based function is still MIDI. Plus, nowadays, even DJ controllers employ MIDI technology.
Thirty years on, and it’s still at the cutting edge… I cannot begin to comprehend where music would be today without MIDI. The list of classic albums that wouldn’t exist, and even genres of music that wouldn’t exist without it is mind-blowing.
Music Technology has always been a major driving force behind the music itself. Without it, we’d still be banging rocks together…
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Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.