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On the evening of August 7, 2007 Barry Bonds did what was considered a Herculean feat in sport, surpassing Hank Aaron for the most career home runs in major league baseball (at the time, 756). As the ball sailed all 435 feet out of AT&T Park, I paused to consider the conflicted feelings I had about an amazing sport and this recent milestone. It’s obvious to any fan of the game that Barry Bonds is an amazing baseball player, but his alleged steroid use unfortunately calls into question the legitamacy of his achievement. FOX’s Tim McCarver said of the event, “Only time will tell if baseball’s steroid era will result in a number of asterisks within the record book, but there are already mental asterisks in the minds of fans. It’s a shame that, after Bonds breaks the record, the conversation will go, ‘Barry is the all-time home run hitter, but…’ This record deserves more than that. With Henry Aaron, there were no buts.”
But I digress, this isn’t an article about baseball or steroids – although I think there are some serious parallels between the two.
As a working musician, much like any athlete, I am always looking for ways to improve my abilities, whether it is through more practice or by utilizing the latest technology available. When it comes to your passion, I can certainly sympathize with anyone who is trying to gain an edge in what they do.
And while I embrace the merging of technology with music, on the other hand (much like a vast majority of baseball fans), I am a traditionalist. I starting learning music at a time when computers were not heavily used, either in recording or instruction. I took piano lessons when I was very young, and I taught myself how to play guitar by watching others and looking at books. After high school, I attended Berklee College of Music where I really explored the history of music. I honed my craft. I learned what makes it what it is. And now I have been playing music professionally for over ten years now – I have been in a position to witness the explosive expansion of technology and how it has become a mainstay in today’s music business.
The Tech Boom
No matter where you stand on tradition, it can’t be denied that many of the things that have come out of this technological boom have improved the quality of music and made musicians’ lives easier. A few of my favorites are the now ubiquitous iPod; Pro Tools and the wide variety of available plug-ins, making recording faster, easier and limitless; new keyboard technology and the ability to manipulate sounds with almost limitless variation and little sweat; virtual instruments, allowing you to have an orchestra at your fingertips; and non-destructive editing of sound files. All of these product innovations are amazing, inspiring and aid in our abilities to create and enjoy music.
Of course, as with any great innovation, there is the inevitable downside. All of these products are insanely powerful, capable of creating amazing musical miracles. Perhaps it was said best by Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben in the comic Amazing Fantasy #15, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
The manufacturers of these technologies are constantly and simultaneously loading them with more features and making them easier to use. Now, a person who takes the time to learn and manipulate these products can create something that sounds unbelievable with little or no human input – in a historically unique moment, it is now possible to make a record or create music without the playing of any instrument! With the help of modern technology, you could take an average voice off the street and make it sound like Pavarotti. If you’re honest with yourself, do you really believe that Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan can sing?
That being said, there is no doubt that technology can be inspirational. Pete Townsend’s visionary approach to sound gave us seminal tracks like “Baba O’Reilly” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Quincy Jones blended cutting edge technology and live musicians to create Off the Wall and Thriller. There are many producers and musicians doing innovative work in today’s music, such as Dr. Dre and Timabland.
But the question inevitably becomes, where does the line between what is natural and what is fake get drawn? Is there a point where asterisks should be placed next to album tracks, next to artist names?
There is definitely a talent to working with Pro Tools and the myriad related products. Like graphics programs such as Adobe Photoshop, it takes real skill to coax the potential from these applications. The biggest qualm I have, along with many musical “traditionalists”, lies with a new generation of musicians – and certainly not all of them – who are using technology to compensate for a lack of talent and originality. Tuning programs like Antares Auto Tune and Melodyne can create a vocal performance that would never have been possible from the singer’s own voice (more about these later).