Music production

Drummer Greg Ellis Says This Music Production Tool Is Why All New Music Sounds The Same — Quartz

Imagine music as a recipe. Could you tell if it was made with artificial ingredients or fresh produce from the farmer’s market? Canned tomatoes could work really well, but maybe you wouldn’t know what you’d been missing until you tried the same dish with heirlooms, each beautifully twisted with unique streaks of bright yellow.

Drummer Greg Ellis wants listeners to start thinking of sound as food, as something they physically ingest that has a measurable impact on their well-being. These days, he thinks most people consume the musical equivalent of McDonalds: processed, mass-produced and limited in flavor.

Much of this auditory blandness is technology related. It starts with the producer relying on a computer rather than live instrumentalists and ends with the devices we use to consume our music, which cut through the dynamics captured in the recording studio. Ellis, a session drummer who can be heard in the background of Hollywood blockbusters such as Argo, Godzilla, and The matrix series, explores this phenomenon in an upcoming documentary, The click.

What is “the click”?

The “click” is a digital metronome that musicians listen to while recording to ensure their rhythm is exactly in time with the tempo. A simple and now nearly ubiquitous part of the recording process, it has had a profound effect on the music we listen to.

While the click was originally intended as a tool for precision and cohesion, Ellis says its perfect uniformity ushered in an expectation that the rest of musical parts should follow. Suddenly vocalists, instrumentalists and drummers had to sound like machines. When the singers were slightly off, they could be tuned automatically. If a bassist was not perfectly in sync with the drummer, his parts could be processed in a recording program that synchronizes them. Of course, that’s if a live musician is used – many pop, hip hop and R&B producers now use samples or synthetic sounds generated by computers instead of using their human ancestors.

These days, Ellis says he hasn’t had enough space to create most of the drum parts. Although he’s played drums with greats like Billy Idol, Mickey Hart and Beck, a producer who knows little about drums will often create his part for him before he enters the studio and expects he plays it precisely on the click. Sometimes it doesn’t even play the whole song anymore: it is often asked to play only a few bars, which are then repeated using a copy-and-paste function that prevents variation, dynamics or embellishment.

And it could have an effect on our enjoyment of music: there is scientific evidence on the value of giving listeners something they don’t expect. “Inventive music excites neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex,” says Daniel Levitin, neuroscientist and author of This is your brain on music. “It’s the composer’s job to bring us pleasure through choices we didn’t expect.”

Does technology make music more creative or less?

Ellis says this popular production method stifles creativity. “I don’t call anyone using the equipment, I call the equipment itself, which we let dictate our sense of music and time,” Ellis says. “There’s a feeling that when you’re confronted with the real thing, it seems really bad to people.”

“Everyone is used to hearing everything precisely on click and with automatic tuning,” confirms Petros, a producer in Los Angeles who has worked with hitmakers such as One Direction, Enrique Iglesias and Dillon Francis. “So if a recording isn’t made that way, it will sound bad.” However, Petros and other music producers welcome these new technological advancements as a positive, not a negative. He says that fully automating drum tracks is cheaper, easier and more accurate – and in some ways it helps to Following creativity, no less.

With a live drummer, producers have a limited number of sounds to choose from, but with a program, they can quickly and easily experiment with dozens of different options until they find the one that sounds great. Petros says most of his friends who are producers in the music industry don’t even know how to record live drums, and a significant number of people who have songs on the Billboard Hot 100 don’t have any formal musical training. . But do they still need it?

Edward Sharpe and Magnetic Zeros singer Alex Ebert say it became too much easy for anyone to make music with a computer and free software. Consequently, there has been an “undeniable loss of control” among a significant percentage of the musicians and producers making hits now. He says he’s not anti-technology: technological experimentation, after all, is what has produced eye-opening albums, including the Beatles. sergeant. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jimi Hendrix’ The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Pink Floyd The Dark Side of the Moon. Instead, he objects to technology being used as a crutch rather than a tool for invention. “Musical hits are simply regurgitated with refinement,” he says.

Robert Margouleff, an audio engineer who revolutionized the synthesizer on Stevie Wonder’s albums, called the laptop “the folk instrument of our time”.

Not everyone agrees. Robert Margouleff, a sound engineer known for revolutionizing the use of the synthesizer on Stevie Wonder albums, called the laptop “the folk instrument of our time”. It enabled innovators like St. Vincent and Bon Iver to create new sonic experiences and entire albums on their own, and lowered the barrier for new artists to create masterpieces in their bedroom.

But what about consumers? As music becomes more mechanized, how does this trend affect the experience of people who pay for it with their Spotify subscriptions?

How does the device we listen to music on change what we hear?

This tech corner doesn’t stop at the act of creating music itself: Ellis believes the way it’s packaged and then listened to only further separates us from the warm, feel-good vibes we originally snuggled for. turned to music. “There are all kinds of losses that occur after the music leaves the studio,” says Chris Kyriakakis, professor of electrical engineering at USC. “It’s basically all downhill from there.”

It’s like “a palette reduced to primary colors”.

The engineers compress the songs in order to convert them into files compatible with our multitude of devices. Information is immediately lost during compression, and then even more information is lost depending on what system we next read that file on. It’s like “a palette reduced to primary colors,” says Ellis. Listening to music through headphones that don’t fit snugly in our ears, for example, or smartphone speakers that cut off frequencies emanating from guitar, bass, and drums means we end up hearing a version even dumber of the sonic dynamism the composer originally intended.

Efforts are being made to mitigate these effects. For example, Spotify recently changed the volume of their entire song library in order to try and bring back some of the original subtlety that was stolen from their compression. As Bruno Romani writes on Motherboard, “When compression happens in an overdone way, it makes everything louder, which ultimately steals the dynamics of the music itself. It’s like listening to that loud friend who always screams when he’s drunk. Besides being awkward, it also gets monotonous after a while.

What type of music is best for us?

We may not experience the full range of potential expressions, but does mechanized music have a different effect on our brains?

Neuroscientist Levitin says we don’t know if music created with live instruments has more healing potential than its click-y counterpart. What we do know is that whether created on a click or not, a steady beat is more likely to put people into a trance because neurons in our brains begin to fire in sync with the beat. . Levitin says this trance can “help you relax or get insights you wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Levitin is also co-author of a to study who discovered that people who listen to music together have synchronized brain waves. He hypothesizes that, at least in the case of a concert, audience members might feel more empathy and connection if they are able to see the musician. It’s something Ellis argues we’re sorely lacking in our lives today, choosing to watch YouTube footage from a live concert on our little screens on the way to work instead.

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In The click, Ellis will travel the world from Sado Island in Japan to South America, trying to answer some of these questions. By visiting master drummers and communities still deeply attached to drumming as a form of catharsis and ritual, he aims to shed light on what gets lost when our radio waves are dominated by music that is too perfect.

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