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The musical world and the recording technologies
Production-wise, digital technologies intensify many of the shifts that have already occurred, in particular the move away from mimicking a live performance towards creating an ‘artificial' sound world.
Within the avant-garde pockets of academic music departments the manipulation of sound was being explored even further through the advent of musique concrète, where recorded environmental sounds were manipulated and edited together to form sonic montages. Avant-garde techniques were increasingly smuggled into pop productions, leading to more complex recording techniques and the rise of the producer as a creative figure (as opposed to a functional engineer): George Martin, Joe Meek, Phil Spector and Brian Wilson all gained reputations as sonic alchemists, capable of using the recording studio in a creative and constructive manner. Ideas as to what constituted the primary ‘song' were shifting: while some recordings still attempted to reflect the live performance, many musicians were now attempting to mimic recorded sound when they performed live. The idea of the studio as a creative constructive hub led to remixing forming a central component of musical culture. While musique concrète can be broadly conceived as a form of remixing, it nevertheless arranged ‘found sounds'. The main culture of remixing relates to the recreation of pre-existing music, though other found sounds are used often for colour and other purposes. It was in Jamaica in the late 1960s and early 1970s that remix culture really began to flourish to suit the purposes of dance hall culture. Producers and engineers would remove vocals and gradually begin to add effects such as reverb, delay and other noises, out of which the subgenre ‘dub reggae' evolved. The rise of disco music in the USA during the 1970s also contributed heavily to remix culture as extended edits of hi-NRG tracks, tailored to the dance floor, led to the emergence of the 12-inch single.
Such remixing was taken to new levels with the rise of hip-hop in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was based upon the repurposing of other music samples, mainly through embedding ‘breaks' or through assaulting found sounds via the technique of ‘scratching'. Digital technologies, which began to filter their way into mass production throughout the 1980s, accelerated existing trends and perhaps shifted them from marginal to dominant practices. The rise in a number of digital synthesizers and sequencers, as well as the ease of interconnecting different components through the musical instrument digital interface (MIDI), led to a growth in electronic music in the late 1980s and onwards, including house, techno, jungle, ambient and a number of other generic forms. (Although it should be pointed out, a lot of early techno music was produced with analogue equipment.) While more traditional musical ‘groups' playing live instruments continued, the growth of individual, electronic musicmakers led to a blurring of the distinction between the musician and the producer, and between the ‘instrument' and ‘studio'. It also led to the massive rise in the use of musical ‘samples', thus giving rise to legal wrangles and debates over copyright, as well as arguments over what actually constituted musical ‘creativity'. Key here was the rise of reasonably priced samplers in the late 1980s, which could integrate samples fluently within the overall track; they also provided user-friendly sound manipulation tools (such as time-stretching and pitch-shifting)
As such, the archive becomes increasingly important. Many musical artists now spend a lot of their time searching for music in order to find usable samples (the more obscure these samples the better, in that there is a desire among many producers to avoid being ‘obvious')
Related to digital media and variability are the concepts of automation and manipulation. New digital hardware and software permits previously laborious tasks to become easier in line with increasing automation. So, for example, in contrast to physically editing magnetic tape, many digital programmes allow one to magnify a visual representation of sound waves, highlight and then edit a particular section, as well as ‘undo' any results deemed insufficient. It is much easier to make back-up copies of digital works to make numerous edits. Furthermore, copying numerical code does not result in the quality degradation that characterizes chemical media. The manipulation of pre-existing sound becomes easier and thus increasingly forms the raw material out of which new music is constructed. The increasing manipulability of music leads to an increasing severance from ‘real-world' referents, or more precisely, from sounds that can be produced by humans playing instruments in ‘real time'. In pre-digital forms of remixing sound was ‘ripped' from one context and placed into another, yet the sound itself still bore the trace of human presence (i.e. beat samples in hip-hop records were created by human drummers playing in real time). Compare this to the beats that feature within many recent forms of music, such as jungle: the drumbeats are often too fast and sinuous for human capabilities. The programmable sequencing of sounds and the ability to process them in myriad ways takes music into a more cyborgian realm. ‘With sampling,' argues Simon Reynolds, ‘what you hear could never possibly have been a real-time event, since it's composed of vivisected musical fragments plucked from different contexts and eras, then layered and resequenced to form a time-warping pseudoevent'. Yet, while digital production often manipulates existing sound beyond recognition, it still uses more identifiable samples quite widely. In practice, while the reuse of recognizable music is problematic in terms of clearing copyright permissions, many do so (either by covering songs or through using samples) because of the cultural currency that existing music contains, linking as it does to memory and emotion.