Music Technology and the Pureness Aesthetic

Due to the proliferation of digital and web technologies in the music realm, there seems to be a convergence of issues surrounding the “pureness” of music and whether we are losing the aesthetic that once made music so special (i.e. if it’s any less special than it ever was).  Digital recording software like Pro Tools, and even the ubiquitous Garageband, allows users to quickly edit their music to mask imperfections, pitch-correct their voices, and make rhythmic patterns so perfect that they reach the point of being completely robotic. Some technologies, like UJAM, the recent runner-up in the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in New York City, allows users to sing or play a musical part into a mic and turn it into a song with a complete band in whatever style they choose. The software detects the key and plays matching chords along with your recorded music part. Not only does the software lower the bar for music production, but it also blurs the line between what is original and what is a pre-defined algorithm for music creation.

The definition of music itself is murkier now. Mash-ups, whether a fad or not, have altered the way we view music in the “Youtube Generation” (so maybe that means we have Generation X --> Generation Y --> Generation Youtube?). Regardless of the definition of the mash-up and its origins, we know that DJs have been sampling long before Youtube, mixing classics with new electro beats and redefining mainstream music for the foreseeable future. This too puts the “pureness” of music into question, for better or worse. To top it all off, the compression of purely analog sounds created by instruments and voice is compressed into a digital format that we play on our computers, iPods, or god forbid on our CD players. In addition to the technologies that make it easier to record music, the pureness of our music is further compromised by the limitations of the sonic spectrum inherent in digital music. Both the creation and final result of that creation are altered by digital technology.

Have we lost the pureness of music? The electric sounds of Jimi Hendrix and the tonal qualities of a Miles Davis solo will never be captured in the same way again. We can still throw on an old record, but it’s not the norm and, for most, it’s not the way people live their musical lives. But whose to say that music is no longer pure? Everything is derivative. Mash-ups are the definition of derivative, but classic rock is a more subtle derivation and combination of blues and country. The actual soundwave is a different story, though. Digital technology limits the sonic spectrum because it approximates the shape of an analog signal and is therefore not a derivative with a life of its own—it is a limited version of a pure analog sound. But who REALLY cares that much? Teenagers certainly will take the convenience of an iPod over carrying around a clunky record player and an adult’s hearing drops off quickly (they too are going to lose any semblance of a fuller spectrum of frequencies).

Despite the semblance of pureness that still remains in the music of the past, we should also recognize transformational shifts in media that make improving digital technologies for music a necessity. New media is now multimedia. Having a great song is not the only piece of the pie anymore, it’s just the icing on the cake. A visually stunning or satirically entertaining video to match your song is equally important nowadays (in the Youtube Generation). Not everyone can simultaneously produce a top-notch video as well as a hit song. If you can leverage digital technologies that make it easier for you to make a somewhat professional quality song and video, you have a lot better chance at catching those eyeballs on the Interwebs.

If I can use software like UJAM’s to correct my voice and add a complete rock band behind it, and then use iMovie to create an amateur yet engaging video, why should I be deprived of such ease and convenience? If it sucks, the better mash-up artists, DJs, and real rock groups will still trump me. If I create something entertaining, maybe I’ll get those Youtube hits, but I’m still not replacing the true artist who creates completely original content. The kind of artists we all go to see in concert. The kind of people we feel somewhat removed from due to their “celebrity”. The paparazzi are not sitting outside of the house of the creator of LOLcats or any other video emerging from an Internet meme. I still think we have real artists making pure music, but lines are being crossed and some are jumping over them and reaching the other side. Now it’s just possible for anyone with some creativity and some virality to make it happen.


Note: UJAM is currently COMING SOON.