High-Tech Music Changes Its Key

Synthesizers were everywhere in the '80s, but '90s musicians are less awed by the technology

IMAGINE yourself as a song writer for a rock band, sitting in front of your musical ``workstation'' of synthesizers, sequencers, sound modules, and computer equipment. You punch the power switch and perform a thunderous, full-orchestra version of the ``Hallelujah Chorus'' on the keyboard. Too boring, you say? Hit a few more buttons until you see the words ``Pharoah's Jig'' in the keyboard's edit window. Now your groove has an exotic rhythmic twist. If that's ho-hum, there's always ``Ghosties,'' ``Wack Flute,'' ``Fuzz Brass,'' or ``Blow the Bottle.''

During the last decade, rock and pop musicians have been heavily ``plugged in'' to electronic instruments. Through film scores, television theme songs, and Top-40 recordings, composers have fed the American public with a steady diet of syntho-sound, produced not by violin strings, but by computer chips.

There are signs, however, that the 1980s fascination with high-tech wizardry is waning in the '90s. Live studio performance is on the rise, and acoustic artists are winning new fans. Electronic instruments have brought their share of controversy, too, as instances of lost jobs for traditional musicians have made headlines and angered musicians' unions. (See story at left.)

It was electronic technology, say some musicians, that led to last year's scandal concerning the two performers of the rock group Milli Vanilli, who secretly lip-synced their way to fame, winning a Grammy Award (later revoked) in the process. An outraged public learned that in much of today's machine-driven music, all is not as it seems.

But electronic instruments are here to stay, say musicians.

Increasingly powerful keyboards, drum machines, and multitrack sequencers have transformed the music-making process, giving talented artists a new outlet for expression. They have also helped create one of the '80s hottest art forms - rap music.

Computerized music ``is definitely part of the music of the '90s,'' says composer Brian Banks, cofounder of Sonar Productions Inc., a Hollywood company that writes music for movies, commercials, and album projects.

``It's entered the realm of sound that we're accustomed to hearing and that we like hearing,'' Mr. Banks says.

The ``synthesizer mania'' of the '80s has settled down, he adds. ``It's like anybody with a new toy - you do nothing but play with it. Then you start to see it for what it is....'' Banks says the '90s will be a time when electronic music will ``find its place'' among many musical forms.

Contributing to this emotional cool-down is the fact that the technology behind the instruments has plateaued in recent years, focusing more on refinement and repackaging rather than innovation.

``[Computer] memory has gotten less expensive and microprocessors have become more powerful and less expensive, so that now, rather than new technological breakthroughs, the technology has matured over the last five years,'' says David Mash, assistant dean of curriculum for academic technology at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

With the novelty wearing off, where does that leave the music? What will pop music of the '90s sound like?

``That's going to go its own way despite the instruments we produce,'' says Michael Damoore, synthesizer product manager for Yamaha Corporation of America, the largest manufacturer of electronic instruments in the world.

``I don't feel we have that big an effect on the kinds of music you hear. Synthesizers have been very popular for quite a while, but some of the most popular bands don't even use a keyboard or piano,'' Mr. Damoore says.

Sitting in Berklee's state-of-the-art synthesis lab, Mash says he hopes popular music will become ``more musical'' in the '90s.

``In the late '80s, a lot of people ... didn't master the technology,'' he says. ``They turned the machines on and got the sounds that came out first. As a result, a lot of pop music sounds alike ... everything is tat-tat-tat-tat-tat and just perfect. Everybody did that right away, because that's what the machines do real easily. It's much harder to get the machines to sing.''

But as technology advances, and musicians advance with it, Mash explains, ``we may hear more musical music.''

At Yamaha, advances for the future will include finding subtler, more expressive ways to control sound, other than the ``on-off switches'' of piano keys, says Damoore.

Such technology (already on the market) lets guitarists, drummers, and saxophonists produce whole new galaxies of sound in a way that's more natural to them - by plucking, striking with a stick, or blowing through a mouthpiece.

``I wouldn't be surprised that musical skills will play a bigger role'' in the '90s, says Dominic Milano, editor of Keyboard Magazine. He notes the current interest in acoustic guitar music, performed by artists like the Indigo Girls, who won a Grammy Award last year for best contemporary folk recording. ``I think it's a reaction to hearing drum machines and synthesizers and all this machine stuff that sounds perfect,'' he says.

Whether electronic or acoustic, ``people ultimately want to hear music that's pleasing and that they can remember,'' Milano says. Part of the fun, too, is watching people perform live.

``I heard the Count Basie band in a live performance recently, and my jaw dropped,'' says Milano. ``I had forgotten that music could sound that great! I think you're going to see big bands come back a bit.'' He also mentions the recent popularity of 23-year-old balladeer Harry Connick Jr., who sang on the sound track to the movie ``When Harry Met Sally.'' Labeled the Frank Sinatra of his generation, ``he's doing all the old hits and standards, and he packs theaters full,'' says Milano.

One of the fantasies of the '80s was the ``one-man orchestra,'' which was put within reach of musicians in 1983 when keyboard equipment became standardized. This allows a person to play many electronic instruments with one keyboard.

However, ``people are no longer dazzled by the mere fact of that possibility,'' says Banks of Sonar Productions. ``In [my] talking to record producers, ad agencies, and film directors, all of those groups seem to be more sensitive to wanting to hear more players playing if they can.'' Most film scores are back to using acoustic instruments, he adds, unlike several years ago, when electronic scores prevailed.

Sonar Productions, which has scored films such as ``Internal Affairs'' and ``The Color Purple,'' has been hiring more players lately for studio work, using flutists, guitarists, and rhythm sections, Banks says. ``I think peoples' tastes have matured. I think people pick up on the energy of more than one person playing the music.''

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