Are Musicians Obsolete?

I have used Propellerhead Reason as my primary recording software for many years – from Reason 2 through Reason 8. The product started as a virtual “rack” of synthesizers, keyboards, and effects you could rewire into your recording software. I like the modular approach of the software and the quality of sounds. The product gradually morphed into standalone recording software for audio and MIDI and I morphed along with it. Yes, I know Pro Tools is the industry standard but since I am not in the industry, that made no difference to me. I wanted something easy to understand and easy to use. I confess to no small amount of schadenfreude when my professional musician friends complain about the technical and business practice difficulties surrounding their adventures with Pro Tools.

When the Reason 9 upgrade email arrived in my inbox, I clicked on the link with anticipation. Propellerhead is quite good at keeping upgrade features under wraps and I had no idea what new goodies would be announced. I read through the new feature list and for the first time I saw nothing that was of any interest to me. Instead, the take-home message was “Musicians No Longer Needed.”

The signature new feature was the introduction of Player devices where you tell the device what key or mode you want and abracadabra that is what comes out when you press a key. I am being a bit glib. The feature set is quite sophisticated and the Players generate some impressive sounds. My issue is that instead of learning how to play scales, modes, and chords you can now press a few buttons and press one key on the keyboard and an entire song comes out! One user posted an example of an autogenerated “middle eastern” sounding piece of music that could keep playing and changing with one finger press on the keyboard.

Propellerhead is not alone. Garageband, Ableton Live, Logic Pro X and other software packages all feature automated drums, keyboards, bass, and guitar. Loops have been around for many, many years and many “musicians” have been happily assembling music, cutting/pasting, and pitch correcting merrily along the way. I saw the trend coming when the last several rack extensions released by Propellerhead all related to automated playing devices – virtual guitarists and drummers could be had at the click of a button.

I am conflicted. On the one hand, I am guilty of cutting and pasting parts and using virtual instruments with glee. I have been known to quantize my drum parts from time to time. I have ignored puzzled looks by real drummers, bass players, and guitarists when I explain how I played virtual versions of their instruments on many of my recordings. 

I use virtual pianos for convenience instead of micing up my actual piano and muzzling my dog.

I have a guitar that is capable of emulating 25 different guitars and an effects pedal that models hundreds of effects and amplifiers.

To the extent I am widely known for anything, it is playing unusual MIDI controllers like the LinnStrument and emulating trumpets, saxophones, violas, cellos, and guitars with varying degrees of success. I actively promote new technology to assist the differently-abled to have full access to music making. I am knee deep in virtualness, so what am I complaining about?

Through all of my virtualness, I have always PLAYED everything I recorded. Even if I played it poorly. For example, my virtual drumming was roundly criticized for years. My brother (a professional audio engineer and musician) would correctly point out to me that (1) my timing was off and (2) a real drummer would never play the part the way I did. It took several years but eventually my virtual drumming (using a Zendrum) improved to the point where I would either receive a compliment on the drumming or the drumming would be ignored.

I am also conflicted because my musical knowledge is spotty at best. I am guilty of playing mostly by ear and feel. While playing this way is fun, it can be impractical and get in my way – especially when dealing with actual, professional musicians who expect their collaborators to have this knowledge at their fingertips. Yes, I understand basic music theory and even some advanced concepts. I can read music (painfully slowly). But my eyes glaze over when my very knowledgeable teachers patiently explain to me for the hundredth time that I should play this mode or that mode over a dominant 7th chord. I was “scolded” by my son’s piano teacher for not learning the rules before breaking them. Please note that I am not apologizing for my approach to music, but I am hardly the poster boy for the old school musical establishment.

The Reason 9 community appears to be very enthusiastic about the creative possibilities of the Player devices. Several said that they are grateful for the devices because they are not skilled keyboard players or their knowledge of scales and chords is limited or non-existent. They have a point – who am I to rain on their parade? Why shouldn’t people with limited or non-existent skills on one instrument or another be able to make music? Why shouldn’t people with exceptional skills use these devices to discover creative possibilities they would not otherwise discover? How is this any different from hiring a studio musician to play an instrument? If you hire a keyboard player to play the correct scales and chords for your music you are still just as clueless about music theory as if you had pressed the right buttons on Propellerhead’s Scales and Chords device. Is this merely my pride? Dammit Jim, I spent 43 years honing my musical skills only to have a whippersnapper piece of software code take my job?

New technology is always threatening and this is the mere tip of the iceberg. I expect it will become more and more threatening as more jobs that used to take years of education and experience to master are performed by computers and machines.

I will remain conflicted while I skip this Reason upgrade. I do not need the Players, and in the event my knowledge of music theory is lacking, I will figure out how to play it myself. I am using this opportunity to spend more time with Logic Pro X which has the added benefit of MPE support for instruments like LinnStrument.

In many ways, my conflicted feelings have inspired the Duets project. For the most part, playing duets with my friends in a room with a microphone will liberate us from the technology. We will just be two, imperfect human Players.



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