The Use of Electronic Technology in 20th and 21st Century Music

The Use of Electronic Technology in 20th and 21st Century Music

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The Use of Electronic Technology in 20th and 21st Century Music

In this essay, I have examined the use of electronic technology within
20th and 21st Century music. This has involved analysis of the
development and continuing refinement of the computer in today’s music
industry, as well as the theory of the synthesiser and the various
pioneers of electronic technology, including Dr. Robert Moog and Les

Also within the essay, I have discussed the increasing use of
computers in the recording studio. The computer has become an
indispensable tool in ensuring that both recording and playback sound
quality is kept at the maximum possible level. Many positive ideas
have come from the continued onslaught of computerisation. For
example, music is becoming more widely available to the general public
with the introduction of mp3 players and the growth of the online
music industry.

The essay is concluded with my personal feelings towards the use of
electronic technology within the live music industry, as well as the
recording studio environment. This conclusion reveals that while the
use of electronic technology has become crucial in the modern music
market, it should not detract from the quality of live music produced.
In this way, I feel that the use of electronic technology – namely
drum machines and computerised backing tracks – have had a negative
effect on the live music industry, because the majority of artists
within the ‘pop’ genre now use computer-generated backing for live









The Pioneers of the Electronic Age



The Theory of the Synthesiser



Other Changes Due to Electronic Technology



Early Commercial Applications of the Computer Within Music



The Application of Music Programming



The Digital Revolution



My Conclusion

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Related Searches




To What Extent has Electronic Technology Impacted on 20th and 21st
Century Music?

Craig Watson


The introduction of electronic technology - including the computer -
has revolutionised the way we think, do business, socialise and,
possibly most of all, the way we listen to and make music. From the
humble tape recorder that was used in the 1950s up until the early
1990s, to the state-of-the-art digital mixing desks used in major
recording studios and live performances, electronic technology has
greatly influenced both todays live and studio environments. In this
essay, I will examine the pioneers of the age of electronic
instruments, focusing on Robert Moog and Leon Theremin, who developed
first synthesisers through Les Paul (better known as a legendary
guitarist), who first discovered the benefits of multi-track tape
recording, up to the automated German band Kraftwerk. The theory of
the synthesiser and its many uses will also be discussed, as well as
both the early and modern commercial applications of the technology
that ranges from the Minimoog (the first portable synthesiser), to
Steinberg Cubase and Emagic Logic (two of the leading music computer
programs available). I will conclude the essay with the question ‘Has
electronic technology degraded the state of live music in performance
over the past fifty years?’

The post-war era of the 1960’s was a time when advances in technology
were being made at an alarming rate. Never before had there been such
an outbreak of new equipment. The world economy was also improving,
benefiting from the post-war boom. With the introduction of passenger
air travel, the world was also shrinking rapidly. Before the digital
revolution of the late 20th century, live rock ‘n’ roll music was
rapidly gaining popularity, with Elvis Presley in prime form in the
mid 1950’s. The electric guitar had made its debut some twenty years
earlier, but only now was it realising its potential.

The number of artists utilising technology in today’s music market is
astonishing. Harnessing new and existing technology means that sounds
can be manipulated and used in ways that make it possible for one man
to play as a whole orchestra, or one singer to sound like a church
choir. Artists such as the German group Kraftwerk are an entirely
automated band, using sounds such as car horns in a song titled
Autobahn. The 1980’s band The Eurythmics consists of just two people:
a singer (Annie Lennox) and a keyboard player (Dave Stewart).
Together, these two musicians can perform songs that would normally
take five or more people to perform on-stage.

The Pioneers of the Electronic Age

Anybody who makes or even enjoys listening to recorded sound is
indebted to Thomas Edison, who in December 1877 invented the first
record/playback machine. The machine worked by transferring sound onto
tin foil on a revolving cylinder. This was done via a diaphragm and
stylus. To play back the sound, a second stylus would read the
indentations on the foil and vibrate its own diaphragm to produce the
sound. Within twelve years of Edison filing his new invention with the
Patent Office on 24 December 1877, commercial recordings were
available for public consumption.

A very early pioneer of the digital age was a Russian born in 1896
called Leon Theremin. Theremin, who moved to the United States in
1927, produced the Theremin synthesiser, which was widely used in
cinema in the 1940s and 50s. The Beach Boys also used the Theremin on
the pop track Good Vibrations in the 1960s.

Even before little-known engineer Dr. Robert Moog developed the first
portable synthesiser in the 1960s, another technological breakthrough
was being made. Les Paul, who lent his name to the legendary Gibson
guitars, was to become one of the first people to grasp the
multi-track recording set-up. After signing for Capitol Records in
1947, Les Paul had a purpose-build recording studio installed in the
garage of his Los Angeles bungalow. Before long, artists were queuing
at the new star’s door to use his recording facilities.

Les Paul’s process of recording was to ‘bounce’ recordings backwards
and forwards between two acetate disc recorders. Each time, Paul would
record a fresh sound onto the disc. This process would be repeated as
many times as Paul considered necessary. Until 1949, Paul had only
seen a tape recorder. He had never actually used one. When he was
working for legend Bing Crosby, his luck changed. Crosby showed Paul
one of the first 300 Series tape recorders made by Ampex. It was while
playing around with the 300 Series that Paul discovered the
possibility of multi-track recording. By adding a fourth tape head to
the 300 Series, Paul could make the dream of multi-track recording a
reality. By spacing the heads on the machine, Paul was able to produce
tape delay, an effect that was created entirely in the recording
process using echo chambers until purpose-built effects processors
arrived in the 1970s.

Some time later, the electronic age gained another forerunner in the
form of electrical engineer and later synthesiser manufacturer Dr.
Robert Moog. In the late 1960s and 70s, producing the modular Moog
synthesiser, Moog shot to fame in 1968 with Wendy (then Walter)
Carlos’ first album Switched On Bach, which was recorded entirely
using Moog’s synthesisers. In the years that followed, Moog created
his own company – R.A. Moog Inc. – working on his own products with a
peak workforce of 45 and backlogs of 250,000 orders. Soon, however,
the ever-changing tastes of the music industry and the increasing
competition from other companies took hold and Moog found himself with
no backlog at all and in excess of $250,000 of debt. Moog’s current
company - Big Briar Inc. - still sells the custom Theremin kits that
started Moog on his way to synthesiser superstardom.

The Theory of the Synthesiser

[IMAGE]The theory of the synthesiser has its roots firmly buried in
the physics of sound waves and how they can be manipulated.
Synthesisers manipulate timbre by applying envelopes and various
voltage-controlled oscillators. Timbre refers to the characteristics
that make up a sound. Each instrument has its own timbre, i.e. its own
sound characteristic. If you play the same note on a bass guitar and a
cello, the sounds will be different. The overall note will be the
same, but the parts that make up the sound will be different. The four
simple waveforms and their sounds are shown and explained in Figure 1.

Envelopes (profiles of sound attack, sustain, delay and decay) can be
applied to a sound wave. Envelopes modify the amplitude (the amount of
air particles that are disturbed by sound waves at a given instant) of
the sound. If a ‘piano’ envelope is applied to a sound wave, the wave
will slowly decrease in amplitude until there is no sound left. An
‘organ’ envelope will have no fading at all (i.e. the sound wave will
start and finish suddenly). Envelopes can be applied to any type of
wave, and exist only in theory.

Most synthesisers work on the principle of voltage control. The
Voltage-Controlled Oscillator (or VCO) produces a pitch that is
proportional to the voltage supplied to it. Most synthesiser
manufacturers have settled on a ‘one volt per octave’ scale, where the
voltage through the oscillator needs to be raised by one volt in order
for the sound produced to rise by one octave. On some synthesisers,
the VCO carries a waveform selector, but the Voltage-Controlled Filter
(VCF) usually does this job. After the sound is created by the VCO, it
is sent to the VCF. The VCF gives the sound character. For example,
resonance (the ‘ringing’ sound of the note) can be applied and
manipulated. In a synthesiser, the most common type of filter is a
low-pass filter. This blocks low-frequency sounds depending on it’s
setting on the synthesiser’s control panel.

As explained above, the envelope of the sound wave can also be set. On
most synthesisers, this is done using the combination of Attack,
Decay, Sustain and Release envelope controls. The Attack control sets
the time taken for the sound wave to reach its maximum amplitude. The
Decay is the rate that the note ‘falls back’, having reached its peak.
The sound then continues to fall back until it reaches the level set
by the Sustain control. The Release control sets the rate that the
note falls back to its original position.

The final stage in the synthesiser is the Voltage-Controlled Amplifier
(VCA). This simply increases the amplitude of the sound in proportion
to the voltage applied to it. The VCA is usually a circuit inside the
synthesiser with no physical controls, but some units give a ‘gain’
control. This is used to change the voltage that is fed into the VCA
circuit, therefore giving control over the amplitude (volume) of the
overall sound.

The use of the synthesiser can be seen in many popular tracks, as well
as some of the most ‘experimental’ artists, such as Jean Michel Jarre,
whose album Oxygene is a prime example of multi-layered synthesiser
tracks. Jarre recorded the album using only synthesisers. No ‘real’
instruments were used, and yet the album offers some astoundingly
life-like representations of stringed and brass instruments.

Other Changes due to Electronic Technology

A multitude of changes have occurred through the continued use of
technology. Recently, the instrument manufacturer Gibson, famous for
top-quality guitars, has announced the Gibson Digital Guitar, named
the ‘Magic’. This is a genuine Gibson guitar, with a variety of output
options. First is the standard ¼“ guitar jack, second is a ‘MaGIC’
socket. This is a standard Ethernet connector, which incorporates
superior sound quality in both directions (both to and from the
guitar). Also, the use of the digital pick-ups feeding the MaGIC
socket eliminates background ‘fuzz’ which guitarists have had to
accept in the past. These pickups also transform each string into a
single channel, therefore allowing separate equalisation, panning and
effects processing for each string.

Other astounding changes in technology can be seen in the use of mp3
players and the computer revolution discussed later. Also worthy of
mention is the use of electronic technology to restore and improve
older records, both on vinyl and cassette tape by using digital
techniques and computer software. Today’s modern generations tend to
take the CD player for granted. Only as recently as the early 1990s,
CDs were just emerging as the preferred medium for recorded music.
Today, we can buy CDs as we would buy a loaf of bread or a carton of
milk. The expansion of the music industry to incorporate a wider
audience has been immense. The main catalyst for these advances
however, has come in the form of the computer.

Early Commercial Applications of the Computer within Music

Computers have been used in mainstream music since the mid-1970s, both
as recording platforms and as music-making tools. The use of computers
as music programming tools has mainly evolved from music processors
such as the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument (CMI) and
alphaSyntauri systems. Apple computers have long since been the main
platform for music programming, from the Apple IIe, released in the
early 1980s, to the gMac supercomputers of the 21st century.

The popularity of the home computer can be shown by these figures: by
the end of 1981, home computers were in 500,000 homes across the
United States. By the end of 1982, this figure had risen to 1.5
million. Many hardware manufacturers sensed the potential for new
‘bolt-on’ (similar to today’s Plug’n’Play standard) music circuits
that would increase the music-making capacity of the new machines. At
the same time, new computer programs were being written to cater for
the non-technical musician, as to create music, you had to have at
least some basic knowledge of a computer programming language.
Programs such as Passport Designs’ Soundchaser were rapidly gaining
popularity and headway was being made for the bigger and better
hardware and software to come in the 1990s.

On the other side of the computer revolution was the recording
environment. Computer-aided recording was a breakthrough in music
technology. Some years before the computer-controlled mixing desks,
microprocessors were being used for creating digital effects such as
modulation and echo.

With the introduction of computerised recording desks in the
mid-1970s, production engineers could avoid the ugly situation of
un-finished mixes being pronounced as finished to get the job done.
Two tracks of the tape had to be left clear to store the computer’s
data, but that was a comparatively small forfeit considering that the
sound engineer could then fine-tune the equalisation (EQ) and playback
levels of each individual track, before mixing the song down to a
stereo pair (one track for the left channel and one track for the

Within two years of the first computer-controlled recording desks
arriving on the scene in 1975, their popularity was such that many of
the top label’s studios owned one, as well as some lesser studios. One
of the first such desks to be installed in Britain was in London’s
Advision Recording Studio. Before long, recording time at Advision has
become almost unobtainable. By 1979, only four years after the
introduction of computers in the recording studio, fully digital
recording was being carried out. The advantages of using a digital
recorder rather than analogue tape are immense. With a digital
recording, the electronic information is converted into numerical
data, which can then be precisely re-converted to electrical data for
playback. The recording is still stored on physical tape, but not as
electrical information, but as digital data, in the same way that old
mainframe computers used to store data on large tape reels. The use of
digital data virtually eliminates the minor imperfections in sound
quality caused by dirty tape.

The Application of Music Programming

Throughout the past fifteen years, enormous developments have been
made in not only computers for musical use, but in computer-related
technology in general. In 1996, the Pentium 133MHz (mega-hertz)
processor was among the newest processors commercially available. Now,
almost a decade later, processors of more than twenty times the power
are being produced. Today, 3.0GHz processors (giga-hertz – 1GHz is
equivalent to 1,000MHz) are the norm, and the boundaries are being
continually moved back, as more and more systems are deemed ‘obsolete’
and the technological race is showing no signs of a slow-down.

The lightning-fast advances in computer technology have also
transformed modern music programming. One of the best-known music
editing programs, Steinberg’s Cubase software has been on the market
since the early Atari and Apple Macintosh computer systems were
available in the early ‘90s. At the time of Cubase’s release (1989),
its only use was for MIDI sequencing. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital
Interface) is the general standard that keyboards, synthesisers and
computers use to communicate data. A musical keyboard (as opposed to a
computer keyboard) can be plugged into a computer, and the notes that
are played can be exactly recorded and reproduced, and therefore
separate tracks can be layered on top of each other. Cubase allows
this to be done with no prior programming knowledge, a far cry from
the platforms of the 1980s. For the modern generation of music
programmers, MIDI is still a powerful tool in sequencing, but the
power of audio looping is gaining momentum. Pre-packaged sample kits
containing thousands upon thousands of ‘real’ sounds that can be
imported into a computer program such as Cubase and repeatedly used
and re-used to the composer’s satisfaction.

In the late 1990s, the move was being made from ‘digital tape’
recording, as discussed earlier, to entirely digital recording, where
the digital data of a recording is stored on the hard drive of a
computer. More powerful computer processors meant greater recording
capabilities, and with the search for more power progressing further
year on year, it wasn’t long before nearly every recording studio was
using an entirely digital line-up of equipment. In the 21st century,
around a staggering 90 to 95% of recording studios worldwide are
entirely digital, utilising digital effects, compression units and
some studios have even traded in the analogue mixing desk in favour of
a far superior piece of computer software. I still prefer the
‘hands-on’ feel that an analogue mixing desk gives, although I do
realise that the onslaught of computerisation, there have to be
sacrifices. In order for us to travel quicker, we pollute the
atmosphere, in the same way that as a sound engineer, to increase the
control we have over the quality of a recording, we may have to brush
aside personal preferences as a sacrifice to increased sound quality.

Music notation has also been touched by the long arm of technology.
Computer programs like Sibelius now give huge potential for any
would-be composer. Back in the times of Mozart and Beethoven, musical
manuscripts had to be hand-written for every member of the orchestra.
Now, a score can be produced for one piece of music and then be copied
for as many musicians as need be.

The Digital Revolution

As I have already touched upon, the digital revolution has changed the
face of music production and recording. Recently, the guitar
manufacturer Gibson has released the Magic guitar, which can be used
as a digital recording instrument, recording the sound of each string
on a separate track for true multi-track editing. As many as 72 tracks
of continuous audio can now be held and played back, as well as mixed
down, edited and equalised. The recording studio is becoming almost
completely reliant on computers. In some of the world’s top recording
studios, a piece of computer software is used to automatically correct
performer’s voices if they stray off-key or sing a wrong note. Also
gone are the days where instrumental and vocal parts have to be
recorded in a single take. If a player is satisfied with the take at
one point, and then goes back and changes their mind, the sound
engineer can just ‘snip’ out the offending section and re-record it.

The move from analogue tape to digital hard drive recording has been a
gradual one, with digital audio within Cubase being made available in
the mid-1990s, and a host of other programs began supporting the
future of music creation, namely Emagic Logic and Cakewalk. The size
of hard drives has also risen astronomically in the same period of
time. At the dawn of the computer age, 10MB (megabytes – one MB equals
roughly one million bytes – i.e. one million characters of unformatted
plain text) was the size of hard drives that were on sale, often
costing as much as the computer they were connected to. For
comparison, this amount of data can now be stored on a device which is
the size of a pen. By 1996, 1 or 2GB (gigabytes – one GB equals
roughly one thousand megabytes and so contains about one billion
characters of pain text) hard drives were being offered with new
computers. Now, computers with upwards of 100GB of storage are being
sold in the mainstream computer market. The increase in hard drive
sizes has ironically come at a time when music files are decreasing in
size. The standard Microsoft Wave (.wav) is debatably the largest of
the formats, and then comes the Windows Media Audio (.wma) format,
which is supported by the majority of new mp3 players. The smallest
and increasingly becoming the most common, MPEG-Layer3 – better known
as ‘mp3’ - consumes around 500KB (0.5MB) per minute. Mp3 technology
also allows music to be recorded at a considerably higher quality
(between four and five times higher than conventional wav files) and
still retains the lower disk space. This in mind, mp3-dedicated music
players have arrived on the mainstream commercial market, with the CD
player losing popularity to the smaller, lighter devices, which can
store more than 10 CDs in an increasingly small design.

Having seen a working analogue tape reel recorder in action, I can
certainly say great technological gaps have been bridged, and the
recording quality of music overall has definitely increased since the
introduction of computers into the recording studio. The introduction
of electronic technology has also made music more accessible to the
general public. In the 18th and 19th century, music was seen as a
socially exclusive form of entertainment in the form of opera and
classical performance. Now, however, music is becoming increasingly
available with the mp3 player (as discussed earlier) becoming more
popular and with the explosion of the online music industry.

My Conclusion

My personal musical beliefs lie firmly embedded in live music. Having
grown up listening to rock bands, such as Queen, I feel very strongly
about bands that claim to be ‘live’. As I have shown, computer
technology has not only revolutionised the way we listen to music, but
also the way we live. With CDs outselling vinyl records for the first
time in 1988 and becoming the preferred format for recorded music in
the early 1990s, a whole new era of record sales began. Now, with the
introduction of mp3 players and audio jukeboxes, music is downsizing
again. Not in volume, but in physical size. The days of your music
collection taking up half your bookcase are well and truly over.

As far as studio production goes, there have been colossal leaps in
the ease that music can be recorded, edited and produced. Not, I might
add, all worthwhile in my opinion. For example, I have previously
mentioned a piece of computer software that can automatically correct
the slightest deviation from a ‘true’ vocal note. In my honest – if
rather brutal – view, so-called artists who use this method of
recording do not deserve to be in the music industry at all. I am also
against the use of computers as the only source of backing music for a
solo vocalist. I am in favour of the 1970s and 80s trend of computer
generated disco and dance music (most of which would be near
impossible to play on ‘normal’ instruments). However, I am against the
use of computers to create a synthetic band for pop artists to record
vocals over. The heavy metal behemoth Iron Maiden, with a career from
the 1970s through to the 21st century - out-spanning most current pop
artists - boycotted the British chart TV show Top Of The Pops when it
was revealed that they would not be playing live. It went against
their musical beliefs, and it is these beliefs that I also share.

Music piracy has also jumped considerably in the last decade. The
Internet is now used as a market for illegal music trafficking,
although tighter laws now mean that it is less likely to happen than
in past years, but the danger is there all the same. More than
anything, music piracy deprives the artist and songwriters valuable
royalties in record sales (most artists get only five to ten percent
of any record sold in their name – whereas songwriters receive around
20 percent).

On the other hand, however, the computer has made plenty of worthwhile
improvements to the way music is produced and enjoyed. While the size
of music players and recording studios continues to decrease, the use
of computer equipment has minimised the effort that is needed to
record a live band or even a whole symphony orchestra. The use of
synthesisers in the mid to late 20th century added a new dimension to
popular music, and the introduction of hard disk recording in the
1990s opened up new possibilities for sound engineers and session
musicians alike.

So, has the computer degraded today’s live music? My answer would be
yes, as most popular music is no longer played by live musicians, but
pre-recorded by use of synthetic computer programs that imitate the
use of a real instrument. While this can be an effective way of
reducing production costs by not having to hire session musicians and
expensive equipment, isn’t it worth the extra cost to go that little
bit further and keep a sense of humanity within the music? It can be
argued that using a keyboard can recreate the sound of an entire
orchestra, but at least a human is pressing the keys. For me, the
German band Kraftwerk’s stage image of robots embodies what all live
performances will look like in a generation’s time if the current
state of music automation continues at its current rate.


· Bergman, Billy and Horn, Richard. 1985. Experimental Pop. Poole,
UK. Blandford Press.

· Cary, Tristram. 1992. Illustrated Compendium of Musical Technology.
London, UK. Faber and Faber Ltd.

· Crombie, David. 1984. The Synthesizer & Electronic Keyboard
Handbook. London, UK. Pan Books Ltd.

· Cunningham, Mark. 1994. “Blow Your Head”. The Mix. Volume I, issue
6. pp 104-108.

· Cunningham, Mark. 1998. Good Vibrations – a history of record
production. London, UK. Sanctuary Publishing Ltd.

· Leon Theremin – Inventor.

· Hammond, Ray. 1983. The Musician and the Micro. Poole, UK. Blandford

· Moog, Bob and Cochran, Connor. 2000. Moog.

· Music Timeline.

· Robert Moog – Inventor.

· Robert Moog and Moog Synthesisers.

· Wendy Carlos.

· Wendy Carlos – Engineer/Composer.

· Weyers, Udo. 1992. The Complete Cubase Handbook. Munich, Germany. GC
Gunther Carstensen Verlag.
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