Musical instruments have been honed over hundreds of years, and there’s long been tension between the old and the new—from crowds of purists booing a newly electrified Bob Dylan to DJs rallying against digital mixing desks over traditional vinyl.
As technology in this area is empowered further by the crowdfunding model, the scope of music tech has expanded to not only augment instruments, but potentially create new ones, altering the way something is played or consumed.
Singer-songwriter Pete Roe, designer of the crowdfunded Submarine pickup, sees musicians’ adoption of modern technology as an extension of something that’s always happened. “When buildings like cathedrals, with their incredibly long reverbs, became possible, music that took full advantage of the space appeared soon after,” he said. “It’s just the same now, only the technological advances are different. Rather than a reverberant space it’s a plugin, app or guitar pedal.”
But musician Joe Newman, a guitarist with Jessie Ware, Ghostpoet and ESKA who also works with sample triggering and electronics, is more reticent about too much reliance on new tech, arguing that “it doesn’t solve problems so much as create new ones.”Roe’s Submarine is a simple two-string pickup that fits underneath the bottom strings of a guitar, which, when run through a bass pedal, gives the effect of a bass and guitar played simultaneously. Essentially, it’s a neat way of splitting the output of the instrument—something people have done for years now. That said, he has already noticed the device opening up the idea to different genres: “Looking at our backers, there are a number of TV and film composers, some metallers, a sound installation artist and a steel pan/guitar duo, so the appeal is broad.”
Projects such as Sensory Percussion, a drum-trigger that attempts to combine the nuance of regular drumming with the scope of digital sounds, takes this idea one step further. By allowing drummers to map their own playing styles to a digital interface, it is in effect a new instrument. The sonic range is limitless. Musicians like Kiran Gandhi (MIA), Ian Chang (Son Lux), and Matt Duckworth and Nicholas Ley (The Flaming Lips) all speak gleefully in the pitch video about the potential of this bit of kit to change not only the sound of the instrument but the role it plays within a band.
Then we come to examples like the Artiphon Instrument, which is altogether more revolutionary and democratic in its aims. “We believe anyone can make music, and that most people really want to,” its website states. This device synthesises guitar, piano, pedal steel, violin…whatever you want basically, and can be played in whichever way is most comfortable—plucked, padded, or bowed.
“Learning a stringed instrument hurts! You get callouses. You have to learn muscle memory… It’s not nice!”
It marks a change in music tech. Whereas Sensory Percussion and Submarine both come from a desire to address a need within their respective instruments and expand their capabilities, the Artiphon does something different altogether. By synthesizing the sounds of multiple instruments, as well as making them easier to produce, it has the ability to democratise music in the same way that things like Instagram and Picfair have launched a spate of amateur photographers.
In this, Newman sees a big problem. “Learning a stringed instrument hurts! You get callouses. You have to learn muscle memory… It’s not nice!” he said. “So the logic behind solving that is sound to a degree, but that’s also a part of learning an instrument. What worries me about the Artiphon is that I don’t think you’ll see a new spate of really creative people come out of that, especially if they aim it at beginners.”
Other examples of music tech—midi guitars, synths, Moogs—have achieved their longevity because they either have enough tactile parameters to give them a human feel, or because they have been taken on and used in a new way. The Mellotron, for example, was intended for home use—Princess Margaret was a fan. It was only when it got picked up by the Beatles that it began being used in contemporary music as a musical texture all of its own.Music technology has always developed in a way that enables new musicians to spark up their own brand of creativity—the Submarine and Sensory Percussion are two new examples. However, with the likes of the Artiphon we have something new; with the opportunities it offers to the non-traditional, non-musician, it could create a new sector of performers, even a new branch of music. But is it too easy?
According to Newman, a new, postmodern problem could present itself. “You’ve got a whole generation of kids, whose parents grew up listening to guitar or orchestral music, who can recreate that themselves using laptops and other technology… So what does the next generation do?” he said.