…in a blinding flash of lucid insight. How many times have you heard an artist proclaim this or something similar? I’ll bet quite a lot. Is it true? Yes and no. The moment of realisation often is sudden, but the process of thinking about it, that leads up to the moment, can last years or even decades. What might suddenly bring the idea to light might be something happenstantial (I think I made that word up, but I like it). Some random idea you encounter may bring to bloom an idea you have been incubating for quite some time.
This happened to me a few moments ago. I was watching a video by Thomas Dolby, dissecting his song “The Toadlickers”. Thomas basically started the songwriting process in a tool called Logic, in which there are samples and you can play these with a keyboard controller. He had chosen a country and western vibe (thus covering both kinds of music, so the joke goes). In it, there was a banjo, a fiddle, a bass and a Dobro (which is a kind of slide guitar, for those of you wondering).
Having worked out the basics of the track on his own (and it sounded good), he then switched to another tool called Pro Tools, where he assembled the same song, but using human performances drawn from his friends all over the world. Why did he do that?
What was clear was that the reason wasn’t to get recordings of superior technical quality. His friends sent in WAV files from all sorts of home studios, with not necessarily well-designed acoustics and perhaps not even with a recording engineer at the controls. No, Thomas was looking for something else.
I think what he was looking for was the human performance and by that I mean he was looking for the subtle nuances of touch that a human player injects. He was looking for their unprompted improvisational ideas and their particular way of voicing the part or embellishing it. In short, he was looking for new ideas that were unlike his own. He might even have been looking for those inevitable mistakes and imperfections that are part of a real live human performance.
And then it came to me in a blinding flash of lucid insight. Even though we have sample libraries that sound great, loops that we can mash up and modify, software instruments that we can programme our own way and MIDI files that capture the essence of a human performance, what we don’t have is a way to inject imperfections, mistakes, serendipitous nuances, new phrases and licks, different voicings, other instrumentations, subtle changes in arrangement, interpretations or melodic embellishments into any of our software composition tools. I mean to say you can inject those things, but there is no way to get them from somebody else’s mind, in the context of your own composition. There is no creative dialogue taking place.
There would be a market for either clever software that could add ideas to your music, based on what you have already created, or for human beings to not swap WAV files across the world, playing their instruments and sending the recordings over, several days after being asked, but to instead leave the sample libraries and basic song on Logic at Thomas Dolby’s studio (as an example) and send in the ideas, nuances, embellishments, imperfections and interpretations, as some kind of standardised data, which operated upon the music already sitting in the songwriter’s own digital audio workstation.
Instead of waiting for each person to set up a recording session to contribute to a track, a live link to the composers workstation, with a flood of new ideas coming in digitally, so that the composer could select the ones that he likes best while he is in the process of composing would be a very satisfying situation for all. The first inklings of the technology to enable this are emerging in programmes like Cubase 6, with its VST Note Expression 2 technology. Well, it’s a start.
A market in note, phrase and arrangement expressions would be quite exciting, especially if a way to make them song context sensitive was found.
Like all ideas that arrive in a blinding flash, I have no idea how to bring this to fruition right now. On the other hand, I am confident that the idea will incubate until some other day, when the answer might come to me in a blinding flash of lucid insight. If not me, perhaps somebody else will figure it out. Either way, we all win.
I wonder how to make this real?
Here’s the video that sparked the thought: