I find it interesting to try to get inside the sound of some new (or even old) record or other and try to forensically guess where the influences or ideas that I am listening to came from. I can never know with any certainty, of course, but there are often clues and biographies that can shed light.
Take the Beatles as a case study. Their music started to change into something altogether more sophisticated at the point that John and Paul sold the rights to the first three dozen disposable pop songs for a one off fee (a huge strategic mistake, in hindsight). They wanted their new works to be more long-lasting, serious, less ephemeral and significantly more substantial. At the same time, George Martin left EMI and became an independent record producer, on a modest but motivating producer’s royalty. Meanwhile, Paul was living the life of a London “man about town”, listening to new ideas and musical expression from avant-garde composers, writers, dramatists, actors, painters, artists and so on. Tape loops were being used in performance and electronic music was just beginning to get some exposure. Collage was an idea that was appearing in art and in literature. George was taking lessons from Ravi Shankar, after meeting the sitar guru while filming a hokey movie premised on an Indian gang trying to steal Ringo’s precious ring. A funny old screenplay idea influenced tracks like Within You, Without You. John Lennon’s music changed radically as he got into the ideas of the LSD counter culture and due to his (in)famous liaison with Yoko (who changed the Beatles’ and John’s music conceptually and for which she is generally only begrudgingly credited). Technically, recording technology was moving ahead in leaps and bounds with the introduction of eight and more track desks and recorders, varispeed and automatic double tracking. Tape editing was becoming an art form in itself. Jimi Hendrix was performing live, setting fire to his music, his guitars and the minds of the audience, all the while experimenting with new guitar effects and approaches. It was all fuel to the furnace in which something brilliant and surprising was forged. There is a direct line of artistic thought that extends from the Beatles and straight into Pink Floyd. Without Sgt Pepper, there would be no Dark Side of the Moon.
These days, we cannot imagine a time before those elements were in the public consciousness, so the moment when the world stopped being a black and white soundtrack and began being colour is a historical curiosity, but not something people really remember very well. I was born at that cusp and I remember the intellectual rainbow as a child. I also saw it dim and fade in subsequent decades, as the spirit of musical innovation had fits and starts, but basically settled down into staid middle age; an arm of commerce now, more than art.
I think ideas are terribly interesting and important, when making music. Get them from all sorts of places and incorporate them. Put them into the melting pot and stir it. What are you reading? What are you looking at? What are fashion and art up to? What’s the political Zeitgeist? What do people care about most? These are the elements you have to draw upon to make something sound fresh and new.
Today, the recording technology is not there to merely capture what was played; it’s an instrument to be played as much as a guitar and set of drums. You can process, effect and morph sound with a variety of tools that earlier musicians would have killed to have owned. Software synthesisers are now more flexible and interesting than any hardware synth ever was. You can assemble a veritable wall of amplification in software, which you would have needed a small warehouse and small fortune to assemble, in the late sixties. The range of options is almost too daunting.
What matters today is what has always mattered. Structure. Variety. Melody. Rhythm. Having s a story to tell or something to say and being able to craft that into a lyric. Harmony and counterpoint are the salad dressings. We have so much audio spice and so much permission to mix synthetic, real, processed and field-recorded sounds together. We can incorporate atmospheric recordings, effects, sound granules, samples, you name it.
The canvas is fresh and infinite and the colours are vibrant, plentiful and available. You need much disciplined pre-production and song writing to make the most of it. You need to care about arranging it all, mixing it well and mastering it. The works need to have contour, contrast, sparkle, light and shade, the ability to place rock instruments with electronic and acoustic, even classical ones. Vocals can be sliced, diced, shredded, embellished, doubled, harmonized, pitch shifted and stuttered. Tuning can be changed, after the fact and in isolation of the other musical elements. It is economically viable to have a radio mix (a short, heavily compressed version of the song) a dynamic mix (for the album, preserving the transients and fidelity of the elements) and a soundscape or dance mix (allowing for ease of inclusion in a non-stop dance set). You can do this all with the same captured performances and musical stems. You can also use the technology to transpose and vary the tempo of entire parts, or change them around so that they play back in a different order. We’ve come a long way.
Once upon a time it was easier to identify which effects box the guitarist had bought and how various studio production effects were achieved. These days, with so much choice, it’s much harder to identify how it was done. Deconstructing the works you love is a useful step in constructing something of your own. When somebody asks where that sound came from today, the answer has to be an unequivocal “from the mind”.