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“Computers have completely transformed the musical landscape” – Metronomy and the state of digital music

The Guardian // 19th June 2015

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “”Computers have completely transformed the musical landscape” – Metronomy and the state of digital music” was written by Kit Buchan, for The Observer on Sunday 14th June 2015 06.59 UTC

As musicians tip-toeing playfully along the analogue/digital divide, Metronomy sum up pop music’s conflicted relationship with technology. In the mid-2000s, they were the epitome of an electronic act: three guys behind electric keyboards, playing to a laptop backing-track. NME described their second album as “an electro record” featuring “synthetic Tetris wonk-pop” and “psycho speed-synths”, and they became famous for performing with pressure-sensitive lights strapped to their chests: a comic touch that seemed to announce that they were a band of the digital age, and not afraid to laugh about it.

Since then, however, Metronomy seem to have moved steadily back in time. After recruiting a drummer and bassist in 2009, the band began appearing in matching uniforms – rich burgundy blazers, pressed white slacks – as if to summon memories of the Temptations or early Beatles photographs, and their music took on a more period tint. The transformation culminated in the release of their fourth album, last year’s Love Letters.

“I think the paranoid part of me thought that people had preconceptions about a band like Metronomy,” says frontman Joe Mount, “that we were just a ‘modern band’, that anyone could make that kind of music. I wanted to prove something to myself as well.” Comprising 10 rowdy, yearning love songs, each from a single recorded take, Love Letters was recorded at Toe Rag, a studio in east London equipped with antique 8-track tape recorders, a mixing desk from the late 1950s and no computer screens at all. A strange achievement for a band once considered part of the “nu-rave” scene.

Toe Rag studios in Hackney, East London.
Toe Rag studios in Hackney, East London. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose for the Observer

Mount admits that Love Letters was “wilfully backward” – a reactionary experiment in an inescapably digital time – and much pop music could be described the same way. A medium in constant pursuit of a new sound, pop demands ceaseless innovation, but it can also be profoundly nostalgic, even in its attitude to the same technology that allows it to develop. Rock music relies on the rough gusto of valve amps and ‘50s guitars; house DJs strive for the home-grown vinyl sounds of ‘80s Chicago; hip hop reveres, and constantly samples, its own old-school.

Nevertheless, thanks to the internet and rapid advances in software, almost all pop music is written, recorded, produced, broadcast and consumed on computers. Digital audio workstation (DAW) software such as Avid Pro Tools or Apple’s Logic Pro – the engine-rooms of most recording studios – allow users to simultaneously edit more than 100 audio tracks, adjust pitch and timing and add an infinite variety of effects. Reams of instrument samples and software synthesizers can be downloaded for a pittance which, to the lay ear at least, are barely discernable from the real thing, and modern musicians are as likely to spend their time mastering Lexicon’s PCM Native Reverb as they might practising their finger-picking.

Even a record such as Love Letters, however analogue and untampered-with, will have reached most listeners as an MP3, its analogue wave-form translated into a binary, digital signal. Many modern pop songs could be compared to sepia-tone photographs shot on the latest digital SLR; created by virtue of sophisticated digital innovation, but artificially tinted with the sense of an analogue past. Indeed, often the newest technology is put in service of the old, as software instruments and digital sound modelling strive to re-create vintage jazz-organs, ancient microphones, or that ineffable thing called “the ‘80s”.

Metronomy are aware of this paradox, and though Love Letters earned the band their highest chart position to date, the success of the experiment hasn’t made them Luddites. “It wasn’t an indictment of digital recording,” says bassist Olugbenga Adelekan, “it was just a different challenge”. Far from being dewy-eyed about vintage musical processes, Metronomy see their career as a careful negotiation of the boundary between their musical roots and the unavoidable frontier of the new. “You can’t stop it,” says Adelekan, “so there’s no point worrying about it.”

Aside from the development of DAWs such as Pro Tools and Logic, which grow cheaper and more efficient every year, digital development has come to bear on practically every corner of the musician’s routine. On stage, even a band with a traditional guitar-bass-drums setup might rely on tiny, fitted in-ear monitors, each running on a separate frequency from a digitised sound module. The loudspeakers beneath their amplifiers might be replaced with simulated equivalents, or amps might be done away with altogether in lieu of sophisticated sound-modelling software. Instruments themselves might be digitally augmented: self-tuning machine heads on the guitars, hybrid triggers compounding the drumskins, pitch-correction and computerised delay on the vocals.

The enduring concern is that too much of this technology comes at the price of authenticity. For his 2013 film, Sound City, the former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl assembled a coterie of diehard rockers, including Mick Fleetwood and Neil Young, to bemoan the passing of a traditional recording studio, blaming in particular the rise of Pro Tools for the drying-up of funds and the death of soul in rock’n’roll. One interviewee goes so far as to say that DAWs have “enabled people who have no business being in bands or in the music industry to become stars”, but this attitude supposes that the pre-digital era provided the optimum conditions for the music industry to thrive. Adelekan is less single-minded: “As a professional musician, I feel doom-and-gloom about the death of the industry – part of the reason why we tour so much is because we make less money from recorded music – but what we’re really talking about is the death of a certain way that people have consumed music which is just a small blip in the bigger picture: the death of the mid-20th century record company model.”

Even Anna Prior, Metronomy’s drummer, who describes herself as the band’s “least electronic” component, is philosophical about the future of music. “I feel that if you have an idea for a song and it’s come from somewhere inside you – deep within your core, your brain, your heart, somewhere – and you have the ability to translate that feeling onto any kind of instrument and create a piece of music, that’s authentic,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s all electronic or all analogue or bits and bobs of both.”

Metronomy will be supporting Blur in Hyde Park on 20 June as part of the British Summer Time festival.

Joe Mount – singer and songwriter

Joe Mount
Joe Mount, wielding the Ibanez RGKP6 guitar. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Testing: the Waldorf Zarenbourg and the Helicon Voicelive 3

Working in analogue on Love Letters was more expensive and much more technically demanding than recording digitally, but working that way you realise how much has changed.

When you record digitally, your actions have fewer consequences; you can try anything and have as many undo-button-hits as your cache or your startup disc will allow. That’s an amazing thing, it means you’re not afraid to experiment, but in a way it’s meaningless if you haven’t experienced it the other way.

Because the studio is more software-based now, people aren’t really designing instruments for recording, and new keyboards, for instance, are often geared towards performance. The Waldorf Zarenbourg is a really brilliant live keyboard, and it looks incredible, but as soon as you plug it in to record, it didn’t seem to provide anything very distinctive, whereas the famous stage pianos of the 50s and 60s, a Wurlitzer or a Fender Rhodes, gave us a completely different dynamic. The most important thing for me about a new instrument is that it’s made for people who are trying to record and release music, because that’s how it becomes more than just a fun toy.

waldorf zarenbourg
The Waldorf Zarenbourg.

When I first started using Logic there were plug-ins that you got for free that you don’t get any more, and if you make the effort to find them again you realise they have their own quality. There’s a burgeoning world of software which is becoming almost collectible – retro software – and these plug-ins are the modern alternative to classic instruments. There’s a soft-synth used in [digital audio workstation] Ableton called NI Massive, for instance, which is basically the soft-synth that shaped EDM (electronic dance music) – producers like Skrillex relied on it. That’s the weird thing: Massive has become the equivalent of the [80s synthesiser] Roland Juno 60 – a modern classic – but it exists nowhere, inside your computer.

I feel the same way about pitch correction and vocal effects. Someone who considers themselves a fan of music might see the Helicon Voicelive and say: “Oh that’s not very authentic,” or “Eurgh! Why would you wanna do that?” but I think auto-tune is another great example of a ‘modern classic’ in software. It was invented to be used very subtly to keep people in tune, but singers like Cher and producers like Brian Higgins turned it into something crazy obvious, and now it’s an iconic sound.

Olugbenga Adelekan – bass, keys

Olugbenga Adelekan
Adelekan with a Korg Volca Bass synth. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Testing: the Roli Seaboard and the Continuum Fingerboard

People talk about finding a new, game-changing musical instrument, but actually it’s happened. Computers and DAWs like Ableton Live have completely transformed the musical landscape, and changed the type of music we hear, the way we compose music, the way we think about music and listen to it. As musicians, we have to think differently about the way people will hear us, so when we release a new album we have to accept that, because most people use Spotify, it’s very unlikely that people will listen to that album start to finish. That situation has made live shows a very important part of Metronomy; you get 45 minutes to take people on an album-like journey that they probably wouldn’t experience at home.

It’s always interesting having new gear that can help with that, and I think the two keyboard instruments I tested – the Roli Seaboard and the Continuum Fingerboard – are interesting in the way their interfaces are revolutionary. That’s what makes you play differently, and in doing so you can hit on things you wouldn’t otherwise have found.

The Roli is easier to get started with – you can plug it in, install the software and start playing within five minutes. It has a soft, continuous surface, but has raised keys like a piano, so it’s more approachable. It takes some getting used to, though – the sensation of playing it is like pressing into someone’s leg.

continuum fingerboard
The Haken Continuum Fingerboard.

They both have a high level of optimisation, so you can assign a lot more parameters – how loud and soft they are, how they respond to the way that you play, whether they vibrate when you hold them down. You can control the shape of the sound by the pressure on the keys and how you slide your fingers up and down the board. The Continuum is even more responsive than the Roli – you can assign parameters to three different axes of finger-movement: up and down, left and right, forward and back. It’s very techy – the manual is full of mathematical equations – but there are plenty of presets which you can get to know and then learn to customise. It’s a similar concept to customising a modular synth, but you can go way, way further down into the workings to manipulate the sound, and I think it would be particularly useful for sound-designers and soundscape artists.

They’re both interesting additions to a musician’s range, but I don’t know if they’re exactly superseding what’s gone before, and if you’ve got three-and-a-half grand to spend on a Continuum you probably already have quite a nice piano.

None of us are analogue purists, but when it comes to new technology, you have to find a way of using it that’s not obvious, that has an individual character to it. That’s all it is, whether it’s a piano, a Stratocaster or a Continuum Fingerboard: are you projecting some kind of personality through it, or are you just hiding behind it?

Anna Prior – drums, vocals

Anna prior
Anna Prior plays a hybrid drumkit with a tactile monitor. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Testing: the Porter & Davies BC2 and Roland hybrid triggers

Drummers are becoming less of a necessity. With the rise of home producing, everyone can write their own beats and create live music with a laptop and a sample pad. You can even make your programmed beats sound human: when it’s all laid out on a grid you can move the kick drum back or forward a tiny bit so it sits just behind the beat rather than straight-on, and it sounds more like a human being playing the drums. There is the argument that says: “Why not just get a bloody drummer to do it?” but it’s easier and you don’t have to pay musicians like me to be in your band.

I am more of an analogue drummer. I prefer the feel of hitting a wooden drum with a skin on top, and sometimes I find technology, especially in drums, can overcomplicate things. Drums are very simple, very tribal – they’re a primitive instrument. That said, it’s good to be open to it, and although I don’t know many people who play full electric kits, lots of us use hybrid triggers. The Roland ones are very versatile, they never break, and it’s nice to have that extra beef to your snare, and to be able to incorporate something more unusual into your drumming.

We play with in-ear monitors, which are much more efficient than wedge monitors, but it can be acoustically isolating, and I miss feeling the snare drum rattling off the venue wall. That’s what the BC2 “butt-kicker” stool is for. It’s wired up to the kick drum so you can feel the bass right in the pit of your ribcage. My drum tech, Ben, doesn’t like it, he says it rattles his knackers, but that’s what drummers go for: the extra kick up the bum.

It’s the same reason why recording in Toe Rag was so magical. We were all in one room together with very few mics, singers in one corner, a brass trio in the other, and we played it all live knowing that would be the finished product. I got quite romantic about it. The scary thing about technology, especially live, is it can so easily screw up. We headlined a festival in France, in a big square with lots of people. We were still using a piece of software called Mainstage at the time, to do backing tracks, and it just crashed, and we had to leave the stage. We were off stage for about 15 minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. We saw the funny side in the end, but after that, something changed, I think.

Oscar Cash – keys, guitars

Oscar Cash gets to grips with the Roli Seaboard.
Oscar Cash gets to grips with the Roli Seaboard. Photograph: Suki Dhanda for the Observer

Testing: the Ibanez RGKP6 and the Tronical tuning system

The beauty of technology is that, whether you like it or not, it makes music a lot more accessible to everyone. When I was a teenager, the only way to record was on a 4-track tape machine – I had to go to my friend’s house down the road to see a computer – whereas the kids of today can produce whole tracks on their own. We’ve always got a kick out of the electronic side of things, and even when we were recording Love Letters you can detect that. There’s a part of Joe’s mind that’s deep-rooted in using a computer – producing and layering tracks, doing interesting things with keyboards and samples – and on the new album I can hear that part of his mind working. I hope we’ll take something from the analogue experience. It’s fun to be under a bit of pressure and, unlike digital recording, you don’t have the luxury of being able to try everything out, which means you probably end up making better decisions.

I’m not really waiting for a grand new musical instrument to come along, but maybe that’s just because I’m not such an inventor. The Ibanez RGKP6, for example, which is an electric guitar embedded with a Korg Kaoss Pad synthesiser, might seem like just two instruments randomly stuck together, but it only takes someone to come along with the right mindset to do something interesting with it. I see it as something quite camp and glam – you hit a note, let it ring and then WIAOW! Synthesise it! That’s the obvious way of playing it, but if something great was going to happen with that guitar, you probably wouldn’t see it coming, would you?

You want these instruments to allow you to be more imaginative, and that would be my concern about modelling guitars like the Line 6 Variax, which replicates the sound of existing guitars. It’s essentially just a set of electronic presets, and it’s the stuff outside the presets where something fun and new can really happen.

tronical
The Tronical tuning system. Photograph: PR

I’m in two minds, as well, about the Tronical robotic tuning system. We were amazed when we first started messing around with it, and I don’t object to the idea of automatic tuning – I don’t think it’s unhealthy. I did slightly worry, though, that the technology might not quite be totally reliable yet. After a while it started responding less quickly, so I don’t know if I’d want to rely on it on stage. Even so, I think that same technology, used in a different way or approached with a different attitude, could provide something really cool to a guitarist – switching between tunings and drifting in and out of tune. You can program it yourself, so maybe that’s where it gets more exciting.

NEW GADGETS TO BRING THE MUSICAL FUTURE INTO YOUR FRONT ROOM

ClipHit

Korg Cliphit, £99

Acting like a DIY hybrid drum kit, the Cliphit comes with three little spring-loaded sensors, wired up to a small central dome. By attaching the clips you can turn your nearby furniture, crockery, relatives etc into functioning drums, with 11 preset kits to choose from. The unit has its own speaker, but you could run it into a hi-fi if you really despise your neighbours.

QuNeo

Keith McMillen QuNeo, £159

Much like any other small midi controller, the buttons on the QuNeo can be programmed to trigger sounds via USB from a computer or tablet. What sets it apart is the buttons themselves, which are highly sensitive and respond to pressure and multi-touch, and can be subdivided to perform several separate functions.

JamHub

Jam Hub, £360

In a band, but don’t want to pay £20 an hour to rehearse in a miserable, lager-stained dungeon? The Jam Hub is a space-age crescent workstation that allows up to seven people to plug in and rehearse together wearing headphones. Each band member can perfect their own mix, eliminating the risk of “volume wars”. None too sociable, though.

Jamstik_WhiteIsolated_LaidFlatlarge.png

Jamstik, £219.95

The Jamstik is a bit like an electric guitar with the body hacked off and the neck chopped in half. It has real strings, and detects fingering across its five frets with infrared sensors so there is something of its predecessors. An interesting addition to the world of midi controllers, which is dominated by keyboards and sample-pads.

LittleBits press shot.jpg

Little Bits synth, £99

Pitched at children, the Little Bits synth kit is a marvellous entry point for anyone curious about the internal circuitry of an analogue synthesiser. The components, which fit together magnetically, are based on the electrics inside classic Korg synths, and include a step sequencer and two oscillators. Like a chemistry set for musical gear-heads.

launchpad mini

Novation Launchpad Mini, £69

The market is flooding with purpose-built controllers for Ableton Live, the hip, colourful DAW beloved of DJs and live producers. This is among the cheapest and simplest – a grid that syncs neatly with the software, whose 64 pads can act as sequencers, triggers and sliders.

pocket operator

Teenage Engineering Pocket Operator, £49

These stripped-back, calculator-sized digital synths, designed in conjunction with a Swedish denim brand, are less frivolous than they look. Cheap and highly functional, they can be daisy-chained together to provide beats, bass and a lead line. The functions of the synth are visualised in twee cartoons.

Rode i-XY mic

Rode iXY mic, £139

This perpendicular pair of directional condenser microphones helps you make the most of the impressive audio software available on iOS, providing professional quality stereo input in a durable, interference-proof unit. It’s expensive, but it’s highly efficient for on-the-fly recording. Useful for journalists, too.

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Yamaha THR10, £217

This comely “desktop amp” is the size of a loaf of bread, but considerably higher-tech. There’s a tuner, a metronome, USB input and on-board setting memory, but the main draw is the “amp-modelling”, which mimics classic valve amplifiers. Turn a dial and – in theory – it instantly becomes a Fender Twin, a Marshall Plexi or even a bass amp.

Pedaltrain Volto Battery .jpg

Pedaltrain Volto, £79

An ingenious and discreet on-stage solution, this tiny white battery can power a chain of five guitar pedals for up to 36 hours, making life easier for anyone who wants to play away from a mains supply. So it’s great for the tour bus, or a marquee or, you know, the doorway of Superdrug on Saturday afternoon. If you’re big time.

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