How Computers Ruined Rock Music

There are purists out there who think com­put­ers ruined elec­tron­ic music, made it cold and alien, removed the human ele­ment: the warm, war­bling sounds of ana­log oscil­la­tors, the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of ana­log drum machines, syn­the­siz­ers that go out of tune and have minds of their own. Musi­cians played those instru­ments, plugged and patched them togeth­er, tried their best to con­trol them. They did not pro­gram them.

Then came dig­i­tal sam­plers, MIDI, DAWs (dig­i­tal audio work­sta­tions), pitch cor­rec­tion, time cor­rec­tion… every note, every arpeg­gio, every drum fill could be mapped in advance, exe­cut­ed per­fect­ly, end­less­ly editable for­ev­er, and entire­ly played by machines.

All of this may have been true for a short peri­od of time, when pro­duc­ers became so enam­ored of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy that it became a sub­sti­tute for the old ways. But ana­log has come back in force, with both tech­nolo­gies now exist­ing har­mo­nious­ly in most elec­tron­ic music, often with­in the same piece of gear.

Dig­i­tal elec­tron­ic music has virtues all its own, and the dizzy­ing range of effects achiev­able with vir­tu­al com­po­nents, when used judi­cious­ly, can lead to sub­lime results. But when it comes to anoth­er argu­ment about the impact of com­put­ers on music made by humans, this con­clu­sion isn’t so easy to draw. Rock and roll has always been pow­ered by human error—indeed would nev­er have exist­ed with­out it. How can it be improved by dig­i­tal tools designed to cor­rect errors?

The ubiq­ui­tous sound of dis­tor­tion, for exam­ple, first came from ampli­fiers and mix­ing boards pushed beyond their frag­ile lim­its. The best songs seem to all have mis­takes built into their appeal. The open­ing bass notes of The Breeder’s “Can­non­ball,” mis­tak­en­ly played in the wrong key, for exam­ple… a zeal­ous con­tem­po­rary pro­duc­er would not be able to resist run­ning them through pitch cor­rec­tion soft­ware.

John Bonham’s thun­der­ing drums, a force of nature caught on tape, feel “impa­tient, ster­ile and unin­spired” when sliced up and snapped to a grid in Pro Tools, as pro­duc­er and YouTu­ber Rick Beato has done (above) to prove his the­o­ry that com­put­ers ruined rock music. You could just write this off as an old man rant­i­ng about new sounds, but hear him out. Few peo­ple on the inter­net know more about record­ed music or have more pas­sion for shar­ing that knowl­edge.

In the video at the top, Beato makes his case for organ­ic rock and roll: “human beings play­ing music that is not metro­nom­ic, or ‘quantized’”—the term for when com­put­ers splice and stretch acoustic sounds so that they align math­e­mat­i­cal­ly. Quan­tiz­ing, Beato says, “is when you deter­mine which rhyth­mic fluc­tu­a­tions in a par­tic­u­lar instrument’s per­for­mance are impre­cise or expres­sive, you cut them, and you snap them to the near­est grid point.” Overuse of the tech­nol­o­gy, which has become the norm, removes the “groove” or “feel” of the play­ing, the very imper­fec­tions that make it inter­est­ing and mov­ing.

Beato’s thor­ough demon­stra­tion of how dig­i­tal tools turn record­ed music into mod­u­lar fur­ni­ture show us how the pro­duc­tion process has become a men­tal exer­cise, a design chal­lenge, rather than the pal­pa­ble, spon­ta­neous out­put of liv­ing, breath­ing human bod­ies. The “present state of affairs,” as Nick Mes­sitte puts it, is “key­boards trig­ger­ing sam­ples quan­tized to with­in an inch of their human­i­ty by pro­duc­ers in the pre-pro­duc­tion stages.” Any­one resist­ing this sta­tus quo becomes an acoustic musi­cian by default, argues Mes­sitte, stand­ing on one side of the “acoustic ver­sus syn­thet­ic” divide.

Whether the two modes of music can be har­mo­nious­ly rec­on­ciled is up for debate, but at present, I’m inclined to agree with Beato: dig­i­tal record­ing, pro­cess­ing, and edit­ing tech­nolo­gies, for all their incred­i­ble con­ve­nience and unlim­it­ed capa­bil­i­ty, too eas­i­ly turn rhythms made with the elas­tic tim­ing of human hearts and hands into machin­ery. The effect is fatigu­ing and dull, and on the whole, rock records that lean on these tech­niques can’t stand up to those made in pre­vi­ous decades or by the few hold­outs who refuse to join the arms race for syn­thet­ic pop per­fec­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Mistakes/Studio Glitch­es Give Famous Songs Their Per­son­al­i­ty: Pink Floyd, Metal­li­ca, The Breed­ers, Steely Dan & More

The Dis­tor­tion of Sound: A Short Film on How We’ve Cre­at­ed “a McDonald’s Gen­er­a­tion of Music Con­sumers”

Bri­an Eno Explains the Loss of Human­i­ty in Mod­ern Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • dave says:

    This guy is spot on. It has long been my con­tention that today’s music pret­ty much sounds the same. There’s no soul or heart. I’ve been lis­ten­ing to Zep, Stones, Dylan etc. for­ev­er. What I like is the organ­ic feel of the ear­li­er stuff. It’s almost slop­py and feels more alive. Could you imag­ine Neil Young quan­tized? I Shud­der…

  • Matt says:

    Yes ana­log cir­cuit­ry is very organ­ic. I have some cir­cuits grow­ing in my back yard

  • Ed says:

    It’s got noth­ing to do with being a purist and every­thing to do with being human.

  • Marat says:

    It all depends if you like live rock music or not. For exam­ple, I like rock music, I have sev­er­al of my favorite groups that I adore. But I avoid going to live con­certs with them, as each time I go, I feel phys­i­cal pain because of the way they play, as (with rare excep­tions like Ramm­stein) it is not per­fect like stu­dio record­ings. Often they sound like bunch of ama­teurs!

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