Photo: Marla Cohen
Recently, I was talking to a musical associate, and we got on the subject of people who produce tracks using prerecorded loops but don't necessarily play an instrument. He said that while he respected their abilities, he didn't consider such folks to be “musicians.” I disagreed, saying that what matters is the end result, whether it's played on conventional instruments, or programmed using loops and MIDI, or by tapping on the pads of a groove box.
I realize that our disagreement could be viewed as merely a semantic one, but to me there's more to it. Today's music technology offers many tools that don't require one to play a traditional instrument to use them (turntables, groove samplers, etc.), yet they can yield excellent musical results. Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that musical ability isn't important — it is. Whether you're playing a violin or producing a track with only samples and loops, you need to be musical or the result will not be favorable.
What I am saying is that even if one's musical expression is limited to dragging loops into a DAW and then editing and mixing them, coming up with a successful result still requires musical chops — even if they're innate. It's not something just anybody can do well; it takes talent. You need to know what makes a track groove, you need to understand mixing and dynamics, and you must have the ability to arrange, even if that knowledge isn't of a formal nature. Bottom line: If you're producing great-sounding tracks, you should be considered a musician (as well as a producer, of course).
A related and perhaps more contentious topic relates to the digital tuning of vocals. (See our review of Antares Auto-Tune Evo on page 64 to read about the best-known product for this purpose.) Some people object to fixing the tracks of singers with bad pitch because they feel that it is somehow cheating. Again, I don't agree with this point of view. If the final result is brilliant, do you really care what tools were used to put it together? Does it really matter if the singer has some pitch problems if he/she has a compelling voice? If you're against pitch correcting, then are you also against comping a vocal track? If you're surgically putting together a track with a word from here and a line from there, is that really so different from tuning the singer's bad notes? If you're drawing in volume-automation curves to compensate for a singer's lack of dynamics, is that cheating?
To me, the real problem is not with the digital manipulation of recordings, but rather that too many songs are boring, formulaic and soulless to start with. That's what happens when music is born out of purely commercial motivation rather than artistic expression. In such cases, whether the vocal has been digitally tuned or not isn't really the issue. Conversely, if you're creating something from your musical heart and soul, does it matter what tools you use to achieve your vision?
I realize that there are likely plenty of divergent opinions about these issues, and I would love to hear your thoughts. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.