Electronic musical instruments

Electronic musical instruments. Since World War II pop music in Canada, as in most countries of the industrial world, has become increasingly dominated by the sound of electronic musical instruments.

Electronic musical instruments

Electronic musical instruments. Since World War II pop music in Canada, as in most countries of the industrial world, has become increasingly dominated by the sound of electronic musical instruments. Beginning with the amplified electric guitar of 1950s and 1960s rock and roll, an ever-increasing array of sophisticated electronic devices - reverbs and other special effects devices, synthesizers, samplers and drum machines - have vastly expanded the sound palette of popular music. Indeed, while avant-garde electronic music (which also had its formative period during the 1950s) has remained a relatively specialized area of activity, electronic devices have had a far greater impact on the mainstream of pop music production. By the mid-1980s even Canadian artists associated with the country and folk music traditions, such as Anne Murray, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Leonard Cohen had added synthesizers and other electronic devices to their recordings and live performances. In instrument sales, where the acoustic piano was for decades the mainstay of the market, electronic musical instruments have come to dominate: in 1989 synthesizers and portable electronic keyboards alone accounted for over 20 per cent of the total sales of musical instruments in Canada (some $58.2 million, compared to $38.3 million in piano sales; sound reinforcement equipment - mixers, tapedecks, speakers, etc - accounted for another $43 million (MIAC, Canadian Music Trade, vol 12, no. 4, 1990).

Although the Canadian inventor Hugh Le Caine had begun working on a prototype electronic synthesizer as early as 1945, the instrument was never developed commercially; a number of his other electronic instruments were installed at the University of Toronto however, where, among others, popular keyboardist John Mills-Cockell was first introduced to studio composition. His early predisposition towards electronic sounds led Mills-Cockell to make extensive use of synthesizers (notably, those produced by Moog and ARP in the USA during the late 1960s and early 1970s) in his live performances with the rock band Syrinx and he quickly became known as a Canadian pioneer of popular electronic music. In order to overcome the limitations of the early synthesizer's monophonic design, Mills-Cockell had to assemble elaborate, multi-keyboard stage set-ups; such uses by pop musicians of the 1970s created a demand for increasingly sophisticated electronic devices.While technical developments in the studios of the avant-garde have sometimes influenced the design of popular electronic instruments, it is the needs of pop musicians that have created the conditions for the continuous, commercial development of synthesizer technology.

By the late 1970s, with polyphony, increased technical sophistication, and the advent of digital control, synthesizers and drum machines became popular in a broad range of musical styles: well-known keyboard players such as jazz pianist Oscar Peterson began to take an active interest in the new instruments and pop singer Burton Cummings was quoted as saying that drum machines had become an integral part of his song writing process. The technical development of synthesizers, drum machines, and samplers (keyboard instruments that use digital recordings of acoustic instruments as their sound source) during the late 1970s and early 1980s was closely linked to the rise of personal computers and the resulting decreases in the cost of integrated circuits. A number of large Japanese firms (Yamaha, Roland, Korg, and Casio) with close links to the manufacturers of microprocessor technology became dominant during this period and were, in large part, responsible for the introduction of inexpensive digital musical instruments into the general consumer market and, later, into public school music programs where educators had been looking for ways to expand computer use in the humanities.

The Yamaha DX7, one of the most influential synthesizers of this period, was introduced in 1983. The DX7 and a number of other digital synthesizers like it became an integral part of the sound of many Canadian pop groups during the 1980s, including the Luba, Corey Hart, and Kim Mitchell bands, Saga, FM, Rush, Manteca, and Glass Tiger. Some popular musicians, such as Michel Cusson and other members of the jazz fusion group UZEB, went one step further during the 1980s by performing at workshops and seminars sponsored by the manufacturers of digital equipment; Oscar Peterson, through advertised product endorsements, has also been a supporter of computer software products. In these ways, pop musicians have become important agents in the popularization of new musical technologies.

Samplers also became prevalent in popular performance and recording practice during the 1980s. Their unparalleled ability to reproduce the sound of traditional instruments made them an economic alternative to hiring studio musicians on many commercial recording projects, so much so that they were blamed (rightly or wrongly) for rising unemployment and a decline in membership in the musicians' union. However, samplers have also found more creative uses in pop music, eg, many pop/rock groups such as The Box of Montreal have created unique, hybrid instrumental sounds through the layering of acoustic instruments with sampled sounds. Others have used samplers to record tiny bits of prerecorded music in order to create original sound collages; such uses have been regarded by many in the recording industry as a challenge to traditional notions of authorship and property rights in music. In a spectacular case of this kind in Canada, the experimental audio artist, John Oswald, who had made an aesthetic out of sampling popular songs throughout the 1980s, was sued for copyright infringement by CRIA.

Perhaps the most significant technical development in popular electronic music-making during the 1980s was the introduction of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) - a technical specification which allowed digital instruments to be connected to one another and to general purpose microcomputers to form complete music production systems. Synthesis, sampling, and conventional sound recording can be linked, through MIDI, to digital sequencers - devices which allow one to digitally record the performance aspects of music (in much the same way that piano rolls were once used to record musical performances) so that they can later be corrected, manipulated and orchestrated electronically. Ralph Dyck, a Vancouver-based musician involved in the studio production of commercial music and film soundtracks, was influential in the development of an early, pre-MIDI sequencer design. Dyck built his first sequencer in 1972 for his own studio use and later sought the interest of manufacturers. In 1977 the Roland Corporation released the MC-8 MicroComposer based on his designs; the sequencer remained in production until 1982 when it was superseded by MIDI-based technologies.

From the mid 1980s on, MIDI sequencing has been used extensively by many musicians as a pre-production tool and in recording demo tapes; in stage performances by musicians such as Corey Hart in order to reproduce, 'live,' the sonic quality of their recorded music; as the basis of entire record projects by dance-oriented musicians such as Jane Child; and, in conjunction with drum machines and samplers, by Maestro-Fresh Wes and other rap musicians.

MIDI is an instance where the conventional flow of new technology from the avant-garde to the popular market has been reversed: introduced in 1983 for use in pop music production, MIDI technology was later adopted by a number of younger Canadian contemporary music composers as part of a renewed effort to integrate electronic music and live performance.

Digital musical instruments have also had a significant impact on music-making in the fields of theatre, film, and television. Scores for incidental music in many plays of the 1980s, such as Gary Kulesha's score for Three Men on a Horse, and the music for many music theatre productions, such as André Gagnon's Nelligan, called for small ensembles made up entirely of synthesizers. Likewise, the background music for one of CTV's most popular television series of the decade, Night Heat, resonated with the sound of synthesizers and samplers. Although no precise figures are available, industry observers estimate that by 1990 at least 50 per cent of all film and television soundtracks were being produced by electronic means.

These technical and musical developments were paralleled by important developments in the musical instrument industry in Canada. During the late 1980s some Canadian companies moved tentatively into the competitive digital instrument market: in 1988, Anatek Microcircuits Inc, a Vancouver-based company with close links to suppliers of integrated circuits for the hearing-aid industry and other specialty markets, introduced an innovative and highly successful set of peripheral devices for MIDI synthesizers and computer music systems under the brand name 'Pocket Products'; in the same year another company, Pixel Publishing (which has links to distributors of music software), made inroads into the computer market with a uniquely designed, integrated program for the storage of music data called 'Super Librarian'.

By the end of the 1980s a number of music industry observers noted that the apparent revolution in electronic musical technology had perhaps come to an end: the fast pace of technical innovations that had been characteristic of the mid 1980s had slackened and there was a noticeable falling off in the sales of electronic keyboards. Many pop musicians, tired of the new, high-technology sounds, began to turn their attention toward more traditional instruments. But despite such trends, when pop musicians such as The Box described their activities in the recording studio and their attempts to move away from high technology, it was clear that their very concept of what constituted a 'live' sound had been altered by their previous experiences with electronic instruments and that these technologies, directly or indirectly, had become a permanent feature of their own, unique approach to musical sound.


Further Reading

  • Waxman, Ken, 'John Mills-Cockell,' Music Market Canada, vol 1, Oct 1977

    Hammond, R. The Musician and the Micro (Poole, England 1983).

    Holmes, Thomas B. Electronic and Experimental Music (New York 1985)

    Loy, Gareth. 'Musicians make a standard: the MIDI phenomenon,' Computer Music J, vol 9, 1985

    Oswald, John. 'Plunderphonics or, audio piracy as a compositional prerogative,' Musicworks, 34, Spring, 1986

    Scott, Robert. 'Mozart meets the microchip,' Report on Business Magazine, Mar 1988

    Vail, Mark. 'Vintage synths: the Roland MC-8 MicroComposer,' Keyboard, vol 16, Oct 1990

    Allen, Richard. 'Made in Canada: the markets, the manufacturers, the merchandise,' Canadian Music Trade, vol 12, Dec-Jan 1990