Monday, December 1, 2008

Popular music's Sound- A commodity of fashion and style

The sound of popular music can be clearly compared to other forms of seasonal commodities such as fashion and style. "The sound” in later times provides a key identifier in time stamping that music, much as bell-bottoms, the hula-hoop, and whitewall tires have become fashion statements associated with certain periods. Like fashion, some of these sounds periodically reemerge; some become an on going fabric of music production, while others are never heard of again.

As in any other commodity/ consumer paradigms consumerism and commercialism drive this thirst for new sounds. The predominately young music consumer seems to have a never-ending appetite for the latest products from the music industry. Unlike the fashion industry where styles are seldom worn past their season until a generation later when they may be rediscovered, greatest hits collections and classic albums from every period remain part of the active playlist of life. In fact, the greatest hits of any year will be on the market by midyear. These recordings form sonic postcard collections of previous times.

Before records and technology’s impact on music production, musical passages and phrases, a good story, and a memorable chorus were the primary identifiers of a pop song. They are still important, but these “hooks” now include “the sound”. Those in music production often refer to the sound of a recording separate from the song. A recording can have a good or unique sound and at the same time the song may be inconsequential.

The public is equally interested in “the sound”, and their desire to hear every bit of it is reflected by their willingness to buy expensive home and car stereos and the proliferation of the personal delivery systems, the iPod phenomena.

As Dick Clark once commented “[the sound is] what the kids listen for... the more different, the more original, the more unique the sound is, the more chance a record has of becoming a hit”.

To place some indication on how much sound has become a marketable, and identifiable commodity, geography plays a part. At various times a collection of hits emerge from a certain geographical region and the style becomes identified with that place. The sound of New Orleans, Chicago, Motown, San Francisco, Merseyside, Londonbeat, Memphis, Liverpool, West Coast, Mid Atlantic, Nashville, Jamaican, Brazilian, Euro, are just a few of the places associated with a certain style of sound that have received world wide attention during a certain period of time.

“The sound”, in many cases, could be described as a formula that in and of itself is marketable commodity that is in the first instance sold by a producer to the record label. The ingredients, which make up this formula, come together as new devices become available and naturally enough each subsequent wave of music producer builds on and modifies earlier formula. Often they are so identifiable with the state of the technological art of the time that the trained ear can place the year of production based on the sound.

Sound and music became a commodity incrementally starting at the beginning of this century, but a large leap occurred when Les Paul made the recording studio a place of creation not merely of documentation. He was the first to use the technique of overdubbing, a cornerstone of the modern pop music sound, and was years ahead of what has become common practice. Essentially, an artist records a vocal (or other instrument), and then, while listening to what they have already recorded, they record another track. In the case of vocals, this creates a bigger then life sound. It also makes it possible for a solo musician to play every part in a recording. Using this technique Les Paul teamed up with vocalist Mary Ford and they changed the way pop music sounded. Together they had 28 hits between 1950 and 57. The best known are "How High The Moon", "Mockin’ Bird Hill”, "Vaya con Dios”, and "Tiger Rag”.

By and large, the music industry saw multi-track and the “overdubbing” technique as Les Paul’s sound, and not a general tool for music production. In the early 60s the Beatles and the Beach Boys would change all that.

Countless examples abound where a sound production technique becomes a bankable commodity. They are often associated with sounds that people have never heard before. In the 50s Ross Bagdasarian had been making records as a songwriter and arranger. He had a particular knack for writing novelty songs. In 1958 he had a hit with "Witch Doctor” in which he sonically conveyed a shrunken head singing, by recording the vocals at half the tape speed used to record the instruments and playing it all back at normal speed. The singing went up in pitch by an octave. Later that year he invented an alter ego, David Seville, and introduced a vocal trio using the technique as on his earlier hit. “The Chipmunk Christmas” sold 3 1/2 million copies in five weeks. Alvin, Simon and Theodore, between 1959-1980 made eight chart albums selling over 30 million copies. In more recent times they continue to be seen on Saturday morning toons.

Phil Spector created another landmark pop sound. His work is note worthy because he may be considered the first record producer to have attained “star” status for the sound he achieved. Spector’s “wall of sound” hits with The Crystals, The Righteous Brothers, The Ronettes, and Tina Turner’s classic "River Deep- Mountain High”. All had his distinctive sound. This sound was exclusively associated with the reverb chambers at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. Many other top artists of the era also used the Goldstar chambers, including Sonny & Cher, The Iron Butterfly, The Stones, The Beach Boys, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. The Goldstar chambers were so popular that the owners built two copies and leased them to other studios that would run high-quality telephone lines to Goldstar in order to use them. The Phil Spector sound and those chambers were a commodity for a while in the 60s.

In this decade a substantial percentage of records have some production aspect or sound taken from the past— the sound of nostalgia. We live in a time of interchangeable parts, music is in an advanced state of industrialization where mass produced components are used and reused in everything. The vast reissue on CD of long lost catalogs has allowed all previous decades to be available in our time. The 1990s was the redecade of reissue, review, reflection, reuse, and reprocess.

Today’s record producers have the texture, style and tone of all the other decades to draw on. And, Deja vu is the prevailing vu for most of the population. Songs and fragments of songs from the past in the latest music stimulate the recollection of countless personal histories.

For the music producer, the latest techniques and “sounds” are directly associated with the hardware that creates the components from which they construct musical productions. Hundreds of production equipment manufacturers jostle for market share. The most popular processes have become commodities in the marketing and application of these devices with other manufacturer quickly copies these features.

The sounds that these devices create may be as clearly identified as a specific preset program on a digital effect, or it might be quite beyond a layman’s description. In either case, the sound created will be tangible to those who care, if by no other way then through some comparison to earlier recordings.

The desired sound may come from a state of the art device, or a vintage piece of equipment, because unlike other types of technology that drop older state of the art in favor of the latest innovations, sound producers prize vintage microphones, sound generators and processor devices for the qualities they have. Some of these qualities are so characteristic that modern digital multi-processors have presets that attempt to create the attributes of these vintage devices. The manufacturers of production equipment, have in a sense, made a commodity of sound processes. An example is the preset on a device by Aphex that is “Tubesence” which supposedly delivers the sound of a valve amplifier. And of course there is a major reemergence of the manufacture of valve audio equipment.

Over the past three decades, signal processing has become significantly more elaborate, diverse, and much more than merely an enhancement of the sound entering the microphone. It has become an integral part of the overall production. Today, where the “musical instrument sound” ends and the “effect processor sound” begins is in most cases seamless. The variety of effects would seem to allow an infinite number of sounds to be used on the myriad of recordings made, however, in practice this has not been the case.

The desire of producers to make records that sound commercially familiar has created a remarkable number of productions that sound alike. The phenomenon has been made easier by the variety of pre-set programs that come with most sound generators and processors. By switching from one setting to another, the sounds from dozens of records can be heard. The preset computer program in the processor generates nothing except in response to a signal passing through it. Here we have sonic artifacts that have become marketable commodities. For instance reverb sound are cataloged by the type of instrument that might go through it as suggested by the manufacturer. A gated reverb snare exists on every processor made today. Most reverb device retain pre-set term that reference devices of the past. For instance, "plate" reverbs.

At the heart of rock and roll is guitar distortion; in this case a common denominator is the Celestion G-12 speaker that is in an overwhelming number of guitar amplifiers made by a number of different manufacturers. Ken Bran, the engineer who headed the introduction of the Marshall amplifier that was first made famous by Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, acknowledged that without Celestion they couldn’t have accomplished half of what they did.

In the beginning, Celestion was probably unaware of the desirability of speaker distortion. They had spent decades trying to build distortionless speakers, but the company quickly understood that speaker distortion was a key selling point.

As Celestion's promotional material states, “The paper edge cone of the classic G12 and its resonate break up characteristics are the starting point from which many of the modern guitar loudspeakers have been developed”

This speaker was first introduced in 1969 and continues to be sold with the assurance that the characteristics of its distortion hasn’t changed through the years. Here is the subjective, absolutely unquantifiable attribute of some form of unique distortion that has become a marketable commodity.

During the past few decades, an abundance of performance processors have been invented to add distortion to the sound coming out of a guitar. Two are particularly noteworthy. The fuzz-tone effect pedal was first marketed in 1963. Charley Watkins described, "It was an exciting sound- as if the speaker cone was being torn apart." In 1963, Hold Me by P.J. Probe was one of the first chart records to use a fuzz-tone, but the record to place fuzz-tone effects at the top of any guitar players shopping list was the 1964 debut single for the Rolling Stones, the classic Satisfaction. Interestingly, Keith Richards dismissed the prominence of the fuzz effect as a gimmick.

The second is the Cry Baby Wah Wah pedal which can make the guitar sound as though it were speaking. As the pedal is rocked back and forth a notch of frequencies are enhanced. The wah wah remains a backbone sound of rock blues soul music and became a recognizable commodity when used by Jimi Hendrix on All Along The Watch Tower and Eric Clapton on Cream’s 1967 hit Tales of brave Ulysses.

Stereo became a fashion statement soon after it was introduced in the late 50s when the first generation of "ultimate" playback systems appeared on the market. People would fill hi-fi stereo shows that were held in most major cities. This was triggered by the introduction of stereo, the LP, and the microgroove record. A great many successful recordings were produced for the stereo enthusiast. Trains would race from one speaker to the other. No matter how small the listener’s accommodation might have been, the infinite space of recorded music could overlap and open the confined space the listener occupied. The two spaces would conflate to create an environment with no walls to restrict the many worlds that could be presented between those stereo channels. The sonic image of space had become a commodity.

Today surround sound has allowed the consumer hi-fi industry to reinvent itself as the consumer now sits in the showroom and hears why 6 speakers are better then two when space ships wiz around the room.

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