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A Question of Sound

PostPosted: Mon Jul 04, 2005 12:48 pm
by howard male
We've all on occasion impressed others (and ourselves) by recognising a song played on the radio in a fraction of a second - we've not heard the main hook, the vocal, or even a word of the lyrics. All we have heard is the sound - or if you will, the record's sonic signature.

Try this at home. Invite a fellow music obsessive, in fact even someone with just a casual liking for music will do (my sister's quite good at it) to guess a track they are familiar with, after just the tiniest sound-bite. I remember at a party a couple of years ago, friend and fellow CG poster NickH - forever the attention seeker - shouting out 'Superstition!' After only hearing one thud of bass drum and one thwack of snare, in its drums-only intro.

You may think of a song's defining qualities as melody, lyrics, chord sequence and rhythm: the melody and lyric are the bits you sing along to or whistle; the chord sequence dictates the mood - minor chords - sad, major chords happy etc, and the rhythm, whether it's reggae, rock, hip hop, or whatever. But it's the sound which gives a record it's stamp of identity; it's DNA signature, it's uniqueness, its very texture. Most of us can probably identify, even tracks we loathed, in the blink of an eye, or the crash of a hi-hat symbol.

This is why, since the beginning of popular music as a recorded phenomena, the role of the producer has become so important. The producer may not write the track, or even arrange it, but what he does do is find a sound for it. All these other elements - melody, chords etc - are the timeless ingredients of music. What makes a record sound 'of it's time' is it's sound. Conversely, it is also the thing that is most likely to make the record sound horribly dated, if the producer has been too concerned about getting a 'fashionable' sound.

Many cutting-edge tracks today are basically a mosaic of sounds, rather than being traditionally composed where the songwriter sits with guitar or at the piano waiting for his/her muse to turn up. A modern dance track is typically built from the ground up. Starting with a sampled loop of rhythm and bass which is then augmented by additional samples and live instrumentation until something more substantial begins to loom out of the sonic mist. If the producer ends up with something which is more than the sum of it's parts, then he/she may have stumbled upon that holiest of holy grails - A New Sound!

A New Sound can kick-start a new genre, and will be imitated shamelessly for a couple of years by countless other artists and producers until it starts to fall on deaf and bored ears, and them another new sound must be found.

I'm addicted to new sounds. The lone troubadour strumming a guitar and singing simply doesn't do it for me anymore, however good the lyrics or persuasive the voice. Simply because I've heard that sound a million times before. This is also true of the music I grew up loving. Rock's sound-palette has become almost as limited and predictable to my ears as that of the chamber orchestra.

However if you are fully tuned into a genre such as rock, the talented producer still tries to make sure he tickles your ears with small changes in what is essentially the same picture. Take the humble snare drum for example. At face value it's just calf skin or plastic stretched over a hollow metal frame, which a bloke who hangs out with musicians is required to hit hard with a wooden stick at regular intervals - usually on every other beat, or every fourth beat, if you're counting. Catgut or metal wires called snares are stretched across the drum's underside to create that characteristic rattle. But it's a rare thing to hear the characteristic rattle of a snare unadulterated.

Over the decades the sound a snare drum makes has been compressed, phased, swamped in reverb, recorded in the bathroom, or in the case of Tom Waits, Camille, Son of Dave and others - imitated with vocal chords. All so that you, the music consumer, can remain interested when you listen to a record. It will sometimes even be replaced by a handclap, tambourine, finger-clicks, or a cow bell. The important thing, is that there's a short, sharp, percussive sound on every second and fourth beat of the bar, as the rock grammatical template demands. Only the sound changes. And that is because man cannot live on melody and rhythm alone. To keep you coming back for more, the producer - arguably the most important cog in the music-making machine - has to keep finding new ways of dishing up what is essentially the same meal.

And so we come to world music. If you really want new sounds this is really the only place to look. To extend a metaphor to breaking point - if rock is the sausage and mash of music, then world is a riotous Rijstaffel of spicy new sounds. A smorgasbord for the adventurous music lover, with something new being brought to the table every day.

The fact that there is no musical template to adhere to with world music, and that every conceivable mix of musicians from every corner of the globe are splicing their musical DNA in a totally unselfconscious way, even as we speak, means that new sounds are happening as lucky accidents everyday.

But as well as a multitude of different cultural sensibilities combining to make new sounds, there are also a multitude of new (or new to western listeners) instruments. No sooner have we all become familiar with the ngoni or the balifone, when along comes another intriguing, multistringed device from a parallel universe, with a sound which is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.

What a joy it is to be able to escape the dictatorship or musical monopoly of the electric guitar at last, after all these years. Even if we still all need to go back there, every now and then, when all these new sounds just get a bit too much.