Manufacturers of all instruments have it pretty well figured out. They just need to find a musician who can do something impressive with the instrument, software or device and make a video recording of it.  From this, no end of “eager desire” can be generated.  The implied message is clear, “Buy this instrument/sample library/synth/whatever, and you will make impressive music too!”.  Generally, the tool in question delivers exactly what it says on the tin, and if approached with thought, significant amounts of creativity and physical ability, “impressive” is within reach.  In the last several years, the market has been flooded with devices and software in the $200-$500 mark, and gear flies off the shelves.  By modularizing the purchase price into small hits of $200-$500, the modular synth industry is undergoing a renaissance or sorts.  This seems to hold true from synths to sample libraries, to beat boxes, keyboards, and any number of cheap guitars, drum sets, etc.  By the time the price hits $1000, sales volume drops off rapidly.

In some ways, for many in the “first world”, the cost of new electronic and software music “widgets” has reached a point where new gear can be purchased regularly.  For software, it doesn’t even take up space in one’s home, so the clutter can become invisible.  This is very different than the world of physical instruments like trombones and pianos, where it takes thousands of dollars or tens of thousands of dollars to purchase an instrument.  Interestingly, once one has a fine concert instrument, there is often little felt need for another.  Additional instruments tend to be focused on other applications or significantly different tone colors.  With software, though, the tendency seems to be to keep adding and keep adding.

In an interview with Seth Godin, Krista Tippet uncovered a number of significant nuggets of thought from Seth that weigh on the selection of technology. At some level, the use of technology is inherent in music making.  Physical instruments are one form of technology.  Electronic instruments like guitars and basses are another.  Then we have the whole world of electronics, computers and software.  If it makes noise, humans will use it for music, it seems.  So how do we select technology for our music?

Seth offers several penetrating questions for evaluating technology:

  • Does this help me hide?
  • Does it carry artistic risk and motivate forward motion?
  • Does it make me uncomfortable as an artist?
  • Does it challenge me in making art?

Technology can easily help us hide.  It takes a lot of time to master most tools, making it far easier to purchase ever newer tools in a vain search for progress, when the progress comes from mastering what is right in front of us.  This phenomenon affects all artists who use technology from photographers, to musicians, studio owners, etc.  With the interconnectedness of the world, it can be a part-time job just keeping up on al the latest advancements in a field – all available for purchase, and all demonstrated by someone doing something amazing!

But, technology can also carry artistic risk and propel forward motion.  The Seaboard is this way for me.  I know it is very expressive, but how expressive can I make it?  Am I willing to find out?  There are no lessons for it – it is up to my own initiative. It looks at me and stares, daring me to find its limits.  I don’t know about its durability, permanence or the fate of the company.  I need to make things with it now, not later.  Being digital, it may not “keep” for 20 years.  It is a tool of the moment.

Computers have been making people uncomfortable for years, along with all the arcane software we have devised.  This is one way that technology can hinder art.  If we spend our time “geeking out”, that is usually a different space than the creative impulse.  Technology problems can definitely distract us right away from finishing things.  But, technology can also make us uncomfortable and goad us.  We may hear a new way to use something associated with dance music, heavy metal, or whatever and think – they haven’t begun to explore the goodness that I hear.  Good or bad?  I suppose it depends.

Does it challenge me in making art?  Do I wonder if I can measure up?  For some, this is exactly what turns them off about EDM – they feel that “anyone” can push buttons on a computer.  For others, the computer and a sequencer are a limitless playground offering constant chance for growth, experimentation and forward progress.

In all of this, “Musician, know thyself” seems to be the only lasting advice.  I find Seth’s framework helpful, and the questions insightful.  My office surrounds me with music technology, and I have a large investment into software and musical electronics. I spend many hours bending computers to my will for my orchestral template, my DSO project, and for composing and notating music.  And yet, I have been climbing off the acquisition treadmill. I don’t really need anymore subtractive synthesizers.  I don’t need another string library.  And I find my attention moving on from building my template to just sitting down and using it.  Ultimately we as artists must rule the technology and bend it to our will – it must not be allowed to seduce us from our mission of actually making things and striving to be more expressive and effective in our art.