About MP3s

Written by decoy

In issue #14, it seemed like demo music was one of the buzz words. People had a lot to say about using MP3 compressed audio vs. going the traditional way with trackers and modules. I thought I'd throw in my two cents worth...

Most sceners have grown to love the modules of the 'good old days'. You know, the kinds made by Captain, Lizard King etc. Four channels, mellow, difficult as hell to make and regarded highly for just that. As the time has gone by, audio technology has advanced and processor speeds exploded and so by now we have 64+ channel trackers with quite a pile of parameters and a lot of room for tweaking. But instead of breeding innovation, it seems to have made people grow more and more dissatisfied with the music being released. Most scene insiders would agree that too much music is being thrown out and only a vanishingly low percentage shows any real promise. What's the deal?

My own opinion is that the music biz has driven over us. Think about it. Nowadays the whole popular music culture has exploded into tiny little pieces. There are literally thousands of genres in existence and most people have grown quite selective about what they want to hear. Music comes out on hundreds of CDs every day, around the world. Almost everything that can be done, has been. It is quite clear that few musical innovations can shake us like sampling and simple synthetic soundscapes did in the eighties. Music has been trivialized.

Another problem is that in a sense the scene is quite conservative: quite a few sceners still cling to the ideals of the 80's: melodic, traditionally constructed (melody, harmony, bass, drums = four channels) four-to-the-bar tunes. At the other end of the spectrum we have the generation of the 90's whose (bad) musical taste leans heavily on techno pop. All in all, I would think there are only so many 'good' pieces of scene music one can make before landing outside the approved styles. Listen to the background music of HUGI, for instance. Heard something like it before?

So what about MP3s, then? I'd think they represent a healthy break-off from the traditional tracking paradigm. I would argue trackers have had a considerable part in the stagnation of the music scene. Not only because they allow easy ripping and fast-but-dirty music making, but also because they are a very uniform platform to work on. Ask any synthesist and he will tell you that in order to make new kinds of music, one usually does best in buying a new synth. We do not have such freedom in trackers. Hell, I've yet to see a tracker with possibilities for truly original synthesis or fine-grained control over bigger sound events. (Buzz is a step in the right direction, though...)

Even worse, it's not so much about what we could do at the max, but about what we come to think of - our tools guide the creative process more than one would think. (Some would say here is where good musicians are told from bad ones. I do not agree...) A tracker represents a tool which has evolved very little since its inception in the Age of the Amiga - even today they rarely permit original synthesis or even acoustically plausible instruments. Not to talk about all the other limitations, like memory/file size. In addition to cleaning such obstacles out of the way, MP3s gain one all the other benefits of digital audio. These include being able to freely edit complex sound events, to use effects, to have accurate control over the sonic events, to use collage techniques and so on. Trackers lack most of the de facto tools available in even the smallest of studios, so going to audio is justified.

Of course, MP3s are more than just one way to avoid the limitations of trackers - as was pointed out in the last issue, one really can throw anything into a .wav file and make an MP3. I think that gives some more room for people not familiar with trackers at all and also opens new ground for those who find the old way too limiting. Truthfully, composing like this isn't so far removed from the practice of some of the more prominent trackers. Nowadays some of the best songs are made on a synth and/or in a home studio and only after that retrofitted for module distribution. Why not use MP3s instead? There really isn't much point in trying to look eLItE by butchering a good tune to fit it in a 1MB .xm...

Finally, some would argue that, "by definition", a musician cannot participate in the scene if he doesn't do it "by the book", i.e. use a tracker. As for that, I think that now, after the popularization of computers and the Internet, the scene no longer exists in a vacuum and it is only healthy that it is slowly dissolving into the surrounding society. With regard to music this means that the standards of the scene and the standards of the 'normal' society are getting closer by the hour. Thus, there is no longer any real need or reason to exclude non-tracking musicians from the scene or to engage in any sort of favoritism for 'scene-like' music. Currently the only route to such an end are MP3s. Personally I must confess I like the idea of digital audio superceding the more limited module formats. Though audio is less 'intelligent', it really gives much more room for original work. If only people used it right and didn't rip...

- decoy/dawn

student/math/Helsinki university