It’s been pointed out to me recently that my music all sounds a bit… samey. In particular, the tracks uploaded onto my YouTube channel.
I realize this – but I don’t think it’s because I’m lazy or unimaginative. Creating music is something I pour my heart and soul into. The medium through which I create that music is just a bit restricting. But I’m fine with that.
I work at a very basic level in music composition: General MIDI, and soundfonts. The General MIDI soundbank is confined to only 128 different voices and some very basic-sounding drumkits. Soundfonts simply attach different sounds to the songs that I write. I only have a few of those (I will expand my collection whenever I stumble on any new ones, though) but I do try to mix them up, choosing the best-sounding voices for my music in order to give it some lift.
I realize that with my soundfonts, I’m essentially using a bunch of preset sounds and just whacking them onto the finished composition. It’s kind of lazy of me. I really should get into the habit of writing music through some other, more diverse means. But I have always been a MIDI artist and I am happy that I’ve been one for so long.
MIDI is what I have learned everything about music through. I started out close to a decade ago, learning the ins and outs of the very basic composition software I was using back then (and that I still use today) – Cakewalk Express 3.02. It lives up to its name: it’s an incredibly easy-to-use program and just gives you exactly what you need to write good music.
The program is nearly as old as me. Hence, it’s not really capable of producing music, but rather scoring it.
When you’re an artist working in General MIDI alone, things tend to sound familiar when you only have 128 different voices at your disposal. But limitation isn’t always a bad thing. You could trawl for possibly millennia through the vast array of softsynths, plugins, and preset voices – even just the ones that are available for free – on the internet. There’s just so much stuff out there, it’s frankly overwhelming. When such a torrent of variation is made so readily available, it’s incredibly easy to get deluged in the sheer volume of possibility. It’s actually quite intimidating.
However, when you’re confined to 128 voices and only a few separate effects available to play around with, you really start to get creative. You try to push those limitations, and use the limited software to its absolute maximum potential. This is what I’ve done as a musician – I haven’t bothered with all the more advanced aspects of composition and production, and have instead focused on honing my ability as a writer. I write music, that is as melodic, harmonious, varied, rhythmic and dynamic as I can make it – even if it means reusing the same old sounds over and over again. But you don’t write sounds, do you?
This approach hasn’t exactly stopped chiptunes from being immensely popular, has it? (Listen to that tune. Listen to it. You cannot deny its musical brilliance.)
Hell, if chiptunes – music tracks only confined to a few basic waveforms – can be as popular as they are, why the hell not General MIDI? It’s already superior to chiptunes in that you have 128 possible voices, which gives rise to many combinations of timbre, dynamics, and tone. It’s a little bit more varied than chiptune, sure, but it’s too much variation and possibility that I have a problem with. 128 is minute compared to the rest of what the vast universe of modern music production has to offer. I think it’s one of the reasons I, along with a few other people, don’t quite get the appeal of Minecraft. But I digress.
Sure, it looks nice, but it must’ve been a bitch to build.
I think it’s perfectly possible to create music that people can enjoy en masse, and, I’d even go as far to say, easier. You only have a limited selection of voices, so you don’t have to worry about the intricacies of modern music production, like frequency modulation, EQ, compression, mastering… et cetera.
And you know what? Believe me, you’ll be hard-pressed to find genuinely bad MIDI tracks or chiptunes, unless they’re deliberately made bad. Yet modern producers pour effort, commitment, and hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, into writing and producing songs for popular figures, and after all of that, the music is so often… unbelievably bad.
You surely must’ve noticed – as music has moved on and gotten more technically advanced, the floodgates to a nigh-infinite myriad of crap have opened up.
Now before you get annoyed with me, I’m not saying “all modern music is bad” – there is certainly some amazing talent out there. I’m not even saying “I deliberately avoid modern music technology”. Just reread that previous paragraph. And then look at this.
A chiptune of this song would actually be tolerable.
…See where I’m coming from?
It’s so freakin’ easy to make something sound god-awful nowadays, even with the best will in the world. There are so many parameters to consider that simply didn’t exist a few years ago. I’ve studied music technology at A-level and am planning to study all of its intricacies for a further three years at a university in Australia – I know how complex and precise a science it is. (It totally is a science, now. There is still an element of artistry to it but the process of music production is nowadays simply too intricate to be a completely free art.)
I do use Propellerhead Reason, a fine digital audio workstation with a friendly interface and many, many advanced production features that allow for some truly awesome stuff to be produced. I just prefer the comfortable constraint of General MIDI a thousandfold.
Sorry. While this post did get a bit ranty towards the end (and I did go a bit bananas on the italics), I just wanted to clear myself up for anyone who is unaware or curious.
Back to the usual semi-craziness, next time.