Giant sampler

A collaborative degree program between Harvard University and Berklee College of Music holds a forum on the future of musical creativity. 

By Cherie Hu '17

All musical instruments produce their virtuosos: Yo-Yo Ma on cello, Martha Argerich on piano, Jimi Hendrix on guitar, Buddy Rich on drums.

What if the musical instrument in question is an automated machine? Is it possible to wield minuscule computer chips as tools for self-expression? If yes, what does this mean for the future of musical creativity?

On November 9, dozens of music professionals and undergraduates gathered to discuss these questions at The History and Future of Electronic Instrument Technology, the first joint event hosted by Harvard University and the Berklee College of Music as part of a new dual degree five-year program. Moderated by Dan Freeman ‘97, a bassist and electronic artist who designed the MIDI production curriculum at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music and serves as the director of the Brooklyn Digital Conservatory, the panel featured a diverse mix of Harvard alums, current Berklee professors and recording engineers.

Amidst an alphabet soup of product names – Akai S900, Yamaha DX7, Kurzweil K2000, Ensoniq ASR-10, AMS DMX – the panelists walked audience members through their first experiences with electronic instruments, many of which were manufactured at the height of the microcomputer revolution in the 1980s. The first drum machines (electronic devices designed to imitate and/or sample acoustic instruments) were almost quaint by today’s standards, having a storage capacity of only a few megabytes while costing upwards of several thousand dollars.

One of the panelists, Grammy Award-winning industrial designer Roger Linn, manufactured the first programmable drum machine in 1980, known as the LM-1 Drum Computer. Through techniques such as quantization (which fixes slightly offbeat rhythms so they play exactly in time), programmable drum machines gave newfound precision to popular rhythms such as swing that were normally subject to human variation. Despite its heavy $5,000 price tag at the time, the LM-1 was adopted by the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson, catapulting a distinctly repetitive and precise percussion sound into ‘80s pop.

At first, however, these electronic innovations were viewed not as creative tools, but as threats to traditional music performance, throwing into question the relevance of the instrumental solos and improvisations that defined music of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“Making it as a fully acoustic live musician became a lot more challenging,” said Prince Charles Alexander, a recording and mixing engineer who has worked with Mary J. Blige, Destiny's Child, and the Notorious B.I.G. “It became a necessity for us to understand how drum machines work.”

Percussionists in particular felt challenged to learn an entirely new aesthetic that prized rigorous accuracy over individuality and human error. “In the pre-drum machine era, drummers were freer to have their own characteristic style and timing,” said Russell Graham ‘95, who works full time with Nile Rodgers as an engineer, keyboardist, guitarist, and vocal arranger. “Now in the post-drum machine era, individual human variation doesn’t seem as desirable, and artists and producers often prefer for drummers to be completely malleable to whatever style they’re looking for.”

Nonetheless, most musicians embraced drum machines and synthesizers as their inevitable future. In fact, rather than try to make these instruments sound more human, musicians themselves actually became more robotic, ushering in new fusion genres of jazz, hip-hop and EDM like new jack swing and electro swing that relied heavily on electronic renditions of traditional beats and rhythms.

Engineers have kept a close pulse on this activity to inform subsequent instrument designs. “We look to artists to tell us what the future actually is,” said Linn. “You can make a paintbrush, but you never really know what others will paint.”

We are now living in an era when, in Freeman’s words, “the whole studio recording process is like a giant sampler,” with artists from Chick Corea and The Cure to Pharrell Williams and Kanye West embracing drumming and sampling technology. In turn, this shift has also changed how audiences listen: Repetition is now a natural part not just of what musicians perform, but also of what fans want.

Yet, several technological and educational challenges still remain. On one hand, drum machines and synthesizers

Roger Linn (left) and Dan Freeman present the LinnStrument. Photo: Cherie Hu '17
are limiting in how much creative freedom they grant to their users. “Nowadays, the MIDI keyboard is the primary mode of digital music expression, but it’s essentially just a bunch of on/off switches,” explained Linn.

He proceeded to give a demonstration of his latest invention, the fretboard-like LinnStrument, which ventures beyond the on/off paradigm by leveraging five dimensions of movement (left-right, up-down, strike velocity, pressure, and strike release). Graham later gave a live demonstration of the ROLI Seaboard Rise, which also follows a five-dimensional structure but more closely resembles a piano keyboard.

Other panelists suggested experimenting not just with instruments, but also with speakers and sound systems, as delivering nuanced musicality to massive audiences becomes a growing priority in the live concert scene. Video has also become an important tool for electronic artists to communicate their creative process to their followers. “In an age when it becomes more and more difficult to tell the difference between analog and digital, video helps give transparency to how musicians are playing a particular sound,” said Alexander.

Meanwhile, music institutions are trying to maximize this new electronic frontier in a way that preserves expressivity and originality in their students. Berklee in particular “is still trying to figure out how its students can truly speak through these instruments, and use the language of tech in their art,” said Alexander.

With the growth in first-hand educational opportunities to experiment and perform with electronic instruments on a long-term basis, and with more in-depth collaborations between artists and engineers, we can expect musicians and music institutions to continue using technology to break the boundaries of artistic expression in unthinkable ways.