u_topn picture
rub_dc picture
Atlantic Unbound Sidebar

Previously in Digital Culture:

"A Function Specific to Joy," by Harvey Blume (April 29, 1998)
Rosalind Picard, a pioneer of affective computing, believes that the emotional barrier between humans and machines has long since outlived its usefulness. Are we ready for computers that know how we feel?

"Where the Rubber Meets the Road," by Ralph Lombreglia (March 25, 1998)
A brand-new graduate program at a tiny Vermont college is founded on a simple yet far-sighted idea: the next phase of the digital revolution depends as much on education as on technology.

"The World Accord to David Gelernter," by Harvey Blume (January 29, 1998)
An interview with a computer scientist who argues that beautiful technology -- and a return to traditional values -- must show us the way forward. Plus, a series of excerpts from David Gelernter's Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology.

For more, see the complete Digital Culture Index

Discuss this topic in the Digital Culture forum of Post & Riposte.

The Right Mix
Digital technology has made the private recording studio itself into a new kind of musical instrument. Yet, as with any art, genuine value cannot be faked -- no matter how special the effects

by Ralph Lombreglia

June 4, 1998

Of all the arts, music has probably been changed the most pervasively by digital technology -- a change heralded by the recording industry's shift in the 1980s from vinyl platters to the compact disc. Most consumers don't associate their CDs with computers, but, of course, the music on those discs is digital data. As such, it shares the great benefits of all digitally encoded information -- it's perfectly reproducible (a copy is identical to the original) and completely editable.

Today, especially in pop music, many of the sonorities and instrumental voices originate from within digital equipment, and the layering of the many tracks that make up a performance is entirely computer-based. Even in the "pure" realm of classical music it's the rare recording that reaches its audience without having been altered somehow on a computer, usually by having several "takes" blended together to make an ideal performance.

One great irony of pervasive digital information technology is that it confers superhuman powers upon us while simultaneously amplifying our essential humanness. This is usually most obvious for negative reasons, such as when a hacker breaks into a bank's computers, or a laptop crashes while a company CEO is doing a demo, or a communications satellite fails and leaves the world's doctors without their pagers. But there's no reason that the most positive aspects of our humanity can't be amplified by computer technology, too. Indeed, there is no reason that computers can't lead us to the poetic -- assuming we care about poetry in the first place. As I've suggested in this space before, the proper artistic response to digital technology is to embrace it as a new window on everything that's eternally human, and to use it with passion, wisdom, fearlessness, and joy.

razcd picture Which brings me to Randy Roos. Roos is a jazz-trained guitarist based in the Boston area whose new group, Raz, has just released its debut CD (titled, simply, Raz) on Narada Records. (Narada released two previous CDs under Roos's own name: Liquid Smoke in 1994 and Primalvision in 1995.) About twelve years ago he started to delve deeply into computer-based music tools, and he has devoted as much study and discipline to these things as anyone I've ever met. Far from dehumanizing his music he feels strongly that digital technology has led him into new areas of warmth and mystery, not to mention fun and a lot of productivity. "This stuff," he says, "has brought me back to the original, innocent, joyful kind of performance I used to do."

If you watch much science programming on PBS television you've probably heard Randy Roos's music. For more than a decade he's been scoring selected documentaries for NOVA and almost all episodes of Scientific American Frontiers. He's also managed to carry on with his own artistic career, making four nationally released CDs of original music in eight years (Photogenic Memory on Agharta Records in 1990 preceded the three titles on Narada). For several years in the early nineties he co-led the band World News with George Jinda, the percussionist of the popular duo Special EFX, putting out two additional CDs for which he wrote more than half the music. In 1994, Musician magazine put him on its top-ten list of innovative jazz guitarists, and his television scoring has earned him an Emmy nomination.

"Raz is jazz!" says the packaging of Raz, but it might have said "Raz is Randy Roos jazz," since it's hard to imagine any other musician undertaking this project in quite this way. With the exception of one tune, Raz consists of jazz standards -- including old standbys like "Night and Day," "How Insensitive," and "Afro Blue" -- that have been redefined by influences as far-ranging as techno pop, world music, and urban dance. The treatments are full of taste and respect, and the tunes are perfectly recognizable, but suffice it to say that you've never heard them like this.

Many aspects of these eclectic arrangements would not have been possible without digital technology. On "Night and Day," digitally sampled and recombined women's voices (all one woman, actually -- the composer's wife, Kathy Roos) whisper intriguingly and then sing like a chorus of Astrid Gilbertos while Roos plays succulent acoustic guitar improvisations. On Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," tribal voices chant in an artificial language you can almost understand while various electric guitars and synthesizers state the melody over a drum beat closer to hip-hop than bebop.

AUDIO from Raz

Roos typically "samples" brief snippets of human speech, ranging in length from a half-word to two words, and then "plays" them with his guitar, resulting in something that sounds like a mysterious language but in fact has no linguistic content. Of this clip Roos says: "This is the chorus of the only original composition on the album. The melody here is carried principally by the sampled Native American vocals, performed on the guitar synthesizer controller."

Listen to the excerpt (in RealAudio).

"Nightwalking" composed by Randy Roos. Published by Amida Music, Inc. (ASCAP). (P) 1998 Narada Productions, Inc.

AUDIO from Raz

"Afro Blue" (dance mix)
Roos comments: "This example features a 'physical modeling' synthesizer controlled, as usual, by my guitar controller. The 'model' here is of a virtual reed instrument (somewhat like a saxophone). I was able to make extreme changes of breath force and embouchure (mouthpiece) pressure by using two foot pedals while I was playing this 'model' on the guitar -- one pedal for each of those expressive elements."

Listen to the excerpt (in RealAudio).

"Afro Blue" composed by Ramon Santamaria. Published by Mongo Music, Inc. (BMI). (P) 1998 Narada Productions, Inc.
As in all his work, Roos is suggesting something about the universality of music by deliberately blurring the lines between musical styles. But he's blurring lots of other lines, too. Most of his music is infectious and accessible, even danceable, while remaining artistically sophisticated and challenging. Like much music created with digital tools, his work also smudges the distinction between composition and recording, because the technology allows those processes to happen simultaneously and to influence each other. The samplers, synths, processors, and software available for a private "project studio" have become so good that the line between a home-based workplace and a "pro studio" is almost gone. Much of what you'll hear on any Randy Roos CD was recorded at the address where he lives outside Boston, with the guitarist often playing (on a guitar) the things that sound like keyboards and drums.

But in Roos's music the digital power doesn't exclude humanity, figuratively or literally. After producing a commercial-quality "demo" of Raz in his studio, Roos had his keyboard player, percussionist, and bassist play along with those tracks just as they would in a live setting, and as he himself had already done with his own guitar parts. Then, in the post-production editing, he entered into a wholly different creative phase of the project, mixing the "nonlinear" (computer-assembled) elements with the "linear" elements played in real-time by real people.

As is the case with writers, Roos never knows exactly what he'll do in his editing, and surprises and unplanned richness invariably emerge. On one tune, his own synthetic percussion tracks might be completely scrapped in favor of the real percussionist's playing, while in a different song the synthetic drums might remain prominent. But anything can happen. On Raz, something that the percussionist originally played on "How Insensitive" ended up being used on "My Romance." Most important, the digital editing possibilities free musicians from self-consciousness and invite exploration in the playing, too. While recording the first version of "Afro Blue" (the CD also contains a longer "dance mix" of the tune), one of Roos's coproducers picked up a guitar with a wah-wah pedal attached and started playing anything he could think of. Some of it didn't work, but some of it did. In the editing Roos found a three-bar section that he loved; he "looped" it so that it played continuously, and this is the wah-wah guitar part that you hear on the CD. Digital editing provides the power to recombine the very DNA of music, and thus the act of mixing becomes almost indistinguishable from the act of arranging.

Randy Roos is hardly unique in his use of a private digital studio or in his blending of musical styles. What is unusual about him, though, is the sense of personal destiny you get from his music, as if the combination of digital devices and traditional physical instruments fits his personality perfectly -- as if, in fact, he couldn't have reached the height of his powers at any other moment in history. He seems to be doing, right now, precisely what he was put here to do.

He began his career in the early 1970s with the art-rock band Orchestra Luna (on Epic Records), and then for at least a decade he led Boston-based combos that played a loose and free brand of electric bebop as well as his own compositions. His interest in technology -- primarily guitar synthesizers -- had more to do with performing than recording. Then in the mid-1980s be began scoring for television, which prompted him to start building his own digital studio. "The studio is an instrument," he says, and by now it's as much his instrument as his beloved guitars. But he didn't always feel so warmly about studio craft.

roospic picture
"The studio is an instrument," says Randy Roos, pictured here in his home workspace.

Before digital gear existed that could record entire real-time tracks for later software editing, musicians worked in the studio with a process called "punching in," which involved waiting for engineers to cue tapes to specific problem spots and then trying to play, out of context, only the small scrap of performance that needed to be fixed. At its worst, Roos says, "punching in" fostered a "neurotic, microscopic, and anal" attitude toward making music in a studio. But now musicians can play entire "takes" of their parts in real time, with all the phrases in context, and that keeps them sane as artists and gives the producers and editors endless creative options of their own.

In this case the sanity and the options all belong to Randy Roos -- composer, arranger, performer, producer, and engineer. Digital technology facilitates his playing all those roles, but only because it's in him to do it. Computers amplify who we are in the first place; they don't make us different people. Digital tools didn't give Randy Roos talent or discipline. He made his first multitrack recording on his parents' home tape recorder when he was in the seventh grade, studied electrical engineering in college before switching to music, and for years practiced jazz guitar so devotedly that he sometimes fell asleep with the instrument in his hands.

Some people -- critics with a public voice, not to mention consumers -- seem to feel that if artists use computers in their work they're somehow "cheating," that the computer is somehow doing the art. They should try it sometime. Talent and devotion put the depth in an artist's work, and it can't be faked with the glitziest gear, just as special effects can't save a badly written movie. There is a real genie in the computer, but it turns out to be the same old genie that lives in the paintbrush and the pen and the piano. It will sometimes come out to perform tricks for the kids, but its real magic -- its real obedience -- is reserved for the master.

Join the discussion in the Digital Culture forum of Post & Riposte.

More on Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound

Ralph Lombreglia is the author of two short-story collections, Men Under Water (1991) and Make Me Work (1995), and is a regular contributor of short stories and reviews to The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. He was a 1996 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is at work on a novel and a new collection of short stories.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Cover Atlantic Unbound The Atlantic Monthly Post & Riposte Atlantic Store Search