Is Digitally Produced Music Better Than Traditional Music?

Ethan Coyle ‘20

In an age of increasingly sophisticated and omnipotent technology, no entertainment industries remain untouched by technology’s impact. Perhaps the greatest change has occurred in the music industry, as popular music that once had been recorded live in an expensive studio session can now be constructed layer by layer by a teenager with time and a laptop. The question is, is music produced on a computer without live instruments more interesting than traditional music? I personally believe that it is.


While the distinction can often be unclear, for the purpose of this article I will define traditional music as artists such as The Beatles, Queen, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Most pop and rap/hip hop music over the last 30 years, however, is produced electronically through the use of computer software and audio interface hardware; experts of this art include Kanye West, Dr Dre, and J Dilla.


As early as the 1960s, traditional artists harnessed the power of early technology such as synthesizers in order to create a unique sound and garner attention from listeners. Use of the Moog synthesizer became popular after its release in 1968, and is used by The Beatles on songs such as Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Here Comes The Sun [1]. However, the evolution of music production into an almost exclusively digital medium occurred primarily during the 1980’s, when adopting technology such as the MIDI controller and DAW’s (digital audio workspaces) became the industry norm [2]. The creation of the musical instrument digital interface, or MIDI, allowed for the inception of the home studio, since it enabled the connection of different controllers, synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and computers to each other [3].


Since the 1980s, music producers have become capable of constructing sounds and music unlike anything than can be created using traditional instruments. The Akai MPC 3000, a portable sampler machine that allowed sounds to be programmed and played at the touch of 16 touch sensitive pads, became the medium through which many influential producers used to channel their passion for music. Adopters include Dr Dre and the late J Dilla. The MPC 3000 was not the first model of MPC, but its release in 1994 resulted in a leap forward for music production capabilities. Mid-90s hip hop producer J Dilla, who passed away in 2006 due to a rare blood disease, was revered for his musical capabilities, and today his own MPC 3000 can be found in the National Museum of African American History in the nation’s capital. Using just a piece of hardware consisting of 16 programmable buttons, Dilla could craft complex hip hop beats such as those on the songs E=mc2 and Don’t Cry, using the sample I Can’t Stand (To See You Cry) by The Escorts [4]. I highly encourage you to listen to these songs, as well as any other Dilla beat expressing his unique style of off-kilter drum beats and his dedication to musical exploration.


During the end of J Dilla’s time innovating as a rap producer, others such as Kanye West were gaining popularity and taking the industry in new directions. One of Kanye’s great strengths, and the reason I proclaim him my favorite artist of all time, is his ability to use the human voice as an instrument. While every artist who has recorded vocals can claim that feat, Kanye uses the power of technology to manipulate the human voice in ways that innovate beyond anything that could be created prior to modern technology. Throughout the history of music, a typical song consists of an instrumental beat and a vocal, however, Kanye is known for filling all nooks and crannies of a song with vocal samples and recordings. On his debut album The College Dropout, released in 2004, Kanye won a grammy and a BET award nomination for best gospel artist for the song Jesus Walks. In this song, Kanye uses a gospel choir sample to create the bassline, percussion, and melody of the song, all layered over a recording of a drill sergeant and artist John Legend’s voice autotuned to resemble an exotic flute. While all of these vocals create a very full beat, Kanye dexterously finds room to rap over the beat himself for the duration of the song [5].


Six years later, Kanye released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which introduced some of the most remarkable and well-known rap songs in history. One of which, Runaway, stands at nine minutes long, roughly three times longer than Jesus Walks. For the final three minutes of the song, Kanye quits rapping and boldly distorts his voice to resemble an electric guitar, creating a wildly creative and memorable outro that alone runs as long as most typical songs [5]. The songs Jesus Walks and Runaway are masterpieces, and they become increasingly complex the closer you listen; yet, these songs are only two of Kanye’s countless classics that emanate pure creative nature and thrilling innovation. Other Kanye West songs that showcase his great ability to produce and rap include: Power, Bound 2, Blood On The Leaves, and Ultralight Beam.


While artists like The Beatles and Michael Jackson have recorded many of the best songs of all time, the complexity of traditional music pales in comparison to that of modern production. Listening to other songs such as Travis Scott’s Skeletons or Kendrick Lamar’s A.D.H.D. offers a surreal soundscape that can not be replicated using simple instruments. Interestingly, the very definition of an instrument could be challenged today, as in the operation manual for the aforementioned MPC 3000, the introduction letter challenges artists to treat the machine as an instrument itself. Whether traditional, electronic, or even the human voice, instruments are used to their full potential by great artists who have a spirit of innovation and who create impactful music regardless of their era or audience.


On the topic of the modern production methods of artists, Alex Kattas ‘20 agreed, “The development of technology in music has allowed 21st century artists to elevate the intricacy of their songs, making for a better listening experience.” Alex, a fan of digital producers such as The Chainsmokers and Billie Eilish, asserts that the digital method of music production is better because of its potential to be more intricate and elaborate than traditional music. I firmly agree with her praise for contemporary music’s complexity because although today’s music may be more enjoyable, depending on one’s musical predilections, it can also achieve many more purposes than traditional music. In today’s world of music streaming, any genre of music can be played instantly through an app; this allows listeners to diverge from their preferred styles of music and appreciate new styles. One example of new musical styles is the genre of electronic music that aims to enhance concentration and sleep through ambient and atmospheric sounds. While this style of music could not be created without the full power of computer technology, it is not the only new genre that owes its presence to digital production. Others include electronic dance music (EDM) and modern psychedelic pop. When considering the abilities of digitally produced music to be increasingly elaborate and to target purposes previously untapped by traditional musical artists, it is obvious that modern production is the better form of music. Whether hyping yourself up to get that next rep in the gym, or losing yourself in an electronic soundscape while paging through a good book, you can always turn to digital music in order to enhance any of life’s challenges and experiences.


Oscar Kirk ‘21 dissents from this opinion, stating, “While electronic music does allow for further possibilities, it is the simplicity of a guitar and piano that resonates with our human mind because everyone can relate to the harmony and simplicity of traditional music.” While this view rationally refutes the argument for electronic music, I find that the development of music through technology has allowed listeners to fall more into their own niche, and develop a unique personality through music. If everyone relates to the same traditional tunes, who can say what separates my grandma and myself in our appreciation of the song Closing Time by Semisonic. The merit of digital music therefore lies in the great diversification that has been fueled by modern technology, allowing each individual to find their corner of sound that makes them feel unique yet comforted in their individuality.


In conclusion, digitally produced music is more interesting than traditional music due to its inherent complexities that can not be matched by real instruments, and its capacity to take music into new territories. For example, a standard piano has 88 keys that limit an artist to solely one range of sounds; however, modern artists can harness the power of computers through MIDI and DAWs and create sounds that are entirely new to music and unique to each artist’s style, as evident in Kanye West’s discography. Although I believe digitally produced music to be more interesting, in truth all modes of musical expression have merit, and all have the power to move and inspire. While a broad range of musical capabilities are available to today’s artists, the future of music is ultimately unclear and holds much potential for innovation and creativity. I eagerly anticipate the direction in which tomorrow’s artists take music next.


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