Number 40 / September 1986:

The technological advance of musical instruments has been a powerful force for the democratization of pop music. Over a million and a half electronic keyboards were sold in 1985, up from 400,000 in 1983. Since piano sales declined only 46,000 in the same period, American has reaped a net gain of well over a million keyboard players.

So when John Glasel of the American Federation of Musicians argues that "the worst case scenario is that these machines will get better and better and easier to use," he's completely at odds with reality. Glasel is speaking only from his narrow vantage point as a representative of classical, Broadway, and traditional session musicians.

The most obvious reason for keyboard proliferation is that mass-produced electronic instruments are cheaper. Since 1979, the cost of a piano has tripled to an average of $2,900, while the price of electronic keyboards has fallen so much that you can now pick up a good one for under $400. Further, the ability of these machines to mimic other instruments and store sounds for future playback has opened up a new world for the average musician. A street kid who could never afford to hire strings or horns or who was denied the education that would let him write parts for those instruments, now finds it all at his fingertips. If you can play a keyboard, you can compete with Quincy Jones. This is a far cry from the days when an unsympathetic producer could use his control of studio string and horn players to whip young rockers into line.

The results are also seen in the creation of new sounds and new genres. The icy beauty of Madonna's "Live to Tell" comes as much from the computerized sound of a Fairlight Series III as from her own elegant vocal. The fierce drive of "When Doves Cry" could never have been achieved with acoustic drums. Rap brought music back to the streetcorner with easily available drum machines and mixers. By intercutting different records on twin turntables, rap DJs set up the most revolutionary development of all: the digital sampler.

A sampler can store any sound created in the studio for playback in any form by any instrument. But its most radical feature is the ability to selectively store sounds from any existing record. Thus, you can now use everything from James Jamerson's fluid bass lines to Keith Moon's drum fireworks. While a top- of-the-line studio digital sampler like the Fairlight can cost up to $300,000, Casio now sells a crude version for only $98. As sampler use spreads and the prices tumble, the whole history of recorded sound falls into the grasp of every musician.

This strikes some as an artificial way of making music, but record-making has been "artificial" (i.e. not "live") ever since Les Paul invented overdubbing in 1951. By 1970, fiery tracks like Santana's "Black Magic Woman" were recorded with every note and sound individually spliced in. That was nothing more than a crude form of sampling. Today, the occasional great album that's recorded live in the studio (Scarecrow) is merely the exception that proves the rule.

True, samplers and drum machines have led to a certain homogenization of recorded sound. But that's not an inherent evil of advanced technology. As musicians gain real control of this technology, greater diversity will emerge. For instance, Steve Winwood's Back in the High Life (Island) mixes sampled sounds, drum machines, and synthesizers with acoustic drums, Hammond organ, congas, guitar, and horns. The result is unique and unified.

The threat to the future of our music is political, not technological. As Herbie Hancock told John Rockwell, "I use both acoustic pianos and electronic keyboards...I don't try to think of one pitted against the other. For me, it's all one big happy family, and I think it will be that way for quite some time to come."

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