April - May 2008
Himig Pinoy

Music and the machines

SINGER/songwriter Paolo Santos.

I’M NOT quite a fan of techno, to be honest. It’s just a preference issue. I believe that watching an artist fully express himself only through voice and guitar is such an amazing experience. Yet I also know that there are now more opportunities to express oneself through music because of new technology. Today a musician can always go back to basics, but with the new technology, he can also move forward.

I have always had a soft spot for acoustic music in the form of folk, and I have been playing acoustic music almost all my life. But I consider myself very fortunate to be performing and recording in this digital age. In large part, this is because the time and effort in making, recording, and storing music now have been cut enormously.

I really don’t find any drawbacks when it comes to the effect of machines and all kinds of gadgets and electronic wizardry on music. Though some “old school” musicians prefer the analog way (since they always want to hear that hissing sound in the background), the music industry in general has embraced new technology for numerous reasons. The most important one would probably be convenience. Costs, effort, and time have been drastically cut in enormous proportions. And I guess that is the purpose of advancement in technology in general: to make us more efficient and creative at the same time.

Recording has not changed much in its actual sense. Someone presses “record” and then people play, sing, and voila — there is something that people can later listen to and enjoy. But when we talk about the technical process behind recording, the changes have been nothing less than revolutionary. Efforts are cut tremendously. It doesn’t take months to record anymore. People have a lot more time to concentrate on writing and arranging the music rather than having to compromise it because of a recording deadline imposed by the record company.

Just think about how tedious things used to be: Before, making and recording music entailed gathering everyone in one room. And everyone had to be on cue all the time. This was before there was ever such a thing as post-production; after recording, whatever was produced directly went into print. So everyone has to be in tune, on tempo, and having the right level of volume — even the room had to have the right ambience to make the recording of a single song close to perfect. More importantly, a retake would be done from the beginning of the song rather than just mending a portion of it if miscues occur during the recording process. As a result, artists would tend to do multiple takes and eventually just pick out their preferred recording.

When analog tape recording came along, a whole new door was opened. Suddenly rolls of tape could be reused in order to correct mistakes. This meant recording could be done in chapters. The concept of layering or “multi-track recording” was introduced, which had instruments divided onto different tracks. Once each instrument has done its final take, all of these would be gathered and recorded into one tape. I was lucky enough to be able to record in a somewhat similar process here in the Philippines at Tracks Recording Studio in Pasig (engineered by Angee Rozul).

THESE DAYS there’s the digital form of recording, which is used by just about every artist that I’ve heard of and known. With this format, you can record just about anywhere. If I remember right, one of the songs that I wrote for my album “Rites of Passage” was initially recorded using an M-Box hardware, which has both instrument and microphone lines with Protools program installed on my handy G4 Powerbook. I was in West Virginia at the time, having a well-deserved vacation. But I needed to do some demos for a new album that was due for release in late 2005. So I went to the guest room at my uncle’s house, and I hooked up my guitar and microphone to my laptop. After a few days, I had completed a handful of demos.

Everything an artist needs to make and record music could be right in front of him (or her), in the form of a PC or a laptop. The program that one would use (i.e. Protools, Sonar, Cubase) most likely would contain a virtual board, hundreds of settings, and even unlimited tracks. It only requires a lot of RAM and hard disk space. In my case, I could only do so much with my own computer hardware setup. But even with my quite basic computer equipment and average technological know-how to record music, I was still able to produce demos that delivered.

I haven’t really added much to my gadgets, but I have since gone beyond doing demos with them. When a big multinational company asked me to work with them on a new campaign for one of their toothpastes, I had sought the help of singer/songwriter Pido to come up with something in just a few days. The objective was to put together a new song plus a “heavier” version of the toothpaste’s old jingle (which had been turned into a full-length song ages ago).

I can’t remember the reason why now, but we decided to do away with a rough demo and instead present complete songs with all the instruments and vocals. We started by just getting our equipment right. We needed a good vocal microphone, our respective guitars, a midi keyboard, and of course a computer. We were using a PC this time and Sonar as our recording program. After the songwriting aspect was done, it only took a day for us to record, edit, and master the two songs. (You can hear these songs through the attached mp3’s in this article.) It was a really good experience for me since I was not that much of a fan of recording music — I usually leave that to whoever is behind the studio. But that experience gave me the initiative to expand more on my writing since I could immediately produce what I visualize musically. And you know what, it’s fun!

Just recently, my brother-in-law asked me to write a radio jingle for his company’s new chain of groceries. He gave me a tight deadline, but it actually wasn’t that difficult to finish. It took me maybe a good three days to come up with the melody and lyrics and surprisingly, it took only three hours to record. Three hours! That’s even less time than it takes me to finish my usual round of golf! And even I was surprised that the quality was never compromised, and to think we had just about everything put in there. Also, it was done with only one laptop, one keyboard, and one microphone — and just myself with DJ Myke of the Sabado Boys (which includes me, Jimmy Bondoc, Top Suzara, Luke Mejares, and Mike Chan). As a result, we have started to do jingles as a side job.

WITH JUST one computer program one can already layer beats, rhythm, melodies — the works. It actually takes considerable skill to be able to write a song with all these bells and whistles, but there are a lot of people who have been pretty successful with it. (My friend Anton Ramos has had a series of “Chill Out” albums in the market for some time now.) It is here that we witness the direct use of technology on music. What we call “techno” music only came about when drum machines, synthesizers, and loops were already available.

But I’m not about to switch and go techno. In a way, I really don’t have to. See, even acoustic music is not purely analog like most people assume it is. Acoustic music, after all, simply means music in the absence of electrical amplification. Obviously, though, I’m not performing entirely acoustically. Primarily, I use a standard orchestra model acoustic guitar that has a magnetic acoustic pick-up to amplify my sound on stage. I also use a Fishman Tranducer Natural 1 magnetic pick-up, which you can buy separately and could be easily installed on most acoustic guitars.

I have a series of digital-based equipment. I use a KORG chromatic tuner and sometimes I use a guitar processor that emulates different kinds of acoustic guitar sounds. For kicks, I sometimes use a processor designed to do drum loops or a midi format gadget to imitate other instruments while I pluck my guitar. For example, I can emulate the sound of a mandolin, a piano, or even any woodwind instrument with a midi processor attached to my guitar. This kind of setup on stage is not that really complicated. It actually enhances my imagination and helps me create more music and to realize how I want to sound whether on stage or studio. New technology enables me to experiment and expand my songwriting and arranging capabilities.

Now imagine what the advances in technology can do for a whole band setup. From time to time, I get onstage with a whole band and I see just how much of the technology affects the performance. Basically, convenience plays a big part: If ever I need a whole horn section, I don’t really have to hire an entire set of musicians. My keyboard player can always set that up with a click of a button. My guitar player can always pick out or even replicate a certain guitar tone that I would want in order to capture the authenticity of what I want to play.

One of the main issues when it comes to recording is storage. In the past you need to have a whole library to store all those analog tapes. Archiving them was such a nightmare! But thanks to the digital format, storage problems are now a thing of the past. Files can now be compressed and stored instantly into a disk even up to the size of my fingernail.

In my case, I basically record on my Mac Powerbook using either Protools or Garageband for demos. I eventually save my tracks on an external hard drive the size of an average man’s wallet. The great thing about it is that I get to bring that to almost any recording studio in the world. For example, I could do an acoustic guitar track or even a vocal track on my computer at home. Then, I can store it and bring it the next day to the studio. All they have to do is import that file and layer it to what has already been done.

I’ve already done that several times, among them while Pido was doing his first solo album. We did back-up vocal tracks, keys, strings, and electric guitars on his PC at home. We then stored the data on a DVD-R disc and brought them in the studio. We only had to combine them with the tracks that had to be done in the studio (i.e. drums, vocals, bass).

But let’s not forget my nifty little iPod, which has acted as my music library in my pocket — and more. The music compressed in our mp3 players are mostly in AAC format, a format that is highly compressed than in mp3 form. This simply tells us that we can maximize the storage of our disk space. I’ve stored my entire music collection on my iPod, yet I still have space for songs that I may have to learn for a TV appearances or shows. Nowadays, when you get to appear on TV to do a number, the network usually delivers study material via wav file format. I simply put that in my iPod and eventually learn the song just about anywhere, and whenever I have the time.

I would have wanted the experience that the Beatles had when recording in Abbey Road. But I’m pretty much content with the way we use technology today to better our music. The purity of music will always be there, the moment someone hums a tune, when I wake up in the morning and start playing my guitar. Yet I have no qualms about embracing technology for all the possibilities it offers me and my music. In the near future, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone like acoustic me would be able to come up with a great album that was done with a laptop, right in his very own bedroom.

Singer/songwriter/daydreamer Paolo Santos’s current album is “Paolo Santos Live at 19 East” under EMI Records. He is a regular on the RPN-9 musical show “Sabado Boys.”