Are We Entering A New Age For Digital Musicians?

Reader Geert Bevin – who’s known to many readers for his performances on the Eigenharp and his gestural music control application GECO – recently spoke at TEDxTartu in Estonia. In his TEDx talk, Bevin argues that we’re entering a new age for digital musicians, driven by several trends:

  • Cheap and powerful computers
  • New controllers with revolutionary sensors
  • New synthesis engines with per-note expression

“This talk is essentially the summary of what I’ve been working on for the past four years at Eigenlabs,” explains Bevin, “with my GECO Leap Motion software and by collaborating with Roger Linn, Steinberg, Moog and Wolfgang Palm.”

“In twenty minutes, I try to explain how digital electronic music is slowly creeping into a new age of unheard expressiveness,” adds Bevin. “All the key technologies are in place and are slowly becoming mature.”

The video is about 25 minutes long and includes an accessible discussion of the state of the art for several music technologies, along with music demonstrations.

Are we entering into a new ‘golden age’ for digital musicians? Check out the video and then share your thoughts!

42 thoughts on “Are We Entering A New Age For Digital Musicians?

  1. I have a feeling we’ll be watching a gradual maturing of musical techniques using the powerful emerging technology.. What I’ve heard so far sounds like baby steps compared with the mastery of a traditional instrument.

  2. perhaps there will be a new age when there are musicians who will practice on this controllers….for example you will get many unwanted effects using breath controller when you quantize your recording in a sequencers.

      1. I do so with my breath controlled sYnths, but how many musicians do you know acting i n this way, and practising this ? this is the reason why I have doubts about a new age….

        1. Every non digital musician I know of records audio and not MIDI. So it’s probably the majority of the musicians out there. Out of the Eigenharp players I know, most of them also record audio and not MIDI, since it really makes no sense to do so. This is why I’m saying that the new age is coming, not that it’s already there. Once you start expressing yourself this way, you’re obviously going to step away from MIDI as a recording medium, there’s just way too much data to handle.

        2. I recently took an interesting course on music technology and was shocked that it took the stance that a DAW was always the centre of things. So, you may be quite right with respect to people who think of themselves as electronic musicians. However, that is a small subset of people who think of themselves as musicians. For example, If I chose to view your comment from the perspective of the community of guitar players I’m part of , the observation would be the opposite. We’d think everyone did audio recording (mostly on dedicated equipment, a few on computers). Even garage band has an interface default specifically for the community of singer/songwriter with a guitar (or whatever).

      2. There are plenty of reasons to record midi, not the least of which is some of us are 100% synthesizer based and like to work that way. I don’t play well enough to have the precision necessary for some parts and not terribly interested in spending the time necessary to get that good. Instead I use my time to write music, come up with interesting sounds and complex arrangements. Why would I possibly want to record an audio part and then do all of the editing necessary after the fact when I could have recorded it like I wanted in the first place?
        I’m not composing music to be played by 2 hands, or even 10 hands. I do perform live and play well enough for that, but to be anti-midi is just silly.

        1. This is not about being anti-MIDI, it’s that recording MIDI for these sensors just makes no sense. You get 6000 messages per second for each key! Trimming that down gets you back to coarse-grained data where the expressiveness is gone and the creative feedback loop doesn’t happen. It’s fine if you don’t feel like practicing to get good enough with sensitive musical instruments, that’s cool if it’s what you want. However, if you do want to be able to continuously express yourself with an instrument in very fine detail and really make it part of yourself, then the data precision and speed is critical for digital instruments. Thankfully, this is now becoming possible.

          If you’re satisfied with what’s there now, no need to change. I’m not and many musicians I know aren’t either.

          1. I must have missed the point of your post as I took it to mean that in general there nothing to gain from recording in midi. For your specific purpose, then yes, the Eigenharp produces far too much data. For my purposes midi has served me well. I apologize for the misunderstanding.

      3. When direct record to audio gives one the immediate, granular level editing and manipulation possibilities that a MIDI sequencer allows, then I imagine musicians will record direct to audio.

    1. If I record, it is audio. When I took up playing a WX7 years ago it became obvious that quantization was antithetical to the intent of that type of music. It is a perfectly valid way to proceed for certain outcomes but it is a different (opposite?) direction from expression.

  3. A very interesting subject but why on earth does he try and simulate a band with traditional instrument sounds on a this new instrument? Surely the idea of a new type of instrument should represent a new type of sound if we are to get beyond the accusations of gimmickry ?

  4. Apart from the fact that when electricity is gone our civilisation is gone with it I would have to agree with what Mr Ben Johnson just wrote.
    Still, I would like to add the spiritual bond between musicians and their instruments and the feelings they get out of them as a feedback is a very important interactive element (even with analog synthesisers), the sense of almost a soul presence in them that a controller is not going to emulate. Sound is organic in my head we need to interact with it multidimensionally.

    1. That’s a very good point, the creative feedback loop is essential. In some of my talks I mention it, but sadly I had to cram a lot into 20 minutes and was talking for a general purpose audience. I totally agree with you and it’s with these new technologies that we’re actually finally getting this creative feedback loop in electronic music also.

    2. Agreed, completely. Other factors (than just per note control) include high resolution and bandwidth as well as low latency and jitter. I think this is one reason some people like CV/analog equipment (if only subconsciously). It also underlies the whole ‘real’ instrument debate where one aspect is the connectedness of the musician and instrument. The exciting part is that with the rise of sensor technology as well as processing capability there should be every expectation that electronic instruments can take this connectedness to an even higher level.

    3. Yes absolutely!!
      To me the most important thing is also that the finer the level of control the more you can adapt fast to other musicians playing with you.
      I come from a background of making sounds with the computer, and for a long time working with other people would be a real frustration if we were more than two and we weren’t working similar ways.
      I started to play guitar cause I was litteraly jealous of the way other traditional musicians can “talk” to each others through their instruments and adapt to each other almost instantly.
      I still love the electronic approach where I am the master of my universe of sounds, it’s like those are different degrees of freedom and delegation.
      Really interesting thing is that now people are exploring all the nuance and degrees in between old style instrumentalism and scientific crafting of sounds, and this integration of things is what seems to bring us into this “new era” and not only for digital because it’s embracing all of it.

  5. Sadly (and perhaps naturally) the discussion around this topic tends to focus on details of notes and technology. The wide-angle view must include the impact on the result as a whole. We all feel and understand the difference between a studio and live piece of music. This big-data, low latency kinesthetic integration of the player and instrument has a dramatic impact on the overall result as well an an experiential impact on both the player and listener.

    1. The technology is there, obviously, and is the focus of this talk.

      But if you watch Bevin play, the interaction is clearly moving away from mouse and menu interaction towards capturing more gestural, physical expression. This is a good thing, because it means more expressive synths and playing ‘in the moment’.

  6. Strange how so many electronic musicians seem to be Luddites.

    Anyway – great stuff, Geert, and perfectly targeted to your audience. As a synthesist, though, I especially l liked the Animoog performance at the end. It’s impressive what Animoog can do in the right hands!

  7. I’m not really sure technology necessarily moves music forward at all so I don’t really think we’re entering any kind of “Golden Age”. We’ve had access to fairly affordable, amazing technology for some time now but the vast majority of music made with it still relies heavily on 4/4 time and, basic song structures, basic melodies etc. There are certainly exceptions but there always have been. Unfortunately for the forward thinking musician the vast majority of audiences also only want to hear simple song structure, 4/4 time and simple melodies so unfortunately many of these musicians will lose their incentive for making forward thinking music. Show me the Derek Bailey of electronic music that keep pushing regardless of audience or acceptance.

    1. Stravinsky argued that creativity thrives when you have defined boundaries to work within. If you’re dismissing whole swaths of music because of certain superficial traits, you’re missing the point.

    2. No matter how fancy the instrument, arrangment, technology or equipment, it’s still comes down to the musical composition. If you’re still dabbling in major-minor tonality, you’re still in Kindergarten. What is needed far more than more expensive instruments and technologies, is solid backgrounds in music theory. For musicians to truly move forward, mastering the basics of time signatures beyond 4/4, key signatures beyond C major, and intervals beyond thirds and fifths, is the real NEXT STEP.

      1. If you can’t be creative within the constraints of major/minor scales and 4/4 time, you’re fooling yourself if you think using different time signatures or scales is going to fix that.

        Look at Philip Glass – he managed to do something completely new, largely within the constraints of 4/4 time and traditional harmonies.

        Nothing against other time signatures, scales or music theory, but they aren’t a recipe for making great music. Great music requires musicians creating something original and expressive, within whatever boundaries they choose.

  8. The result technological evolution is not to replace traditional instruments– if it has not succeeded now, it perhaps never will. Buzzing lips, scraping bows and swinging sticks will always feel better than pressing a button, rubbing a glass surface, or even waving your hands around in the air. As articulated above, both new tech and traditional instruments have a learning curve. But before folks will commit to the learning curve involved with a new instrument, they will probably need assurances that the instrument has longevity (both the one in their hands, and as an evolving discipline).

    1. The Eigenharp has proven itself as a capable instrument, but it will need great new music written for it, and exposure. Look at the theremin – it’s been around a long Tim and is still far from mainstream.

  9. WAIT A SECOND! HOLD UP! Y’ALL ARE NOT FOCUSING ON THE MOST IMPORTANT PART:
    HE STARTED PLAYING ‘GAME OF THRONES’ AT AROUND 14:20. Just wanted to point that out ;D

    (P.S. MIDI, just like OSC, will always be around to compliment the use of audio… and ya, this age of controllerism is like any other ‘growing-pains’ age where a bunch of folks(usually white males, haha) become easily amused and distracted by the newness of the technology before they figure out how to really master it. Everything is a respectable step in the right direction, though!)

  10. I’ve been watching new gear and controllers coming out for years and thought this will start a
    “live electronic” scene where people actually perform and create live. but its not going to happen.
    Most electronic music shows are just DJs playing other peoples tracks, As long as audiences keep
    paying to see someone play recordings why would they invest hours in learning an instrument?

  11. If you want to get the benefit of increasing expressiveness, as a listener or a musician, you have to let go of familiarity. That’s the biggest hurdle to overcome in a world awash in iPod skips. People stick fiercely to what they know, so it takes a lot of energy to cause a shift in old habits.

    This left me wondering why I’d NEED a new approach when what I have already hits those marks. Until someone breaks that virtuosity barrier, I don’t think many are going to have a working idea of where to take it. The technology is expanding faster than the lexicon of its use. At present, I’m a bit hard-pressed to hear what multi-axis sensing is really doing. The day I triangulate on the sweet spot between tradition and wild innovation, I’ll let you know. 🙂

  12. BTW, Geert, that was a good presentation. The technology is so advanced, its hard to present it to a non-insider crowd, but I think you hit the right marks. I also relate to both the technical and creative reasons for not using MIDI all the time. I love to play over loops, but doing it in real-time is what gives them context and fluidity. I’d hate to give up either one, because the synergy is where the most fun is.

      1. And most musicians cant understand why someone would think a matrix of on/off switches – like the most common MIDI controllers – is an instrument.

  13. I keep trying to tell people that all instruments, since we first started banging rocks together, are attempts at making it easier for humans to realize musical thoughts and express themselves. The easier it is for a person to do this via an instrument, the further along we are getting.

    It may be frustrating for musicians that have spent many years practicing a specific traditional instrument to see someone “cheating” with a digital instrument, but that doesn’t make it any less legitimate. Good music is good music.

    Don’t dis fellow musicians based on their chosen instruments, be they traditional or otherwise.

    I can play both guitar and keyboard, but I don’t mind people sounding like guitars or pianos on an alternative controller. It doesn’t make me a lesser musician, it creates more musicians and more music.

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