Barnes and Mullins

Barnes and Mullins

Gez says what’s new


I first heard the word misnomer at school, when a master was berating a pupil called Goodchild, who wasn’t. Over half a century later I still can’t find its antonym – a word, that is, to describe the perfect marriage of trait and name. Appropriate is a possibility (and carries an extra layer of meaning in the example below), but my favourite suggestion is ‘aptonym’.

And so to my local wine bar which seems to have Marvin Gaye’s Got To Give It Up on continuous play. Every time I walk in, the song is fading out, and every time I do a double take thinking it’s quite like Blurred Lines but slightly different. But hey (hey hey), this isn’t the only time this happens. I sometimes think late Mozart sounds like early Beethoven, or the intro to Sun King sounds like Albatross. I can deal with those. In the case of Blurred Lines, the biggest song of 2013, however, I find it disturbing.

This is not so much because of the aptonymic Blurred Lines court case, on which subject m’learned friends have been remarkably quiet for the past few months – though I confess I do wonder what’s going on. Are Pharrell Williams and the aptonymic Mr Thicke really appealing against the judgement? If so, when is the hearing? If not, why aren’t we beset by IP lawyers, rubbing their hands at the precedent it threatens by making ‘feel’ – rather than a recognisable melody, words or a lifted sample – copyrightable?

I instantly liked the feel the first time I heard the song – and, no, Got To Give It Up didn’t immediately spring to mind, leave alone questions of plagiarism. What did spring to mind was another, different question: how can someone of my age instantly like the feel of the young people’s chart-topper, and what does that say about the state of the music business?

That point, as it applies to MI, was sharpened for me last week as I chatted to suppliers about the presets available on stage keyboards. Manufacturers are big on the technology used to replicate every nuance of the real thing, and on providing an American-diner style menu of real-thing options (warning – actual choices may vary): pick your favourite from concert grand (choose German, Japanese or American), mellow, jazz or electric grand, upright, honky-tonk, Rhodes (choose James or Joel and dial in suitcase settings to suit), Wurltizer, Clavinet, DX7-style ‘contemporary’ (yes, really) Rhodes, pipe organ (choose baroque or full registration), Hammond (Gospel, Jimmy, Jon or Booker T, plus rotary with drive effect). Now layer it with vibes, harpsichords, choirs, pads, slow strings, polysynth brass, bells …

Hammond B3

So what’s new?

Nothing. I don’t think I’ve heard a truly original new keyboard sound since the end of the 1980s. In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard any new sounds, keyboards or not, since the sampler took over from the synthesizer. Nor, as I see it, are things any different for other members of the popular music ensemble. Bass amps are lighter, basses have more strings, drummers have some electronic options and percussionists have added African instruments and cajons to their armoury, but these things are already old hat. Guitarists have access to looping and ever more sophisticated amp modelling and use it to play over the same old chord patterns through an extremely lifelike emulation of an early Marshall, Tweed, Boogie or whatever.

Fender Rhodes stage73

But where’s that going to get us? It’ll help us make even more derivative music – but woe betide us if that derivative feel includes Fender Rhodes, cowbell, falsetto voices and nothing but a houseparty in the background.

How long can R&D teams keep delivering refinements to the same old thing? Not their fault – their brief from their corporate bosses is to deliver what the public wants, and what the public wants is always (how could ever be otherwise?) what it already knows. It’s been the premise for record companies since the CD came in (and was certainly the case with music in 2013), so why shouldn’t it be the same with musical instruments?

Result? Ignoring the lessons they should have learnt from the demise of the big record labels, ignoring the rule of diminishing returns, forgetting that the playing’s the thing, all too many manufacturers are fixated on incremental improvements to feature sets, equipment weight and connectivity. How many ‘refinements’ can you foist upon a generation whose sonic standard is the mp3 and the iPhone speaker system?

To put it another way, how long until ‘new’ becomes a misnomer and ‘traditional’ (especially when the stars are still using the old technology to make their old-style records) becomes the aptonym?

Here’s a request to the big keyboard companies: how about developing sounds that haven’t celebrated their silver anniversary? It might even stimulate creativity, and that might stimulate the market. The alternative? Here’s the nightmare scenario: keep doing the same thing, and wait for some owner of the IP invested in a proprietary sound – a type of keyboard, a guitar amp, who knows? – to find a judge and jury gullible enough to let them scoop up half your profits. The choice is yours.





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