Longtime Canadian Musician contributor Kevin Young had plenty of leftover material from his extensive interviews for "The Evolution of the Art," his feature story on the past, present, and future of music and production technologies and workflows for our March/April 2019 40th Anniversary issue.
Here's more from his conversation with marketing guru, journalist, and podcaster Mitch Joel, slightly edited for length and clarity.
For a piece in Canadian Musician's 30th anniversary issue 10 years ago, when asked about where we might be headed in terms of the music business and related technology, Joel said: “It’s always flying cars, and then it isn’t.” Basically, he was saying that predicting the future is a dodgy business and we rarely get it right.
Joel has played bass for many years, but over time, his focus has changed from playing to cataloguing the history of the electric bass and those who play it via Groove – The No Treble Podcast, with which Joel is attempting to build the largest oral history of electric bass players ever.
CM: Was there a point where some instrument or technology just blew you out of the water – a ‘this changes everything’ moment?
MJ: Well, and this is before computer interfaces and the "USB plugs into anything and everything" world, I think it was when I started using pedals. I came from this school of not really thinking that bassists used pedals, but I remember the Ibanez Bass Stack pedal, and for me, it was illuminating. Not that I could sound like Billy Sheehan, or play like him, but that level of feedback and distortion and the control of it… If I fast forward to 2019, where I gave a keynote at and attended NAMM, and spend days wandering the aisles, you really see the advancement of pedal technology and the FX business; it’s just beyond comprehension. That’s one side that always blows me away. And then podcasting, which is so relevant to recording, the ability to have that much recording power in your laptop – even now when I open up GarageBand, I’m always like, there’s so much capability in this free software. It’s mind-blowing.
CM: The pedal business seems to have exploded. As musicians, do you think we’re sort of programmed to want to physically push against something? Obviously, when you’re figuring out a problem you’re pushing mentally, but in creating music there’s resistance - the resistance of a string, or of a set of parameters you put around your process. Is that fair?
MJ: When you say that, I think, "Is that any different than pushing a key on the keyboard, or copying-and-pasting something and getting it just right?" I think there’s something to the physicality of buttons and dials, but, as far as output goes, I think that’s a general sentiment across the board, where you feel like you nailed it. Music, at the macro level, is solving problems – this challenge only you hear inside your brain. But it’s not only music. When I’m writing and the words are flowing, the way they click and come together... Somebody else may feel an emotion when they read what I’ve written, but they will never feel the emotion of you finding satisfaction of when things click right.
CM: Do you think we’ll get to the place where the virtual experience will mimic reality so closely, I mean along the lines of seeing, touching, feeling, and hearing that…
MJ: Are we going to have this parallel world that’s primarily a replication of our physical world, but feels very real because of AI mixed with VR? I think there’s a certain inevitability to it, although it’s probably many years out. But I’ve been in physical virtual reality environments where it’s 360-degree and all encompassing. This thing called The Void, for example. It’s fully immersive VR – the last one I did was a Star Wars version where you’re in a ship and you’re flying. When laser blasts fly by you, you feel heat. When you’re flying outside and there’s snow, you feel cold and wind. You know you’re in a virtual reality experience, but when the floor falls beneath you, you have a real physical reaction, as if it were happening in the real world. So I can tell you that, if done well, it’s as real as the real world. Even in today’s formats.
CM: Did you see anything browsing at NAMM this year that hinted at where you think physical hardware instrument technology might go?
MJ: That, I’ve always felt takes two paths. Path one is in quality. And I think the quality component is going to be harder as resources get more compressed with 7.7 billion or however many people on this planet, in terms of access to certain types of wood and things that make instruments truly resonate. So I think there’s definitely one path around the quality of it. So one angle I saw is a focus on quality and craftsmanship, which was always there, but I think it’s very much coming back now. On the other side, we’re seeing a lot of what I would call "synthetic," and what I mean by synthetic is a lighter, faster, quicker type of mentality, so you’re seeing this technological confusion - almost like you see in the aerospace world, of trying to make this stuff do things it could never do before. And I think that’s inclusive of all tech. There really is a push towards moving all of this to a piece of software.
Joel makes the point that someone who’s just getting into making music might very well avoid picking up a guitar, for instance, and instead just pick up their phone or laptop and use that exclusively to create music they can then post to Soundcloud or otherwise distribute themselves.
CM: You still have to adopt some tool to make music, but you’re right, there’s a desire to find something that’s simple and stays out of the way of your creative or learning process.
MJ: I think there are two things that are happening that may not be connected; one of them is that, as we explore and try to create newer forms of music, we go to instruments that may not be ‘mainstream’ because that way you’ll get some sort of unique sound.
There is also, he continues, the fact that relatively inexpensive package deals (guitar, strap, cord, amp, and an associated app) are aimed at making the process of making and learning easier. But still, there’s a learning curve that is, in some ways, steeper than with a beat-generating app or simple DAW like GarageBand.
MJ: Simplicity is why I think we start kids on piano, because it’s in front of you and it’s very visible, right? With guitar, there’s more complexity; you have to be able to look over the neck, get your grip right, and if you’re buzzing and not hitting things, it gets easy to get turned off.
CM: It’s a little more abstract.
MJ: Yeah. When I see young people making music, it’s not through physical instruments – they’re doing it online, digitally, and sharing it… It just feels like that sort of remix culture is more prominent than someone saying, "I’ve gotta get a guitar."
CM: So, again, the flying cars thing – is there something you hope will be as big a game changer musically in the future as those early pedals were for you?
MJ: One of the most illuminating things in the process of building the podcast is how much has changed… in what people are doing with the bass. I think I would love to see the bass have the same importance in the unit of music across all genres as it does in jazz, where the instrument has gotten so sophisticated and the players so good, and it adds so many layers that it actually goes from being the connection between the drums and guitar to having a very forward or lead role. To me, that would be the wish: that in the future, bass takes a more lead role.