Mar 092009

That’s a self-explanatory topic title: What instrument has come the furthest in today’s music and what instrument has fallen off course? By “today’s music,” let’s say the last 10 years. By “come the furthest” I mean which instrument’s role has expanded most significantly, or something along those lines. By “fallen off course” I mean which instrument’s role has diminished or been stunted the most. You can be a wiseacre and nominate the triangle or you can be the thought-provoking Townsperson we know you to be.


  50 Responses to “What Instrument Has Come the Furthest in Today’s Music and What Instrument Has Fallen Off Course?”

  1. Would it be excessively smart-ass to say ProTools has come furthest in today’s music?

  2. Mr. Moderator

    Fair enough answer, Oats, but isn’t Pro Tools an aspect of “the studio?” Hasn’t the studio been prominent for some time as an “instrument,” or I guess you could be thinking of it in terms of the power it’s granted home studios…

  3. I think Piano has come the furthest and the Bass has fallen off the most.

  4. Boy this is a tough one. For a time there the guitar solo was replaced by the “guest rap”, even in pop and rock….i guess the verse chorus verse guitar solo thing just got too boring, there was nowhere left to go. But then the guest rap thing on the break got boring or, rather, it never was interesting…is the guitar now back because of Guitar Hero…I don’t know…what the best XTC album anyway? Just kidding MOD…

  5. Mr. Moderator

    The piano, Andyr? I’m surprised to hear that from you. Have you been listening to Norah Jones records again?:) I agree with you regarding the bass guitar’s fall from grace. When is the last time you heard a new record and dug into the depth of the bass parts?

  6. hrrundivbakshi

    Best growth, recent hipster division: keyboards (specifically cheesy synths)

    Worst growth, recent hipster division: Hmmm… tempted to say “bass,” since there are so many of those lame-ass, no-bass hipster bands… but I think the kick-ass horn section has also seen an unfortunate and unfair decrease in exposure, within the hipster/undergroundy music scene.

    A corollary: I still believe the Next Big Thing in hipster/undergroundy music is going to be a resurgence of 1970s Who-like, anthemic, power-chord rock. But what aspect of self-referential irony will have to be jettisoned to make that happen? Or will the hipsters smirk inwardly as they belt out “Join Together”?

  7. BigSteve

    The instrument that has come the farthest is the computer. Andyr mentioned Protools. I don’t know much about that software, but from what I do know the distinction between recording software, digital effects, virtual instruments, and various types of modeling is disappearing. The computer will obviously be the instrument for the foreseeable future.

    The instrument that has fallen farthest behind is drums. A great instrument if you can play with other musicians acoustically, but a nightmare if you have to record them in a studio or mic them live. Editing and looping recordings of real drums is extremely advanced already, and the ability to program rhythms will only get better and more sophisticated.

    What’s really lagged behind is electronic drum kits that play samples, like Roland’s V-Drums. I’ve been predicting that these would be the wave of the future for a long time, maybe because I’ve lusted after a set myself, but the same models with basically the same kind of technology have been out there for a while without much advancement. I guess most people who know how to play a drumset don’t care about playing samples, and most people who are interested in percussion samples can’t play a drumset.

  8. it could be the Next Big Thing, but i think that the new Green Day album will drop before that happens, and Pitchfork kids will never allow the sound to take root as a result.

    I’d say, definitly the keyboard has grown a lot in use. As for what hasn’t, i’d agree with bass guitar, but maybe also drums!

  9. Mr. Moderator

    What do you think, can we accept the computer or any particular program as an “instrument?” The more I think about it the more I truly need convincing. I am struggling with seeing the computer and its software as anything but a tool, like “round wound strings” or “Evans hydraulic heads.” Granted, not that much of a tool, but how many artists are actually using Pro Tools as an instrument in and of itself? Call me old fashioned, but I’ll stay open minded.

  10. BigSteve

    OK, you’re old-fashioned.

    If you’re only talking about gtr/bass/dr/keys, I don’t see how any of them have advanced much in the past coup;le of decades at least. All that’s happening is the same things being combined in new ways, which is fine as far as it goes, but it’s a holding pattern.

    All the advances on the traditional instruments are technological, and those changes, like the ability to model different guitars and amps from one instrument, are moving into the computer.

    Can anyone really argue that people have developed new ways of physically playing the traditional rock instruments? New ways of singing? Probably the biggest change in vocals in the past ten years has been the use (and overuse as an effect) of digital pitch correction.

  11. hrrundivbakshi

    Moddie, I’m with you. I use ProTools every day, and it’s no more an “instrument” than PageMaker was an “author” back in the early days of computer-based publication design. ProTools is continually tweaked and painstakingly enhanced to enhance its ability to capture performed music — whether that music is performed on “real” instruments or digital replacements. ProTools is powerful, and — like any other DAW — is lowering the economic barrier to recording music, but it’s not an instrument.

  12. dbuskirk

    Has anybody said the triangle?

    That turntablist revival was fun for about six months but aren’t we all glad that the obligatory scratching accent has finally waned.

    Cheesy synths seem to evoke a certain generational envy among today’s twenty-somethings the same way 60’s style fuzzbox made me and my friends swoon in the early eighties.

  13. As long as Mike Watt still roams the earth, the “thud staff” shall not be silenced!

    The instrument that has come the farthest: The Internet

    The instrument that has fallen off course: The Music Industry

    I was just going to say “The Bad” has come the farthest, & “The Good” has fallen off course. Then I was going to say, “Now, get offa my lawn, you damn kids! I’m keeping this ball, too!” Also, I realized that would be implying there was something intrinsically “good” about the music industry.

  14. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve, I do think people sing in different ways these days – whether for better or worse is a matter of opinion, but you might argue that the most significant developments in rock instrumentation have been vocals.

    I also have trouble believing that there’s no way a guitar or bass or drums could be played differently. There were developments in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and even ’90s, as far as I can tell. If the music is ever allowed to be integral to the song again – if – then someone will find a new way to bang on an old dog.

    As for a set of instruments that has grown in use over the years, how about strings? They’re in so many bands now, in small combos. It’s not like the string sections of ’60s records, which were usually subtle and appreciated after a few listens. It’s often a core part of the band and the song’s arrangement.

  15. saturnismine

    saying that ‘protools’ is the instrument that has come the furthest is like saying the sixteen track tape machine is the instrument that has come the furthest.

    i would argue instead, as BigSteve has, that it’s the computer, not that specific application called ‘protools’, that has come the furthest. it wasn’t even a musical instrument at all at rock’s beginnings, but now it IS used more and more as an instrument (aside from its capacity as a recording device).

    the instrument that has evolved the least is either guitar or drums.

  16. Sax has fallen off the most. The last great sax revival was in the 80’s. Haven’t heard much of it since in rock and pop.

    Thrift store keyboards have had the biggest boost.

  17. The reason I said piano is that I think usage of piano as a featured instrument has grown more than the other instruments since the mid-90’s. With “The Fray” and “Death Cab for Cutie”, etc, it is “cool” to have a real piano player (and not be Billy Joel)

    I think strings is also a good answer too. My son likes the band “Apocalyptica” which is a Finnish cello metal band. Sounds like fuzz guitars to me

  18. i second the sax as the instrument that has fallen off the most in rock/pop.

    the laptop/softsynth is the instrument that has evolved the most.

  19. Mr. Moderator

    I’ve got you now, Homes. Thanks for the clarification.

    I’m hearing support for the computer, in some form or another. Consider my mind open.

  20. pudman13

    The computer has come the farthest and the saxophone (once a staple of rock and roll) has falln the most off course.

  21. Mr. Moderator

    As I keep an open mind about the “computer” as an “instrument,” can anyone provide a few examples of record made featuring the computer as an instrument itself in anything approaching rock music? I’m not talking some new-fangled Morton Subotnik record, which isn’t really part of the rock/pop music discussed here on a usual basis. I still need convincing that a computer and user with the ability to spit out sampled music that sounds like regular bass, drums, guitars, and keyboards is not an example of the computer being used as an instrument in its own right.

    I’ll spot you one example: a year or two ago I bought some record by a band called The Books (I belive). They supposedly composed and recorded the entire music from found sounds on a laptop – and it’s not just blips and bleeps avant-garde stuff; it’s within the realm of rock music. They actually used the computer to generate sounds unique to the computer and its software.

  22. 2000 Man

    I love great sounding drums, and I agree they’re hard to record but rock bands should still try. Processed drums sound like crap and can ruin a good song fast.

    Do electric pianos actually sound worse these days? I swear I couldn’t tell the difference years ago, but now I wish bands would tour with real pianos in the worst way (at least bands that can afford it).

    I don’t play anything, but I think amplifiers have come a long way. My son has a Line 6 and he can make all sorts of weird noises with that thing. He can download models to sound like other people’s set ups, and all kinds of stuff. It’s pretty cool stuff, if you ask me.

  23. BigSteve

    Mod, you originally set up the question as being about “today’s music.” Now you’re talking about rock music, which is not really today’s music, but I’ll humor you. I’d suggest anything on the DFA label. Also Wire’s Send album from 2003, which sounds like a simulacrum of rock music, because all of the sounds being sampled, looped, edited, quantized, and processed came originally from bass, drums, and distorted guitars. But I don’t think there’s a single track on that album that represents a band playing a performance that the software “captures,” as hvb put it.

    Also, I agree that the sax has fallen off the map, except for jazz, but in rock and related forms it hasn’t fallen any farther in the last ten years than it had before, I don’t believe.

  24. Mr. Moderator

    BigSteve, the bands you’ve cited fall within the rock category. I wanted to make sure no one threw out today’s equivalent of Subotnik, that’s all. I did not shift the playing field.

    Didn’t sax already fall off the map, in terms of its development in the broad category of rock music, around 1961? Beside Roxy Music, Morphine, and a few No Wave bands (and The Big Man, of course), has there been much use of the instrument in the last 30 years?

  25. The 80’s had a big sax resurgence. INXS were huge and they had a lot of sax, Careless Whisper, Modern Love, the Born in the USA album, Huey Lewis, Sade, etc. (I never spoke to the quality of the music, only that saxes were very present and now aren’t).

    As for Line 6 and other software technologies based on classic sounds: they’re like boob jobs. They might have a surface level appearance of something desirable, but ultimately I find them to be disappointing. I’d rather have the real thing with all of the natural characteristics and “flaws” that make that thing unique.

  26. Mr. Moderator

    I recall all those mulleted/ponytailed sax players in the ’80s, cdm, but what I meant was, the sax had already petered out as a progressive instrument in what was then today’s music. The most “progressive” thing those guys did was to play variations on the main theme of “Baker Street.” It’s not quantitative use I seek as much as it is qualitative.

  27. I think that’s different from your original post, which said:

    “By “fallen off course” I mean which instrument’s role has diminished or been stunted the most.”

  28. And more importantly, where do you stand on the fake boob/computer generated amp modeling issue?

  29. Mr. Moderator

    Yes, cdm, I can see how you were confused. I was hoping that the “last 10 years” part would indicate that I was looking for more recent trends. Hope this is clear now – or that I’ve pissed everybody off a little more:)

    I think the fake boob/computer generated amp modeling analogy is spot on! Where do you stand on the computer/computer software as instrument issue? The Silent Nods of Agreement that I’m sensing on this issue are not doing it for me.

  30. BigSteve

    I think the fake boob analogy only works if you’re using the amp modeler for ultra-gain shredding sounds. I bought Native Instruments Guitar Rig a while back and I LOVE it. I don’t use the more extreme models, just some occasional crunch, and the clean sounds are much better than earlier generations of modelers. It’s like a boob job where you can’t tell if they’re fake or not, in other words, not like the ones on the Rock of Love Bus.

  31. Big Steve, I agree with your Roland’s V-Drums comment. I really want a set for my studio, but 10 out of 10 drummers told me that if I buy them I will never get a drummer to record at my studio EVER. The speed in which they show their distaste was amazing.

    One said that the Keytar is a cooler instrument.

    I can play drums well, but am not a drummer or ever owned a kit, so I didn;t know of the D.A.E.D. (drummers against electric drums)

    Sax has fallen off of all rock records. I guess I blame “Big Bad Voodoo Daddy” for closing that door.

    Bass? Well this is something else, the bass has RETURNED to sounding good, after years of trying to add guitar effects to is (there is no bass effect that sounds other than ass)

  32. Concerning what Big Steve & 2000man said above concerning the amp modelers; I would tend to agree. Last year I got one of those Digitech RP250 pedals, which has multiple fx, pick up, amp & cab models, built in drum machine, expression pedal, the ability to download upgrades from their website, etc. I’m really glad I got it, not that I’m using it in any kind of professional situation or anything, but not having the dough or space to buy, maintain & store a roomful of pedals, guitars, amps & cabinets, it’s inspired even a mere hobbyist such as myself, to play more, simply because I have more sounds available to me. Do they sound as good as the real things? No, but they ARE very good aural boob jobs. Compared to similar units I heard just a few years prior, it’s pretty amazing how much closer they are able to simulate the sounds.

    I’m not saying this thing would be considered a viable choice for a professional recording session, though you could probably get away with using it for a club gig (despite the sneers of derision you’d get from the vintage snob brigade). Using it along w/GarageBand on my Mac has worked out fine, & the finished product isn’t glaringly “digital” sounding.

    So, maybe the computer CHIP has come the farthest in the last ten years. It could also be that I’m speaking completely out of school here, as it seems many of the guys posting on this thread ARE working with sound professionally in studios, but going back to my 1st post on this thread, I’d say from checking out the musical hordes on the internet, that there many more folks out there using modeling units and/or software to record to their PCs & posting the results (admittedly w/wildly varying success), than there are professional studio recordings being posted.

  33. Mr. Moderator

    Who would have thought this thread would leave me with the image of boobs covered in the silver and black fabric that covers the front of the speakers of my Fender Twin amp?

  34. I can’t tell whether or not you’re enjoying that image or feel disturbed by it, Mr. Mod. I kinda like it.

    Other than that, any thoughts on my post?

  35. Mr. Moderator

    Bobbyb, like cdm, I prefer the warts and oddities of a “real” instruments, but I wouldn’t turn down the chance to try out either one of these newfangled digital amps or a fully working vintage amp. I don’t see myself as someone who will ever record using either type of sterling equipment, so I don’t spend too much energy judging what I don’t understand and have not experienced (not saying that’s what you’re doing). So although I think what you wrote was articulate and interesting, I cannot dispute or agree with it.

    As for the image, I have mixed feelings. I’m envisioning an album cover for lord knows what kind of band.

  36. hrrundivbakshi

    Mod, bring the Head down to Asparagus and you can test vintage amps against their digitally modeled cousins to your heart’s content.

  37. Maybe The Donnas could get away with outfits made from, or looking as if it was made from, the same material.

    Believe me, I’d MUCH rather have a bunch of vintage equipment, the odder the better (as long as it worked & sounded cool), but space & budget will not allow for it. So, at this point, the little multi-FX pedal does me fine. It works, & it doesn’t sound like shit. I doubt even 10 yrs ago that could be said of similar units, esp. in the same price range.

  38. Also, I think use of The Wurlitzer SideMan has dropped off significantly over at least the last 10 years, maybe longer. I think Waits may use one occasionally, but he prefers steam powered drum simulators for the most part.

  39. The most un-rock thing I have ever been witness to was when our guitarist said he had to stop playing and reboot his Model 6 POD/Speaker amp thingie. I bring that up to him almost every rehersal. It really scarred me.

  40. I will cop to using software programs if I’m just recording demos at home. But if we’re recording a disc or playing out then it’s got to be the real thing, warts and all.

    Tangentially related, BB said “I think Waits may use one occasionally, but he prefers steam powered drum simulators for the most part.”

    I was recently checking out a drum program at the recommendation of a friend and it has a Michael Blair plug in. I love the fact that this exists but who could the target audiance possibly be? Me and maybe a handful of other people?

    The description is: “In October of 1985 Tom Waits released the album Rain Dogs. The album was an instant classic and marked a new sound for him. A rough, dirty neo-blues style with awkward rhythms and hard edges.
    Part of the band that contributed to that sound was drummer and percussionist Michael Blair. His highly personal instrument set-up which included a mix of regular drums and odd bits and pieces like trashcans, bedroom furniture and rusty bicycle frames fit perfectly with the sound that Waits was looking for. The combination of Michael’s timing, expression, and junkyard sounds created a rich and useful range of musical textures to accent Waits’ intricate storytelling.
    Michael Blair also played and toured with Waits on Franks Wild Years, the follow up to Rain Dogs, and later became an integral part of the recordings for Elvis Costello’s Spike (1989) and Lou Reed’s Magic and Loss (1992). Spike became Costello’s most commercially successful and sonically adventurous album to date. Michael also has added his trash-can consciousness to records by the respected producer Hal Willner, in “tribute” albums celebrating the work of composer Kurt Weill, poet Allen Ginsberg, Walt Disney, Charles Mingus and in collaboration with avant-theatre director Robert Wilson.
    So, two rototom frames form a tonal hi-hat, a duck call suggests an alternative cowbell, tack drums from China become rack toms and putting the hubcap of your very first car on top of your snare seems like the right thing to do.”

  41. dbuskirk

    “Spike became Costello’s most commercially successful and sonically adventurous album to date.”

    Is SPIKE a career highpoint for anyone here? I had no idea it was his most commercially successful record….

  42. Mr. Moderator

    db, maybe they mean it’s Costello-sans The Attractions’ most commercially successful record. It is hard to believe that with all the reissues of his early albums that one of them hasn’t outsold Spike.

  43. I think, at the time, Spike was Costello’s most successful album in the States, due to “Veronica.” Mr. Mod’s probably right, though. I imagine one of the first two albums is now the most successful, thanks the 40+ reissues.

  44. BigSteve

    Speaking of Wurlitzer, there was a time (maybe 10 yrs ago?) when the Wurlie electric piano sound was THE cool retro sound to have on your recording. Either sampled from dusty grooves or played anew. Has that played itself out now? It had become a cliche’ for a while due to overuse during the Great Chillout Scare, but I wonder if we’ve gotten past that far enough to where you can use that sound without sounding cheesy. Any set of piano samples you can buy will have Wurlies mixed in with the grands and uprights, and it’s been more popular than the Fender Rhodes, which I think was more prevalent back in the day.

  45. alexmagic

    Over the course of rock, the sax has definitely fallen the hardest, by far. There was a time when it was right there with the guitar as the musical face of rock, and now rock music won’t even return the sax’s phone calls.

    It definitely lost its place a long time ago, though. That business in the 80s, when the sax aligned itself with trenchcoat-wearing idiots playing solos in doorways, that was the pathetic act of a has-been. The sax took its original fall sometime in the 60s, but I haven’t been able to figure out what the actual moment was where it was forever dethroned and sent into exile.

    It couldn’t have just been the Beatles and the British Invasion, could it? The Beatles had Sounds Incorporated touring with them, and they had three sax players. Unless it was bringing in Brian Jones to play the sax on “You Know My Name” instead of an actual sax player. Maybe that did it? I feel like we have a duty to figure this out.

    As far as “today’s music” goes, though, the overall idea of the horn section has had a pretty big dropoff in the last decade. Back in the mid-90s, you had a ton of crappy ska and swing revival bands running around, and Britpop acts like Blur were giving the Kick Horns steady work. Now, horn sections need to wait around until a group is ready to do its bullfighting music song.

  46. BigSteve

    A recent Mojo feature reminded me that the Dave Clark Five featured a sax player. I’d forgotten that. I think he doubled on harmonica. Reeds, you know? The DC5 were at the time considered serious rivals to the Beatles, and they appeared on the Ed Sullivan show more than any other British Invasion group.

  47. I recall a discussion on the old board (I think) in which Andy (I think) had a theory that the fuzz/distortion box did away with the necessity of having a sax solo since they occupied roughly the same sonic real estate (I think).

    Since guitars are infinitely cooler that the sax, and I suspect that it’s much easier to get reliable results with a fuzzed up guitar than it is with a sax, the sax was given its pink slip.

  48. While spending my spring break in Philly, I caught Marnie Stern last night at Kung Fu Necktie. I think she’s doing a fair job of pushing guitar in new directions, by mashing up all sorts of genres: metal, riot-grrl punk, the power and glory of rock, etc.

    The biggest drop-off for me is vocals. Rarely do I hear a new band whose vocals I really like. Usually I have to listen around them to fairly evaluate a band.

  49. BigSteve

    Yeah, sax and distorted guitar are both square waves, right?

  50. Andyr, I think the most “un-rock” thing I’ve ever witnessed involved the vocalist for a certain gang of Philly huckleberries, the flashing of “the rocking devil-horns” gesture (accompanied by a ridiculous verbal ad lib/faux pas), & a really big British Punk icon. I STILL cringe whenever I think of it.

    It’s weird, people often forget that The Dave Clarke 5 had a lot of really good songs; ones that didn’t sound like “Glad All Over” & “Bits & Pieces”. Not that there’s anything wrong with those.

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