Instrument designer and musician Roger Linn is perhaps most famous for inventing the first drum machines (in the early 1980s) to use digitally sampled drum sounds, the LM-1 and LinnDrum. In the years since, Linn teamed up with Akai to invent the MPC-series of drum machines/sequencers, and lately Linn has turned his attention to making unusual products for guitarists such as the AdrenaLinn filter/effects/sequencer units. In a way, through his products he has deeply shaped the sounds of popular music over the past thirty years.
I found several interviews with Linn at sweetwater.com (that won’t show up in a google search). Here, Linn outlines the history of some of his innovations such as the LinnDrum. In the final video, Linn offers his perspective on what is missing in musical hardware innovation today. He’s amazed that we are still largely playing guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums, and muses about what a new controller or control surface needs to have in order to compete with these old-fashioned instruments, what a new controller needs to be truly interactive. He says:
“What is the new control surface that allows people to not only to just do superb solo work…but also work with other people, to use wireless sync to be able to synchronize together? Instead of the old-fashioned way which is to read the same sheet music…You’ve got this interactive merging of the worlds of real-time and recording editing in the form of looping where you basically record something and immediately play back on top of it. There are all kinds of great ideas happening, but people are implementing those ideas using fairly poor hardware interfaces–just a keyboard or guitar or mouse–you’re rolling a bar of soap around on a table. It’s silly.”
An unintentionally funny part of this is that musicians playing acoustic music together do the “wireless sync” thing pretty effortlessly together! (It’s called listening.) Another thing to remember is that widely-used, time-tested instruments like guitars, basses, keyboards, and drums are more than simply musical “controllers.” What makes them enduring is that they have deep histories of use, a kind of collective consciousness embedded in them that includes all the things that were ever played on them–a repertoire of expressive possibilities. When someone decides to take up the drums, for instance, he is dipping into an ocean of other people who have played that same constellation of instruments (I’m thinking of a drumkit here), struggled to overcome the resistance of the instrument, struggled with learning a technical facility to enable the feeling of being “expressive”, and so on. Simply put, there is a lot going on beneath the seemingly simple surface of an “old-fashioned” instrument, and that might be part of why we continue to be drawn to them.
The kinds of new electronic/digital controllers Linn is describing don’t have this collective history embedded in them (yet), and this may be part of the reason why it will take time and a lot of work by a lot of musicians to move them securely into our collective embrace. But consider what happened to turntables after DJs began using them in new ways in discos, in hip hop: thirty years later we now have digital turntables that are widely used and considered expressive instruments. (And DJs are considered a breed of musician too.)
You can view interviews with Roger Linn here.