Bringing back original instruments to music

[I have started writing for My Smart Life, an initiative by Nokia India that features guest authors from various walks of life who have made use of technology and social media in their work and life. Here is my second article that has been published in My Smart Life. Go to the website and check out rest of the articles there.]


Sometimes back I was listening to a song that was submitted to Blogswara. It was a melodious song and was totally mesmerizing. I called up the composer of the song and told him that the song sounded really nice. While discussing the details of the song, I had also mentioned that I loved the Sitar played in parts of the song. The composer first laughed when he heard me. Then he told me that it was him who played the Sitar. Just one difference – he played the Sitar on his keyboard, using VST.

VST (Virtual Studio Technology) is very commonly used among musicians these days. With VST, you could emulate the tones of musical instruments and avoid the use of manual orchestra. Not that it is an easy thing. You will need to have absolute knowledge of how an instrument works or else it would be disastrous to hear. VST has helped musicians who have small budgets for their projects but what effect has it made in a musician’s life?

The truth is that except for the small budget projects, the musicians are still in need in the recording industry. But the scene is drastically changing. If there was a full piece orchestra recording in a studio sometimes back, now it’s only 2-3 musicians recording in multi-layered tracks to produce the effect of a full piece orchestra. The only essential instruments in a typical Indian recording studio seem to be Violin, Veena, Flute and Tabla. Or any other authentic instrument that cannot be produced or would not sound so perfect in VST. Even in the stage shows, instrumental musicians are just show pieces and it would be the electronic keyboard player who does the trick. So one major complaint that we hear these days is that digitization is killing independent musicians.

But is the digitization of music that bad? Will it really take your bread away? The answer is no. To survive in any profession, you need to constantly keep updating your skills and prove that you play an essential part in the whole structure. Same goes with music too. If you fully rely on playing accompany music, there isn’t much in store for you in the future. So you got to do something unique, define your niche. Once you do that, you could use the technology, which you thought would take away your bread and butter, to help you grow.

Let us take the example of Zoë Keating, a Canadian Cellist from California. She calls herself a ‘one-woman orchestra’. I first heard Zoë in one of the Radiolab podcasts where she had explained and demonstrated a device that she invented. She uses a cello and a foot-controlled laptop to record layer upon layer of cello, looping and creating beautiful music. Zoë release her albums by herself, online, and she has sold over 35,000 copies and has 1.3 million followers in Twitter. Her website showcases her work with the option to buy her albums. In her music page, she says “No middlemen involved other than PayPal and your purchase allows me to keep making music, for which I am profoundly grateful”. No middlemen. No music labels and the royalty fights. No big hoardings and marketing managers. Yet she sells thousands of copies of her album online and gets the show bookings.

Zoë is the perfect example of how instrumental musicians can use technology and social media – the very same thing that they thought had threatened them and their career – to their advantage. For if they have music in them and want to build a career in it, nothing can take it away from them. Not even VST.