Information Technology in the Entertainment Industry
by Iva Davies
Music Composer and Arranger
Spellbound - Vol IV Iss I
© April 1998


As with most industries, information technologies are pervading the entertainment industry at an ever increasing rate. The application of computer technology to this industry is paralleled in almost all other current large turnover industries worldwide in similar and general administrative areas. This paper seeks more specifically to direct its attention to the particular impact on the creative and otherwise "non-technical" participators in this field of work. As a musician I have had a varied history in terms of the method of work in music, ranging from orchestral and chamber musician to writer and producer of current popular music and film scores, and, although technology in one form or another has been applied to music and entertainment ever since the invention of the first, most rudimentary instruments, never before has there been such an involvement of all classes and types of musicians and other entertainers as there is at this time. The current technological explosion is a substantial factor in the creation of such an accessible and productive entertainment industry.

To those who have been working in the various fields of the entertainment industry for some time, technology has become a fact of life. It was not so long ago that the only entertainment available was for the very wealthy concert or theatre goer or the familiar street entertainer.

Most of the current widespread popularity of music, drama, and so on is directly as a result of the development of various storage technologies such as the gramophone, audio tape and the long play record, film and video tape. We are now approaching an area of even higher fidelity storage technology in the areas of sound and picture with the introduction of microprocessor technology, or digital sound and picture.

Apart from the actual medium of storage however, microprocessors have been applied to more conventional methods of entertainment work for some time.

To the Established Industry - Light

The field of lighting technology is one which is ever present in our society to a perhaps quite unrecognised extent. Lighting is of critical importance in the production of all live television transmissions, (news and weather broadcasts, live current affairs, variety productions, etc.), the production of our various television shows, series, documentaries, the production of movies, live performances in the theatre including drama, ballet, opera, music concerts and, by now, the demands in sophistication of lighting require highly developed and specialised technology equipment and personnel.

Memory and Lighting

Many of the above mentioned fields require live performance accuracy, that is, must be executed correctly in a once only situation. Some of the other fields, most notably the production of film and video, require the same type of accuracy by virtue of the prohibitive production costs involved in such media including large budget staffing and expensive facilities.

Producing film and video is rather like live theatre in that a certain set of events must happen at the right time in the right way in order for a satisfactory result or a "take" to be achieved. In the past, as with all the other elements such as camera movement and action direction, lighting changes (which are as continuously varied as the action) were rehearsed and also contained an element of error which could cost time and money. The manual operation of many of these events, for instance, camera movement, the activation of a special effect (e.g. Pyrotechnics), and the change of a lighting scene, can be pre-timed and memorised by computers. Lighting technicians have a vast array of possible combinations of lighting colours and strengths available to them, but the use of these has always been dictated by the physical limitations of manual fader/switch operation and human memory. These various selected combinations and strengths can now be memorised and either manually recalled or governed by the computer's timing to synchronise with other pre-programmed events. Once the program of events has been stored, the disc containing the memory of these events can be used in any theatre or film studio throughout the world having a computerised lighting facility. This is invaluable to the travelling theatre group, opera or ballet company, or concert performer who invariably is required to use different theatres, possibly in a number of countries. This also enables the company, in a different country, to use lighting technicians, who are unfamiliar with the actual performance program, to operate a show successfully by using the computer's memory of the cues and settings.

Memory and Film/Video Editing

The same memory facility has also been applied to the editing process in the production of film and video. Once the various "takes" have been collected it is necessary to assemble them in a coherent and interesting fashion. It is possible also to use a range of "editing effects" in this process, including some with which you may be familiar, such as, slow motion, the cross fade or "dissolve," solarisation or the overblowing of colour, the "trail" effect, and so on.

Originally this process was achieved by physically cutting pieces of film and joining them together. All of this can be done now by storing the images in computer memory and commanding the "editor" to produce a "cut" from one point to another at a specified point or commanding an effect to be produced at another specified point and so on, without the threat of producing an error which may jeopardize the original footage of the "take."

To the Inexperienced in Film and Video

Since the advent of television the visual medium has gained increasing importance and interest in society. It has also become a valuable marketing tool and potential art form to the music industry. But, as is inevitably the case in creative fields in general, this medium, until recently, has been less under the direct control of the artists involved than it has been under the control of the various technicians working in the film and video industry. Hence there has always been a lack of communication between, for example, the movie director and the film editor, or the video editor and the musician whose song is the subject of the video. The first obvious advantage to arrive with technology was the home video camera which has given the creative sector an opportunity to experiment, though with limited potential. However, as recently as this year an Australian company, Fairlight, has pioneered the first Computer Video Instrument which in effect enables the user to produce the same range of edits and effects previously only available to the professional video editor with his facilities. This computer also includes a new set of potentials in the form of a touch sensitive drawing pad with which the user can actually draw on the screen and colour with a choice of four thousand possible colours, or draw over existing real footage. Therefore, the experimental film maker or musician can edit his or her own video footage, include all the possible effects, and draw and colour new ones over the footage or create new "drawn" footage. The obvious implications of this are such that a generation of experimentalists is equipping itself, not only with the skill of manipulating image, but also, with a direct outlet for creative potential in the medium of video.

To the Established Industry - Sound

The sound industry is, of course, entirely technology based and has been ever since its creation with the first form of sound storage technology - the gramophone. Since then many forms of sound storage technology have been developed including magnetic tape through to vinyl discs and so on, and all of these developments have been brought about in order to increase the faithfulness or fidelity of the stored sound.

In the course of this evolution a vast array of machinery has been born enabling the user more specific control of the various elements of a recording. Until recently, although almost every possible element could be manipulated, doing so in practicality had become an almost physically impossible task. By using "multi-track tape," up to twenty-four and even more single elements of a recording could be stored on tapes, with the possibility of manipulating the balance and the tonal quality of each individual element of the recording by means of processing these elements through a "multi-track mixer." This led to a similar situation to that of the lighting technician, namely, the physical manipulation of switches and faders and the reliance on human memory for cues and levels. With the use of computer technology all of these parameters and cues can be individually stored in memory one at a time until the complete "mix" is achieved. These various settings and cues for alterations of settings during the piece of music are stored on floppy disk and can also be used to duplicate the same "mix" anywhere in the world where the same computer facility exists. This can be very useful for the producer of a recording which requires completion or further work in a different country.

The New Sound Storage Technology - Digital Sound

The most exciting use of microprocessor technology in the sound industry has revolutionised the whole current method of sound storage. This development is referred to as "digital sound." The universal method in existence for the last forty years or so has been that of magnetic tape which has been greatly refined in fidelity and longevity during that time. It has appeared in various forms from the home tape recorder to the cartridge and cassette player, and is still the most widely used form of recording or storage behind the familiar vinyl disc recording.

Sound is a physical entity and therefore has physical characteristics which change according to the variety of sound, its intensity, etc., and can be analysed and measured as such. Therefore theoretically the exact quality of any sound and how it changes as a sound does in performance, though very complex, may be described in a series of numbers pertaining to measurements of its particular characteristics. The computer is able not only to make this analysis, but also to replay the sound by decoding its analysis in reverse. This development has produced two major advantages to the modern sound maker, namely the Digital Recorder and the Computer Musical Instrument.

The first outstanding advantage of the Digital Recorder is the fact that the only limitation to the fidelity of its stored sound is the number of samples it can take, that is, the number of numerical descriptions of the sound it is capable of storing. This varies according to the power of the computer involved. The second, and in some ways more important advantage, is that digitally recorded sound is capable of being stored on optical (laser) disc. This is inherently a more robust storage medium and does not suffer deterioration from usage or natural deterioration over time. Tape deterioration with conventional magnetic tape is an ever present danger when working with professional sound, so optical disk technology is a real advantage.

Digital sound technology is used on the now popular "Laser-disc." Unlike the vinyl long playing record, this disc will suffer no physical deterioration because it contains only a coded picture of the sound which is impressed onto the medium and then covered with a protective layer. The disc is played by a reflected laser beam so that no physical wear occurs.

The Computer Musical Instrument

The second offspring of digital sound technology was developed also by the Fairlight Company of Australia and is referred to as the C.M.I. or Computer Musical Instrument.

This computer also uses the development of digital sound to store sound samples, as does the digital recorder, but applies the use of these stored samples to a typical musical keyboard and enables the user a wide variety of musical creative possibilities by way of sophisticated software which is also being continually updated.

Most people these days are familiar with the electronic synthesiser which was developed by Robert Moog a decade ago. This instrument and others of its kind are widely used in modern music. However, this instrument, as the name implies, is a synthesiser. It uses a basic electronically generated sound which can be modified with a variety of processors to either "synthesise" or copy familiar sound such as a string section or to produce its own new electronic sounds.

The C.M.I. can also produce sounds in this manner but it is specifically designed to exploit its advantage of digital sound storage. In other words, any "real" sound can be stored in its memory and replayed on its keyboard at any pitch. For instance, one may store a "real" string section and use this sound to play a new passage of music.

Creative Possibilities

The first and perhaps most fascinating advantage of the C.M.I. is that it is possible to use previously unmusical sounds in a musical way. For example, given that any sound at all can be stored, it is possible to play a melody with it, that is, to play a melody with the sound of, perhaps, a glass breaking or a car horn.

With the current software it is also possible to examine the computer's analysis of any sampled sound and manipulate this analysis in a great number of ways. Because the sound is a coded set of information, any number of copies of the sound can be made with no fidelity loss and it is possible to experiment with the copy without jeopardising the original. It is possible to reverse the entire sound (play it backwards), to add it to another sound (make a sound comprising the string section and the breaking glass) and so on. So here we have a whole new range of musically useful sounds, either derived from real ones or combinations of real, manipulated or constructed sounds.

I have already found a valuable use for this facility in the production of film scores which include some of the "sound effects" from the film sound effects recording as instruments in the film score: thus, in this manner, knitting both the music and sound effects together.

C.M.I. Composition and the Professional

Music, like most art forms, is commonly seen as a kind of mystery which has a certain lack of logic attached to it.

In fact, of all forms of art this misconception is least applicable to music. Music is a science, and as a science has its own jargon, formulae, rules, and language. The language was developed during the Medieval Period and is, in fact, a reasonably complicated but nonetheless logical number system.

Because written music uses a number system, it is perfectly suited for use with computers and it is because of this that manufacturers of even very simple home computers have been able to include in their software a music composition program. The C.M.I. composition software is, of course, highly sophisticated and gives the user the capability of producing, in effect, any performance results that are otherwise only possible with the use of skilled instrumentalists. The fact that it is designed around the written music language means that it is very simple to use for any trained musician. It is not only useful as a final recording instrument, but also as a method of testing a composition before it may, for example, be given to a real orchestra to play. Therefore, for the composer and arranger this tool can be a safeguard or trial method as well. For inexperienced arrangers this computer, by enabling the users to try their work first and hear the result, may also serve as an educational tool. The user has control over all the various subtleties of expression and has a possible range of any eight instruments in combination to work with at one time. By pre-program-ming a piece of music to be recorded the user may keep the cost of studio time to a minimum. The piece may be either played on the keyboard or typed into the composition. One of the very latest developments, the "Voice Tracker," allows the user to actually sing, whistle or hum the desired melody to the computer and it will then perform it on any chosen instrument or with any chosen sound. The computer will also correct timing and pitch to any specified degree and all mistakes can be edited and adjusted.

Composition and the Non-professional

There are, of course, various disadvantages associated with the introduction of computer technology into any profession and most of the general ones have been voiced, disputed and dismissed in other industries previously. I am referring, of course, to the threat of job loss and similar effects. There are, however, bound to be far more complicated and sensitive issues involved in an area such as music which, by implication, relies more heavily on the "human element" than does a mechanical industry, for instance. As is generally the case, most of these misgivings are held by the misinformed or ill-informed members of the industry or public, but some fears, in fact, may be quite real.

The entertainment industry may suffer, as other creative industries do, from the flooding of the market by non-skilled creators and performers who have been given access to creative media as a direct result of technology. In other words, it is possible to imagine that if a computer instrument is as accessible as, for example, a home video game, this will produce both results that are worthy, and those which would not at one time have been able to be produced by incapable creators. So the result of this access is double-edged. It may allow a talent that may not have had the necessary training to be realised, and it may produce a flood of mediocre and unskilled material and performers.

The C.M.I. is a machine and, no matter how well designed, like other instruments, it is only as good as its user. There is also, with any machine, a convenient method of usage and this has given birth to a generation of "C.M.I. Music" which, as the label suggests, has been produced as a result of the machine's method rather than that of the user, and is conspicuously similar from user to user because of this.

There are also some fears of the replacement of "real performers" by this type of technology, but, as sophisticated as computers may be and may become in the near future, there is no real justification for this fear amongst talented people.

Advantages of Computers in Music

The advantages already outlined in "Composition and the Professional" are self explanatory but the general impact of technology of this kind is yet to be felt.

The most dominant effect of this kind of use of computer technology is in production efficiency and creative expansion. In the hands of either the skilled or unskilled musician are an entirely new set of sound and composition methods and possibilities, as well as a far more efficient application of more conventional forms.

There is a famous quote by Beethoven who was, I believe, a great writer of popular songs in his time… "There is no more human or more beautiful instrument than the voice…" …and of course he was quite correct. All other musical instruments, from the rhythm sticks and hollow logs to the Computer Musical Instrument, are merely machines, but, in the hands of the right user, can produce valuable results.