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30 Years Ago: The Digital Music Revolution

February 7, 2014


30 years ago, a sudden rapid change occurred in mainstream pop music sound, from a largely acoustic and electro-mechanical (basically amplified versions of acoustic sounds) with early synthesizers, to a completely digital sound. (With the electric rock guitar being the only non-digital sound left, as many R&B acts adopted the rock and new wave (“Punk”) sounds as part of this transformation.

What I noticed, especially upon purchasing the long awaited “new album” from Stevie, The Woman In Red was that nearly all the sounds in uptempo songs went digital, many of them being simple “blips” (You hear this in songs like “Love Light In Flight”), and this replaces the layers of “band” instruments, and most notably, the acoustic piano.

The piano brought to mind images of the grammar school auditorium “assembly” (and likely also even nursery school, which for me was a music school!) as well as church. (Making it worse, many churches frowned upon contemporary music, so it seemed old hymns on a raggedy old piano or organ was the “good music” to them!)
Just think of some cranky old music teacher; “ok children, let’s sing along now…” as the pianist begins beating out the simple chords on the keys. (And then the teacher frequently yelling when some do not follow the melody right. All the girls on my block even changed one of their jump-rope songs to dis the school’s music teacher!)

Growing up on a wide variety of music at home, from R&B, jazz and even some rock, the school/church sound was very monotonous, and I wanted more variety.
I now hit legal adulthood, and gained some more freedom (going away to college, and beginning to travel hundreds of miles by myself for the first time), and the changing music provided a background to these transformative times!

The acoustic piano was of course also used extensively in those genres, along with basses, guitars (both coming in acoustic and electric versions), other “electro-mechanical” (i.e electronically amplified) keyboards such as electric piano (usually the Fender Rhodes) and Clavinet (basically an “electric harpsichord”), and string orchestras. As the 70’s wore on, synthesized sounds slowly began being added.

So the 70’s sound was a hodge-podge of different instruments, yet in the 80’s, it was becoming more “purely” synthesized. The synths themselves went from monophonic to polyphonic, and analog to digital.

While many hated synthesized music in favor of “real music”, to me, it was an interesting new sound, and in retrospect would sort of be reminded to me by reading of Einstein’s quest to describe the universe in terms of pure geometry, represented by simple, orderly “marble”, rather than by point particles, represented by complicated, grainy “wood”. (You can see this chronicled in Kaku Hyperspace). Standard physics assumed a mixture of the two, while the burgeoning Quantum theory was all “wood”. (And “wood” right there brings to mind a piano! As well as flammable and otherwise easily damaged structures or elements in buildings, as opposed to solid fireproof concrete).

While this is not an exhaustive account of the change; it will capture what I noticed, growing up listening to pop radio.

The evolution of synth technology:

•”TONTO” (“The Original New Timbral Orchestra” of music engineers Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil):
They produced two all synth instrumental albums

They also engineered Stevie Wonder and The Isleys, but they never did any all synth tracks under TONTO; they were always produced with acoustic and/or electromechanical instruments.
TONTO (likely with newer synths added) would go on to be used to produce New Wave group Devo’s “Whip It” (1980). New Wave would seem to get the synth sound first, and then it slowly spread to the rest of pop music.

•1977 Donna Summers “I Feel Love” (synth bass and electronic backgrounds replacing strings and horns) and Kraftwerk “Trans Europe Express” (synth strings)

•1979 Lenny Twennynine “Peanut Butter” (only began hearing this in recent years on Music Choice)
1980-1 Imagination “Illusion”
New synth bass, but both of these have acoustic piano interludes

•Yarborough&Peeples “Don’t Stop the Music” has Clavinet added

•1981-83 Synth bass takes over “disco” and basically transforms the more “black” strain of it into an electronic pop. However most artists of this period stubbornly retained acoustic piano. It seems to be used even more than it was in previous years!

“Kashif&Friends”: “I’m in Love”, “So Fine”, “Shake It Up Tonight”, etc.

D-Train always added acoustic piano to almost everything (“Love Vibrations” from the first album is a notable exception).

Cargo (Featuring Dave Collins) “Holding On To Your Love” is the earliest track I know of to use the new digital electric piano (though it too has acoustic piano interludes).
A different (more muted sounding) version of this is used in Toto’s “Africa” (which sounds totally synthesiszed).

A lot of rock and new wave songs still had the hybrid sound too (Police “Everything She Does is Magic”, Dexy’s Midnight Runners “Come On Eileen”, etc.)

•Early totally digital productions
Donna Summers “Love is In Control” =inbetween sound
System “It’s Passion” and “You Are In My System”
George Clinton “Atomic Dog”
miscellaneous stuff like “Phone Home”
New wave stuff like Thomas Dolby “She Blinded Me With Science”, Matthew Wilder “Nobody’s Gunna Break My Stride”, Human League “Don’t you Want Me”.

While “Thriller” was still closer to the previous style, it was largely synthesized (only “The Girl is Mine” has acoustic piano), and of course set the stage for the years to come, especially in bringing over more “rock” sounds, including the new technology.

•1983 electronic hip hop (sparked off by “Planet Rock”) evolves into electronic dance or early “Techno”, which is basically what finally replaced “disco” (“One More Shot”, “Freak-A-Zoid” etc. Some had a faux acoustic piano sound, like “AEIOU”).

More electronic sounds from the rock world: Nona Hendryx “Transformation”.

Fender Rhodes, about to be replaced, held on strong for the time being (mixed with more and more synths):
James Ingram & Michael McDonald “Yah Mo B There”,
Patrice Rushen “Feel So Real”,
Angela Bofil “Let Me Be The One”,
MTume “Juicy Fruit” and “You, Me & He”,
Dennis Edwards “Don’t Look Any Further”,
Patti LaBelle “If Only You Knew” and “Love Need and Want You,
Atlantic Star “Touch a Four Leaf Clover”,
Midnight Star “Curious”.
Other transitional songs: Ashford & Simpson “Solid” and “Babies Were Made In Heaven”;
Midnight Star “Wet My Whistle” and “No Parking (On the Dance Floor)”

1984: new digital sound spreads across R&B/Pop industry These are the songs that really stood out to me (and were a big jump from their previous year’s counterparts):

Deniece Williams “Let’s Hear it For the Boys” (compare with previous year’s similar sounding “Borderline” by Madonna)

Al Jarreau “Raging Waters” (compare with previous year’s “Boogie Down”)

George Benson “20/20” (“Lady Love Me {One More Time}” and “Turn Your Love Around” were the hits from the previous year).

Ollie & Jerry “Breakin’ Aint No Stoppin

Shalamar “Dancing in the Street” (compare previous year’s “Over and Over”)

Stephanie Mills “Medicine Song” (“Keep Away Girls” was the previous song I remember from her. 1983’s album “Merciless” clearly reflects the older style as well).

Chaka Khan “This is My Night” and “I Feel For You” (compare previous year’s “Ain’t Nobody”)

Harold Faltermyer “Axel F

Jan Hammer “Miami Vice Theme

Chicago “Stay the Night“, and “We Can Stop The Hurtin’” (Latter wasn’t a hit, but it does sound familiar, and prefigured the “world relief” trend of the following years. While previous hit “Love Me Tomorrow” was a pretty much electronic version of a ballad, it still doesn’t have the “digital” sound of these two songs).

Stevie Wonder “Woman In Red“, “I Just Called, “Love Light In Flight“, “Don’t Drive Drunk” (Compare previous hits “Do I Do” and “That Girl”).
Somewhere in the album is a picture of him in front of several tiers of plastic keyboards, perfectly capturing the synthetic nature of the music.

Kashif “Never Let You Down” in new production style, though still fits in with his previous sound

Just missed 1984 for an early 1985 release: DeBarge “Prime Time“, “Rhythm of the Night“. (Most of the album was “blah”. They were really good with the previous Fender Rhodes sound, and it wasn’t the same with the newer sounds). Previous album’s “I Can’t Take It” was like the newer sound, but with Rhodes still there. Other nice sounding previous songs “Can’t Stop”, “Stronger Every Day”, “What’s Your Name” and “Strange Romance”, and the hits “All This Love”, “A Dream” and “Love in A Special Way”).

Maurice White “Switch on Your Radio” (and Children of Afrika, except that it has acoustic piano in the chorus).

Five Star, Loose Ends and a bunch of new similar acts made nice use of the the synth sound.

Acoustic Piano ended up basically relegated to the slow ballad. Stevie’s “It’s You” and “Weakness”, Al Jarreau’s “After All”, Debarge’s “Who’s Holding Donna Now”, Lisa Lisa “All Cried Out”.

Stevie perfected the sound in the following album In Square Circle with “I Love You Too Much” which combines the new synth bass with the new “digital electric piano” that struck big that year, and basically replaced the Fender across the industry.
Similar are “Strangers On The Shore of Love”, “Go Home” and “Never In Your Sun” (This is the closest album in Contract 4 to the TONTO sound of Contract 2, but again, a lot of fans didn’t like it because of the prevalence of synths). Then, of course, the main hit “Part Time Lover”, which was too commercial sounding or something for me. What I was looking forward to seeing on the album was “Upset Stomach”, which was earlier in the year featured in the movie The Last Dragon, but left off of the album. That one had a lot of interesting synthesizer effects. Yet “Spiritual Walkers” was a bit overdone with the synths. “It’s Wrong (Apartheid)” was basically synthesized percussion. The acoustic piano is again relegated to the ballads; “Overjoyed”, and “whereabouts.

During this period, The System took a step backwards into the previous “synth with acoustic piano mix” in “Promises Can Break”
D-Train maintained the hybrid sound with acoustic piano in “Something’s On Your Mind”.
Winans “Let My People Go”, Skipworth & Turner “Thinking of You”, Paul Laurence “Strung Out”, Michael Franks’ “Your Secret’s Safe With Me”, etc. maintain earlier production style.

Paul Hardcastle “Rainforest” (“Planet Rock” beat with acoustic piano), Simply Red (“Holding on the Years”), Wally Baderou (“Chief Inspector”) and Sade, being “jazzy”, maintain acoustic piano with newer synths.

Forward to 1987, Swing Out Sister’s “Twilight World” seemed to mark a retro “late 70’s—ealy 80’s” sound. Stock, Aitken & Waterman’s “Roadblock” reminded me of the early 70’s! Two years later, you had Soul To Soul’s “Back To Life”, and Sybil’s “Don’t make Me Over”. Entering the 90’s, sampling brought a lot of actual 70’s sounds into modern recordings. And that’s pretty much the way modern R&B has gone for the last 20 years down to the present.

Between ’83 and ’84 I often wonder where exactly the change would have been for different artists. I noticed a lot of performers I listened to, like Stevie and Debarge didn’t have albums both years. It was one or the other, with ’83 usually reflecting the previous sound, and ’84 reflecting the new sound. (Stevie had a planned album, People Move Human Plays, [even catalogued as Tamla 6047!] for ’83, but it was cancelled. I imagine that time was when they were in the studios changing over to the new instruments and probably even remixing songs with them.

I wonder what both of those acts would have been like with albums in early ’84, let’s say. Would DeBarge still have sounded more like the previous three albums?
Stevie was already reportedly working on In Square Circle during this period. He had preformed “Overjoyed” the year before, but that’s acoustic piano anyway and wouldn’t have changed much. I did once hear him play a clip of “Go Home” on the synthesizer on some show. (I noted how it sounded like an old Sesame Street segment showing a wheel rolling downhill. Not the one on YouTube now, but another one I can’t find now). Forgot when exactly that was, but I wondered if an earlier version of it would have had acoustic piano, since with some of the chords it sounds a lot like a followup to “That Girl”.

In the 1986 MSG concert, I would hear for the first time the unreleased “It’s Growing”, which had been promised for several albums, but still to this day never released (except unofficially, online). That to me sounds typical of the ’83-4 period (along with the also never released “I’m A Man”). There were even two versions of It’s Growing on YouTube, one that had Clavinet (which he basically stopped using by then), which I imagine is the 1983 version; and then a more digital sounding performance (with rock guitars added), which was probably ’85 or ’86; possibly the concert I was at.

Really, “Love Light In Flight” sounds a bit transitional because of the acoustic bass. And the electric piano sound, neither the old Fender, nor the newer “digital”, thus also sounds transitional. Stevie used to be a step ahead of everyone, back under TONTO, but had fallen behind as evidenced in the lack of any really strong synth presence in the ’80-82 period, as everyone else more quickly layered them in the music. (There were synths of course, but the overall production of most songs was still more acoustic and electro-mechanical. It was actually a big step back from Secret Life of Plants, which was really groundbreaking in synthesized sounds. Perhaps he was busy in the studio preparing for the ’84 transformation, and taking the time to be perfectionistic about it to try to be ahead of the game again?)
“Love Light In Flight”, when you really think of it, has a strong 1981 sound to it (would have fit well with Change’s “Paradise” minus the piano, Hall and Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That”, or the general synth sound of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Let’s Groove”).

Speaking of EWF, it would be 20 years later that I would run across, online “Dance, Dance, Dance”, which was a single from the movie “Rock and Rule” from ’83-84, right as they were disbanding for seemingly good (though would surprisingly get back together four years later). That song clearly represented the previous sound with the Fender Rhodes, but the overall sound/style was clearly typical of the transitional stuff being released at the time.

They had earlier in ’83 had this album that was so “crossover” I never heard any of it, until basically buying it myself at the end of the decade. (Well, a guy in college did have the cassette, but I didn’t know him, so I only glossed through it quickly, but didn’t retain anything beyond “Sweet Sassy Lady”, very loosely. I did later find it has no acoustic piano at all!)
People had already been complaining they “lost their sound” and were becoming more “rock”-like beginning apparently with some tracks on 1980’s “Faces”, and increasingly more electronic beginning with the following year’s hit “Let’s Groove”. Yet songs like that did still fit in on R&B radio.

I don’t know why “Dance, Dance, Dance” wasn’t included on the 1983 album (Electric Universe); it definitely would have helped them, being more of their soulful sound (like their at the time last hits “Fall in Love With Me” and “Side by Side”), and not so new-wavish like the stuff on the last album. (Which I did find interesting, along with Maurice White’s similar sounding solo album two years later).

Throughout this whole time, it should be mentioned that the Minneapolis sound was in a class by itself; as it from the beginning (from the original “I Feel For You” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover”) was always heavy on synths, but also heavy on electric guitars and basses, and (of course) maintaining the guitars into the digital era; so, would sound pretty much the same before and after the transition. It also retained the acoustic piano sound (though likely a synth version of it) more in songs other than ballads (e.g “Saturday Love”, etc.)

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