Are you cheating?

You don’t need talent (or hard work) to make music any more. Computers and keyboards make songs by simply pressing a key. Autotune means singers don’t have to be good anymore. Loops have made session musicians obsolete. Presets allow anyone to be an engineer…

Really?

Or is it all cheating? If you use loops, is that cheating? If a singer uses Autotune, is s/he cheating? Does your computer do all the hard work for you?

Really? What is cheating? Do you have to play all the parts yourself? Do you have to sing perfectly on key without Autotune? Do you have to design your own compressors and equalisers?

Making music is a fundamentally human activity. It is the act of expressing emotions and ideas through sound. How far would you go to express yourself?

Build your own instruments? Or use someone else’s sounds?

Record acoustic instruments? Or use samples?

Compose your own musical parts? Or use loops?

Adjust your compressors and EQs? Or use presets?

Do it all yourself? Or enlist professional assistance?

Is there a difference? Do we have to choose one or the other?

Somewhere in the hater’s psyche is the belief that music that was easy to make (or required little apparent blood/sweat/tears) is not valid. Conversely, there are musicians/composers/producers who deliberately do things in a difficult, convoluted way in the belief that amount of effort expended in creating the music somehow makes it more authentic or genuine.

Using samples is just as genuine as hiring an instrument. Using loops is just as genuine as using session musicians. The end result might be a little different, but the process is just as ‘fake’ or ‘manufactured’.

Sometimes my artists express concerns that by editing their vocal, they are somehow ‘cheating’. I usually assemble a composite vocal part from multiple takes and run the composite through Melodyne. This is always done in the presence of the artist – there’s no magic.

Recorded music is a construction. An invention. It’s based on an idea of reality, but it isn’tactually reality. A common analogy I use is that of movies. Film is (was) a recording medium as much as tape is (was). But movies are fiction. No-one complains that actors’ performances are somehow faked or compromised as a result of editing and ADR. Movies are to live theatre as recorded music is to live performance. They’re not the same thing. They used to approximate each other, but they have different strengths and weaknesses.

So, are you cheating?

Or are you inventing?

-Kim.

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  1. You know, thank you for writing this blog. I was about to start my album in January and was thinking (I need to design all my own sounds/patches and create my own dance loops since its MY album and not a remix) when I’m in the heat of expressing myself musically, presets and loops are just a way to help me get there quicker.

    On the flipside I really enjoy creating my own musical parts to use later like synth sound design and prerecorded loops I constructed, but really it is just a tool in the end and for some its just bragging rights…

  2. I am of the opinion that nothing is cheating. Everyone has a different approaches to creativity. The definition of Cheating is “to influence or lead by deceit, trick, or artifice”. I can not see the use of technology, “tools”, that one uses to achieve desired results as fitting into the meaning of cheating. Creativity has no boundaries.

    We need to focus on the results and less on the path taken to get there.

    • Kronsteen
    • December 20th, 2010

    “OMG! You’re using the same chords as someone else! And stealing the time signature, using words you didn’t invent…and you didn’t build the instrument yourself! That’s cheating!”

    Odd how basic ignorance and the need to moralise go hand in hand.

  3. Awesome discussion!

    IMO it’s definetely inventing.

    I see loops and presets like building blocks. They help and speed up the song construction process.

  4. Jordan Aguirre :
    – – when I’m in the heat of expressing myself musically, presets and loops are just a way to help me get there quicker.

    Same here.

    • Miron
    • December 20th, 2010

    Good topic Kim.
    The only problem that may occur when using autotuners, `grid snaps` or other kinds of helpers for imperfect musicians is when they have to play live.
    Coincernign that, there are two groups of musicians – studio based artists and live performing artists, none of them is better or worse. It`s just their choice made basing on personal abilities or aspirations.
    Apart from that, I also think creativity has no limits, whatever you use along the way – the goal is to express your ideas and communicate them to people through sounds.

  5. @Jordan Aguirre
    A lot depends on self-expression. If you can express yourself adequately using loops and presets, there’s no reason not to. On the other hand, your ideas about music might be such that there aren’t any loops or presets that work for you (think early days of genres such as IDM or dubstep).

    It’s quite common for my artists to use loops to initially flesh out demos of their musical ideas, but then embellish and massage those demos in my studio. The end result sometimes bares little resemblance to the initial loops. Sometimes the initial loops are plain to hear.

    -Kim.

  6. @Marc Lapointe
    Agreed. We use the tools we have to create a piece of music.

    Misunderstandings can arise when people confuse a piece of recorded music with a record of a musical performance. Of course, if you try to pass off a studio construction as a live recording, it may come across as deceit… but I don’t know why anyone would do that.

    -Kim.

  7. @Kronsteen
    Reminds me of when I hear of people refusing to learn music theory because they believe it might somehow kill their creativity! I wrote about this a while ago here:

    https://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/2009/06/22/theory-vs-creativity/

    -Kim.

  8. @Miron
    This is why I tell singers that studio techniques won’t make them into a good singer/performer. I can turn a weak singer into something listenable, but getting on stage is an entirely different proposition.

    -Kim.

  9. @Petri Suhonen
    Agreed!

    -Kim.

  10. @Kim

    Well I guess the thing about it for me is when I do remixing or quick paid jobs I tend to goto things like libraries. When I write my own music, I have to definitely separate composition from production and I would consider premade things part of production. Now what is cool is having the musical parts done, and then spending extra time on sound design to inspire more for the track. That is the real motivation behind desiring to design my own sounds and building drum kits and loops. But at the same time I dont want to be hindered by them or get stuck in the sound design world. It really just depends on the goal and the drive behind the song

  11. @Jordan Aguirre
    Good point – loops and presets can be essential when doing paid jobs under time pressure. Not only do they save time, but often the musical director or project sponsor wants music that is familiar (rather than something totally new or unique). I’ve experienced this mainly when composing for film – often a director will ask for ‘music that sounds like X but with a little more’less Y’.

    Of course, it’s nice when working on self-directed projects to have the luxury of exploring a wider range of musical expression!

    -Kim.

  12. Great post, Kim. I’ve said similar things in forums when the “loops are cheating” comments come up. At what point do people draw the line? Building their own synthesizers, using their own custom built chips and circuit boards? Some people don’t see that their argument runs all the way down as well as all the way up.

    It’s up to each of us to decide where the line is in our music!

  13. @Fabian Aldersey
    True true.

    Too little control/freedom makes it difficult to express yourself because there aren’t enough options. On the other hand, too much control/freedom makes it difficult to express yourself because too much work is required. Everyone has to find their own sweet spot.

    Another extreme example: Imagine creating a piece of music by drawing the waveform by hand. Surely this would provide the ultimate in control and freedom! But no-one would dream of doing this – it’d be far too laborious to make even a minute of noise, let alone a work of expressive beauty.

    -Kim.

    • Sparqee
    • February 23rd, 2011

    You can only cheat if there are rules to break. Do I set rules for my music? No but I do strive to recognize what parts of the creative process are satisfying to me. I sometimes throw down a loop to get a groove going for the composition process but loops in the final song I always find boring. Other people don’t seem to mind. It may come to pass that one day I will be perfectly happy with a loop in one of my songs but to this day I’ve never left one in because I’m always more satisfied with a part that is actually played, that has variation and evolves as the song evolves. The times that I have “tried” to be content with leaving in a loop I have always realized that laziness was the primary motivation.

    I don’t consider music to be something that I can cheat in but I do consider laziness in music creation to be boring, and if it’s boring….. Well, I’m not sure I consider it music.

  14. @Sparqee
    Exactly. There’s no such thing as ‘cheating’ – only guidelines that you choose to follow. And they’re *your* guidelines. They are whatever constraints or direction or tools you’re comfortable working with. There’s only one person who can draw that line for your music – you.

    -Kim.

    • Nox
    • March 19th, 2011

    It might not be cheating, but it’s not creative either to use premade things. The idea is to make something you created, if you didn’t create it how is it yours? Even if the loop fits your expression it’s not /your/ expression it’s someone elses. To that end I think this applies much more to sounds and musical ideas like rhythms and melodies rather than reverb presets or one hit sample violins in orchestral music. I also think it’s ok to use samples if it doesn’t sound like the source sample and was changed to fit into a larger song structure – then it becomes creative.

  15. @Nox
    That’s right – we all have to find our own point at which we draw the line between expedience and creative expression.

    -Kim.

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