In The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams writes: "I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary, and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that's invented between when you're 15 and 35 is new and exciting and revolutionary, and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you're 35 is against the natural order of things."
Cut to the world of music. As much as technology has been a driving force in the industry, the advent of any innovation has often been received with skepticism before it goes on to become the norm. Harnessing that interplay between the creative process of making music and the technological enhancement given to said music, is acclaimed DJ and producer Mark Ronson.
In his just-released six-part mini-docuseries Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson, he astutely defines how different the process of creating a great song is from the experience of an incredible recording session. While talking to iconic musicians and producers, experts and engineers, Ronson stumbled upon a common thread among them: Most of the technological advancements have been happy accidents that occurred while they were trying to maximise the potential of the equipment or the software.
Ronson opens his docuseries with possibly one of the most overused tech assistances: Auto-tune. Designed by Dr Andy Hildebrand using the same algorithm he used to help detect oil for mining, Auto-tune was originally created to help correct the pitch mistakes of a singer but has gone on to become a part of many a singer's identity today. Like Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes mentions in the episode: "The idea of auto-tune is fantastic, but it has become the enemy of modern music."
Ronson's genius though lies in how hard he tries to get a balanced point of view. As an anti-autotune proponent, his narrative could have easily coloured the perspective of the episode. Yet he puts himself out there in a bid to see the other point of view, to understand beyond the reasons why the use of the technology is so prevalent among musicians. He has every reason to make this an old versus new argument but instead, he cleverly uses inputs from Paul McCartney and Sean Ono Lennon to explain how despite a transgenerational shift, auto-tune has benefits that would have been embraced by the late Beatle, John Lennon.
The arc that runs through the series is succinctly explained by Ronson at one point, when he says, "Our lives are already so digitally enhanced. It makes sense that our music reflects that."
The idea for the series itself stemmed for a TED Talk Ronson gave on sampling. Legend has it that an Apple executive was in the audience who then put him onto Morgan Neville, the director of Watch the Sound. With the brief to create something part geeky, part educational, and generously nostalgic, they then conceptualised a six-part docuseries that straddled the worlds of music and technology. Picking topics that often get derided as conjured artifice, Ronson navigates through auto-tune, sampling, reverb, synthesizers, drum machines, and distortion in the course of six episodes.
Ronson bolsters the episodes with the presence of a host of major names from the music business: Paul McCartney, Kevin Parker (Tame Impala), Sean Ono Lennon, Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran), Dave Grohl, remaining Beastie Boys, T-Pain, Hank Shocklee (Public Enemy), Charli XCX and more.
It is fascinating to see the origin stories of some of the "happy accidents"; how the Beastie Boys sampled The Beatles, and how The Beatles' created loops in the attics of their homes. The series is filled with little nuggets about some iconic songs that have stood the test of time in part due to pioneering tech happenstance. Like how Prince tuned down the drum machine to create the sound of songs like 'Let's Go Crazy' and 'Purple Rain.'
Using the example of legends, Ronson makes a convincing case for why technology has had a big part to play in the journey of genres and the musicians that they have created. He talks about how unions of musicians protested the advent of the synthesizer, accusing the instrument of taking away the day jobs of sessions musicians. And then he follows that with the example of the legendary Stevie Wonder, whose Talking Book is a reminder of how even technology can have soul. Ronson goes: "¦and then you're like: 'No, actually, the machines are as soulful as the people using them. You put someone incredibly soulful on a machine and it's gonna have soul'."
The series is as much for musicians as it is for music lovers. Without taking any strong sides, it explores the symbiotic relationship between a raw creative process and the digital prism through which it emerges.
Ronson is, in fact, the best person to host the series because he is young enough to remember a more analog, purist experience and old enough to know when the digital bit is too much. The seven-time Grammy winner's discography is testimony to how his heart remains deeply classic in sound while his mind is constantly curious about working with technology without distorting the reality of the music he creates. His willingness to push the boundaries, ask the right and wrong questions, experiment with tech, and yet remain true to who he is, puts him in the best position to host the show.
And for us, this is top-class education that is far from being a bore. Watch it now.
Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson is streaming on Apple TV+.