If Gary Numan had heard a different sound the first time he came across the synthesizer, we might not have. “Cars, ”“Are ‘Friends’ electric?”Or even Gary Numan (he was born as Gary Webb before he adopted his stage name). The New Wave movement could have been little more than a wave, Synth Pop may never have happened, and in a roundabout way Calvin Harris may never have even known what we came for.
Ali Numan did to hear that most important sound, the one that illuminated his brain and incorporated it into technology as a tool for making music, paving the way for electronic music to become mainstream. It’s just one of many accidentally influential moments where it can be found Watch the sound with Mark Ronson – a documentary tour through the stone foundations of music technology that is now broadcast on Apple TV +.
Ronson is perhaps best known for his work with Amy Winehouse – a decidedly analogous, brass affair. But his love of technology is perfectly clear Watch the sound serves easily digestible bites of music history on key technological topics: sampling, drum machines, synthetics and beyond. By the way, Ronson optionally comes across such lamps as Paul McCartney, Quest Love and the aforementioned Numan, along with contemporary artists like Charlie XCX and King Princess. If the series doesn’t inspire you to try the MIDI controller to the end, then nothing will work.
Unlike Netflix’s fast pace This is Pop,, Watch the sound leans more histrionically. Each episode begins with Ronson recounting his first experience of whatever it is about in this episode (sampler, distorted guitars, and so on). He then spends time with the artists who popularized the sound, asking thoughtful questions and generally getting annoyed about the music as only someone with a wide range of Ronson influences can.
That feeling of traveling through Ronson’s musical interests gives Watch the sound more intimate feeling than This is Popapproaches multiple speech heads. “I think it’s important that there’s knowledge of the episodes, there’s some kind of guideline. And it’s always been Mark’s personal experience, “executive producer Mark Monroe told Engadget.
This sense of “experience” may not be more pronounced when Ronson spends time with Sean Ono Lennon. Lennon honestly talks about his father’s struggle with the sound of his voice. He then skillfully invented a shot of Lennon Sr. with Harmony Engine (which Ronson describes as “autotunes on steroids”) in what turned out to be a surprisingly gentle moment. Lennon junior is visibly touched by this short but intimate musical encounter.
Of course, the show talks about machines as much as it does about the people who made them important. Watching, for example, the absolute mastery of DJ Premier at MPC is just as impressive as it is frustrating (at least for anyone who has already been on foot and barely managed to elicit the rhythm). Later, watching Ronson take the box cutter to the speaker cone with David Grohl, it seems like it was supposed to be an exhaustion all the way to … hell, why is he kind of good at everything? (You’ll need to look at this to find out why they did it.)
Other witty moments are perhaps less intentional. Ronson finds himself in a full mining jumpsuit at one point and has never looked so uncomfortable. In the first episode, we enjoy the rare, albeit slight cracks in his golden touch as he struggles to make anything remotely musical with automatic tuning (he corrects that later, naturally).
If there was a permanent message Watch the sound (and many other similar series) is that perfection and talent rarely create anything magical. Most of the technology shown is either misused, misunderstood, or appropriated out of necessity. Legends were born and here’s how we work now.
It’s refreshing, if not invigorating, to know that you don’t have to strive for perfect height or even really have any formal music training to become a pioneer. In fact, it’s easy to see that knowing the scales could sometimes even put you down if you try to play by the rules alone.
This opinion is reinforced in the episode about synthesizers. Here the team of heroes is more at home with an oscilloscope than an oboe. A group of maladapted (and, let history show, many, many more women than ever admit) has effectively re-invented what music could be from the ground up.
Monroe said that it also became obvious during the shooting of the film. “Digging into a synthesizer and really some kind of understanding of what a hindrance it was … what an opportunity for people outside of the music business … and not just to gain a foothold, but to become, you know, legendary.”
Even if you’re not interested in how music is created, the show will make you write down the names of the bands and songs you want to explore further and will delight you with a sense of possibility. Or in my case, an excuse. The sampling episode recounts the terrible return that this new technology has received. “It’s not real music” someone remembers being told. If, like me, you grew up listening Fear of the black planet and the countless artists who have inspired it, it’s hard not to make yourself a mental fist because you’re not one of those jerks.
By the end of the show, you may find yourself motivated to dig that guitar out of the attic or turn on your laptop. Apple seems to have known this could be the case. To coincide with the presentation of the show, the company created a “follower experience” for GarageBand via exclusive manufacturer’s package.
That means that when you discover how the Beastie Boys achieved their cult vocal sound on “So what do I want” or how Sonic Youth creatively used drumsticks on their guitars, you may realize that you don’t even need any fancy software to do something different.
Watch the sound with Mark Ronson premieres on Apple TV + today.
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