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The Changing Sound of Progressive Rock

Jerry Lucky Commentary June 2011

Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2010 All Rights Reserved

 

In June I celebrate my birthday. Little did I realize that when I listened to my first progressive rock LP at the age of 15 that

Iíd still be listening to this wonderful music at the age of 57. I remember very clearly checking out that first prog recording Ė

it was Yessongs Ė the three LP set at the suggestion of my buddy Peter Simon. He raved about it. Heíd actually borrowed it from me,

but I hadnít really listened to it. I just loved the cover. But at his suggestion I listened to it and my musical life was transformed forever.

 

Feeling a tiny bit nostalgic Iíve been thinking about the changing sound of progressive rock today. How itís changed or evolved over the years. Understand, Iím not talking about how ďthisĒ band sounds different from ďthatĒ band, rather my thoughts have been running to an underlying shift in sound I hear from all types of bands. Even if the band are trying very hard to replicate a seventies feel there still is has been a distinct change in the sound.

 

Iíve written about this before actually in my books and other commentaries, that progressive rock, perhaps more than many other forms of contemporary music has opened itself up to the use of new and changing technology. All in the quest to create a music that goes beyond the pop norm; whether that was through the use of different instruments such as the Mellotron or Moog synthesizer or the use of more tracks in the recording studio. Now itís true that bands of all musical stripes have looked for ways to make new sounds, but I think itís fair to say that progressive rock more than any other genre made even the quest for those new sounds a part of its very core. So whatís changed?

 

The other day I was watching the Pendragon bonus disc video that comes with their latest release Passion and on the disc Nick Barrett is taking us through the development of some of the songs on the CD and thereís a part where we see the various song elements laid out on the computer screen. This reminded me of another similar video I have for the band Frost* where Jem Godfrey does a similar audio tour. I noticed that both men were using the latest recording software and it looked like Pro Tools. This has kind of become the industry standard. We even use it in our production studios at the radio station.

 

Pro Tools officially hit the market in 1991 and according to Wikipedia offered four track digital recording and cost around $6000! Still somewhat prohibitive for most up-and-coming bands. By 1997 it had graduated up to 48 tracks and was pretty much on itís way to becoming the industry standard. As a side note, the Wikipedia entry also contains a cautionary comment from Jack White of the Whitestripes, who makes the point that using Pro Tools is ďinappropriate to record musicĒ because itís too easy to correct the mistakes and that it allows for the music to become too perfect. By the way today Pro Tools 9 is available today for about $600!!

 

So back to my point, as both men are showing us the various sounds that have been inserted at different points of their compositions, Iím struck by the realization that this obviously has a lot to do with the changing sound of progressive rock.

 

For one thing, bands are no longer limited to a set number of tracks. Remember the Beatles made Sgt. Pepper with only four tracks in 1967 and from that time forward technology has been adding more and more tracks. But to buy the hardware for a 24 or 48 track studio was cost prohibitive for most bands. However with Pro Tools, you essentially have unlimited tracks at your disposal for the price of the software and a computer. You can layer to your heartís content.

 

For another thing you have far more control over each and every sound. You can lay down eight different vocal parts overtop of each other and can actually change the nature of each of them. So as a producer you have unimaginable control over crafting the sounds you want to hear.

 

These two things alone are hugely responsible for the changing sound of progressive rock. Itís why today the music for many bands sounds so full, so dense, so layered with instruments. Young bands today are born into this world, a world of heightened technology where the idea of recording on four tracks is a novelty.

 

I suppose we can argue the merits of any new technology; however the fact is itís here so I guess the real question is how well are we going to use it? Ultimately the tools are there for the craftsmen. At least thatís what I think.

 

Jerry Lucky