A little more than 30 years ago, I made my way to a stereo store in downtown St. John’s with what I thought was a simple question. I was a teenager, in full thrall of music. I had a rapidly expanding LP collection and a burgeoning curiosity for recording technology.
My simple question, as I put it to the bemused clerk, was this: can I separate the tracks on a record, and if so, how? It seemed like a reasonable thing to ask; after all, I had seen these sophisticated suites of audio gear that had come on the market, and I was just curious to know if I could listen just to, say, a guitar track, or a piano, or a vocal.
The clerk just shook his head. “Not possible,” I recall him saying, and that was that. I looked enviously at some of the high-end gear on sale, and moseyed up Water Street.
I’m not sure what song or album made me want to ask the question, but I think it was a bass line from the Police. I just thought it would be cool to split one track and listen to just that.
Later on, when I started doing work in radio and learned about mixing, I learned how even rudimentary audio tracks get blended — and how, once something is mixed, it’s mixed. (This, of course, doesn’t apply to shows like “CSI” or movies like “The Fugitive,” where technicians can instantly strip away elements of mixed sound, in much the same way as they can zoom into a video image and get better, not worse, resolution!)
Starting in the ’80s enterprising musicians would sample other people’s recordings by carefully picking a note here, even just a drumbeat. That begat a copyright tornado, at least for commercially released music. By the late ’90s, though, a kid with a computer could make mashups that would have passed as professional a few years earlier, and programs like Napster made it easy for fans to swap and save.
What was missing, though, was access to the key ingredients: the basic tracks. Star DJs would be hired to do remixes, but until recently, home enthusiasts had to settle for what they could get.
But the most curious thing has happened over the last few years: you can actually find a lot of track-by-track recordings on the Internet, often posted without the maelstrom of controversy that used to dominate the music business.
This came to mind last weekend, when I read about Merry Clayton, the American singer whose powerhouse voice tore the roof off the Rolling Stones tune “Gimme Shelter.” I learned two things from that article: that Clayton had recorded her own version of the song (which I’ve since bought) and that, somehow, the vocal track that she and Mick Jagger put down in Los Angeles lo those many years ago got leaked to the Internet. A few taps here and there and I found the recording on a blog that had embedded it as a YouTube posting. And yes, listening to the vocals alone is an eerie experience.
But here’s the thing. While looking around, I also saw countless numbers of other isolated tracks, including Roger Daltrey’s vocals from various Who classics, bass lines of Motown legend James Jamerson, and no end of screaming guitar solos that are well-known on classic rock radio.
So, what happened?
The proliferation of videogames like “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” have no doubt fuelled both consumer interest in musical tracks, and the willingness of someone to post them online, legally or otherwise.
While “Guitar Hero” has had its day — the manufacturer recently announced the franchise is being wound down — it seems likely that there’s a taste for fans (hardcore as they may be) to seek out tracks. (A hint on finding them: search for the phrase “isolated tracks” or an alternative, plus whatever musicians or bands turn your crank.)
Almost two years ago, I wrote in this space about how Peter Gabriel had made available the elements — right down to the drum beats — that went into “Games Without Frontiers,” one of his best-known songs. Gabriel wanted to encourage his fans to play, to innovate and to learn.
John Gushue is an online editor with CBC News in St. John’s.