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Musician Don Was Tries to Make Techies Feel Things (Video)

"When I first discovered ProTools ... I ruined a lot of music."

Asa Mathat

Don Was, the longtime musician and producer, wants to remind people that music, even auto-tuned pop and ring-toney techno, is about expressing emotion. And, at the Code Conference at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., he called up folksy singer Ryan Adams to strum out a soulful, acoustic song to do it.

“We know music has a profound impact on people. But what impact? What’s going on? There are certain things that have nothing to do with fashion, nothing to do with technology. They’re as appropriate in Mozart time and tribal times as they are listening to Spotify today,” said Was in an interview before the event. “There’s this exotic blend in our primordial stew in which music plays an essential role. Contrast that to technology, ever evolving. I want us to not lose sight of the core emotional values.”

Was, now the president of Blue Note Records, has performed with and produced musicians like Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop and Emmylou Harris. He won Grammy awards for producing Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones and was using ProTools, the audio tech software, 15 years ago. Technology, he said, is neither good nor bad and something like auto-tuning shouldn’t be “vilified.” His concern is that the tools to alter music have gotten so easy and fun, producers can get lost in them and make a lot of bad music — missing the emotional point of it all.

“When I first discovered this ProTools, I fell into a two-year abyss sitting at the screen. The sum total of the learning curve is I ruined a lot of music,” he said. “I put the toys before the soul. Now you’re on an even more precarious slope.”

It’s an important point to him because scientists, he said, are finding that music affects very core, prelinguistic areas of the brain.

“When neurologists have examined the area of brain that processes music, they’ve identified it as being primarily for pre-language identification. But we close down neurological synapses we don’t use. So why did we keep the music processing part open when we now have language?” asked Was.

So has music now lost its soul?

“No. Miley Cyrus may touch you. I’m not judging new music versus old music,” he said. “You can go through the history of music since I’ve been alive and find there’s really profound soulful music living alongside a load of crap in every era. Technology, to me it’s a neutral shade. You gotta paint with it from an emotional point of view. It’s not an end unto itself. It’s gotta be a vehicle for feeling.”

His goal with the presentation was simple: Elicit emotion.

“There’s one song I really want Ryan [Adams] to do, this one song that just kills me,” Was said. “I don’t think folks can walk away from that song without having it evoke some aspect of their inner lives.”

Here’s the video of Was’s appearance:

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