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Changing Technology

My thoughts about how technology has changed my life throughout the years.

Sally Whitham-Shaw
Sally Whitham-Shaw

I was at music college in the 1980’s. Just like all composers from the past, we wrote our compositions down with a pencil on manuscript paper. If we wanted our compositions performing, we had to neatly handwrite the full score, and then write out all the parts for the various instruments that were to play. If it was for full orchestra, it would take days to complete.

There was a special type of paper that we used for the final score. It was called ‘transparency’ and it was very large, around A1 size. It was a special transparent paper that already had the staves printed on it. You had to write with a special pen and ink, and if you made a mistake, you had a little blade to scrape away some of the surface of the paper. Once you were happy with the score it was then photocopied but reduced in size. We then had to find the players, rehearse the composition and eventually (weeks later) we’d have it performed. We were lucky if we had a recording made of the performance but that rarely happened.

And then came the 1990’s!! Amstrad computers and C-Lab Notator program. My composing life changed. It was very expensive to buy all the hardware and software but SO worth it. The program alone cost me £500!! I still composed with pencil and paper, but then notated it on screen and suddenly I had a printable score. One press of a button and it would print the full score or the individual instrumental parts, and it would transpose the part if I needed it to. It saved hours of labour.

If I wanted a recording, I then had to send the ‘midi’ information through a ‘sound module’, another piece of hardware.  It took a while to learn how to do it, and again a lot of money to buy the various compatible hardware, but I suddenly had an immediate orchestra to hand. If I didn’t like bits of my composition, I could change it all in just a few minutes. It was amazing. It was all so ‘modern’ we didn’t know what had hit us!!! But we liked it!!

One of my first jobs as a composer was working for an editing company writing music for corporate videos. All ‘sound’ at that time was saved onto ‘floppy discs’. There was one time when the editing company wanted the sound of breaking glass in one of their videos alongside my music. There wasn’t a library sound they liked, so I was set with the task of recording the sound of breaking glass. Which I did. It lasted for a fraction of a second. To ‘hold’ that sound, it took 10 floppy discs. Compare that now with what you can record on your iPhone!

In the late 1990’s I moved to France, with my ‘to-be’ husband, and I started a completely different career in the tourism industry. I kept performing and conducting, but composing was put on hold, apart from a little song writing.

C-Lab Notator had then become Notator Logic, and soon after that was bought out by Apple. The Amstrad computer became obsolete, as did floppy discs. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn't export all my compositions from floppy disc, as they are still locked away, and now inaccessible. The downside of changing technology.

My husband and I owned a hotel barge and we cruised up and down the Canal du Midi, in the South of France. At the start, we didn’t have mobile phones, but we had ‘pagers’, so if anyone wanted to contact us, we then had to find a public phone. In the early 2000’s we eventually got mobile phones (not with internet access) and then WiFi dongles eventually arrived. It wasn’t until around 2010 that reception on the barges was good enough. It wasn’t very powerful, and often lost connection but it was great! And then smartphones arrived!!

So, I eventually came back to composing around 2016, the year my husband sadly died. I found a different world of technology, so many computers and programs to choose from it was a minefield!! I have now settled with an Apple computer, and I use Sibelius and LogicProX. Sibelius is a notation program. It suits me as I still like to write the ‘dots’, and LogicProX is a DAW and brilliant for performing, improvising and mixing. The whole package!! I can now compose, perform and record at an amazing speed. A far cry from when I entered music college only 40 years ago. I’m now hoping to compose a lifetime of works over the next 40 years. I wonder how the technology will have changed by then? I’m excited to find out!!