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What Music Production Can Teach Us About Legal Technology

This past weekend, I binged the AppleTV+ series Watch the Sound with Mark Ronson. There are six episodes, and each one focuses on a different aspect of music production.

One of the recurring themes of each episode is how new technology changed music. The LinnDrum shaped pop; the 808 shaped hip hop; the distortion pedal shaped heavy medal; autotune shaped dance music.

Nearly every episode poses the question… does technology make music more human or less human? One man’s exciting innovation is another man’s existential threat. Time and time again, the answer was the same: it’s not up to technology to make or break music. It’s how musicians choose to use it. That is why I thought this series about music production would make excellent fodder for a discussion about legal technology.

A lot of legal tech is designed to achieve the same goals as different kinds of music tech. Some of it is meant to automate repetitive tasks, like a drum machine. Some of it is meant to reduce human error, like autotune; digital forensics tools expand the types of data we can collect for an investigation, the same way a synthesizer expanded the kinds of sounds that musicians have at their disposal. eDiscovery platforms can help you sift through existing data to build a case, similar to how sampling software lets producers turn bits and pieces of old records into new tracks. Some tech is more like Apple’s Garage Band program: its primary purpose is to make the job just plain easier, so that less specialized professionals can do work that once required highly technical, specially trained experts. 

All of this technology opens up a whole new world for legal teams. It’s not only a world that allows them to do business as usual in less time for less money; It’s a world where we get to redefine “business as usual” altogether, similar to how so many machines have revolutionized music.

One of the most interesting things about Watch the Sound is how the show features interviews with engineers who designed groundbreaking music technology. Usually, these engineers had no real agenda to change how music sounds. Instead, they just wanted to make it quicker and easier for people to make music that fit traditional norms of “good.” The sounds that are now considered calling cards for different types of tech– from Prince’s use of drum machines to T-Pain’s use of autotune– didn’t exist yet. It took those other visionaries getting ahold of the tech for real innovation to happen.

Roger Linn recorded acoustic drums and programmed them into his drum machines.

For example, Roger Linn designed the Linn-LM1, a favorite drum machine of Prince, and later the LinnDrum, which was used across the ‘80s pop landscape in songs such as “Maniac” by Michael Sembello and “Take On Me” by a-ha. Linn was the first person to record acoustic drums and program them into a drum machine. He made his machines this way because he felt other options on the market were too synthetic-sounding.

Yet… one of the most iconic beats ever made with one of Linn’s machines is on “When Doves Cry.” Prince achieved this sound by purposefully programming the drums to be out of tune. The beat is so iconic largely because it doesn’t sound like a human drummer.

Prince’s music is remembered today in part because he didn’t just use the drum machine as a cheap shortcut to bypass human drumming. He saw drum machines as an exciting new frontier of sounds that were previously unknown to human ears.

The best eDiscovery project managers approach their jobs in a similar fashion. They’re able to not only get through discovery more efficiently, but repurpose technology for other types of work. A lot of tech that was initially designed to help clients through complex litigation is now being used for other big data conundrums that require reviewing lots of data and sorting it into different buckets. Cyber breach review and data remediation come to mind, but I’m sure that list of alternative purposes will continue to grow as the world continues to create more and more data.

Particularly skilled eDiscovery professionals push the limits of existing technology. Prince didn’t wait for Roger Linn to pre-program the drum setting he wanted; he took a machine and did something new and unexpected with it. We’re seeing this in legal tech as well, particularly with highly customizable programs such as Relativity. At Contact, our team developed Vu™ to help less-experienced Relativity users access the wealth of analytics data that already lives within the platform.

Of course with innovation often comes push back. Throughout the history of music, whenever new technology expanded the library of sounds that musicians could put on a record, there was inevitably someone complaining about how the new technology was “cheating” or “not real music.” Potential for progress often comes hand in hand with potential for regression.

Indeed, Watch the Sound also rightly points out how some aspects of music can only be done by humans. An episode about autotune mentions how sometimes the most emotive vocals aren’t 100% on pitch 100% of the time, and autotune can do more harm than good.

At one point, Mark Ronson plays a raw Lady Gaga vocal and says “there is no plugin in the world that can make you do this.”

At every turn, music producers have to make choices about when and how to use technology, and when to let human musicians do what only humans can. Does distorting a vocal drain it of all the emotion and humanity… or does it capture the angst and confusion that a song is trying to capture?

This is how legal teams need to work. Not only are their certain types of thinking that only humans can do… I’d wager there’s certain types of thinking only attorneys can do. No matter how advanced technology gets, there also needs to be someone at the helm making smart decisions about what work has to be done by an attorney, and what’s best left to technology.

That person needs to not only know that technology can help, but how it can help. It’s similar to how a skilled music producer doesn’t just have technology; they know what kinds of microphones and studio spaces give them the recordings they want; they know what other kinds of sounds can come from different instruments or other machines; they know how to mix it all together into a final song that works. They know when less is more, and when more is more. The best ones can harness technology in unexpected ways and make something like “When Doves Cry.”

The future of legal tech belongs to people who look at it the way Prince looked at drum machines: not to be a cheap imitation of humans, but to redefine our notions of what’s possible.

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