May 8, 2011

Medium != Message...

by Chris Randall

One thing I've often said, when confronted with the type of person that gets in to the minutia of the recording process, perhaps at the expense of the big picture, is that a good song will survive any production process, while a bad song can't be saved by the most sophisticated gear and recording techniques available.

This sort of idea is anathema to the Gear Queer, who is always certain that there is that one more piece of kit sitting out there, just beyond grasp, that will push things over the edge and make all the difference. We're each of us guilty of this behavior, of course. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, etc. But the simple fact of the matter is that the work of art exists already, as a wave function, and whatever you need to collapse that bitch and bring shit out in to the cold light of day is what you need. There are records that wouldn't exist without a massive, and relatively expensive, modular synth and a fairly detail-oriented production approach (see: A Funneled Stone), and others that would sound fucking retarded if they were anything but a guitar and a vocal. (See: Robert Johnson's entire ouvre. Happy 100th b'day to Mr. Johnson, btw.)

Now, this entire approach could be perceived as my own way of justifying my several rather ridiculous recording habits, the which you're all perfectly aware of. I approach photography and music-making in the same way, trying to squeeze something interesting out of a device not really meant to do what I'm asking of it, largely via a trial-and-error approach rather than any cohesive planning on my part. My general philosophy with respect to photography is the Shakespeare/Monkey method: if you take enough pictures, some of them are bound to be interesting, and quantity has a quality all its own. No particular reason this can't be applied to music. (See: Wesley Willis.)

I guess what I'm trying to say, when it comes down to it, is this: I am of the firm opinion that there is interesting shit hiding in my brain. All I have to do is figure out how to get it out. While a new piece of The Shiny might make certain aspects of that chore easier, at the end of the day, the song lives in my brain, not in the gear. The medium is the messenger, not the message itself.


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May.09.2011 @ 11:57 AM
My first reaction was, whoa when did James Blake stop playing tennis and start playing music... then I fully woke up.

@pierlu: I think that you have it exactly backwards. Since about 1996 there has been almost nothing BUT electronic music.

As example take R. Kelly's Ignition (Remix). The piano is intentionally an obvious low end rompler piano, the drums are from a machine, and the strings sound like he sampled a mid 80's synth pop band. Sure, on a talk show performance (or possibly even live) R. will bring out a "band" and live musicians, but they (at best) are triggering samples of the synthesized instruments with their "real" instruments. It is much more than a more refined General Midi. The sounds were intentionally chosen for their synthesized qualities. The crew behind that track have access to just about any live session player and real instrumentation that they want, but what R. Kelly makes is not really music meant to be played by a band. It obviously has a much more traditional verse chorus verse structure than a lot of "electronic music", but that is because he is shooting for a much more "pop" sound. The same for James Blake (musician). A pop record is going to be structured different from a so-called "experimental" record. But at the end of the day, everything just about anywhere these days is electronic music down to its roots. This is the main reason that we got all of the Squarepusher's and Aphex Twin's in the mid 90's. You had to go way over the top to "sound" like an electronic musician, since everyone else was an electronic musician. Half of the styles of IDM exist because people want their EM to sound different than R. Kelly's EM.


May.09.2011 @ 12:12 PM
thanks for your point of view
I see what you mean, but probably I'm not getting mine thru.
You're still talking about sounds while I was stressing on the composition part of the deal. "The sounds were intentionally chosen for their synthesized qualities", you says.
I just was pointing out that composing electronic music it's somewhat different than composing a song and it's pretty much related to the way you use (or abuse as CR says) your machines.
I remember an old post from here "Somewhat ahead of their times" link [] which in some ways states that the compositional process it's excatly the same, apart for being much more easy now.
My question is "Does an electronic music composition in 2001 qualifies just for the use of synthesized sounds in it?" "Does, in 2011, a song (as in Sung one) played with electronic instruments qualify itself as an electronic composition?"

Of course, I'm just debating about it, not forcing anyone to join my doubts.

Damn, should have kept it for open threads :|

May.09.2011 @ 12:29 PM
Best AI post of 2011 so far?

Here's to all the techno monkeys lusting after fancy typewriters.

Only thing to add is that "electric music" for me is anytime you have to plug something into the wall socket.

May.09.2011 @ 1:23 PM
I see what you are saying. I just don't think that from a compositional process standpoint that any of it matters. It all qualifies as electronic music. It's all about the output. Some of my most extreme "electronic" pieces were recorded in extremely traditional manners. Synths and shit played live to multitrack. Punch ins to fix the major fuck ups, add more reverb to fix the minor ones. Conversely, I have written songs that were very verse chorus verse in structure by sequencing an MC-500 by hand (which I highly recommend NOT doing).

When I first started making music a long time ago I built up songs entirely in a wave editor screen. Sample a drum hit from here, take a snippet from there and cut it and loop it until it's a tone, etc. I've done everything from splicing tape by hand to trackers to Max4Live and Numerology.

The process I use tries to exert its will on the outcome, but if I'm doing it right I can make my music sound like "me" no matter what I'm using. A big part of the fun of music for me is trying to get my particular "sound" out of as many different methods of production as possible. But in the end, anyone other than myself (and maybe my wife) listening will have no clue as to the methods used. The punters just want to have something to bob their heads to. The only people who really care about these kinds of questions are the people like us here on AI.

@Carlos-Serrano: Pretty much.


May.09.2011 @ 2:01 PM
Chris Randall
@pierlu: What you're essentially saying is that turning on a new piece of kit or whatever, and poking at it until it does something interesting, and then building a composition around that (a tried-and-true tactic we've all used ad nauseum) is fundamentally different than sitting down at your kitchen table with a notebook and an acoustic guitar and banging out a "song" (in the traditional sense of the word.)

I say they're one and the same. Both require technical skill, albeit of slightly different natures, an open mind, and the ability to bend sound to your will in order to express yourself.

In this respect, I'm with William. You can pretty easily pick out my tunes from a crowd, whether they're me and an acoustic guitar or me and Max/MSP, just because the things that sound interesting to me sound interesting no matter what instrument I'm playing. I imagine this is more prevalent among multi-instrumentalists, though.


May.09.2011 @ 2:40 PM
all right, I'm on the minority side here.

what I say is that you are a musician and figure out that you want to explore new ways of making beats that not require you to think about the exact rhythm but to the general aspects of rhythm. so you build a pure data patch to explore automata or exagon tiles and come up with an instrument which is taking charge of your beats around which you buikd your compositions. if you are a developer you will sell it to others too.
I was just wondering if, given the tools in our hands, it's in the nature of the electronic musician to try to explore what's the meaning of melody or rhythm or accompainment and experiment with it, by using tools that let you explore the meaning of those musical elements from your point of view.
it's not about taking everything you can under your hands and exploiting it until you have something decent to built things around. it's to think about musical elements trying to understand what is the relationshop you have with them and how to explore those relationships in a musical way.
this is what electronic musicians have done since the birth of it: trying to answer questions about what rhythm is, what sound is, what melodies are. and building the instruments to achieve that. I guess that this way of thinking results in more disitncitive music than fiddling with ableton live and synthesizers and it's a spark that every electronic musician should have in himself. it's not about the latest gear, or sampling frequency, it's about new ways of interaction with music.

as for sung songs, i don't think I sound the same when wailing about my feelings on a guitar or making a drum and bass tune. or at least, i wish i don't do, cos I want to express different feelings with each type of composition and create adifferent relationship with the listener.

in the end, I railed off topic, I know, but it gave me the opportunity to talk and think about something I am always wondering with you all, which is kinda rewarding in the end.

thanks for your attention

May.09.2011 @ 2:43 PM
read: "about something i am always wondering about, with the help of you all", it may be misunderstood otherwise. thanks

May.09.2011 @ 3:37 PM
"A killer song is a killer song all right, but a bad recording (compared to today's standards, not to a recording from 80 years ago) is a bad recording too."

I'm not sure I believe this to be a true statement. Is there such a thing as an empirically bad recording? I'd like someone to prove it. Certainly a lot of my favourite records are hiss-laden, distorted, mid-heavy, narrow, unpunchy.

The same applies to gear. I've heard shootouts of the same material through a $10,000 signal chain followed by a $100 signal chain, and while the expensive signal chain almost invariably offered the engineer significantly more flexibility, in terms of just the sound the results only really showed that different gear yields different results.

May.09.2011 @ 3:58 PM
does anyone have a copy of the "lungs" ep i can borrow? mine seems to have gone missing.

May.09.2011 @ 5:04 PM
@pierlu - that is essentially what electronic music is. a snare doesn't have to actually be a snare, a kick drum doesn't have to be a kick drum and a melody can be something shaped through buffer_override and a reverb.

there are plenty of people abandoning what is common and moving into a purely frequency based compositional styles.

but it's a style i guess is what i'm getting at. i mean, there is some pretty amazing electronic music (as i understand it) that is based on whole notes, western scales.. yada yada yada.. with kick snare hat etc.. and it's damn good stuff that melts my brain and ventures into every corner of sound design self indulgence at the same time...

there are squarepusher tracks (not any recent ones.. ahem) where the drums become the lead sounds the bass becomes the melody and then switches back again and all weaves in an out of each other in a wonderful way...

so, i think, yes, maybe that kind of thing leads to more distinct 'sounding' music but there is plenty of distinct music based solely on the composition as well.. or the sound design etc.

i don't know... i tend to get lost when thinking about all of this stuff because in my own personal neck of the woods i don't think about it.. i just try to make something that feeds my brain and keeps the little artist sitting on my shoulder nodding his head and not pissing in my ear.

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