—————————— January 12th, 2010 ——————————
The connection between art and technology is complicating. In a postmodern world, conceptual art focuses on the output rather than the method (I’m grossly overgeneralizing, shut up); this focus is problematic when methods are developed that have a huge influence on the output. It’s even worse when those methods become the output. There are many volumes written on this subject, but I’m going to briefly look at what it means to modern beat music. Check it out after the jump, along with a bunch of tracks.
The Holy Trinity
Every genre of music has its aesthetic boundaries, and beat music (or whatever other stupid names there are for funky/wonky/dubstep/2step/wow/garage/minimal/etc.) is no exception. These three things are a template of what every laptop kid trying to become a producer is going to get excited about.
Bass wobble is achieved using a note-quantized LFO on a low pass or band pass filter. It was a novel effect when it was first was conceived; it was also a useful effect, and some artists are still using similar effects in musically innovative ways (see Bibio). We’ve seen the bass wobble of dubstep get so overused that it has—within the span of a few short years—become a tired cliché. Of course, given our penchant for ironically bringing back disgraced musical aesthetics (eg. the recent neo-disco craze), we’ll be due for an ironic bass wobble resurgence in 2015.
Similarly, off time beats (often wrongly called “unquantized”) have been invented, used effectively, pushed to their limit, and are now on the verge of getting tired. Producers have DAWs now that let them program beats really subtly. What most of these guys are doing is making a standard beat, and then moving shit around a tiny bit until something sounds cool. That’s awesome, I’m all for keeping things rhythmically interesting, but you can only make something so off time before it stops getting kids on the dance floor, or becomes too annoying to follow. I should clarify that I mean this purely in the context of popular/dance music; I love the around-the-beat style of drumming in lots of other contexts.
Finally, there is sidechain compression. The basic “ducking” effect it creates has been used for years (especially in French house music, but also in more subtle mixing). It is done by linking the volume of a certain track to the amount of compression applied to another track. People use this for all kinds of things, but the traditional use is to give the kick drum more kick by making the bass/synth sounds be more compressed. Simply put, the bass track “hears” the kick drum track and automatically gets quieter for the duration of the kick before gradually getting louder again.
In the Zomby remix above, he’s sidechained prettymuch everything to the bassdrum. I actually think it is clever, given the counter-intuitive lyrical timing, to make the downbeat really really obvious. He turns a really awful Crookers track into something that is actually interesting. You can hear a lot of obvious sidechaining in the Devonwho track as well.
I’m not a retro-grouch. Sonic innovation is awesome and I think these are all great developments. People who get all uptight about new sonic norms are forgetting that their favourite sounds were once radically new. Consider things like drum kits, reverb, overdrive, synthesizers, drum machines, arpeggiators, electric guitars, etc… Not one of them created new notes or new melodies, just like wobbles, off time beats, and sidechaining.
What past and present sonic innovations do is create new timbres, additional harmonic overtones, and tendencies toward different kinds of melodies; I see all of those things as a very good thing.
Les Paul pushed the boundaries of sound. He was at the forefront of tape delays, reverb, phase shifting, etc., and didn’t have an unmusical bone in his body. The song Caravan is, in my opinion, the best track from his 1950 album, appropriately titled “The New Sound” [Does anyone know if this is the original version off of the album? It sounds like an accordion in there...-BP]. Nobody had heard anything like it before because it was 8 guitars overdubbed, with all kinds of fun stuff going on. Of course, nowadays nobody would bat an eye at the fact that someone layered instruments on top of each other to get a new sound, but at the time his sonic innovation raised some people’s hackles. It got to the point where Alistair Cooke, the host of CBS’s show Omnibus, did a bit with Les Paul and Mary Ford. You can watch the clip here, but Alistair’s words are particularly striking:
This is the final demolition of this popular and ignorant rumour that the basis of Les Paul and Mary Ford’s music is electronics. They make music the way people have made music since the world began. First of all, they’re musicians; they have an accurate ear for harmony, they work very hard, they have a lot of patience, and they take advantage of the trick which, granted, electronics makes possible.
I would hate to be dismissing modern day Les Pauls by slagging the 21st century’s New Sounds. Those who hate new sounds for their own sake are as bad as those who love new sounds for their own sake, but it’s the latter group I’m concerned with here.
Who Is At The Wheel?
It hit me a few days ago that there is a very simple formula going on in beat music these days. First, choose a random combination of wobble, off time beats, and sidechaining. Then add some sort of aesthetic gimmick, like lasers, or choirs, or marimbas, or video games. This is your sound, don’t ever change it; how else will people know its you? Finally, slap together some minor chords and a simple melody, use varying amounts of the aforesaid effects in different parts of your songs to as tension and release, and voilà you’re the next Gouseion or Nosaj Thing. I mean no disrespect, I like both of those guys, but their appeal is definitely aesthetic and momentary.
Our collective appetite for new sound has been growing exponentially for years, making the window in which to produce something original increasingly small. These producers I’m unfairly talking shit on have an incredibly difficult job; they have to constantly push the limits of sound, which leaves very little time for actual music. Likewise, a lot of great traditional musicians unfairly reject the importance of sonic innovation. Just because there is too much of a good thing doesn’t mean it isn’t a good thing.
As I’m being preachy anyway, here is a quick manifesto for pop music:
- Allow technology to influence melodic content as well as sonic content.
- Pay more attention to melodic content than to sonic, aesthetic content.
- Newness is value neutral.
Thanks for reading!