Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What is electronic music?

We pause today to ponder the question: what, exactly, is electronic music?  What does it mean for music to be "electronic"?  We ask this question in part just to be smart alecks, but also because it appears that electronic music is experiencing one of its periodic brief bursts of fashionable-ness.   (Hat tip to "meatballfulton" at VSE.)  Such are always fraught with potential danger: loss of creativity, hyper-inflation of gear prices, and annihilation of the universe by previously-unsuspected interactions between the electron neutrino and pretentious hipsters.

Back in the simpler days of the '60s and '70s, the answer to the question was easy: if electronics were employed in the creation of the various tones, the music was electronic music.  This was because the early synthesizers, and the various pre-synthesizer electronic devices, were not designed to re-create familiar instrument sounds.  In fact, they were designed (or improvised) to do the opposite: the ethos of the day was finding a way to create new sounds and timbres, not reproduced old, tired ones.  (Okay, that last bit may have had some of its own age's hipsterism in it.  Nonetheless, the dedication of early pioneers like Cage, Buchla, and the Radiophonic Workshop gang to pushing the sonic envelope had a lot to do, indirectly, with creating the sounds of a lot of popular music today.) 

Then Yamaha created the DX-7, and whether it intended this result or not, it irreversibly changed the nature of the synthesizer market, as well as defining the not-yet-existent market for things like soft synths and music analysis software.  Before the DX-7, most synth performers created their own patches and sounds; after the DX-7, these people found themselves in a distinct minority.  From the first bar-band keyboard player who glommed onto the DX-7 as a replacement for the venerable Rhodes electric piano, the purpose of synthesizers, as far as 90% of the market is concerned, is not to create new sounds but to reproduce existing ones.  The DX-7 begat the romplers which begat the modern "arranger workstation", such as Roland's Fantom line and Yamaha's Motif line.  Although some of these have some fairly powerful sound-designing features, they are marketed using pitches along the lines of: "Thousands of sounds!  More sound banks available!  Every sound you need in the studio!"  So much so that the ironic comment that modular synth owners often ask each other is: "How is the piano sound?"  The arranger workstations have made the cost of producing music much lower: they can imitate almost any non-electronic instrument, without a huge investment in guitar wood, trumpet brass, or violin catgut.  They work overtime and odd hours without issues.  They never get sick and none of them belong to a union.  Yes, it's true, they don't have down all of the style and mannerisms of a real player playing the actual instrument, but for most purposes in today's pop music, they are good enough.  And anyway, as far as more accurately reproducing all of the nuances of the imitated instruments, the software smart guys are working on it.

So this leads us to a dilemma:  there is a lot of music these days for which electronic instruments were used in its production, but there is no sense that anything in the music is "electronic", except for maybe a certain sense of something being not quite right.  The intent is that it not sound "electronic"; in other words, it carefully avoids that territory that the likes of Buchla and Moog wanted to explore back in the '60s, or Jarre or Fast in the '70s.  The 10% of the synthesizer user market who actually use synths as synths, and not as lower-cost replacements for the Wrecking Crew, are stuck: when they describe what they do as "electronic music", the first thing that comes to mind for the average music listener is the latest pop-tart album, as opposed to, say, Boards of Canada.  The point being that there is probably nothing in the pop-tart stuff that could not have been done without electronic instruments -- it's just cheaper to produce that way.  If we can agree that this does not meet the definition of "electronic music" since it does not take advantage of any of the unique capabilities of the hardware and software, then what shall we call electronic music?

The above statement leads to a possible definition: Electronic music is music that employs electronics to produce tones and timbres that could not have been produced without electronics.  This admittedly is a bit squishy -- does something qualify as electronic music simply because it was run through a flanger? -- but it does leave open the inclusion of music for which the original sound source was non-electronic, but it was processed sufficiently with electronics that the resulting sound is something that could not been done without electronics.  A fair number of modular synth users use their modulars this way part or all of the time, using the synth to mangle things like electric guitars and horns.  I think that qualifies.  But it leaves open another issue, that arises mainly with the users of drum machines, and it goes like this:

There are a lot of guys who are absolute demons at designing drum patterns.  And even though they may be using sampled sounds of real drums, the patterns take the sounds way beyond what a human player would be capable of, such as the familiar hyper-fast rolls in which individual drum hits are so fast that the next one actually chops the end off of the previous one.  Taken to a far enough extreme, it actually becomes a tone rather than a series of individual hits.  And this can be done with any sound originating from an electronic source, not just a drum machine.  The patterns can be replicated and combined as much as desired, with timing as accurate or as inaccurate as the performer desires.  This then leads to a second definition of electronic music: Electronic music is music that employs electronics to produce patterns and sequences of sounds that could not have been played by an unaided human performer.  Like the above, this is a bit squishy -- if you had 20 drummers playing different parts at once, could they copy a complex drum-machine pattern?  Maybe they could, but getting 20 drummers and drum kits together in a studio all at once, and teaching them the pieces and expecting them to synchronize perfectly without hours and hours of practice, is pretty impractical. 

There's a problem with this, though.  We may have let something leak in that we didn't intend.  Consider the current trends for how most popular music is recorded these days.  What happens to drum tracks?  They use quantizing software on the drum track to pull all of the drum hits to exact beats.  Then they use something like Sound Replacer to replace all of the recorded hits with sampled ones.  When the track is done, every hit is on a perfect beat boundary, and every accented or non-accented hit of a particular drum sounds exactly alike every other hit of that same drum.  Levels are all perfect; toms don't ring, kick pedals don't squeak, and cymbals are never cracked.  Similar for other tracks: bass is probably recorded as individual notes which are sampled and then played by a sequencer to produce the track, again with every note perfectly intonated and exactly on the beat.  Even vocals aren't spared: they get Autotune so that every sung note is perfectly on pitch, and envelopes are manipulated so that every sung note is at the exact right level and of perfect duration.  Take this all together, and what do you have?  Music that could not have been produced without electronics!

And yet, the mind reels at classifying this as "electronic music".  Why is that?  Really, it's a matter of what does and doesn't become cliched due to overuse.  This is an area that electronic music, and its audience, have always been very sensitive to.  It's a holdover from that '60s/'70s ethos: back in the day, the audience expectation was that a performer's new album would always be more daring, more mind-blowing, and contain more unconceived-of sounds and ideas than the previous album.  The idea survived into the '80s; when synth pop began, it almost by definition was fresh and unique in itself.  Synth pop died when its practitioners ran out of ideas in the late '80s.  Hip-hop turntabling was the same; the very idea was unique when it began.  Same for the '90s first wave of electronic dance music.  It's an aesthetic that demands constant improvement.  In electronic music, sitting on one's laurels is not tolerated by the audience for very long. 

And maybe that's the real answer: electronic music is the creation of original music and sounds, using electronics. 


moondog said...

Well said Cornutt. I like your reference to Buchla and the Radiophonic workshop in particular. In complete agreement on all points!

Dave Cornutt said...

Thanks, Moondog!