SF Music Tech 2013: The Breakaway of Electronic Instruments

06/02/2013

SF-Music-Tech-20131

“‘Those tools [computers] were very good at many things,’ (Thomas) Bangalter says, but they were worthless in terms of ‘generating emotion as musical instruments.'” (GQ)

“‘Computers were never designed in the first place to become musical instruments,’ Mr. Bangalter said. ‘Within a computer, everything is sterile — there’s no sound, there’s no air. It’s totally code. Like with computer-generated effects in movies, you can create wonders. But it’s really hard to create emotion.'” (The New York Times)

“I think [contemporary EDM producers] might be missing the tools. The problem with the way to make music today, these are turnkey systems; they come with preset banks and sounds. They’re not inviting you to challenge the systems themselves, or giving you the ability to showcase your personality, individuality… We really felt that the computers are not really music instruments, and we were not able to express ourselves using a laptop. We tried, but were not successful.” (Billboard)

This is how the Daft Punk duo recently described their sonic departure towards live instrumentation on their latest album, Random Access Memories. In a wonderful critique for SPIN, Phillip Sherburne included these quotes as framing the landscape: in the foreground is a recent shift of electronic artists showcasing themselves with live instrumentation (he also cites Zedd and Avicii), and in the background are the naysayers like Boards of Canada exclaiming that “at the end of the day, emotional melodies are going to last a lot longer than impressive drum programming.”

(For those unfamiliar with Daft Punk’s previous work, the French duo have been a staple of house music since the 90s. Their music has breathed through drum machines and spoken through vocoders. Even their appearance, noted for wearing robotic helmets, highlights their futuristic place in contemporary pop music. In 2004, their mainstream appeal was a perfect match for Apple’s commercial for their growingly popular device, the iPod, which featured their song “Technologic.”)

It seemed fitting that Sam Valenti, the founder of Ghostly Records, mentioned Daft Punk’s shift during the panel “The Future of Music Creation” at this past Tuesday’s SF MusicTech Summit. Valenti referenced how an artist on his label, Tycho, was making a similar jump from electronic to live instrumentation as the French duo. He suggested the move was an attempt to break from the mould, drawing the comparison to J Dilla, whose loose time signature differentiated him from hip hop’s more rigid drum production. It seems that in this light, like Daft Punk, electronic tools seemed to be implicitly holding Tycho back from perfecting his artistry.

Led by Billboard writer, David Downs, the panel, which also included Dweezil Zappa (Musician), Chris Kantrowitz (Founder of Gobbler), Daniel Walton ( Co-Founder of Retronyms) and Dot Bustelo (Producer and Technology Strategist), explored how electronic instrumentation is changing the way music is created.

Dweezil Zappa, the son of the legendary Frank Zappa, described how technology enabled him. Zappa uses Fractal’s Axe FX-II, a preamp guitar processor, to replicate the ranges of different types of guitar amps. Downs was quick to make jest of Zappa, suggesting his inauthenticity for replicating old “tubes,” but Zappa wasn’t fazed. He quickly dismissed the comment stating that many of the amps were either out of production or highly coveted.=

Similarly, towards the end of the discussion, Dot Bustelo, who said she hadn’t found time to learn many of the latest technology tools, explained how using Logic on her tablet freed her creative process. Bustelo felt like technology enabled her, through consciously knowing she could make music wherever, whenever.

Midway through Sherburne’s critique of Daft Punk, he pivots stating, “The tools, in fact, are a red herring. There’s nothing wrong with the state of electronic music, in part because its most innovative (or at least most thoughtful) practitioners are well aware of the traps posed by the tools.”

I agree. Regardless, it’s interesting that EDM musicians like Tycho and Daft Punk are using more live instrumentation because of the electronic tools’ limitations to express real emotion, while musicians like Zappa and Dot embrace technology as freeing and helping them move forward. Sherburne describe the critique EDM musicians feel when he states, “ you can’t swing a USB stick without hitting someone complaining about presets or plugins or crappy, identikit EDM productions cranked out on cracked copies of Ableton,” and I wonder if this is what’s actually propelling EDM musicians to use live instrumentation. As more live instrumentalists musicians like Zappa integrate and normalize electronic tools, I wonder if the critique Sherburne suggest will even remain.

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The SF MusicTech Summit brings together visionaries in the evolving music/business/technology ecosystem, along with the best and brightest developers, entrepreneurs, investors, service providers, journalists, musicians, and organizations who work with them at the convergence of culture and commerce. We meet to do business and discuss, in a proactive, conducive to dealmaking environment.