“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” ~Maya Angelou, Gather Together in My Name
I don’t believe that there is a genre of music in the world that is as varied and misunderstood as electronic music. In fact, if you asked 100 different people what they thought when they heard the phrase “electronic music,” you’d likely hear 100 different answers. Just consider for a moment the variants of this type of music: electro, dubstep, ambient, downtempo, acid jazz, disco, chiptune, breakbeat, trance, progressive trance, neo-trance, eurotrance, acid trance, techno, minimal, IDM, industrial, house, triphop, electropop, and the list goes on. It seems ridiculous, but each sub-genre does indeed have a very particular style, a story that describes its origin, and a tree of producers and musicians that fall under it. In fact, as I name off these variants, I’m reminded of the various types of classical music. Baroque, renaissance, romantic, contemporary, each with their own particular style, each with their own tree of musicians, composers, and admirers.
There is a ton of electronic music that I do not like. This is most likely true for everyone who is in to electronic music. They have a style, or an aesthetic that speaks to them and what they enjoy in the music they listen to, and that style scratches that itch. It’s within those styles that I endeavor to seek out new and interesting creators of this type, because they’re out there, and one has to search for it to find it.
That’s the first thing I want to say… that the genre is big and varied. So that’s an important thing to keep in mind when you even hear the phrase electronic music, because certain styles might evoke a certain perception from you, the listener, but an open mind is so important when you’re looking for something new. It’s not better than any other type of music. It’s not “special.” It’s just music.
The type of electronic music that I’m in to is music that is rooted in the spirit of technological experimentation, through which new and interesting methods of producing pleasing sound may be invented. It’s the synthesis of technology and emotion. At the end of the day, we’re arranging a variety of sounds over time, and trying to do it in a way so that it speaks to the listener. That’s all music is. I’m reminded of our primitive species, living off the land, sitting in circles and banging on rocks in song. They were manipulating the tools of their time to make sound that was pleasing to the ears, just as we are manipulating the tools of our time.
In general, I like music that invokes an positive emotional response, however that’s achieved, and I can feel that response through any genre, be it rock, classical, folk, jazz, or some variant of electronic music. When I hear music that’s devoid of this, it just hurts to listen to it, because there’s nothing there.
When I start a new track, it all starts with a field recording. My field recordings often come from my immediate surroundings, whether I’m sitting at a table in my home, the television on in the next room, or perhaps in the backyard, listening to the birds. I have two different tools for this, one handheld digital audio recorder with integrated stereo microphones, and one minidisc recorder with binaural microphones, which are great for recording your surroundings with 360 degrees of stereo accuracy.
For pretty much everything I’m writing lately, each track might come from 20-40 seconds of field recording, that is chopped up in to tiny bits, which become the various percussive and melodic instruments. A door slam can easily become a kick drum, or a bird chirp, a separate percussive element, given it’s placement in the beat and having the proper amount of equalization applied to it. A low-level noise one fraction of a second in length and a boosted frequency range within the 200-300Hz range will produce that desired effect.
An instrument can be made by chopping a sound down to the millisecond and looping it so that, when triggered as a note, plays the sample over and over again, boosting mid-range EQ and applying reverb — producing something akin to a french horn, or low-range EQ to produce your classic bass lead.
I use a sequencer called Renoise for most of the percussive work. It provides an interface for organizing and arranging the sounds. Each phrase is a pattern, and each pattern is made up of an infinite number of tracks, and each track, usually, is assigned an instrument, or a part of the drum track, and any number of effects applied to it (be it delay, compression, reverb, EQ, filter, maximizer, flanger, phaser, ringmod, lofimat, gainer, etc).
This process lays the foundation of the track. This is the digital part of the process. After finishing the sequencing, I move in to the analog layers, which may include any number of analog instrumental layers (vocals, pads, any analog gadgetry that I think the track needs). This is also where the spirit of improvisation is truly embraced, though I think there is a great spirit of improvisation in the digital arena as well, though things are typically more structured there, since that is the nature of sequencing.
This process can bounce back and forth for days, weeks, and months, pushing the analog tracks back in to the mix, remixing, altering the digital bits, resampling, re-recording, experimentation with more or fewer layers, judging the overall pace of the track, and, when all else truly fails, starting over again from scratch. It’s so much fun, because you become the full band, and can produce the full spectrum of sound alone. This is what drew me to piano. Unlike, say, the trumpet, which I played for 9 years also, you aren’t limited to a single line of notes. You can play chords, harmonize with yourself, and become the entire spectrum of sound. I like that. Not that I’m against working in groups. I’ve often collaborated and have really enjoyed that process as well.
So wash, rince, and repeat until I feel an album is complete, and then it’s time to master the tracks, which is a differently long and involving process of listening to the complete album as much as possible, on many different sound systems as possible, to make it sound as good as it can sound anywhere. The thing is, though, you’ll always hear things you want to change at this point, and so you change them — a pattern switch here, a sample re-working there… things start to feel closer and closer to being exactly how you want them.
Then you put it out there, and when you’re like me, sometimes people really respond to something, and sometimes it tends to go unnoticed, but I’ll always be doing it, because for me, it is my warm blanket. It is the thing that truly feeds my soul, brings me balance, and makes me feel truly at ease and connected with the world. I’m not really a spiritual or religious person. I’ve just always resonated with scientific or logical knowns, but music feels like a religion to me, and it’s through its creation where I feel like I’m swimming and immersed in something bigger and more profound than anything else that I’ve ever known, and that to me is where I find my faith in humanity.