Thursday, 14 April 2011

I hate music technology! – Part 2 – Preset Culture

Okay, that’s not strictly true, but there are elements of it that drive me up the wall. Music tech has made music what it is today; vibrant, varied, high quality and accessible, and for that I am grateful. However, it has lead to several practices within music – especially mainstream pop that make me want to seal up my ears with concrete. Last time we looked at compression, and how music has lost its dynamic range. This time I want to talk about what I call preset culture – the way musicians use the stock sounds of synthesisers, drum machines and plugins to make music, resulting in loads of songs sounding the same.

In the 1983 a synthesizer came out that would change pop music forever; the Yamaha DX7. It was a sleek brown thing, made of metal and plastic. It had loads of buttons, an LCD screen and a data slider. It was the first commercially successful digital synthesiser, but for seasoned synth players it was a nightmare. First of all, all editing had to be done with the buttons and the single data slider, so patch programming took a long time. The second problem they had was that their previous knowledge of how synthesizers worked was largely useless, because the DX7 used a completely different method for generating and modulating sounds. I won’t go into specifics here, I’ll save that for another blog, but it was sufficiently different (and complicated) that many seasoned players found it difficult, and many gave up entirely on editing.

Yamaha DX7 - The first commercially successful digital synthesiser
The DX7 came with a series of presets, but like most synth presets at the time (the Prophet 5 comes to mind) they were nothing special. The string and brass sounds were thin and reedy, the piano sound was clunky and unrealistic and the bass sounds were largely useless. However, there was one preset that caught the attention of musicians at the time – E.Piano 1. It was a digital representation of a Rhodes piano, and pretty soon it began to find its way into pop songs. Yamaha saw the potential for presets, so they began releasing ROM cartridges with better presets in order to give owners a chance to access more sounds. This model worked well for Yamaha, and in 1987 Roland followed suit when they released the D-50. Soon after that Korg released the famous M1 synthesizer, and yes, you guessed it, it included an expansion port for patch cards.

Roland D-50 - Presets included "Pizzagogo", used heavily on Enya's Orinoco Flow
Now I’m not saying that people didn’t program these synths, because they did. People like Brian Eno and Tony Banks really made the DX7 their own, and when Roland released a programming interface for the D-50 it made editing patches virtually no more difficult than programming an analogue synth (The D50’s synth engine worked using the same basic principles as many analogue synths, although extended to include PCM waveforms). By that time though there had been hundreds of songs released using the preset sounds of those synths. House music in the late 80s and early 90s heavily relied on the Korg M1 for its piano and organ presets, and the D50s presets (which admittedly are rather good) found their way onto everything from Jean Michel Jarre to Enya.

Before I continue, I admit, I am a snob when it comes to things like this. I spend a lot of time creating and editing synthesizer patches, both on hardware and software synths. I often start off with a preset and modify it in order to make it suit my needs, but I rarely use preset sounds. The reason I don’t is because I think it’s lazy. I use Reason a lot, and some of the patches for the various synthesizers are very good, but the best ones have been used countless times by so many people. Listen to any pop song from the late 80s and you will likely hear the DX7 E.Piano 1 (or the FullTines version that came with the second generation DX7II). Listen to a lot of modern electro and dance music and you will hear some variation of the Roland Super Saw. Hell, the super saw is being used by everyone from Pendulum to Eminem! Pop music has lost its distinction, and I believe that a key part of that is down to this preset culture.

I suppose the underlying issue is that bands often want to emulate their contemporaries, and a “sound” evolves. It’s been happening in music all through history, and it has lead to some very distinct groups of musicians, bands and composers, but up until 1983 the sounds that the band created, the actual instrument sounds were quite distinct. Sure, there were guitarists who bought Stratocasters because they wanted the Strat sound, but never before had there been a means to completely copy every aspect of an instrument’s sound at the press of a button, and that’s exactly what the DX7 was offering – the chance to use the same sound as any other DX7 player, and that has become the norm. Today we have the MicroKorg, a phenomenally successful little synth that has found its way into all sorts of bands, and while it is possible to edit sounds relatively easily, a good chunk of its users don’t bother.

Maybe I’m just being nostalgic; I admit that some of my favourite music is experimental electronica from people like Jean Michel Jarre, and keyboard-heavy progressive rock. I’d love it if bands started using modular synths and creating weird and wonderful patches instead of just pressing a button and pulling up a sound. That's not to say that some musicians don't, but the vast majority of the groups and acts being churned out by the industry's machine aren't innovating, and as a result pop music is stagnant. The great innovative acts of the late 1970s and early 1980s; Ultravox, Tears for Fears, The Buggles, The Human League, New Order, were both commercially successful and innovative. Name one pop star or group working today that are innovating on the same level as those I just mentioned. There certainly aren’t many.

So there you have it, another reason I hate music technology. Preset culture has diminished the potential of synthesisers and turned pop music into a huge homogenous mass. I know what my ideal solution would be, replace every keyboard player in every band with Keith Emerson, that’d shake things up a bit!

End Rant
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