CULTURE // Electronica 101

“Electronic enthusiasts with open minds” is the UFO motto.  We all come from different backgrounds and played in various garage bands and DJ nights.  However, something we all agree on is that electronic music is a frontier.  Here are a few reasons why that frontier is worth pursuit.

1.  Sound is at your disposal

Physical instruments have limitations; a computer does not.  With the entire sonic spectrum accessible to electronic musicians, they have more control over sound than anyone ever has before.

Impressive bass tones are what really drive electronic music.  Lower tones cause less damage on your ears than higher ones, so they are easier to handle for extended amounts of time.  Furthermore, the human ear is arranged by frequency: higher frequencies are picked up closer to the exterior, and low-tone receptors are buried deeper in the core.  It will be a great day for science when we discover that, despite conventional wisdom, bass actually melts your face from the INSIDE out.

Science has already proven, however, that low notes played very loudly are perceived as being even lower – more reason to crank it up.  With beefy speakers and ample volume, bass becomes a full-body massage.

2. The possibilities are endless

One of the first electronic “instruments” was the theremin, which created a pure electronic tone with variable pitch and volume.  It was used for more than simply making sound effects for movies from the 50’s about flying saucers; one of the most famous theremin players, Clara Rockmore, mostly played classical tunes accompanied by a piano.

Sound synthesis has become so thorough that making models of something like a sitar can be even easier than finding a real sitar.  Most electronic musicians would agree that nothing beats the real thing, but unnatural sounds can be just as intriguing as natural ones.


3.  It’s all about the gear

Technology moves fast; therefore, so does the modern electronic musician.  They are virtually forced to update their gear and methods in order to stay competitive.  Recent advances in software have been astounding: 50 years ago, synthesizers took up an entire room and could barely keep up with a Game Boy.

Now, there is hardly anything left of the challenges that faced electronic pioneers.  Software has solved it all.

Serato has turned vinyl turntables into versatile digital controllers that made the old fashioned crate-of-records obsolete.  Massive has created intricate synthesizers for the layman’s use, making it harder to tell who is a veteran sound engineer and who is a bedroom producer barely in their teens.  But most importantly, Ableton (among others) can match nearly all of its operations to an internal metronome, eradicating the skill of beat-matching two records by ear.  You know — with headphones and a sense of rhythm.  Many young electronic fans probably don’t even know that DJ’s didn’t wear headphones just to look cool.

4.  Loud… and bright

Electronic music is really just a big celebration of electricity, a chance to revel in all the cool things it can do.  Live bands usually prefer non-distracting lights, making their performance and talent visible to the audience.  Electronic artists, however, are pushing the frontier of visual stimulation.

Daft Punk set a serious precedent with their iconic pyramid on the “Live” tour – it was a 40-foot-tall structure that re-defined the epic DJ booth, making the duo appear like air traffic controllers of the dance party.  Cubes were en vogue for a while, but now it’s all about 3-D projection, creating optical illusions that make the stage itself look like it will stand up and walk right out of the door.

5.  MIDI makes it possible

Computer-driven instruments communicate by sending and receiving MIDI information.  The MIDI “language” is simple: the numbers 1 through 127.  These are variables that can represent the various keys on a keyboard, the position of a rotating knob or an up-and-down fader, or the finger pressure applied to a button.

Once sent, this information (a number between 1-127) can request a computer to respond in any way.  For example, the number 63 (right in the middle) could play middle C on a keyboard or indicate a volume controller is half way up.  Those would both be a default setting, but they can be assigned to mean anything.

The numbers can trigger more than one thing at a time.  When programmed to do so, a single button can speed up the tempo, begin looping a sample, activate an echo effect, fade all other sound to silence, and change the color of the stage lights while changing the speed of a flashing strobe light.  It is only limited by the artist’s creativity.  There might be a day when DJs will use their controllers to spray the crowd with baby oil and drop confetti from the ceiling.  Maybe that day has already arrived…

6. Automation is the best and worst part

With so much capability in electronic music, it is typically impossible to perform all of it by hand.  Electronic musicians have to make a choice between doing something manually or letting their computer handle it.

Electronic music has unfortunately high standards for accuracy, and the performer controlling everything with 100 percent accuracy using a dozen robot arms sounds the same as the performer automating everything (though one looks way cooler).

Many electronic artists say the same thing: electronic music is studio music, and much like a painting, all of the real work is done outside of the public eye.  Artists can spend an entire work week on 60 seconds of music, using this time to engineer their trademark sounds or get completely surgical about removing frequencies that do not belong (which is called “mastering” a track).

All of this patience and dedication isn’t obvious when an electronic musician steps on a stage and hits “play” on their laptop.  However, their only job is to deliver their music from their studio to the venue and make sure it sounds good.  Well, that and being nonsensically emotional about twisting a knob.

7.  A little of this, a little of that

Electronic music doesn’t have to use samples, but it’s too tempting for most electronic musicians to resist.  Sampling the sounds from a 70’s funk or 80’s pop can instantly change the flavor of the song.  Look at early DJ records, and you’ll find many of them included an instrumental and an acapella version of the same song to make this easier.

And years before hip-hop, The Beatles – of all people – are often credited with pioneering the drum sample.  They recorded and looped their own drums on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the first song recorded for Rubber Soul.

8.  Manipulation = creation

Electronics can create many sounds that are physically impossible.  But electronic music is often about processing sounds as much as it is creating them.  Musique concrète, one of the grandparents of electronic music, was the study of making compositions were made purely from field recordings.

Electronic music nowadays is focused on processing the sounds, far less interested in creating a unique melody than it is in giving that melody a unique texture.

Here is an example of just how far processing has come.  Both of these began with recording ordinary sounds.

Musique concrète (1948) ————- vs. ———— Amon Tobin (2011)

9.  Party ’til the break of dawn.

Much of the art of being a DJ is using recognizable material in an unconventional or surprising way.  Toying with the crowd’s expectations, and delivering at just the right moment – this is a DJ’s greatest asset.

The first “dance” mix was created completely with analog tape.  The DJ wanted a smooth, prolonged mix, so he cut and pasted tape from his favorite dance tracks – except for the best parts.  The result was the feeling of constant anticipation that now drives electronic dance music.  It took around 200 hours (and a lot of glue) to make this happen: now, it only takes a few hours.

10. Remixing is a culture

There is a difference between sampling from a source and re-doing the entire song.  Some electronic artists remix other artists’ music as frequently as they create their own, and most new artists launch their careers by releasing a string of popular remixes.

Remixing may seem cheap, but it’s incredibly valuable as an up-and-coming artist to take a recognizable song and place your fingerprint on it.  How did the Rolling Stones and Elvis became popular, after all?  By claiming music that wasn’t theirs.

The implications are bigger, however, as non-electronic artists can now become famous overnight with a new body of fans.  Ellie Goulding was a semi-popular pop singer before several artists remixed her songs and she became the voice of dubstep.

Or, consider how few Avicii fans knew of blues singer Etta James before her voice was sampled in “Levels.”  Some say remixing steals credit, while others say it builds bridges.

11. There is (and will be) an electronic version of everything

Unlike folk music, electronic music wasn’t driven by a specific culture, ethnicity or geography.  To get any of this authenticity, it has to borrow it from somewhere else.

And it has tried to do this with just about everything.  Most subgenres of electronic music are based on making hybrid experiments of influences (and genres are treated like Lego blocks, with funky new names like crunk-step, trip-hop, witch house, moombah-core, ghetto-tech, lazer juke, etc.).

It would be hard for a band to perform some heavy metal set to a tango beat, then pull off some hip-hop informed by klezmer music (unless it’s Fishbone, I suppose).  Electronic music is as borderless as possible: for all past and future sounds, electronic music will attempt to assimilate it.


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